Wednesday, 4 August 2010

How MINDER began

Terry casual in a reversible corduroy and cotton blouson jacket and soft mid-brown roll-neck sweater.  Don't remember the episode...
By 1978, the British TV production company Euston Films, once ignominiously described by veteran critic Nancy Banks-Smith in ‘The Guardian’ as “Thames putting it in the wife’s name”, were firmly on the map thanks to acclaimed police series The Sweeney. But with the end of production on that show in April after four series, a replacement was needed that would hopefully appeal to a similar sized audience. The one eventually settled on would turn out to be the company’s longest-running and most successful programme, bestriding the 1980s and begetting one of the most iconic characters in British television history.

Thames TV and Euston were keen to retain the services of 30 year-old Dennis Waterman, John Thaw’s popular Sweeney co-star, for an as-yet-undecided star vehicle but at a meeting the actor and his management made it clear that he did not wish to be bound without anything firm in place.

Luckily for them, and us, on hearing that Euston were on the lookout for a new series for Waterman, writer Leon Griffiths decided to pitch an idea which had its roots in a film script he had written some years before*. Called Minder, it was described by the late scriptwriter as “pretty nasty...dark, gloomy, black and tough” but, more promisingly, “it also had a lot of humour in it”. Griffiths’ agent wasn’t convinced the script was sellable as it stood, but later suggested to him that two characters in it were perfect for a series. They were of course, Fulham-based used car salesman Arthur Daley and his much put-upon bodyguard Terry McCann.

Euston Chief Executive Verity Lambert had tasked script executive Linda Agran with finding a Sweeney replacement. Over a lunch, she and Griffiths discussed his idea, for which he had prepared a 15-page “pitch” document, describing the characters, setting, outlining a half-dozen story ideas and beginning with a capsule summary: “a new type of action/character series featuring an independent bodyguard who often operates on the fringe of legality but always seems to end up on the side of the angels”. Soon after, he was asked to write a full script and the project started to bloom.

Around Christmas 1978, George Taylor, one of the founders of Euston and a neighbour of Dennis Waterman’s, personally handed the actor the series format plus two completed scripts. For a while, Waterman hesitated over committing to another London-set crime series, but the quality of Leon Griffiths’ writing, and especially the comic elements, convinced him. Minder was up and running with Dennis Waterman cast as Terry.

Attention turned to who should play dubious businessman Arthur. Waterman suggested veteran character actor Denholm Elliott (who had recently worked for Euston in the second Sweeney spin-off movie); Verity Lambert preferred 54 year-old George Cole, former protégée of Alastair Sim, most famous as “Flash Harry” in the St Trinian’s films between 1954 and 1966 and more recently in BBC2 sitcom Don’t Forget to Write! Huge arguments ensued but the die was cast when Cole arrived to a meeting with Linda Agran and Euston co-founder Lloyd Shirley at a hotel bar, with Agran noting “I could barely talk, I was that excited at this physical manifestation of Arthur Daley”. Cole in turn was so taken with Griffiths’ character outline of Daley as a “well-dressed, dodgy employee of the Citizens’ Advice Bureau” that he signed on immediately.

Coincidentally Waterman and Cole were both appearing on the London stage less than two miles apart immediately prior to starting work on Minder, although neither was enjoying the experience very much: the former at the Aldwych for an RSC production of Bronson Howard’s 1870 farce “Saratoga”; the latter in an adaptation of Dennis Potter’s then-banned BBC Play for Today, “Brimstone and Treacle”.

Shortly after they were being directed by Peter Sasdy in the Minder opening titles (shot three weeks before the start of the series in May 1979), although Cole had yet to see a script! To Waterman’s disapproval Sasdy, a Hungarian-born director who had worked for Hammer in their later days, was assigned to direct the first episode after Tom Clegg, veteran of 14 Sweeney episodes, turned it down. Clegg felt that the script, entitled “Gunfight at the OK Laundrette”, was an unwise choice for an opener as the leading characters are separated. Waterman felt Sasdy was an unwise choice for a director as he lacked the necessary feel for the London as depicted in the series.

It was a shaky start for the series, which eventually debuted with little publicity after an 11-week strike by the ITV network...

* The original Minder film script by series creator Leon Griffiths must surely be something of a Holy Grail for fans of the series. This blogger knows nothing about its content other than the brief details Griffiths has given in interviews. It is at least possible that the Minder novel he wrote (published in July 1979), which deals with Terry and Arthur's exploits pre-series, is a reworking. In any case, check it out if you haven't already.

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