Thursday, 21 October 2010

Terry McCann, the existential hero

“A new series starring Dennis Waterman as Terry (the minder) and George Cole as Arthur (his guv’ner)”
TV Times listing, 27 October 1979
“A new series about entrepreneur Arthur Daley and his long-suffering minder, Terry McCann”.
TV Times listing, 4 September 1985

“[Terry]’s the only honest man in London.  He may not respect the difference between what’s right and what’s wrong with the law, but he certainly knows about the differences between good and evil”
Leon Griffiths
City Limits 20-26 Jan 1984, interview by Dave Hill

A hero then, that’s what Minder was about.  Something akin to a modern retelling of Shane.

Taking a close look at the beginnings of very long-running series can be fascinating.  I remember watching a late-80s repeat of the very first Only Fools and Horses.... from 1981, which I’d never seen, and being surprised that right from the off, Rodney was dissatisfied with his lot and keen to get out from under Del’s shadow.  I’d assumed this had been gradual.  Guess I was confusing it with real life...

But at least Britcoms usually enjoy the continuity of the original writers’ vision right to the end.  Dramas or comedy-dramas can rarely afford such luxury on account of the sheer impossibility of one writer meeting the demand.  It must be especially difficult in this situation for the original concept to remain undiluted.  And 1979 was a long time before the concept of the “showrunner”.

Minder sprang from the pen of the 50 year old Leon Griffiths, a Sheffield-born, Glasgow-raised left-leaning writer who had come to London at the age of 16 and fell in love with the city, and its residents.  One of his earliest television credits was eight episodes of ATV's 1955-60 The Adventures of Robin Hood starring Richard Greene, and this is fitting enough, because doesn’t Terry McCann owe a small debt to the legendary outlaw?

Griffiths was keen to depict a different kind of screen hero, being fatigued by the usual doctors, lawyers and policemen.  As such he was influenced by The Rockford Files – as incidentally was Robert Banks Stewart when creating Shoestring.  The US series starring James Garner as the down-at-heel LA private eye had been running since 1974, playing over here on BBC1 to huge audiences and winning much kudos for mixing its traditional mystery plots with light comedy.

Leon Griffiths, in his original pitch to Euston Films, correctly stated that “there is no police or private eye story that cannot be adapted to Minder.  And Dennis Waterman has spoken about series’ appeal lying in the limitless possibilities of storyline the format offered, with minder Terry and businessman Arthur becoming plausibly involved with all manner of individuals, regardless of class, race or gender.

Terry takes centre stage in that first series of Minder, more than half of which was written by the series' creator, with at least one more episode based on his idea.  It’s a series about an ex-con tough guy whose uppermost quality is his loyalty: to Arthur, to his friends and family -- his mother is out there somewhere, although never seen in the series -- to anyone he feels needs looking after.

It’s a classic structure and Arthur, his employer, is definitely the secondary character despite stealing the best lines.  I certainly don’t think Minder should ever have avoided the attention that naturally started gravitating towards Arthur, for he was a brilliant comic creation of the Thatcher era brought wonderfully to life by George Cole; however I don’t think they should ever have lost sight of Terry being the principal character either.

The tension between the soft hearted Terry and the exploitative Arthur created the magic, but Griffiths is the only person I’ve ever heard who still talked about Terry as being the principal character by the time the show was at its peak of popularity in the mid-80s.

In fact, for the purest distillation of the idea you could probably do worse than simply watch the 15 episodes written by Leon Griffiths -- a count that would've been higher had illness not prevented him from working on Series 2 in 1980.

He even gives the show an ending, of sorts, in his last episode “Waiting for Goddard” in 1985 – intended at the time to be the final series’ episode.

But it wasn’t just the writers who didn’t always get what the series was at the beginning.  Script executive Linda Agran, who “found” Griffiths and Minder for Euston, has stated that neither did the directors: Peter Sasdy, who helmed the opener, “Gunfight at the OK Laundrette”, and two others in that series, is very fond of zooms, extreme close-ups and a traditionally thriller-like musical score.  This just looks bizarre now.

Roy Ward Baker, next in line to helm, eschewed all this in favour of a “flat” look designed to showcase the writing and acting as much as possible and which quickly became the Minder style.

Incidentally, the late, great Roy Ward Baker, a huge admirer of the series who directed more episodes than anyone else, played at least one other important part in the series’ development.

In his first episode, “The Smaller They Are”, written by Griffiths, Terry and Arthur get roped in to helping a seedy, alcoholic acquaintance, Scotch Harry, who has stolen a briefcase full of hundred dollar bills.  Arthur smells an opportunity and leaves Terry to look after him in his squalid bedsit; in the climax to Act One Terry chases after Arthur into the cramped stairwell but soon realises he’s always going to be the one lumbered with the dirty work: “After we had shot [it], Dennis told me that this short scene had given him the key to the relationship with Arthur”.
Roy Ward Baker in “The Director’s Cut: A Memoir of 60 Years in Film and Television”: Reynolds & Hearn, 2000.


So what of the bold Arthur himself?  Well, the differences in the first series from what eventually developed are more than just cosmetic, although there is that too: for being such an integral part of the Daley look, the trilby is only worn a handful of times in those 11 episodes.  Note that there’s no sign of it in the opening titles, filmed before anything else.  And his accent is much closer to Cole’s own for the first half-dozen or so episodes.

But more important is the fact that neither Arthur, nor the series itself, were intended to be quite so comedic.  Griffiths’ original novel about the characters, published by New English Library three months before the series transmitted, is wryly amusing but more philosophical than the series, with much text devoted to Terry’s plight.  A good guy, but with a background unlikely to allow him much scope for improvement and who sticks with Arthur more on the principle of “better the devil you know” than anything.

For his part, the Arthur of the book is an East End villain who has gone ‘respectable', meaning he doesn’t have room any more for the more overtly villainous activities of his younger days*.  But the threat remains nonetheless.  He, er, also has a girlfriend, a Britt Ekland lookalike called Pat Maxwell, who runs a fashion boutique.

*Arthur Daley is a ex-borstal boy!

And she who became ‘Er Indoors is one Sarah Daley, a fully fledged character in the book, described by Griffiths thus: “Forty five sat on her badly, she had a lot more wrinkles, hip flesh and wiry white hairs than she could cope with, and she went about her outdoor business under a variety of hats and layers of Estee Lauder”.

Hmm.  I suspect much of this went straight out the window as soon as George Cole was cast.  The inherent likeability of the man makes the idea that Arthur was ever a serious villain a tough sell, and his comic instincts simply pushed the character in a different, and much more rewarding direction.

Interestingly, Leon Griffith's Euston pitch states: "a leavening of humour is essential", which suggests that it was only ever intended as an undertone.  Later on he expressed regret that the intended "cynicism which would reflect the times in which we live” was replaced with “a kind of Boulting Brothers thing”.

Almost certainly this was true, and it eventually led to Griffiths, Waterman and producer George Taylor calling it a day.  However, the blossoming of Arthur Daley was inevitable, and he's one of television's greatest ever creations.

But Terry's great too, as is Dennis Waterman playing him.  We need our heroes.

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