Dennis Waterman: a streetwise natural in three great British TV series
Dennis Waterman, who has died aged 74, was an actor whose rough-edged charm and gravelly tones were especially effective as criminals or crime-fighters who walked a tight line between danger and humour and could cross from one side to the other at unexpected moments.
While some TV stars become indelibly associated with one famous role, Waterman achieved lead parts in three separate long-running prime-time features that rank among TV’s best-loved series.
In The Sweeney (ITV, 1974-78), he was DS George Carter, a tough, sexist, corruptible detective, meeting violence with violence, in the Metropolitan police’s “flying squad”, junior to John Thaw’s DI Jack Regan. Almost as soon as that show came to an end, ITV cast him on (just) the other side of the law in Minder (ITV, 1979-89) as Terry McCann, an ex-con who, on release from jail, can find work only as a assistant-cum-bodyguard to George Cole’s Dickensian petty crook Arthur Daley. Those two roles secured Waterman’s place in TV history but his professional tenacity and rapport with audiences brought him another long-runner as Gerry Standing, one of a group of retired detectives brought back to run a cold case unit in New Tricks, which ran on BBC One from 2003-15.
In the working-class south London culture from which Waterman grew up, there was often a sense that it was a matter of narrow luck whether some men became a cop or a robber, and Waterman shrewdly used this ambiguity to menacing effect in The Sweeney, comedy in Minder and somewhere between in New Tricks.
Unlike actors who prefer clear top billing and the most lines in the script, Waterman was always best as a co-star, forming formidable double acts with Thaw and Cole, resulting in close friendships and deep mourning of their deaths. This loyalty and generosity also informed New Tricks, where he was part of a rotating star ensemble with Amanda Redman, Alun Armstrong, James Bolam, Denis Lawson and Nicholas Lyndhurst.
Care is needed in reading an actor’s life into their performances, but it seems reasonable to feel that Waterman’s portrayals of chancers and hustlers may have drawn on an edginess he personally possessed. He had four marriages, of which the one to actor Rula Lenska ended due to Waterman’s admitted violent behaviour. Those incidents – and subsequent attempts to minimise his actions in an interview with Piers Morgan – would probably have ended a career now but the actor benefited from a greater willingness at that time to forgive so-called “bad boy” behaviour in prominent men.
A viewer who only watched The Sweeney, Minder and New Tricks might raise questions over his acting range: DCI Standing could have been the older, slightly mellowed DS Carter and Terry McCann the nephew of either. But, in fact, across his career, Waterman was versatile. A natural performer, he was an actor for almost all of his life, making his film debut aged 11, playing an insulin-dependent child held hostage (can the police find him before he needs his medicine?) in the 1960 British movie Night Train to Inverness. Stage school and the Children’s Film Foundation brought him multiple roles in his youth, including the likable delinquent William Brown in a BBC production of Just William (1962).
Also adept as a singer and dancer, Waterman appeared in West End musicals – including My Fair Lady and Windy City – and, unusually, specialised in singing the theme tunes of his TV shows, crooning over the credits of Minder, New Tricks and two lesser successes, On the Up and Stay Lucky.
This signature gift was lampooned in sketches for the comedy series Little Britain, in which David Walliams played a caricature of Waterman infuriating his agent by turning down roles unless he was allowed to sing the title number. Showing an ability to laugh at himself by no means universal in showbiz, Waterman subsequently made a cameo appearance in a stage version of Little Britain, with Walliams and Matt Lucas.
He will, though, most be remembered and replayed in a 1970s and 80s sub-genre of London streetwise drama created by Thames Television, and its greatest achievements The Sweeney and Minder.