Sad but true – Dennis Waterman is dead, and another one has bitten the dust. Perhaps he can lay claim to being one of the most active actors on vintage TV channels specialising in mining the rich archive of British television via his decade-long stint as a household name via ‘The Sweeney’ and ‘Minder’ – stalwarts of the schedules such channels live by. But there was more to Waterman’s CV. Take, for example, ‘Joe’s Ark’, a 1974 ‘Play for Today’ by another Dennis, this one being Potter. Angharad Rees, soon to become better known as Demelza in ‘Poldark’, played a terminally-ill cancer sufferer retreating to the rooms above her father Freddie Jones’s pet shop in Wales to breathe her last. Dennis Waterman played her wayward brother, eking out a seedy living providing a musical accompaniment to strippers in dodgy clubs; Waterman’s character makes his way home to see his sister and build a few bridges with his God-fearing father, but arrives a little too late. It’s one of Potter’s most underrated and moving plays, and Waterman gives a touching performance that would probably surprise those only accustomed to his more beefy roles.
The risk of typecasting was a genuine gamble for actors on television in the 1960s and 70s – one thinks of Harry H Corbett’s tragic failure to evade the long shadow cast by ‘Steptoe and Son’ – so it’s no wonder many successful character actors approached the prospect of a hit series with trepidation, particularly those who were in the process of establishing themselves as familiar faces. Dennis Waterman had been a minor child star – starring in an early 60s TV adaptation of the ‘Just William’ books – and adolescent one-to-watch, making a mark as a young man in the movie version of the celebrated (and controversial) ‘Wednesday Play’ set in his own Clapham backyard, ‘Up the Junction’; but he carved a career for himself as a significant grown-up character actor by appearing in one-off episodes of numerous popular small screen series in the early 70s.
His versatility was apparent by the fact he occasionally ventured into the comedic arena, such as his appearance in a 1973 episode of ‘Man About the House’; by contrast, that same year he also scored a memorable cameo in ‘Special Branch’, the hard-hitting police series produced by Euston Films – the speciality film wing of Thames Television. He’d also appeared as a customarily sinister Gestapo officer in an episode of ‘Colditz’ and in another characteristically labyrinthine Potter play, ‘Follow the Yellow Brick Road’ as well as the token Hammer horror outing (1970’s ‘Son of Dracula’), which was a rites-of-passage necessity for up-and-coming actors at the time. By this stage of his career, Waterman was certainly being noticed, though as a recognisable face rather than name. However, all that was about to change.
‘The Sweeney’ began life as a TV movie called ‘Regan’, which aired in the ‘Armchair Cinema’ slot on ITV in 1974. The potential for a series was immediately evident, and Dennis Waterman resumed his role as the reluctant second-in-command to John Thaw’s DI Regan when ‘The Sweeney’ went into production a few months later. Debuting on ITV at the beginning of 1975, ‘The Sweeney’ famously rewrote the rulebook in the way the British police force was portrayed on television, and Waterman’s George Carter was the perfect counterpoint to Thaw’s Jack Regan, exuding a less cynical and less grizzled persona than his superior. The two together exhibited a macho chemistry that has ultimately outlived them both, setting the template for a nostalgic, Brut-drenched, buddy-buddy relationship which breezes into contemporary touchy-feely sensibilities as no-nonsense fresh air.
When ‘The Sweeney’ ended in 1978, John Thaw took several years to find a character which could represent his middle age in the same way Jack Regan summed-up his prime. Dennis Waterman, on the other hand, moved on far quicker, but even the character of ex-boxer Terry McCann wasn’t an instant hit. It took a good series-and-a-half before Waterman’s character and the winning dynamic alongside veteran George Cole as Arthur Daley struck a chord with the viewing public, though by the early 80s ‘Minder’ had established itself as one of the UK’s most popular and culturally prescient TV shows. One thing it did do was to extend Waterman’s televisual omnipotence; he even scored a top ten hit with the ‘Minder’ theme tune, ‘I Could Be So Good For You’, in 1980, and he found himself back on ‘Top of the Pops’ three years later via an unlikely Christmas novelty duet with George Cole, ‘What Are We Gonna Get for Er Indoors’.
Whilst starring on ‘Minder’, Dennis Waterman also remained open to other, more intriguing, offers. His passion for the beautiful game inspired an affectionate tribute to football’s amateur beginnings with the 1982 TV movie he himself financed, ‘The World Cup: A Captain’s Tale’, which dramatised the famous triumph of West Auckland FC in winning the first attempt at an international soccer tournament, the Sir Thomas Lipton Trophy, in 1909; he also played a major part in the BBC’s landmark feminist fantasy, ‘The Life and Loves of a She-Devil’ in 1986. By this time, he had quit ‘Minder’ and starred in several TV series without making the kind of impact he’d previously enjoyed, though he was the ideal host for the retro-football series, ‘Match of the 70s’, which aired on the BBC in 1995-96, tapping into the vogue for the decade Waterman was inexorably linked with; around the same time, renewed interest in ‘The Sweeney’ led to him becoming the programme’s unofficial curator whenever it was profiled on clips shows in the absence of contributions from John Thaw.
Ongoing affection for ‘The Sweeney’ unquestionably played its part in Waterman’s final TV success, ‘New Tricks’, in which he starred from 2003 to 2014; this BBC series focused on a team of ageing ex-police detectives brought back to solve cold cases and featured many familiar faces from the 70s, including in its original line-up James Bolam and Alun Armstrong. Despite the indisputably odd appearance of an unnaturally white set of dentures, Waterman’s strong presence and association with the era the old jacks were supposed to have been prominent coppers in aided the show’s success and contributed to its ultimate longevity; he also once again ‘sang the theme tune’, which was played upon in a typically surreal recurring sketch in ‘Little Britain’ that left Waterman himself more than baffled. At the same time, however, the skit seemed to solidify his enduring place in British TV’s cultural wallpaper.
The cause of Dennis Waterman’s death at the age of 74 has yet to be revealed, though one often formed the impression he was a man who enjoyed life in ways that are now frowned upon by the acting profession; he received two convictions for drunk-driving and was married four times, the most eventful (from a tabloid perspective) being his 11-year relationship with Rula Lenska, one marked by physical violence on Waterman’s part. He was certainly ‘old-school’, though one suspected this was a tag he himself wouldn’t have objected to. Part of the appeal of ‘New Tricks’ was, like ‘Life on Mars’, its knack in reflecting late 20th century generations’ inability to get to grips with the constantly changing unwritten rules and regulations of the 21st century and, in turn, mirroring the audience’s similar confusion at what could and couldn’t be said both in polite company and in the corporate business the police force has morphed into. Dennis Waterman was undoubtedly one of yesterday’s men, though that’s not a criticism; it’s a compliment.
© The Editor