Dennis Waterman obituary: British TV star from The Sweeney, Minder and New Tricks

Waterman played tough nuts on both sides of the law in some of British TV’s defining police and crime series.

10 May 2022

By David Parkinson

Dennis Waterman in 1970 © Ian Dickson/Redferns via Getty Images

Thanks to George Carter, Terry McCann and Gerry Standing, Dennis Waterman, who has died at the age of 74, became such a familiar face on British television that audiences felt they knew him. Yet, away from these iconic roles in crime series The Sweeney (1974 to 1978), Minder (1979 to 1989) and New Tricks (2003 and 2015), Waterman’s career was full of surprises. 

His early years are particularly fascinating. The ninth child of a British Rail ticket collector who encouraged his sons to box, Waterman was born in Clapham on 24 February 1948. At the age of seven, he appeared in The Winter’s Tale at the Southwark Shakespeare Festival and was taken on by the Corona Academy. While at stage school, he made his feature debut as a diabetic son believing he’s on an adventure with his fugitive father in Night Train for Inverness. He was even more impressive as the boy who fibs about being turfed off a bus by the conductor in Snowball (both 1960). 

Dennis Waterman and John Thaw in The Sweeney (1974 to 1978)

Following nine months with the Royal Shakespeare Company and a short stint in the BBC’s William (1962) – despite having never heard of Richmal Crompton’s irrepressible scamp – Waterman was swept off to Hollywood to play Neville Finch in the sitcom Fair Exchange (1962 to 1963). Back in Blighty, he led the Damson Street Gang against the Craven Gang in the Children’s Film Foundation soapbox derby classic Go Kart Go (1963).

Still in his teens, Waterman teamed with Ralph Richardson on stage in Graham Greene’s Carving a Statue in 1964 and was part of the ensemble in the Royal Court’s 1965 production of Edward Bond’s potent study of juvenile poverty, Saved, which was prosecuted by the Lord Chamberlain. He remained in kitchen-sink mode as the junkyard worker who befriends a Chelsea heiress slumming it in Battersea in the feature adaptation of Nell Dunn’s novel, Up the Junction (1968). More lurid were three ‘adult dramas’ that bordered on sexploitation: The Smashing Bird I Used to Know, I Can’t… I Can’t (both 1969) and My Lover, My Son (1970). 

Following a second Hammer teaming with Christopher Lee (after 1962’s The Pirates of Blood River) in Scars of Dracula (1970), Waterman played babysitter Susan George’s boyfriend in Fright (1971) before starring in a couple of Dennis Potters on the BBC: Follow the Yellow Brick Road (1972) and Joe’s Ark (1974). But it was his casting as Detective Sergeant George Carter opposite John Thaw in TV cop show The Sweeney that transformed Waterman’s fortunes and audience perceptions of him. 

Big-screen spin-offs Sweeney! (1977) and Sweeney 2 (1978) reinforced the image of a maverick tough guy, which led to Waterman being cast as pugnacious old lag Terry McCann opposite George Cole’s wheeler-dealing Arthur Daley in the comic crime series Minder. Watched by millions on ITV, the show proved Waterman’s deceptively deft skills as an actor, hinting at the poignant vulnerability behind McCann’s hapless exasperation.

Now fully installed in the public consciousness as a bloke’s bloke, Waterman even had chart success with the series theme, ‘I Could Be So Good for You’. Indeed, by penning the themes for the comedy drama Stay Lucky (1989 to 1993), the sitcom On the Up (1990 to 1992) and New Tricks, Waterman found himself being lampooned by David Walliams (“write the feem toon, sing the feem toon”) on Little Britain (2003 to 2006). 

Dennis Waterman and George Cole in Minder (1979 to 1989)

Between the sporting biopics The World Cup: A Captain’s Tale (1982) and The First Kangaroos (1988), Waterman was cast as Bobbo, the cheating husband in the serialisation of Fay Weldon’s The Life and Loves of a She-Devil (1986). The role played on his reputation as a womaniser, although he was later accused of trivialising domestic violence after admitting to striking second wife Rula Lenska during an interview on Piers Morgan’s Life Stories (2012).

By then, Waterman was coming towards the end of his 12-series stint on New Tricks, in which he had initially teamed with Alun Armstrong and James Bolam as a trio of ex-coppers helping serving DS Amanda Redman crack cold cases. The show proved to be a last hurrah, as Waterman had struggled to find worthwhile vehicles – with the exception of his four outings as secret service investigator John Neil in Circles of Deceit (1993 to 1996). His small-screen commitments also restricted his film opportunities, although Vol-au-vent (1996), Arthur’s Dyke (2001) and Back in Business (2007) proved minor affairs. He signed off more memorably in Never Too Late (2020), playing one of the Vietnam vets who help a former commander bust his beloved out of an Adelaide residential home.

Occasionally, Waterman returned to the stage to do some serious acting. He renewed acquaintance with the RSC for Bronson Howard’s comedy Saratoga in 1978, before confirming his vocal prowess in Windy City (1982 to 1983), which musicalised Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s journalism gem, The Front Page. In 1993, Waterman fronted a touring production of Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell, while he stole scenes as Alfred P. Doolittle in the 2001 West End revival of My Fair Lady. He will chiefly be remembered, however, for his telly triumvirate of Carter, McCann and Standing, who simply couldn’t have been played by anybody else. 

  • Dennis Waterman, 24 February 1948 to 8 May 2022
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