‘Ev­ery per­son I knew in the ’60s be­came very rich’

Sir Michael Caine is in a doc­u­men­tary about the decade that made him. The star says that break­ing through so­cial bar­ri­cades was a big part of mak­ing the Six­ties swing.

Belfast Telegraph - Weekend - - INTERVIEW - By Ge­of­frey Mac­nab

He was born Mau­rice Joseph Mick­le­white and grew up in south Lon­don. His mother was a char lady and his fa­ther was a Billings­gate fish­mar­ket porter. Dur­ing the 1960s, he be­came Bri­tain’s big­gest film star. Now, 50 years on, Sir Michael Caine is re­vis­it­ing the decade that made his for­tune in a new film, My Gen­er­a­tion. The doc­u­men­tary, which Caine co-pro­duced and nar­rates, of­fers an in­sider’s view of a trans­for­ma­tional era in Bri­tish so­ci­ety, when the class sys­tem at last be­gan to shift and colour seeped into a pre­vi­ously grey world.

The films shows the Swing­ing Six­ties through Caine’s eyes — and through the eyes of some il­lus­tri­ous con­tem­po­raries he has in­ter­viewed: Twiggy (be­low), Roger Dal­trey, Paul Mc­Cart­ney, Mar­i­anne Faith­ful and David Bai­ley among them. Im­pre­sario Si­mon Fuller ini­ti­ated the project, which is di­rected by David Batty and scripted by Ian La Fre­nais and Dick Clement. The film­mak­ers have sourced huge amounts of archive.

“It was a case of wait­ing un­til they were avail­able. They’re ex­traor­di­nar­ily busy and im­por­tant peo­ple,” Caine says of his in­ter­vie­wees.

If you want to find the real roots of the swing­ing Six­ties, Caine, now 84, sug­gests that the Bri­tish ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem may be the place to start. “I won the 11-plus schol­ar­ship,” he re­mem­bers. “One of the most amaz­ing things is that in all the in­ter­views I did for this film, ev­ery young male rock ‘n’ roll singer that I talked to, I de­lib­er­ately asked where they went to school. Ev­ery sin­gle one of them went to gram­mar school.” They got ‘posh ed­u­ca­tions’ for noth­ing.

Even if they were de­ter­mined to have a good time, Caine and his con­tem­po­raries had all been con­sci­en­tious stu­dents and they re­tained a strong work ethic. “Ev­ery sin­gle per­son I knew be­came rich,” says Caine.

In the doc­u­men­tary, Mar­i­anne Faith­ful pin­points the elec­tion of the Labour Gov­ern­ment in 1946 as be­ing what “set the Six­ties up”. There was a “change of diet, a change of health­care and good ed­u­ca­tion for ev­ery­one”.

None­the­less, the pic­ture that Caine draws of life in pre-Six­ties Bri­tain is drab. He was born in the De­pres­sion era and grew up dur­ing the Sec­ond World War. “We waited ev­ery day to see if we were go­ing to get a telegram say­ing our dad was dead,” he tells me. “The war was over. Then we were sent to Malaya and Korea to kill peo­ple. Then we came back and it was mis­er­able as sin in the Fifties with smog and ra­tioning and every­thing. Then, we got to the Six­ties and said we’re go­ing to have a good time.”

At first, hav­ing ‘a good time’ was an up­hill strug­gle. There was no pop music on the BBC (He and his friends had to lis­ten to Ra­dio Lux- em­bourg or the Amer­i­can Forces’ net­work). It was the Cold War and there was the threat of nu­clear an­ni­hi­la­tion. All this, though, just con­cen­trated the minds of Caine’s gen­er­a­tion. They were de­ter­mined to en­joy them­selves while they could.

Caine’s act­ing ca­reer had be­gun when he ap­peared on stage in a school pan­tomime. His flies were down, he got a laugh and he was ‘hooked’. At the time, though, theatre and cinema didn’t of­fer much op­por­tu­nity for a work­ing-class boy from south Lon­don. He talks with dis­dain of the films the Bri­tish were mak­ing. They all fea­tured upper-class types whose lives he couldn’t even be­gin to re­late to.

One film that Caine and his friends ut­terly ridiculed was love story Brief En­counter (1946), about an il­licit love af­fair be­tween a mid­dle-aged home coun­ties house­wife (Celia John­son) and a doc­tor (Trevor Howard) she meets by chance on a rail­way plat­form. I put it to him that Brief En­counter is now ac­knowl­edged as one of the all-time clas­sics of Bri­tish cinema and that there is some­thing ex­traor­di­nar­ily mov­ing about the plight of the thwarted lovers.

“It was a very good film about those kind of peo­ple,” he says. “But the prob­lem was, that was it — there weren’t films about us. When I was a young ac­tor, I un­der­stud­ied Peter O’Toole in The Long And The Short And The Tall in which he be­came a star ... that was fun­nily enough the first play I think ever writ­ten about English pri­vates. I re­mem­ber when I was young, we al­ways went to see Amer­i­can war films be­cause they were about pri­vate sol­diers. We never went to see the English films be­cause they were all about of­fi­cers.”

Caine’s strug­gles as a young ac­tor are well-chron­i­cled. He talks darkly about do­ing two days’ work with his friend Oliver Reed in bit-part roles on a Nor­man Wis­dom film, an ex­pe­ri­ence he didn’t en­joy at all (Wis­dom “wasn’t very nice to sup­port-part ac­tors”, he says). Caine had been happy just to make ‘a few quid’ work­ing in rep, ek­ing out a liv­ing but at least be­ing paid to act. He had changed his name first to Michael White and then, when he joined Eq­uity, to Michael Caine.

By the time he landed his break­through screen role as the upper-class of­fi­cer in Zulu (1964), Caine was al­ready in his thir­ties. Caine stills in­sists that he would never have been given the part (which kick­started his movie ca­reer) if the film’s di­rec­tor had been English. Old snob­bish at­ti­tudes were too en­trenched. There was a loos­en­ing, though. He and his con­tem­po­raries were find­ing their way into worlds pre­vi­ously closed to them.

In the Six­ties ev­ery­one flocked to Lon­don. The film show­cases sev­eral pho­tog­ra­phers who recorded swing­ing Lon­don, David Bai­ley tells Caine that he got into pho­tog­ra­phy be­cause he learned how to process pic­tures on his mother’s Ko­dak Brownie and liked to take pic­tures of ‘birds’. This prompts a chuckle — Bai­ley meant the winged va­ri­ety, not women in mini-skirts, even if the fa­mous say­ing about him was ‘David Bai­ley makes love daily’. One of the re­fresh­ing as­pects of the doc­u­men­tary, though, is the ab­sence of sex­ism. Mary Quant, Twiggy, Jean Shrimp­ton and oth­ers were as much at the heart of the Six­ties as Caine or Bai­ley.

Caine men­tions his old friend David Baron, an out-of-work ac­tor who de­cided to write plays. “He said to me, ‘David Baron isn’t my real name. When I start to write plays, I am go­ing to use my real name’. I said to him, ‘What’s your real name?’.” Back came the re­ply: ‘Harold Pin­ter.’ Pin­ter wrote the play and Caine ap­peared in it. “Things like that hap­pened. You were al­most forced not to fail ... That’s how the Six­ties changed the coun­try.”

In Amer­i­can ac­counts of hippy cul­ture and the sum­mer of love, the hang­over sets in with Al­ta­mont, Charles Man­son and the Sharon Tate mur­ders. Caine sug­gests that what brought the swing­ing Six­ties in Bri­tain to an end was drugs. No, he didn’t in­dulge him­self. Richard Har­ris once gave him some mar­i­juana which made him laugh so hard he al­most “had a her­nia”. “It was mid­night. I was try­ing to get a cab him from Grosvenor Square to Not­ting Hill Gate and I was stand­ing on the cor­ner, laugh­ing ma­ni­a­cally. No cab would stop for me. I had to walk all the way home to Not­ting Hill.” After that, he never smoked mar­i­juana again. “It also af­fects the mem­ory and as an ac­tor, I’ve to re­mem­ber lines.”

In the doc­u­men­tary, we see archive footage of Caine as a suc­cess­ful young movie star meet­ing a kindly old for­mer neigh­bour in the Lon­don of his child­hood. She greets him with de­light and tell him he looks just like his dad. In his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, Caine tells a strange story about re­vis­it­ing the Ele­phant and Cas­tle and spot­ting an­other small man un­no­ticed in the crowds, also on a nos­tal­gic re­turn jour­ney to his old haunts. It was Char­lie Chap­lin. The leg­endary co­me­dian couldn’t hide his sad­ness at the way “de­vel­op­ers had torn” the area apart.

In his 80s, Caine re­mains as busy as ever, and even though he has just re­vis­ited the Six­ties in My Gen­er­a­tion, he doesn’t like to dwell on the past. “I don’t feel nos­tal­gia. I never look back. I feel ex­traor­di­nar­ily lucky, not about my tal­ent or any­thing, but about the tim­ing,” he says.

The Six­ties helped make Caine ... but, of course, Caine helped make the Six­ties too. My Gen­er­a­tion will show at the BFI Lon­don Film Fes­ti­val from Oc­to­ber 4-15

CHANG­ING TIMES: Sir Michael with wife Shakira. Right, with his mum and brother and (right be­low) in the Bil­lion Dol­lar Brain

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