‘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
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, 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 Luxembourg 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
Belfast Telegraph Digital