Film Studies: Born poor, raised to splendour. But will this story have a happy ending?

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

When I think of all the bad, or unnecessary movies made by Sir Michael Caine, there is one story that cries out to be filmed. It is his own, or a version of it. The full marvel and intrigue of this situation began to sink in as I read Christopher Bray's excellent new biography - Michael Caine: A Class Act - and as I reflected on the National Film Theatre's current season of tribute to the actor. I needed my A to Z street guide, too, in researching the actual places, a mile or so from the NFT, where Maurice Micklewhite was raised.

Maurice Jr, our Sir Michael, was born in a Rotherhithe hospital on March 14 1933 at a time when his parents, Maurice and Ellen, lived in a one-room flat on Weston Street, between London Bridge Station and the Old Kent Road, in the area once known as Borough High Street, where the coppers went in twos for safety. The father had been a porter at the Billingsgate Fish Market, but drink, gambling and the hard times left his life in wreckage as Maurice grew up. In time, the family moved towards Camberwell, but the kid was a prisoner of the dense city and its fatal limits on opportunity, and so he might have remained but for the war.

Ellen, Maurice and a younger brother were evacuated to Norfolk as Maurice Sr went into the Army. The boy flowered in the open air, and he found teachers at a village school who encouraged him. He passed an LCC examination that got him into a grammar school - Hackney Down, which had also been evacuated to Norfolk. Harold Pinter was another pupil at that school, even though he was three years older than Caine.

So, already, it's a story of poverty being subverted by the fact of war. But there's something else, even more important. Every now and then, Ellen Micklewhite would go off to visit a sick relative. It's easy to imagine the boy asking where she was going. She tells him vaguely, "Cain Hill", a place somewhere between Croydon and Banstead. No one is sure now how far the name stayed in the boy's mind. But it turned out that in 1954, rather than labour under the stage name "Michael Scott", he elected to call himself Michael Caine. He thought he was spurred on by seeing a poster for a new movie, The Caine Mutiny, with Humphrey Bogart as Captain Queeg.

As a matter of established fact, it was not until 1991 (when his mother died) that Michael Caine, the international star, discovered that Cain Hill had housed David, his half-brother certainly, perhaps closer. David had been dismissed as a hopeless epileptic, but the mother had gone to see him on secret missions whenever she could. In our story, imagine that Maurice as a boy follows her, that he gets into the institution, that he finds out the truth for himself. And that the name-change is the one gesture he allows himself to the idea of a brother, and to the nearly Dickensian city and poverty that he has escaped. It could be the signal of the courage it takes - or the need - to be an actor, rather than just another labourer or fish porter.

In those same Fifties, as a National Service conscript, he was a soldier in Korea. On getting demobbed, he got the part of understudy to Peter O'Toole in Willis Hall's army play, The Long and the Short and the Tall. With O'Toole's history of booze and irregularity, it was likely that a patient Caine would get his chance to go on. But no, O'Toole stays steadfast, sober and punctual and it is only when the play goes on tour that Michael has a chance to play the lead.

He gets a few movies, and he tries out for the role of "Cockney soldier" in Zulu. The role has a lot of funny, sour lines, but it goes to James Booth. Caine shrugs; he has always resisted the notion that he is a Cockney. He knows he is just flat south London, not someone born within the sound of Bow bells. But the people on Zulu look at the tall, handsome youth and they wonder if he might try out for the part of Lt. Bromhead, second-in-command to the tough Stanley Baker. He gets that part and the film is a big enough hit to send him on his way.

We know the rest. We know the rather smug legend of Caine never being able to resist an offer or a cheque. We know the smoothie he has become, without ever getting close to that real aristocratic classlessness that made Cary Grant. In truth, I'm seldom persuaded by Caine the actor, or too easy in his presence. He has a reputation as a wit and as an authority on the proper economy in film acting. He has been a restaurateur and a man about town, with the glorious Shakira on his arm - she was a radiant Miss Guyana candidate after a first, failed marriage to the actress Patricia Haines. It always seems to me that Caine doesn't trust the world or his own future. He bears the lasting imprint of real poverty - desperate anxiety - and it eclipses art.

Of course, he is good sometimes. Anyone working that hard is bound to be. I like him in The Cider House Rules, Get Carter, The Man Who Would Be King, Sleuth and very much in Last Orders, that adaptation of a Graham Swift novel that is uncannily close to the lost brother in an institution. Is that resemblance just chance, or had Swift heard something?

Above all, I recall a passage from the introduction to Caine's slim book Acting in Film: "Let me run through my curriculum vitae before I landed my first role. See what you think of my chances. I had worked in a laundry. I'd done a stint in a tea warehouse. I worked pneumatic drills on the road. I was the night porter in a hotel. I washed dishes in all the best restaurants. I remember making jewel boxes at one time. And I was a soldier."

There's something haunting in that bleak voice. It's like a character in Dickens, born poor, raised to splendour, but somehow sure that he may be, or deserves to be, gravitationally reduced again. It's someone nearly crippled by a sense of the fragility in luck. I wonder if that man might ever think to write and direct a film about his own early years and the fine line between one brother and another?

The Michael Caine season is at the National Film Theatre, London SE1 (020 7928 3232) to 31 Jan

d.thomson@independent.co.uk

Comments