Michael Caine is a British institution. The man who popularised the line, “I only told you to blow the bloody doors off!”, has always espoused that specific kind of suave charm that is native to this tiny island.
He was born Maurice Micklewhite in Rotherhithe, London, in 1933, but took his stage name from the 1954 film The Caine Mutiny, which hit cinemas a year after he started his career as a theatre actor in 1953. Due to his undoubted talent, things moved quickly, and only three years later he had moved into the glitzy world of cinema, which would kick off a career that saw him star in iconic flicks such as 1964’s Zulu, 1965’s The Ipcress File and 1966’s Alfie, the latter of which earned him an Academy Award nomination.
His career then skyrocketed, and Caine would go on to star in a host of blockbusters such as The Italian Job, Sleuth, Get Carter, The Man Who Would Be King, The Eagle Has Landed, and Dressed to Kill. More contemporary hits that he’s starred in include Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy to Alfonso Cuaron’s dystopian drama Children of Men.
Whilst he is undoubtedly one of the finest actors of his generation, Caine is also something of a social commentator, as he proved during an interview in the ’60s when had established himself as a star. Discussing his working-class background, Caine delivered some surprisingly sharp insights, and throughout, he sounds indivisible from the wily Harry Palmer in The Ipcress File.
Just a forewarning, some of the language he uses is very out of date and not at all appropriate in contemporary times, but the larger point he makes is still as pertinent as ever.
Asked if he had a “chip” on his shoulder because of his roots, Caine responded: “I suppose I still have a small chip, I used to have a great big block of wood on my shoulder about class and being a cockney, little of which, over the past few years has been disappearing, it’s not entirely disappeared. But what made me think, in terms of just how cockney’s are, I liken them to the negro”.
“What made me think of it, was I was talking to Quincy Jones on the phone about cockney rhyming slang because he was writing the music for The Italian Job and wanted a song. And he’d never heard of this, and then he made a whole investigation into the cockney rhyming slang. And then he rang me and said, ‘Listen man’, he said, he said, ‘you’re all spades, the cockney’s’, he said, ‘you’re the only people over here with soul talk.’ Which is, in a way, true, (sic) minorities have their own language, and I regard the cockney as always being the equivalent of the American negro.”
“I based that on the jobs that one gets. You’ll hear West Indians here saying that they can’t get a good job, you say, ‘What sort of jobs do you do?’, they say, ‘Well we’re lift attendants, we work on the buses as conductors and drivers, we work down the tube, we sweep the streets, we’re toilet attendants’, but those were all the jobs that everybody’s father I knew did.”
“And for me, we weren’t kept down by the Ku Klux Klan, or tremendous physical brutality the way the negro was, say in America, we were kept down by the original geniuses of brainwashing, which was the British aristocracy, who taught us it was noble to be poor and they taught us with the help of religion. It was noble to be poor, and the meek shall inherit the earth… you know? The piece of earth that the meek inherit is six feet by four, that’s the bit the meek inherit as far as I’m concerned.”
“I feel, the only bitterness I feel, is that my ancestors, whoever they may be, because I’m not that illustrious to know, had the biggest con-job pulled on them for nineteen hundred and, say, fifty years, right up to the opening of Look Back in Anger, that’s where I see it finished. That’s why, how, all these nouveau riche, creepy people like me have crept in. This, ‘Isn’t it disgusting that someone with an accent like that has all that money?’, you can hear this, I’ve even overheard it, and had it said to me sometimes if people have had a few beers.”
“Because, they, the whole connotation of class here is in the mind. And the working class are just as bad because they talk about ‘real ladies’, what the hell is a ‘real lady’, you know? Some duchess had off for divorce or something, that’s a real lady is it because she talks properly? For me, I think it’s the biggest con-job. I think I shall retain the chip, because while I can do my best to change what is, I can’t change the other nineteen hundred and fifty years, and it’s a source of frustration to me.
He concluded by turning the focus to the environment he grew up in: “The cockney’s still have it, in as much as when I said ‘I wanna go and be an actor’ they said, ‘who do you think you are?’, as though anything to do with anything that wasn’t sweeping the streets or handing out the towels in a toilet was some sort of privileged occupation.”
Watch the interview below.