To the left of the lift almost engulfed by these marionettes, but not quite, I find Sir Michael Caine. What we have here is Cowell celebrity meets Caine fame, one lasts for a season and the other lasts a lifetime.
Unlike the keen teens enjoying fleeting karaoke stardom Michael Caine doesn’t need anyone to push the lift buttons or guide him down a corridor. He comes minus personal entourage. Which is surprising, after all he is, along with another guy called Jack Nicholson, the only man to have been nominated for an Oscar for acting in every decade since the 60s. Winning twice. He is an icon.
I have come to have lunch and to listen. Michael Caine (“you can save the ‘Sir’ for Ben Kingsley”) can talk. He sits in his stylish ink coloured suit, white shirt and loafers, works his way through a steak sandwich and ‘nice cuppa tea’ and talks almost solidly for 55 minutes. He is truly great raconteur with an opinon or anecdote on everything under the sun from John Osborne, Prince Phillip and Orson Welles to social deprivation, drugs and dead infantrymen. He could probably talk forever because by now it feels like the 76-year-old has been with us forever. And for many of us he has, the year I was born (1965) he was winning fans with Len Deighton’s The Ipcress File.
We are meeting to talk about Harry Brown, his new film, which guides him back into the sort of role that helped shape his career, an echo of the era that defined him. Harry, like Jack Carter in thriller Get Carter, sports a black coat and shoots people as an act of revenge. The most significant difference is that where Jack was young and dangerous and Harry is an elderly if self-sufficient widower.
The film focuses on how alienation and fear generate violence on a drug riddled council estate. How violence doesn’t leave once you’ve experienced it. And how a widowed marine reacts to the murder of his only friend by the local gang of teen criminals. Caine has of late been playing a pensioner with a twist – a retired magician (Is Anybody There) , an ageing gem thief (Flawless), a butler to a gentleman superhero (Batman Begins/Dark Knight) – and now a film about a man within a man. It’s important in the Caine filmography because it shows that despite his years and popular status he can still deliver barely controlled threat. And that has been a key to many of his great roles. A confident disregard for what others might think of him.
This is something you could possibly level at the man himself, but with so many great stories you must assume he wants people to like him? Before we get anywhere though he wants to correct something in my comparisons between Get Carter and Harry Brown.
“Stylistically Jack Carter had a mackintosh and Harry has a pea coat, its shorter. More importantly Jack Carter was immoral, whereas Harry Brown, no matter what he does – which was to go out and kill people – he remains the victim, he was never a perpetrator.”
Caine grew up close to the streets of Elephant and Castle where the film is set , there’s a mural featuring him and Charlie Chaplin close by. He admits he was part of a gang himself a teenager, albeit no more than a gang of friends who liked a drink and a punch up and lived in fear of the real older local gangsters who would go onto work with the Krays and Richardson. Despite confronting the hoodlums in the film, as a man he can see their point of view.
“What the young gang are doing is revenge. They’re saying: ‘You didn’t do anything for me, screw you. This is what we’re gonna do. I have to make a living and I’ll make it this way and I will do and sell drugs.”
He does believe there are alternative solutions to the status quo. Citing “an incredibly expensive education system, where you can go in and almost individualise people who are completely disenfranchised” And sees this as a more positive way forward than simply reacting to addiction and drugs related crime after the event. “How much–do 350,000 heroin and cocaine addicts cost on benefits and methadone treatment. Wouldn’t it be better to turn a guy into a carpenter or a bricklayer?”
The film is also about generational fear and the vulnerability of the elderly. Does he himself every feel scared? Only for his family. “Becoming a grandparent, as I recently have, increases that depth of love that you have for your family, you know, so that would be the only thing that would scare me. Going way back I was always scared in the theatre, first nights. they have a bucket by the side in case you throw up before you go on. And I used that bucket so many times and I overcame the fear.”
He also admits to the terror he felt as a young soldier in Korea, experience he uses in the film.
“You never talk to soldiers about what they don’t want to talk about. People don’t know I was a soldier. But being a soldier in Korea made me the man for the rest of my life. Young men - like right through African tribes and everything – you give them a stick and they’ll go out and kill a lion – there’s always be some ritual, and in modern European society you don’t have that. I feel devastated when I see the dead kids coming home from the wars now though.” he says before questioning why we are still in that war fighting the Taliban when neither Bin laden or Al Quada have been captured there.
Caine is unafraid of addressing the social issues the film confronts and if that leads him onto the subjects of politics so be it.
‘My basic feeling politically is that I’m an American Democrat. I believe (that British prime ministers should be restricted ? )in only two terms of four years. There you can’t come back again like we can here. I believe in the socialist system in a capitalist world. I believe the cake has got to be sliced up to help those who are needy and you’ve got to keep someone there who’s going to make the cake. Here we always destroy the people who make the cake. That’s the problem. That’s my political view. “
He corrects recent reports that he will once again leave the country if his tax band is raised to 50%. Citing his grandchildren as the reason to stay, “My daughter had a baby last year and then twins last week.”, he also much prefers England now than the country he left under Callaghan in the mid 7os, when he was taxed at 82% under what Caine believed to be an almost Communist tax system.
“I like what I’ve always liked about England: the way we treat each other. We treat each other better than any other nation in the world treats each other. it’s a very nice place to be with a very nice people. I love the countryside, I love the weather, I love seasons. I lived in LA for 8 years and I missed the ‘the rain.’”
He returned to live in England full time last year. :” I live in the country. I live between Leatherhead and Dorking. I live near Box Hill. That’s my home, and people say to me ‘where do you go for your holidays?’ and I say ‘Leatherhead.’ “
However his Hollywood career has taken him some distance from many of those he worked with in the 60s. It is the 40th anniversary of The Italian Job this year but caine, like the rest of us read of writer and director Troy kennedy Martin’s recent death in the paper.
“We were very close friends in the 60s. He wrote one of the leading parts in Z Cars for me, but by the time he’d finished it I’d done The Ipcress File and Alfie, I was a movie star, and I wasn’t going to do television. So he wrote The Italian Job and said ‘you can play Charlie Croker.”
You can’t spend time with Caine without being left in awe of his professionalism. He understands that an actor’s job is to entertain, whether on stage or off set . Fire a subject at him and he will oblige. Orson Welles for example, who starred in his favourite thriller The Third Man.
“I knew Orson very very well. He came to my first play ever in the West End, Next Time I’ll Sing To You, and we became friends. Orson rang me one day and he said: ‘I’ve got a movie for us. I saw this play ‘The Dresser.’ I said ‘it’s owned by Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay.’ And he went ‘oh, shit.’ But I think that’s the best film I never made. Can you imagine him as the old ham actor and me as the gay dresser?
He goes onto describe introducing his LONGTERM former restaurant partner “Peter Langhan who was always drunk” with whom he ran London’s hottest restaurant of the 70s, langans, to Welles and Jack Nicholson in Mal Maison in Hollywood.
“Peter said ‘is that Orson Welles? Do you know him?’ I said ‘yeah, he’s a very good friend of mine.’ He said ‘would you introduce me?’ So I took him over and introduced him. And Langan said to him: ‘I think you’re a stupid, fat cunt.’ And the waiter grabbed hold of him and threw him over the hedge outside onto the pavement. That was the last time I ever introduced Peter Langan to anybody. He later set himself on fire and killed himself whilst trying to murder his wife. Just one of my friends. And people say to me ‘why did you leave the restaurant business?’…fucking hell! “
Unlike the people from his past who have dropped away or died Caine shows no sign of slowing up, he admits to never having been in awe of anyone he’s worked with but that he might have liked to have worked with Hoffman, Pacino or De Niro. He recognizes that in the really big films he is mainly cast a supporting actor, but as Harry Brown is testament, there’s a new generation of film maker who one again values his ability to convey violence convincingly. Few knights of the realm with so many awards and fans would chose this moment to remind us how hard they can appear. But then very few people have attained Michael caines status. Caine crawled from the estates of South London to become an Academy Award winner, he has enjoyed immense success but he’s also keenly aware of how the game works. As if nodding to the kids down the corridor he offers this devastating verdict on the pitfalls of fame. “I am an icon, and I’m not too sure how you train to become one. You don’t retire, Hollywood retires you. When they’ve no more use for you the roles stop coming in.”