Book of the Week, Blowing the Bloody Doors Off, Ep1

Michael Caine reads his memoir of a life in the movies and shares some lessons for actors.

Hollywood legend and British national treasure Sir Michael Caine, now 85, shares stories from screen and stage alongside some of the lessons and skills that life has taught him.

In episode one he gets some advice from John Wayne and also looks back on his time as an evacuee and later as a soldier on National Service.

Written and read by Michael Caine
Abridged by Jill Waters and Isobel Creed
Produced by Jill Waters 
The Waters Company for BBC Radio 4

Listen to audio at BBC4: BBC Radio 4 – Book of the Week, Blowing the Bloody Doors Off, Episode 1

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Michael Caine: Still willing to blow the bloody doors off

The 85-year-old actor’s opinions may veer as wildly as his six-decade career, but who cares?

I hear Michael Caine before I see him. He’s telling the preceding journalist some ancient anecdote about a Rolls-Royce. The vocal intonations have only marginally altered since he emerged as one of the working-class English stars who defined that nation’s 1960s. Who else would be so identifiable through a half-closed door?

He still looks much the same. In King of Thieves, his latest film, the eyes seem a little watery and the gait is a little stiff, but the real Sir Michael wears his 85 years very well. He apologises for lying half-prone. The ankle he broke in a fall during the Beast from the East is still giving him a bit of gyp. The discomfort does nothing to halt the overpowering rush of anecdote and opinion.

“I can’t sit still,” he says. “When I broke my ankle I wrote a book called Blowing the Bloody Doors Off. It’s not an autobiography. It’s about the professional life. It’s about all of us. Make sure you buy it.”

I wonder if he ever knew any geezers like the ones in King of Thieves. James Marsh’s picture, co-starring old pals Tom Courtenay and Jim Broadbent, concerns the elderly villains who carried out the Hatton Garden burglary in 2015. I’m not suggesting he was raised among villains. But Elephant and Castle, where he was raised, was a pretty rough part of south London.

Michael Caine in King of Thieves.
Michael Caine in King of Thieves.

“Oh, I knew quite a lot of these guys – some of my relations even,” he says, taking no apparent offense. “When I was a young man we were all criminals and Teddy boys and ruffians and scumbags. You have the same thing now. Somebody has to do something about it earlier on in life.”

We’ll dig into Caine’s slightly scattershot politics later. But the phrase “somebody has to do something” can’t be allowed to pass. He went back to the Elephant about 10 years ago, when shooting the underappreciated Harry Brown, and he noticed that black and Asian kids were now enduring the same hardships he went through before the war.

My dad was a Catholic, my mum was a Protestant, I was educated by Jews and I am married to a Muslim. So I never say anything about any religion

Born as Maurice Mickelwhite, the son of a fish-market porter from an Irish Traveller background, Michael did indeed pass his 11-plus and make his way to Hackney Downs School in North London. (Harold Pinter and Steven Berkoff were near contemporaries at that well-regarded institution.) Caine remains impressively connected to his roots and, still sharp as daggers, seems to have perfect recall of his mentors.

“My dad was a Catholic, my mum was a Protestant, I was educated by Jews and I am married to a Muslim. So I never say anything about any religion,” he says.

He tells me he can never remember not wanting to be an actor. He joined an amateur dramatic group as a teenager because he thought it would be a good way to meet girls. For good or ill (he’d say “good”), he was just young enough to encounter conscription and he fought in the Korean War with the Royal Fusiliers.

On his return, while working in a butter factory, an old hand, whose daughter was a semi-professional singer, thrust a copy of the Stage newspaper into his hands and told him to find himself a job in the theatre. Tiring years of repertory theatre eventually led to a big break – playing “posh” oddly – in Cy Endfield’s immortal Zulu.

 British film and theatre was belatedly turning away from the public schools and listening to “regional” accents. Look Back in Anger had rocked the Royal Court. The British New Wave gave the world This Sporting Life and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.

“We all thought that should happen, but there was nothing we could do about it. The writers could do something about it,” he says.

Caine didn’t tally long in the theatre, but he did find some work with Joan Littlewood’s famous radical theatre in Stratford East.

“She fired me because I wasn’t very group-minded,” he says. “I was too starry. ‘You are not a group actor, Michael. You can piss off to Shaftesbury Avenue!’ Those were her last words to me. Yeah, I was too establishment. I wasn’t a communist. I had just spent a year in Korea fighting the communists.”

Emotionally, I am working class and I am a socialist. I have seen what the lower end of life is like and I want those people to get help. I am a left-wing Tory

Let’s get into this. Like more than a few working-class Englishmen who made good, Caine ended up voting for the Tories. He became a tax exile for a while. Would he actually call himself a conservative (with either small or large “c”)?

“No. But I do vote conservative because I want a society with enough money – paid in tax – to help the poorer people,” he says. “Emotionally, I am working class and I am a socialist. I have seen what the lower end of life is like and I want those people to get help. I am a left-wing Tory. I am as far left on conservatism as you can go.”

He goes on to confirm that he is keen that the rich get taxed and – now mostly resident back home – he is happy to pay his share. Yet he did flee the country in the late 1970s after the Labour government raised the top rate to 83 per cent. That was, for him, beyond the reasonable limit.

“I was on the next plane because I said: ‘I am not a communist. I don’t work for the government,’” he says. “In two weeks, because I couldn’t work in England, the production of Educating Rita was moved to Dublin. They’d said: ‘Some loud mouth conceited actor has said he’s going to move. Who gives a shit?’ Well, a hundred and twenty people lost their jobs and £25 million of investment went to Ireland.”

He remains stubbornly bullish about Brexit. We speak as Theresa May fails to nail down a sane strategy and Jeremy Corbyn fails to construct a cohesive resistance. None of this quells Caine’s enthusiasm. He explains that the UK will still want Mercedes and Volkswagen motorcars. Industries leaving the country? Forget it.

“If you put down the tax they’ll be flocking here,” he says. “Have you seen Singapore? It’s one of the richest places in the world.”

The inconsistencies here suggest, on paper, the meanderings of a barroom philosopher. Who was really responsible for Educating Rita fleeing the UK? Doesn’t his argument for low corporate tax go against his declared conservative socialism? But he delivers it with such cheery bonhomie that it’s difficult to get overly exercised. Besides, he’s Michael Caine.

At any rate, nobody could call him a lazy rich bloke. Indeed, as the 1970s moved into the 1980s, he was often accused of working a little too hard. Success with The Ipcress FileGet Carter and Alfie led on to unedifying prospects such as The SwarmThe Island and Jaws: The Revenge.

“Oh blimey, yeah! Oh sure. That will be the funniest part of my new book I promise you,” he says. “I noticed an interesting thing. I’d go flop, flop and, just as I thought I was going in the toilet, I’d have a big hit. That’s how my career worked.” Continue reading