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.
“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.
“Obviously you have to arrest people if they murder people or hurt someone,” he says. “But what you have to do to stop it is really change society. We changed it in the sixties. But it’s gone back again. It’s to do with neglect of the people there. Education matters. I was heading that way, but I went to grammar school. That’s a dirty word now.”
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 File, Get Carter and Alfie led on to unedifying prospects such as The Swarm, The 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.”
The fact that he knew poverty as a child and slow years as a young actor also drove him to take every job offered.
"I would make a film because I thought I'd never make another," he says. "I would make some money and get a house for my mum. That's why I made Jaws: The Revenge. They paid me $1 million for two week's work."
Oh, that reminds me of one quote often attributed to him. It's said that he never saw Jaws: The Revenge, but…
“Yeah, yeah. I did say that,” he interrupts. “‘…but I’ve seen the house it built for my mum and it’s fantastic.’ And I got all the blame for that film. I only worked on it for two weeks. What about all the people who were stars of the film that we never heard of again? Ha ha!’”
It was while he was shooting Jaws: The Revenge that he won the best supporting actor Oscar for Woody Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters. That felt like validation. As a young fellow in South London, he never imagined such a thing could happen. And he continued to prosper. Despite the slagging he received for appearing in sub-standard movies, Michael Caine survived the 1960s, the 1970s and the decades that followed more confidently than most of his contemporaries. He didn't get drunk on chat-shows. He has remained married to Lady Shakira (as she now is) for some 45 years. Every now and then he had a critical hit such as Little Voice or Last Orders. In recent years, he has become an essential talisman for Christopher Nolan, appearing in every one of that director's films since Batman Begins in 2005. He is still cool.
“When I was 62 or 63 I got a script and I sent it back saying: ‘The part is too small. I don’t want to do it,’” he says. “And my agent said: ‘I didn’t want you to play the lover. I wanted you to play the father.’ I thought: bloody hell. If you are going to be a star you have to get the girls and all that.”
He chuckles as he speaks merrily about facing up to not getting the girl anymore. “I occasionally get an old lady,” he says.
Speaking to Michael Caine is an odd experience. The persona is so complete and so much a part of the culture that it feels like talking to Sherlock Holmes or James Bond. Despite his lack of pretention, he seems just a little unreal. To be fair, I’m not sure he himself believes what’s happened over the last half century.
“Do I believe in God?” he says. “If you’d had my life you’d have to. There’s no other way this could have happened.”
Six decades of Michael Caine
The Ipcress File (1960s)
Obviously, we're spoilt for choice here. Zulu is not really his film. Alfie is a little dated. But The Ipcress File still spills over with paranoid cool.
Get Carter (1970s)
Only a modest hit on release, Mike Hodges's hard-boiled revenge drama is now seen as the best British gangster flick of its era.
Hannah and Her Sisters (1980s)
Caine was getting a reputation for iffy films. Then, in 1986, he excelled in Mona Lisa and won an Oscar for playing an adulterous cad in a Woody Allen classic.
The Muppet Christmas Carol (1990s)
No damning with faint praise here. He may have won another Oscar for The Cider House Rules in this decade, but this is the best Muppet film and among the best Christmas Carol adaptations.
The Dark Knight (2000s)
Also check out his leading role in the impressive Harry Brown. The best of the Christopher Nolan Batman films allowed Caine to rumble as Albert the butler.
Paolo Sorrentino's drama of age and regret is flawed, but the interplay between Caine and Harvey Keitel is utterly delightful.
King of Thieves opens on September 14th