Michael Caine Leads Us Through His Swinging London Of The 1960s

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 14 months ago

Last Updated 14 March 2023

Michael Caine Leads Us Through His Swinging London Of The 1960s

Londonist talks to legendary cockney Michael Caine about London in the swinging 60s, his love for skyscrapers, and his lesser love for pie and mash.  

Michael Caine surveys London from the top of the 1960s BT Tower, which grew at the same time as the actor's career

"I watched my city being flattened"

"The great thing is now, all I can see is cranes, it's so fabulous. It makes my day every time I look at it."

Michael Caine is surveying the great glass skyline of London from his flat in Chelsea. He's broken his ankle — having slipped on some ice in his garden — and is currently holed up at home. But he's upbeat, eager to talk about the swinging London of the 1960s, which is the subject of a new film narrated by Caine, My Generation.  

"From the age of six till 12, I watched my city being flattened. I was bombed out myself," says Caine, who grew up in a prefabricated house in Elephant and Castle.

"I had a bicycle, and I'd go around looking at all the bombed debris of the city. Through the 50s, they were still clearing debris from the war, and nothing was being built."

"And now I'm watching it being built back up, and it's so lovely."

It's interesting perhaps, for someone now in their mid-80s to be in love with the likes of the Shard and Scalpel. But then the actor has seen — indeed instigated — plenty of change in his time. In My Generation, he talks to icons of the era — Twiggy, Marianne Faithfull, Paul McCartney, David Bailey — many of who were instrumental in bucking the trend of the older, established, upper-class stick-in-the-muds of the day.

After this youthful lot had had a go, London — and the world — were never the same again.

"Do I eat pie and mash? Oh my god, no — I'm a big foodie"

But the changes in the 1960s didn't happen overnight. For Caine personally, it was his first West End play — Next Time I'll Sing to You — which led to the spark that ignited his film career. "I was playing a Cockney and from that I got Zulu.

"The director was an American, so he didn't care about class," laughs Caine.

While Caine made a name for himself with classics like Alfie, Get Carter and The Italian Job, bands like The Beatles, the Stones and the Kinks were making waves with music that was sneered at by people, such as one egregiously-moustached doom monger who features in My Generation. Among Caine's hangouts of the day, were Tramp, a nightclub owned by close friend Johnny Gold, and the Ad-Lib Club off Leicester Square, where it's rumoured the Beatles first tripped on LSD.

"The bands all came along once," Caine says. So does he still bomb around in his motor, blasting out the theme tune from Get Carter? "No, I don't anymore," he laughs, "I've quietened down a bit. I'm 85 next week."

Perhaps even more than music though, Caine loves his cuisine. Indeed, he equates the genesis of the swinging 60s, with a shift in London's eating habits.

"The places we had to eat were Lyons Corner House," he tells us, "It wasn't very interesting. And we had fish and chip shops, and eel and pie shops.

"You had English restaurants, but they didn't serve very good food. But what they did do, is you had to have a suit and a tie, or you couldn't come in. Which kept most working class guys out. It was a bit snotty and very expensive."

It was the rise of Italian culture and cuisine that really shook things up, says Caine.

"They opened the The 2i's Coffee Bar in Old Compton Street. The basement was full of people auditioning. I saw lots of well-known people down there... well-known now, but unknown then.

"The Italians came along with fabulous cheap food, and they'd stay open until one o' clock in the morning, until everybody had gone, and they couldn't make any more money!

"London has improved for food beyond all recognition now. If you want the best Japanese food in the world, you can get it. The best Chinese, the best Indian. You can get the best anything."

These days, Caine frequents London's brasseries, like Scott's in Mayfair. But, come on, doesn't he ever pine for a cheeky portion of that cockney staple — pie and mash? "Oh my god, no. I'm a big foodie."

Sorry, F. Cooke.

"I met Charlie Chaplin walking around the Elephant and Castle"

Caine may be up on his swanky London joints, but does he ever go back to his roots? Is he aware, for example, of the swingeing changes going on at his former digs, Elephant and Castle?

"I'm completely aware of it," says Caine. "I did an American TV show last year, and they said 'you come from this place called Elephant and Castle — take it to us and show us.' So I took them there, and of course I didn't recognise it! I said 'this is the Elephant and Castle pub', and I pointed to it, and it was a skyscraper!" Then I said 'these are the flats where I made Harry Brown', and now it's a place called Elephant Park.

"It's all gone."

Speaking of the Elephant reminds Caine of a chance encounter with another great film star who hailed from south London, Charlie Chaplin: "Years ago, I was wandering around looking at the buildings, and I met Charlie Chaplin walking around there. He was looking at the old South London Theatre.

Caine in his famous NHS spectacles days, as photographed by Duffy

"I was already famous, but he didnt know who I was — I was just an annoying fan talking to him, I should think, but he was very kind to me. I told him my mother was taken there for her honeymoon — and there's an eel and pie shop opposite — and I said, that's where she had dinner'.

"Chaplin had been starring in a show at the same theatre, with Stan Laurel. 'He said 'you know what Stan and I did when we finished that show? We got on a boat and we went to America.'

"I just stood there open mouthed, trying to look like I wasn't astonished."

We tell Caine about the Cinema Museum in that neck of the woods — once a workhouse, inhabited by Charlie Chaplin, his brother and mother. "Really?!" says Caine, "I'll go there tomorrow. Well, I can't go there tomorrow, I've got a broken ankle. But when my leg's alright, I'll go."

Who does the best Michael Caine impression?

When you're speaking on the phone to Michael Caine, there's always going to be that niggling thought: is this really Michael Caine, or is it just someone doing a really good Michael Caine impression? Maybe we've been talking to Steve Coogan or Rob Brydon all along.

Although Caine performed a special skit with that same comedic pair at the Royal Albert Hall in 2014, neither of theirs is his all-time favourite impression of himself: "I was watching a late night show in America," he says, "and there were some actors doing impressions of other actors. And Tom Hanks did me.

"He was the best one I've ever heard."

Speaking of which: we cheekily ask Caine to leave a birthday message for our mate. He graciously does so, throwing in an unprompted "and remember to blow the bloody doors off!".

We wonder how many times Caine has rattled off this line, since first doing so in 1969's Italian Job. Here is a man who not only recognised what he did for the 1960s, but what the 1960s did for him. And at 85 years young, he's still all too willing to pay his dues.  

Images © Raymi Hero Productions 2017, photo by Jeff Spicer, unless otherwise stated. My Generation is in cinemas now.