Michael Caine and the British Caste System

Michael Caine was the first Cockney ever to play the male lead in a mainstream film.  He kicked the door in. 

"Cockney" means working-class from the East End of London, so I'd better say, not that he was the first proletarian leading man in Britain—other actors had changed their style of speech to accomplish that—but that he was the first to do it with his own accent. 

"I'm every bourgeois nightmarea Cockney with intelligence and a million dollars." 

Before him the lower-class Englishman was a clown, a George Formby ("I'm leaning on a lamp-post at the corner of the street, In case a certain lih-o lady comes by...")
a Lonnie Donegan ("Oh, my old man's a dustman, He wears a dustman's 'at, 'E wears cor blimey trousers And he lives in a council flat..."), a Stanley Holloway, the Cockney of choice for Alfred Doolittle in My Fair Lady
and for Hamlet’s gravedigger, who, as in Shakespeare’s time, was a clown.  Until Caine there was no other way to represent the British—well, with respect to Doolittle let’s not say working classbut the people, the many, the proles.

Yes, there had been Albert Finney in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (I still remember the gasp from the audience when he said “bastards”)

Tom Courtenay in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner
and Richard Harris doing his Brando imitation in This Sporting Life
but these were what today would be called art-house films, examples of British Miserablism, not in the James-Bond league at all; and the protagonists emerge from clownhood only briefly, soon to re-immerse.

Caine himself broke in as an upper-class officer in Zulu in 1964

but in The Ipcress File the next year, and in subsequent “Harry Palmer” movies, he was the insolent Cockney connoisseur of classical music who annoys his snooty boss by shopping in the same gourmet store.  This was the kind of character I could relate to even as a kid—someone who knew how to live!  I’m still writing books about that guy.

I wasn’t aware of this at the time, of course, but in the British imagination it was a revolution. 

"The first actor I ever saw was The Lone Ranger.  I thought, That's what I want to do." 

What they have there is a caste system, because it’s more rigid than just class. In America (in the larger sense of that term; I’m Canadian) class is fluid. My father came from Highland clearance people (slaughter, prison ships, the whole nightmare—see My Racial Profile), who were dumped in Cape Breton, where they still speak Gaelic; peasants, but rich peasants; land-owners, but Catholics, with big families, ten kids to a generation dividing up the heritage.  My great-grandfather worked wrought-iron as a hobby, and presented gates and grill work to his friends as gifts; my grandfather took it up out of necessity, and became a blacksmith; he taught my father, who was a hard-hat diver welding hulls in Halifax harbor; when he got to Toronto he found work as a mechanic in an abattoir.  I, of course, am above money; like Toby in my novels I stay south of the Alps, where I can function at leisure, and not too often.  You’re up, you’re down, you’re up again.  But it ain’t that way in Merrie Olde England, kids.

"I wouldn't make an anti-American film.  I'm one of the most pro-American foreigners I know.  I love America and Americans." 

The British system has everything in common with Hindu caste.  It cannot be married across.  In Bombay newspapers (they say "Bombay" there, not "Mumbai"; that’s for politically correct Westerners) you'll see ads for marriage partners saying "Caste no object."  That doesn’t mean a Brahmin can marry a non-Brahmin.  A friend of mine in Goa who sold tee-shirts went to Madras to hire someone to dye them; the guy said, "I'll do the mixture for you but I can’t stir the pot; that’s against my caste.  My partner here can do the stirring; you can hire us both for one salary."  That’s what they mean by "Caste no object."
"Things are not quite what they seem always.  Don't start me on class, otherwise you'll get a four-hour lecture." 

And yes, the British and the Indians understood each other.  I spent eight months in India, long enough almost to say I lived there, and it seems to me that the British broke India’s heart when, rather than bleeding down into the hierarchy like other conquerors, they simply peeled themselves off the top and left.  They snubbed India.  So like them.

You can’t marry across British caste either. Only in movies. Class differences can "spice" a marriage, Evelyn Waugh said, but just to a "Caste no object" degree.  The traditional exceptions are heiresses
—and footmen.
(For more on footmen see The Marquis de Sade, Father of Modern France.)

Try having a drink in a London pub after eleven: you’ll be out on your cleavage before the hour chimes.  These people have to be in bed so they can get to the factory in the morning, and that’s the law.  If you want to keep drinking you have to go to a "club" and mix with another sort. Members only. 

William Burroughs said, "We should be grateful to those Valley Forge boys for getting us out from under all that," implying that the American Revolution was about class.  And that’s the way their allies in the French navy saw it: they went back to France feeling that what the Americans had done, they could do—and a few years later they did. 

"In England I was a Cockney actor.  In America, I was an actor." 

It's a charming accent, much in style in the eighties and nineties with kids from other backgrounds.  During World War II a Canadian airman was shot down over the Channel, woke in a ward full of wounded guys, passed outand came to in a room by himself, which he found ominous; when the nurse came in he said, "Level with me, was I brought in here to die?"  "Naaa-oh," she said, waving the thought away, "yew was brought in 'ere yestadie!"

It cannot escape notice that lower- and lower-middle-class British people ally themselves with, think of themselves as, think as, Americans. What’s the alternative?  The revolution is just catching up with them.  Cromwell’s was reabsorbed, and was never very tasty anyway (see Greece versus the Puritans).
The already rigid Norman hierarchy ("we have the man Shakespeare with us") was stiffened by something that happened around that time. The art historian Kenneth Clark (sorry, Lord Clark) calls it "the odious pomposity" that grew up in Europe, typified by the court of Louis XIV, but in style everywhere.  By early in the last century working men on a manor were not even allowed to be seen—rather like Hindu Invisibles.  "Bri-tons never never never shall be slaves!"  Serfs, yes. 

"Alfie was the first time I was above the title; the first time I became a star in America." 

 "Class is race," Nietszche tells us, and at the bottom of the British ladder you find Celts, people with names like Lennon and McCartney.  In the middle you find Anglo-Saxons with names like Jagger and Richards.  Notice how these men all made their fortunes affecting American accents.  (Mick shouting to the rioters at Altamont, "Y'all cool out, now!"  Huh?)  At least they think they’re Anglo-Saxons: now that doctors are looking at everyone’s genes they’re finding that most people who thought they were "English" are in fact Celts.

And on top are the Normans, from Norway via France.  These days Norwegians are the butts of Scandinavian jokes (they can hardly tell blonde jokes, can they?), but in Gore Vidal’s phrase the Normans are still on their "high Norwegian horse." 

That’s habit for you—and barbarism, too. To bow to someone wearing white fur and purple, to bow to someone wearing anything is barbaric.  The Brits would have abolished it long ago if the Disneyland effect didn’t pull in so much of their GNP.  The Revolution has not—not really—caught up.
So you can see why Maurice Micklewhite’s accent was so important to British, and even to American life.  Sir Michael—for he has not rejected the honors due his achievement (would you?)—is the son of an Irish fish market worker, and he too gradually became American, though, superb actor that he is, he can do any accent.  One of my favorite Caine portrayals is his Stalin in World War II: When Lions Roared.  Even in his late seventies he’s one of the very few great stars.

"My career is going better now than when I was younger.  It used to be that I'd get the girl but not the part.  Now I get the part but not the girl." 

I’d like to have him for one of my own movies, and broached the subject with some associates.  "Why does he get so much?" said one.  "Because," said another, "he's Michael Caine."


  1. "Cockney" does not mean "working-class from the East End of London", "Cockney" means any person that was born within the sound of the "Bow Bells", referring to the bells of Saint Mary-le-Bow Church (http://www.stmarylebow.co.uk/).

  2. "Cockney" does not mean "working-class from the East End of London", "Cockney" means any person that was born within the sound of the "Bow Bells", referring to the bells of Saint Mary-le-Bow Church (http://www.stmarylebow.co.uk/).

  3. Very good article.

  4. Thanks, Thomas. Glad to have you read it. You force me to fall back on the Wikipedia:

    The region in which "Cockneys" are thought to reside is not clearly defined. A common view is that in order to be a Cockney, one must have been born within earshot of the Bow Bells.[13] However, the church of St Mary-le-Bow was destroyed in 1666 by the Great Fire of London and rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren. After the bells were destroyed again in 1941 in The Blitz of World War II, and before they were replaced in 1961, there was a period when by this definition no 'Bow-bell' Cockneys could be born.[14] The use of such a literal definition produces other problems, since the area around the church is no longer residential and the noise of the area makes it unlikely that many people would be born within earshot of the bells anymore,[15] although Guy's Hospital and St Thomas' hospital are both within the defined area covered by the sound of the Bow Bells, suggesting a reasonable number of South London Cockneys continue to be born within the sound of the bells. The closest maternity unit was the East London Maternity Hospital in Stepney which was 2.5 miles from St Mary-le-Bow and was in use from 1884 to 1968.

    A study was carried out by the city in 2000 to see how far the Bow Bells could be heard,[citation needed] and it was estimated that the bells would have been heard six miles to the east, five miles to the north, three miles to the south, and four miles to the west. According to the legend of Dick Whittington the bells could once be heard from as far away as Highgate.[16] The association with Cockney and the East End in the public imagination may be due to many people assuming that Bow Bells are to be found in the district of Bow, rather than the lesser known St Mary-le-Bow church. Thus while all East Enders are Cockneys, not all Cockneys are East Enders.

  5. Point: Robert!

  6. No doubt, Michael Caine is Michael Caine. Nice overview of the caste backdrop from which he emerged, too.

  7. I enjoyed the article.

    In England the caste system doesn't really exist anymore. The people who think the caste system exists are those that believe in it and want it to stay and those that don't believe in it but want it stay so they can complain about it. :)

    Oh and almost everyone is a Cockney now. Either real or fake (Mockney).

  8. Thanks, George. Always good to hear from you. And thanks Anonymous (whoever you are).

  9. Great article Robert. I lived most of my youth in the East End of London and both my parents are true cockneys. One interesting point on Michael Caine, you said that he can do any accent. One that he is unable to pull off is an upper classes English accent. Strange eh?

  10. Robert, I've never seen Zulu. Have you? He plays an upper-class character in that, and I can't report on how he sounded.

  11. Bob, Well done! Thoroughly enjoyed this piece.
    Keep it coming.

    1. Thank you, Pravesh. Are you still looking for ways we can shoot Shipment from India?

  12. Bob, I met Caine when he had a restaurant/nightclub on Lincoln Road in SoBe years ago. Very friendly and charismatic and deserves all of the success he can get. As for his upper class accent in Zulu, I think he pulled it off rather well. See for yourself: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DyzbiB11kqo

    BTW, you can watch the whole movie on YouTube. What a wonderful world.

  13. Yes, I've just watched it. He's very good. Wasn't that club of his called Langan's? Is it defunct?