Curator's Choice: An accidental portrait of Michael Caine at the Museum of London

Beverley Cooke interviewed by Ben Miller | 07 March 2013

Curator's Choice: Beverley Cooke chooses an accidental portrait of the film star as a young man from the Museum of London's new show, Michael Caine...

a pair of open hands next to a black and white photo of Michael Caine and Terence Stamp
Michael Caine and Terence Stamp in their 'swinging sixties' London flat© Museum of London
“Our Michael Caine exhibition celebrates the life and career of the actor in this his 80th year.  At the heart of this small exhibition is a display of iconic portraits of Michael by photographers such as David Bailey and Terry O’Neill, alongside three screens showing short clips from his most memorable films.

Perhaps rather surprisingly, however, my favourite image in the exhibition is not one of the iconic images of Michael, but rather an informal snapshot depicting him with his flat mate and fellow actor Terence Stamp.

As a social historian, I always find the story behind an object to be more fascinating than the object itself. And this image, in the ‘life story’ section of the exhibition, has a great anecdote attached.

Taken by the photographer Michael Seymour, it depicts ‘Mike and Terry’ in the flat they shared in Ebury Street in the 1960s.

A photo of a woman standing in a gallery smiling next to a small black and white portrait
© Museum of London
Seymour had actually gone to the flat to photograph Terence who, at the time, was more famous than Caine.

He was, however, intrigued by this blonde fella who was constantly talking on the phone. While waiting for Stamp, he decided to snap away.

An informal close-up shot of Caine, taken at the same time, is also included in the exhibition.  But for me, the one of Caine and Stamp sitting together on their sofa, chatting, smoking and relaxing, perfectly represents the spirit of Swinging London in the 1960s, when the two young actors were at the forefront of a class and cultural revolution.  

These were the days when Stamp, Caine and their fellow cockneys David Bailey and Vidal Sasson were part of a group of working class rebels who stood up to the class system and, in Caine’s own words, declared ‘we are here, this is our society and we are not going away. Join us, stay away, like us, hate us – do as you like. We don’t care about your opinion anymore.’

But life was not just about rebellion and challenging the class system.  It was also about fame, celebrity and having a great time.

As Caine has said, ‘at the beginning of the Sixties I never knew anyone famous; by the end of it everyone I knew was famous, and I hadn’t met any new people’. He said the energy was like ‘a giant express train of talent.’

Looking at the photograph, you can just imagine some of the action that took place in the Ebury Street flat.  As Caine, or ‘Disco Mike’, has said: ‘I wasn’t out every night with a different bird. I was kind of steady but prolific.’

On the sofa between Caine and Stamp you can see a set of contact sheets. These are from a photo shoot taken by Seymour of the actress Julie Christie, who at the time, of course, was the girlfriend of Stamp, largely thanks to Caine, who introduced them having previously met her in the BBC canteen.

Both on and off screen Caine appeared to epitomise the working class rebel, but he has always distanced himself from the tough, menacing and womanising characters he portrayed in his early career.

Despite appearances, Caine insists he was certainly no Alfie.

‘I’m a Cockney; Alfie’s a Cockney. I like girls; he liked girls,’ he has said.

‘But the way Alfie treated them is the complete opposite of the way I would treat a woman.’”

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