Acting veterans Sir MICHAEL CAINE and JOHN STANDING reunite on stage

‘We never had intimacy coordinators in my day:’ MICHAEL CAINE calls being woke ‘dull’ and says every young man should do national service ‘because it truly makes a man of you’ as he reflects on acting at 90

  • Michael Caine stars in The Great Escaper with John Standing, out on 6 October
  • READ MORE:  BRIAN VINER reviews The Great Escaper

It’s a sunny late-summer afternoon and I’m being entertained by a nonagenarian (Sir Michael Caine, 90) and an octogenarian (John Standing, 89). 

Full disclosure: I’ve been married to the latter for 40 years. I have a ringside seat – ostensibly interviewing them both about The Great Escaper, a new film they are starring in alongside the late Glenda Jackson. 

Our talk, inevitably, meanders back and forth in time. The two share a comfortable shorthand: a shared history of parallel careers forged in different jet streams, yet both belonging to the same industry.

The film is an emotional rollercoaster based on a true story about an ordinary character called Bernard Jordan. 

A Second World War veteran, born in 1924, he left his care home in Hove aged 89 without telling his wife or carers where he was heading. 

Before he was a sir: Michael Caine in 1967. Now aged 90, Caine, who made his name in Zulu in 1964, is our greatest living British actor

Determined to pay his respects at the 70th D-Day commemorations as he’d left it too late for a place on the official Royal British Legion trip, he upped sticks and made his way to Normandy alone.

When he was eventually tracked down, and on returning home, he was astonished to find he’d become a media sensation, nicknamed ‘the Great Escaper’: the British press had rejoiced in his journey. 

He was a hero, lauded for his determination and sense of duty, all of which was slightly bewildering to someone who didn’t even own a mobile phone. 

In the film, Bernie (Michael Caine’s character) meets another Second World War veteran, Arthur, played by my husband, on the ferry. They form a touching friendship.

Michael and Johnnie have worked together in two other films over the years, but otherwise are ships that have passed in the night. 

While Michael became probably our greatest living British movie star, my husband trod the boards and devoted his life to the stage, doing Private Lives with Dame Maggie Smith on Broadway for six months in 1975 and being nominated for an Olivier at the National for his performance in Simon Gray’s Close of Play in 1979.

Together, during the twilight of their careers, they have become firm friends.

Michael and Johnnie were approached with the script just before lockdown. It was inevitably delayed, which gave both of them time to learn and prepare. 

‘The reason I got the part was because 30 years ago the director, Ollie [Oliver] Parker, came and saw me in Noël Coward’s Hay Fever in the West End,’ says Johnnie.

Michael in his 1964 breakout role in Zulu. Michael played a posh officer in the film and credits the role with making his career

‘I can only assume he saw something in my performance that he stored away. Although what it was I have no idea, as I play a drunk in this film [The Great Escaper]. 

‘In Hay Fever I was a solid, middle-class husband. It’s strange how this industry works. Sometimes you get a job based on something you did years ago.’

‘I was sitting at home writing a book,’ says Michael. ‘A thriller. Murder mystery. I was about to be 90 and hadn’t done a movie in three years. I was reconciled to the fact no one was going to offer me a part again.’

‘Oh, so was I,’ agrees Johnnie. ‘I thought that was it. And along came William Ivory’s glorious script featuring three old codgers. God given. The last time Michael and I worked together was in The Eagle Has Landed – when was that?’

‘1976,’ says Michael. ‘Nearly 50 years ago. Mind you, everything seems to be 50 years ago these days.’

‘We did do one other film together, darling,’ remembers Johnnie – ‘X Y & Zee, with Elizabeth Taylor, although I played an incredibly camp hairdresser and didn’t have any scenes with you.’

What was she like to work with, I ask them.

‘Heavenly,’ replies Johnnie.

‘Terrific,’ says Michael.

John Standing at Michael’s house for this interview last month. During the twilight of their careers, the two actors have become firm friends

‘She was on top of it all the time,’ says Johnnie. ‘Despite the fact she used to hurl Bullshot cocktails down her throat every lunchtime. She’d come back on set, and boom! She’d have all cylinders firing.’

‘It’s weird,’ recalls Michael. ‘Acting with Glenda again after nearly 50 years, I had no idea she was poorly [Jackson died in June]. We played husband and wife. I was totally stunned when she died ten days after we had a private preview of the film.

‘She was a total trouper. She didn’t seem ill or anything. We were in The Romantic Englishwoman together [in 1975] and back then we were both young. She was a beautiful young girl.’

Johnnie and Michael did national service. Michael fought in Korea, having served in Iserlohn, West Germany, as part of the postwar army of occupation. 

Johnnie was in England for his first six months. He was commissioned in the 60th Rifles and sent to Münster, also in West Germany, for his final 18 months, to deter the Russians from crossing over. 

Both agree it was the making of them. ‘I think every young man should be made to do it,’ says Michael. ‘It truly makes a man of you.’

‘I agree totally,’ says Johnnie. ‘It was a life-changer.’

Pre-acting for both of you? ‘Cor blimey, yes,’ says Michael. ‘I only became an actor after I left the army. I did rep for nine years then got a movie and was like, F**k this! I love films more. I liked the money and all.’

‘I did the complete reverse,’ says Johnnie. ‘After the army I went to art school as I wanted to be a painter. My parents got worried that I wouldn’t make a living from that career and would end up being a struggling artist. 

‘I fell into acting and was stuck in the theatre mainly because the Standing family had been doing it for generations. I was sort of indoctrinated into thinking the theatre was where it was at. 

Michael and John star as Second World War veterans Bernard and Arthur in The Great Escaper

‘I did my last play five years ago. No more. I can’t remember all that text at my age.’

‘Sod the theatre,’ says Michael. ‘With films you don’t have two hours of dialogue to learn. Two minutes and then cut. I like that.’

‘Me too,’ says Johnnie. ‘The dream.’

Which brings me to the issue of #MeToo: intimacy coordinators; people put in place to ensure performers and other production personnel adhere to safety protocols. What did they think of them?

‘Really?’ says Michael. ‘Seriously? What are they? We never had that in my day. Thank god I’m 90 and don’t play lovers anymore is all I can say. In my day you just did the love scene and got on with it without anyone interfering. It’s all changed.’

Between them, Michael and Johnnie have six children and seven grandchildren who surely inform them about what is deemed politically correct?

‘They do,’ says Johnnie. ‘All the time. And I try my hardest.’

‘So do I,’ agrees Michael. ‘But it’s dull. Not being able to speak your mind and not being able to call anyone “darling”.’

‘I’m endlessly being told I can’t say this or that because it’s inappropriate,’ says Johnnie. ‘And I still call everyone “darling”.

‘Oh yes,’ says Michael.

‘It’s like learning a new language,’ says Johnnie. ‘And we are trying our best.’

‘I try,’ says Michael, ‘but it’s hard. I like to learn from friends who are younger than me.’

Michael and John have worked together in two other films over the years, including The Eagle Has Landed in 1976

‘I love being around young people,’ says Johnnie. ‘The secret to old age is to mix with people much younger than yourself. Which is why I love spending time with my nine-year-old grandson, who makes me watch him play Minecraft for hours – and gets furious when I call it Witchcraft by mistake.’

‘Yes,’ says Michael. ‘Because as you get older, you inevitably think about dying, but as soon as you get grandchildren, your focus shifts. You think about them. You want to go on living because they are so much a part of you, and you want to live for ever to see what they do with their lives. You just want to keep going.’

‘My four grandchildren are everything,’ agrees Johnnie.

I point out that the difference between now and then is that today so many people just want to be famous. The gene pool Michael and Johnnie belonged to when they both began was solely based on talent and was much smaller.

‘You knew everyone in those days,’ reflects Johnnie. ‘It wasn’t about being famous. It was about working. And being good at what you did. And to keep working. Fame was a by-product. Not the aim. That’s what’s changed.’

‘Yeah,’ says Michael. ‘Being famous wasn’t what it was about. It was about the work. That’s all changed in our lifetime.’

‘My big break was Zulu,’ says Michael. ‘They were looking for a cockney corporal and they thought I’d be great, but when I got there for the audition the director said, “Sorry, Michael, it’s been cast.” I was used to being rejected, but it was a long walk to the door, let me tell you.

‘“Can you do posh?,” he asked me on my way out. “Of course I can do posh! I’ve spent nine years in rep, doing every bloody accent under the sun.” So, I got the job playing a posh officer and it made my bloody career. When I started out, I never thought about being in competition with other actors. All I cared about was being as good as I possibly could be.’

Michael and his wife Shakira in 1973. Michael and Shakira share one daughter, Natasha Caine

‘I did too,’ says Johnnie. ‘There was no competition except with oneself.’

‘I never cared,’ says Michael. ‘I always knew there would be other actors better than me and worse than me. I took no notice whatsoever. I just got on with it.’

Getting on with it is something they are both rather good at. Secrets for staying alive?

‘A massive telly,’ laughs Johnnie. ‘We both love watching endless sport.’

‘Oh, yes. Younger wives, no snacking and wear trainers at all times,’ adds Michael. ‘And you have to be careful not to fall down.’

‘I fall down all the time,’ says Johnnie.

‘Me too,’ says Michael.

‘It’s a bugger,’ says Johnnie. ‘Suddenly you are crashed on the pavement.’

‘I know,’ says Michael. ‘Happens all the time.’

‘You have to just get up and carry on.’ says Johnnie.

Long may they both continue to think like that. Old school. God bless them.

  • The Great Escaper will be in cinemas nationwide from 6 October

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