Sir Michael Caine told me a story encapsulating the fizz of possibility that permeated the Swinging Sixties. It involved his friend, film composer John Barry, who put Caine up in his Soho flat for six weeks when the actor found himself between leases. “One night,” he recalled, “I was trying to sleep upstairs and he was on the piano, composing, all night. I came down the next morning and he was sitting there, absolutely exhausted. He said, ‘I’ve got this tune – what do you think of it?’ And he played me Goldfinger. I said, ‘It’s fantastic!’ I was the first person ever to hear it.”
Such was the decade that changed everything, and that ten-year period is now vividly captured in new documentary My Generation, named after The Who’s anthem and anchored by Sir Michael. It altered the trajectory of the 20th century through people power, social liberation and a certain amount of body-painting.
To take a random few months, in the first half of 1968 photojournalist Eddie Adams created a defining image of the Vietnam conflict by capturing the execution of a Viet Cong officer in a Saigon street; the Czechoslovakian Communist Party moved to throw off the yoke of Soviet oppression during what became known as the Prague Spring; Conservative MP Enoch Powell made his inflammatory “Rivers of Blood” speech on immigration in Birmingham; and I went to the cinema for the first time, to see Walt Disney’s The Jungle Book.
As I sat transfixed by Baloo the bear in the dark of the Northampton Odeon, I had no idea of the societal turbulence outside. Had I been a few years older, I might have found myself inspired by countercultural movies like Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate and Midnight Cowboy, which turned the old myths into a new wave, heroes into antiheroes, deference into defiance.
While the film industry went into battle with television, its more inventive practitioners looked beyond America’s shores to, say, the student riots in Paris, for inspiration. Civil rights activists raged until legislation was passed, and newly enlightened message dramas like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and Cool Hand Luke (with its refrain of “a failure to communicate”) gave audiences something to think about.
In My Generation, Michael Caine, born just before the war – he’s 85 this week – remembers growing up in London: “Me and my mates used to hear our parents talking about the good old days. We asked ourselves, what was so good about them? For the first time in history, the young working class – people like me – stood up for ourselves and said, ‘We are here, this is our society, and we are not going away.’” This segment is intercut with the iconic roles he played in the 60s: limo-lothario Alfie and spy-about-town Harry Palmer, the slimline version of himself, waking up in immaculately pressed pale blue pyjamas and strolling confidently out into the world in a grey Savile Row suit with black tie neatly clipped to his shirt. (As photographer Terence Donovan remarks in an archive clip, “It’s like wrapping up soap. If it’s nicely wrapped, you look; if it’s not, you don’t bother.”)
Fashion, photography, design and pop music play leading roles in My Generation in a script from Porridge/Likely Lads writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, but curiously, not films, despite the revolution on the big screen being just as seismic. Cinema is represented by a few glimpses of The Girl on a Motorcycle and Zulu. For an account fixated on Swinging London – Waterloo Sunset, Kensington boutique Biba, headlines from the Evening News (“London well on route to decadence, says Billy Graham”) – it ignores the booming British film industry, which in those days pretty much began and ended on Wardour Street in London’s Soho.
Alfie, the documentary declines to tell us, was nominated for five Oscars and won the jury prize at Cannes. In 1963, London-based production company Eon launched the James Bond franchise with Dr No and a $60 million worldwide gross. The series empowered British directors… Terence Young, Guy Hamilton and Alfie’s Lewis Gilbert, who died last month aged 97. Along with its spies, the UK exported kitchen-sink drama, Hammer horror, David Lean, Peter Sellers and Beatles films (A Hard Day’s Night and Help! made $24 million between them).
Hollywood had Paul Newman, we had Albert Finney. The US and UK combined to produce 2001: a Space Odyssey – American master practitioner Stanley Kubrick working with British intelligence (Arthur C Clarke and the technical pioneers at Shepperton and Borehamwood). At last, a unified way to end the decade. Where bloated Hollywood “roadshow pictures” failed with mass audiences, cheap spaghetti westerns made a few dollars more. Young cineastes checked out films imported from Sweden or Japan.
As early as 1961, social-realist director Fred Zinnemann complained of Hollywood’s inertia: “We have moved into a self-imposed trap with our dependence on bestsellers, hit plays, remakes and rehashes.” The end of that era finally came in 1968, when Doctor Dolittle did little at the box office, making $9 million of its $17 million budget back. And in the 70s, the movie brats took over, leading to a second Golden Age.
The irony is that Michael Caine’s blessed 60s generation is now rhapsodising about its own “good old days” in the manner of its Blitz-surviving parents. They may have blown the bloody doors off, but the industry is still rolling.
My Generation is in cinemas on 14 March for a one-night special that includes a live Q&A with Michael Caine