“My Nime is Michael Touchy”

Ten years later, I think I have at last solved a small mystery. It concerns the actor Sir Michael Caine, whom I met in 2006 during the evening of the UK premiere of the film based on my novel, The Prestige. Never having had a film made of something I had written, not to mention never having been to a star-studded party at a film premiere, for me the whole evening was weird and weirdly memorable.

To recap (I have described this elsewhere): during the party, a stand-up affair in an uncrowded room, I saw Caine standing to one side and thought I should introduce myself. I thought Caine had done well in an underwritten supporting role in the film, bringing a kind of intelligent conviction to the scenes he was in. When I told him my name, it obviously meant nothing to him. I told him I had written the novel on which the film was based. The atmosphere suddenly cooled. He raised himself up, looked down his nose at me (he is surprisingly tall), and said, “I never talk to writers.” He immediately turned away and stalked off.

In all truth I think I was more amused than offended by this, although it was probably the one incident I remembered afterwards with complete clarity. I assumed that during his long career Michael Caine must have had many aggravating brushes with writers, some of whom are well capable of acting like arrogant shits. Even so, the mood at this party was low key and friendly, and one would think, wouldn’t one?, that in the cause of general harmony such past experiences can be temporarily set aside in the cause of good manners. Well, apparently not.

Fowles Journals vol 2I have been recently re-reading the published Journals of John Fowles. In the second volume Fowles describes meeting Caine at the end of 1966 for the filming of The Magus. Both were then youngish middle-aged men, both had become suddenly famous and successful – Fowles was 45 (two best-selling novels, a film of The Collector already made), Caine 33 (starring roles in several films, including Zulu and the Len Deighton adaptations, and an Oscar nomination for Alfie). They met again and worked together the following year while The Magus was being filmed in Majorca. We shall probably never know what Caine thought of Fowles, but through Fowles’s unrestrained and often contentious journals we have the other side.

After their first meeting he describes “Mike” Caine as ‘a thoroughly unlikeable young man’ and ‘good at poker faced banter … but he’s got to give more than that.’ Although he later compliments Caine on his ‘exemplary behaviour between takes’, when he sees the first cut of the film he describes Caine’s performance as ‘excruciatingly bad, totally incredible as an English graduate’, and that ‘his failure pervades the whole picture, the one part we couldn’t afford to go wrong.’ (Later that day, Fowles reports that a large part of the cliff on which his house was standing has slipped into the sea. Maybe this informed his mood?)

I read all this when the Fowles diaries were first published, but because the comments appeared in a long book filled with similarly disparaging remarks about dozens of people (including, as it happens, me) I didn’t take much notice. However, reading it again last month I suddenly made the connection – Volume 2 of the Fowles Journals was published in 2006, just a few weeks before the film of The Prestige was released in the UK. Michael Caine had clearly come across these remarks: someone must have tipped him off, or he had found himself named in the book’s index, while browsing in a bookstore. Suddenly, it all made sense to me, and for a few moments I even felt forgiving of him.

The Journals, Volume 2, John Fowles. Jonathan Cape, 2006, 463 pp, ISBN 978-022-406912-0