Earl Cameron still knows how to make an entrance and hold an audience.
Just days before his 100th birthday, the Bermudian film, TV and stage legend was guest of honour at the unveiling of a commemorative plaque in Coventry celebrating pioneering African-American actor, theatrical manager and anti-slavery advocate Ira Aldridge, who found refuge from the racism of his native country in that British city.
As he arrived at the event on the eve of his centenary, Cameron was greeted enthusiastically by the dignitaries and spectators on hand, a man whose quiet but forceful demeanour still continues to touch lives and command respect whether through his work or in person.
There was a certain happy symmetry at play as the still-vigorous Cameron and Coventry Lord Mayor Tony Skipper presided at the ceremony, held on the 150th anniversary of Aldridge’s death.
Like Aldridge in the 19th century, Cameron is an immigrant to Britain who found artistic fulfilment, success and personal contentment in his adopted country.
Also like Aldridge, he is a groundbreaking black actor whose performances and sterling personal example helped to demolish racial stereotypes.
And, in one of those curious flukes of history, he may be one of the few people still living who actually has a once-removed connection to Ira Aldridge, being trained near the outset of his career by his daughter, Amanda, a renowned British elocutionist and voice coach (other students included Paul Robeson who prepared with her before making his Shakespearean debut in a celebrated London production of Othello).
If Earl Cameron’s long life was a film, it would open in the darkened auditorium of a small Hamilton cinema with a close shot of a young boy.
He is watching, spellbound, as a preposterous procession of flickering black-and-white images march across a movie screen.
The year is 1922. The scene the old Aeolian Hall on Angle Street. And the film, a one or two-reel Hoot Gibson Western, has cast a hypnotic spell on a young Earl Cameron.
Cameron was just five that year and the motion picture industry, which already held him firmly in its thrall, wasn’t much older.
The storytelling techniques and pantomime acting of the silent films which captivated Cameron from the moment he first glimpsed the play of light and shadow washing across a screen seem impossibly crude by today’s standards.
But despite its obvious technical and aesthetic shortcomings, the new medium of motion pictures, with its idealised characters, faraway settings and unyielding moral codes, proved instantly addictive.
Cameron, like so many youngsters of his generation, gave himself over wholly to the movie-going habit. At the time, theatres such as Bermuda’s Aeolian Hall were among the most mysterious and exciting places on the whole island for children. When Cameron left his house on nearby Princess Street, entered the Aeolian’s doors and planted himself in one of its cracked-leather seats, the magic lamp of the projector immediately whisked him far away from tiny Bermuda to the Wild West. Or the South Seas. Or the North-West Frontier (or at least the studio backlot approximations of those exotic locations). And he was also transported from his own woes.
The youngest of six children, Cameron’s stonemason father had died suddenly in 1922. His mother took a succession of jobs in Bermuda’s hotels to keep the family together. It was a hardscrabble life, one made even more onerous by what he has called the “rigid form of racial discrimination”, which existed on the island at the time. “The schools, cinemas, hotels and even churches practised this evil way of life, which was contrary to the ways of the God I had always believed in,” he has said. Perhaps it was natural that he would seek both escapism and the illusion of justice and happy endings at the movies, since he now knew fair play was far from guaranteed in real life.
As an adult, of course, it was a yearning for fair play, fair-mindedness and balance that informed both Cameron’s decision to embrace the Bahá’í faith as well as many of his choices in film roles once he took his place in the ranks of the screen performers he had so idolised as a child.
And perhaps the movies were also responsible for instilling a sense of wanderlust in Cameron. For while still a teenager he joined the British merchant marine, travelling to North and South America and Europe in search of adventure — and meaning — before finding himself stranded in England on the eve of the outbreak of the Second World War. He drifted into stage work during the war, more out of necessity than any burning artistic ambition.
As he has said, there were simply very few avenues open to young black men in Britain at the time other than menial jobs. Making his professional theatrical debut as a bit player in a 1942 West End musical comedy, Earl Cameron immediately found acting to be more rewarding — both financially and personally — than washing dishes in a London restaurant.
Shedding his natural shyness like a snake’s winter skin when he was on stage, he quickly demonstrated a remarkable versatility and range, appearing in everything from madcap comedy revues to melodramas. He threw himself into the uncertainties and randomness of a working actor’s touring life with various British repertory companies. Barnstorming venues throughout Britain and as far away as India, the non-stop changes in roles and plays and theatrical styles allowed him to refine his raw talents and make a living without, as he wryly remarked, ever once having to resort to charity or theft.
And by the early 1950s, Cameron had become a fixture on the British stage, considered not just a good black actor, but a reliably good actor.
And then the movies came calling.
The movies had grown up along with Cameron. More sophisticated, more accomplished and far more reflective of the complex natures of the societies in which they were produced, by the 1950s cinema had evolved from a novelty to a dominant global industry and even, at times, an art form.
But morality tales, albeit of a more nuanced kind than the quaint Westerns that had so captivated him as a child, were still a part of the cinema’s stock in trade. Racial prejudice was an issue depicted, and challenged, in many of the British films that Cameron was cast in, particularly early on in his screen career. A wave of West Indian immigration to Britain in the immediate postwar era had brought the vexed question of race relations to the forefront of British life. And while the country was struggling to come to terms with some of its uglier new cultural realities, more socially conscious members of the British film industry sought to address the matter in a series of pioneering dramas underscoring the corrosive and corrupting effects of casual and institutional racism.
No less an authority than the British Film Institute has said from the moment he first appeared on screen, as a young Jamaican sailor in Ealing Studios’ ground-breaking Pool of London in 1951, “Earl Cameron brought a breath of fresh air to the British film industry’s stuffy depictions of race relations”.
In other racially themed films such as Simba (1955), the award-winning Sapphire (1959) and Flame In The Streets (1961), Cameron invested his characters with a grace, intelligence and moral authority which often far surpassed those social dramas’ well-intentioned but sometimes clumsily executed progressive agendas.
And his film characterisations were always recognisably human, somewhat larger than life, perhaps, but vulnerable and sometimes fallible as well as being resourceful, sensitive and dignified.
Cameron portrayed individuals, not stock stereotypes — particularly not the supposedly positive black stereotypes — noble, self-sacrificing, usually dispensable, which unimaginative American film-makers have fallen back upon from the late 1950s up to the present day.
In many ways Bermuda’s Earl Cameron, who still describes himself as “a back-of-town boy — very much so — that’s my background and I’m very happy and proud of it”, was the British film industry’s counterpart to Sidney Poitier.
As has been said of his Bahamian-born opposite number in American cinema throughout much the same period, Cameron brought “three-dimensional characters to people who may have never met a black person, much less enjoyed their company for a few hours. He played characters that people wanted to know better”.
And, as was also the case with Poitier, ultimately it was Cameron’s integrity as much as his subtle but compelling presence that captured the public’s imagination, and their sympathies.
Reflecting on his 75-year-career recently, Cameron said he was proud of “playing a small part” in breaking down racial barriers.
“Racism is deeply retained in the psyche of most human beings,” he said “It’s a sickness in the world. Not just among white people but among human beings. We need to come together as one race of people and forget the colour of our skin and shape of our eyes.”
Aside from his work in more socially conscious films, Cameron has, of course, appeared in lighter movie and television fare over the years. Credits include the James Bond blockbuster Thunderball (1965) in which he played Pinder, head of the British Secret Service Bahamas station, alongside Sean Connery’s 007 as well as roles on such popular British TV shows as Danger Man, The Prisoner and Doctor Who.
Seemingly on a near-certain path to Hollywood stardom after his success in the British film industry, Cameron abruptly retired from acting in 1974. He relocated from Britain to the Solomon Islands to concentrate on business ventures, family life and his Bahá’í faith.
For him, acting had always been a means to an end — personal and spiritual fulfilment — rather than an end in itself, and he still has no regrets about walking away from what would likely have been a busy, and lucrative, Hollywood career.
“Having found my faith, that was more important for me, rather than worrying about Hollywood,” he said. “Hollywood is very decadent place.
“There’s drugs and sex and alcohol. I didn’t need that kind of life.”
Cameron spent 15 years away from the film industry before returning to Britain — and acting — after the death of first wife, Audrey, in 1989. Recent credits include the Oscar-winning The Queen in which he appeared alongside Helen Mirren and the Leonardo DiCaprio science-fiction thriller Inception.
He has also spent more time in Bermuda in recent years with second wife, Barbara, visiting family, occasionally lecturing and, of course, being recognised and honoured for his long and influential career.
Cameron was the recipient of the Bermuda Arts Council’s lifetime achievement award in 1999 and the Bermuda International Film Festival’s Prospero Award for his collective body of work in 2007.
He was also on hand in 2012 when the City Hall Theatre, where he trod the boards in a 1970 production of Bertholt Brecht’s Galileo directed by future Oscar nominee Mike Leigh, was named in his honour. And in 2009, his adopted country recognised Earl Cameron’s outsize contribution to its cultural life when he was appointed a Commander of the British Empire in the Queen’s New Year Honours.
His extraordinary — and extraordinarily long — life’s journey has certainly taken him far from Angle Street’s Aeolian Theatre. But even at the age of 100, there remains something of the movie-struck boy about Earl Cameron and he remains almost youthfully enthusiastic about the prospect of doing more acting.
He recently told Britain’s Daily Telegraph he was not only “healthy” but still “robust”. And while he realises film insurers might balk at a director casting him at his advanced age, he says he’s ready and able to memorise lines and get into character, telling the newspaper he “would love for the telephone to ring” with the offer of a film or TV role.
It would be the best 100th birthday present imaginable if Earl Cameron received just such a call today because, as was evident in Coventry last Thursday, time has not diminished his star-power, his personal magnetism or that inner core of integrity so much of his success was founded on.