'I was wrong - jail won't stop young thugs,': How filming in a tough part of London changed Michael Caine's view on teenagers and made him back David Cameron

I once saw a documentary in which scientists put several hundred rats in a big  comfortable nest and fed them well. The rats lived happily alongside each other until the scientists gradually decreased the size of the nest. The rats began to show aggression, followed by fights and then killings. Sound familiar? It does to me. It describes the pattern of social housing in this country, which produces the most violent sections of our society – and it’s the section I came from.

In 2009 I went back to my roots to make a film called Harry Brown, in which I play an old soldier who avenges the murder of a friend. We filmed on location on a council
estate due for demolition, back at the Elephant and Castle in South London – my home patch.

I’ve been in many council flats in  my life, but I had forgotten just how tiny they are. When I saw the size of the flat that was supposed to be my ‘home’ I remembered that rat documentary. This flat hardly had room for a dining table that could seat a family to eat, something I think is of the utmost importance in bringing up children.

A changed view: Michael Caine, as Harry Brown, had the chance to meet youths while he was making the film

A changed view: Michael Caine, as Harry Brown, had the chance to meet youths while he was making the film

Shooting Harry Brown gave me the opportunity to talk to some of the gangs of youths – black, white, British-born and immigrant - hanging about. Although we’d had nothing as kids, I had enjoyed a life of luxury compared with the young men I was talking to. We may have been poor but I can never remember once being hungry, cold, dirty or
unloved. I had a loving family with a father who stayed with us and a mother who cared for us. 

Most of these boys came from one-parent families – or none. It’s not that single  parents can’t do a great job raising their children but it does make it much harder, and if they are poor as well, it’s an extra handicap.

I was lucky because I had a good education. A lot of these boys seemed to have opted out of school completely. I’m not saying they should be doing Latin and Greek at
Cambridge, but on a more practical level they could benefit from education and a sense of possibility.

He has Sir Michael's backing: David Cameron has impressed the film star

He has Sir Michael's backing: David Cameron has impressed the film star

My generation didn’t have to deal with drugs and the violence that follows – half the time these kids are so drugged up they have no idea what they’re doing. They had nothing to do, and nowhere to go. I had Clubland, the youth club in Walworth Road where I learned to act.

On Harry Brown, I saw for myself  the difference that involvement with something creative can make to kids who have nothing much to do. The director Daniel Barber used a number of local young men in the movie. As I stood watching them rehearse, I assumed they would get bored quickly and be gone by take three. I was completely wrong.

They were doing something they really wanted to do and they were responding to an authority figure who knew what he was talking about and was treating them with the
dignity their lives were lacking. By take five, they were completely into it and making their own suggestions.

Harry Brown was a wake-up call for me and I wanted it to be a wakeup call for others too. I had gone into the film thinking we should just lock up violent offenders and throw away the key but I completely changed my mind. Prison doesn’t solve the problems that come with the sorts of backgrounds these kids have.

The fact is we are failing them. 

Apart from Clubland, I think I was also helped by national service. I wouldn’t  recommend the two years I had to put up with, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend
being sent into combat as I was, but I do think six months or so in a disciplined environment – particularly if there’s some training and education involved – would help.

I was impressed by David Cameron’s pledge to give young people like the ones I met round the Elephant a second chance. It was for this reason that I backed his proposal for a National Citizen Service, which would be a two-month summer programme for 16-year-olds. I’ll be watching carefully how the plans develop.

Walking round the Elephant after the last day of filming on Harry Brown, I felt no closure, just a sense of satisfaction that I had made it and gone from there to  Hollywood – the place I had always dreamed of.

I’ve always said you don’t retire from the movie business, it retires you – and when it retires me, there won’t be any fanfare or public announcement. I’m an old soldier,
like Harry Brown, and I will just fade away from my long public life into the embrace of my family.

In the end, they mean more to me than the whole lot put together.

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