Pioneering actor Earl Cameron, 98: ‘Showbusiness was just a means to an end’

Earl Cameron in 1959. Picture: S&G and Barratts General/PA

Earl Cameron in 1959. Picture: S&G and Barratts General/PA - Credit: S&G and Barratts General

When Earl Cameron first entered UK showbusiness in the late 1940s, roles for black actors were slim pickings.

Earl Cameron and Nigel Patrick in Sapphire (1959) on Hampstead Heath

Earl Cameron and Nigel Patrick in Sapphire (1959) on Hampstead Heath - Credit: Archant

Racial prejudice abounded.

Despite this, he became the first black actor to take up a starring role in a British film: 1951’s Pool of London.

“It’s much different now,” the 98-year-old remarks. But even in 2016, ethnic minority actors struggle to get starring roles that aren’t race-related, and the absence of any Academy Award nominations for black actors this year prompted some, including Will Smith, to boycott the ceremony in February.

The controversy even spawned a social media hashtag: #Oscarssowhite.

Actor Earl Cameron poses outside Buckingham Palace with his CBE, presented by the Prince of Wales, L

Actor Earl Cameron poses outside Buckingham Palace with his CBE, presented by the Prince of Wales, London. Picture: PA - Credit: PA WIRE

Bermudian-born Cameron believes the nominations snub wasn’t deliberately malicious.

“I have sympathy for the actors who say no, that was unfair,” he says. “Racism is deeply retained in the psyche of most human beings.

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“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.”

Racial prejudice was an issue challenged in many of the films Cameron starred in, particularly early on in his career.

In Bafta-winning Sapphire (1959), a pale-skinned pregnant girl is shot on Hampstead Heath. She is assumed to be white by two police detectives – until her black brother (Cameron) shows up.

Mostly shot on location on the Heath, the film goes on to portray the then-commonplace racial hostility towards immigrants from the West Indies, challenging the so-called ‘colour bar’ with its depiction of middle-class black communities.

As one of the last-surviving cast members, Cameron will give a Q&A at a one-off screening of the film for the Dartmouth Park Film Club at the Highgate Library Civic Centre in Croftdown Road on April 18.

“I remember filming scenes on Hampstead Heath very well. I remember the weather most of all,” the great-great-grandfather says. “Sapphire was one of my favourite films. It had a good atmosphere about it somehow.”

Cameron grew up in Bermuda and left for the UK at the eve of the Second World War, joining the merchant navy.

Living for a time in Mornington Crescent, he talked his way into the 1942 West End theatre production of Chu Chin Chow.

He trod the boards for eight years until getting his film break in 1950 with Pool of London. Both he and the film were big hits, but it hadn’t been an easy journey.

“It was a different time then in London,” Cameron remembers. “There was an awful lot of racial prejudice, not like today.

“For some reason, they didn’t think black people could keep a job. I spent whole winters trying to find a job, and eventually I got pneumonia.”

Despite the critical and commercial success of Pool of London, Cameron didn’t land another major part for another four years in Simba (1955) before working again with Pool of London’s director Basil Dearden in Sapphire.

The drama was a smash with audiences and critics, and finally earned Cameron consistent work throughout the ‘60s.

Set on a course for Hollywood stardom and mixing in all the right circles as a close friend of Sidney Poitier, Cameron abruptly stopped acting work in 1974 and headed for the Solomon Islands to concentrate on family life and his Bahá’í faith, a monotheistic religion which preaches spiritual unity.

He has no regrets about choosing domestic life over bright lights, instead expressing concern for his friend Sidney and others who followed the road to fame and fortune.

“Sidney was very close to being a Bahá’í but never did,” says Cameron. “He chose to be a big star. I wonder now how he feels about that.

“He’s eight years younger than me but his condition is far worse than mine at the moment. I wonder if he has any regrets.”

Cameron spent 15 years away from film and the UK until his first wife, Audrey, died of breast cancer in 1994.

It was then that Cameron returned permanently to the UK, and to acting.

Asked why, he simply answers: “What else could I do?”

His film credits in the last 15 years include The Interpreter (2001), in which he played a dictator, The Queen (2006) alongside Meryl Streep as the royal painter, and in Inception (2010) for a bit part.

“When I first came back to acting, I had a small part in The Great Kadinsky. I was quite lost, and I realised that after being away for quite a few years from acting that I was quite awful,” admits Cameron, who lives in Warwickshire.

“Richard Harris was in the same film and he was very sarcastic. I was happy with the little part I had but when I asked him about it, he said ‘you were great’ very sarcastically.

“That wasn’t necessary. Sadly he drank too much and he drank himself to death.

“That’s why I didn’t want to go to Hollywood.”

Remarkably, Cameron says he is not retired and would consider a part if it was offered to him.

But as he believes it is unlikely, he now takes time to reflect on what has been a 70-year career, on-and-off.

He says he is proud of “playing a small part” in breaking down racial barriers, but otherwise, he attaches little importance to what has been an objectively distinguished career.

“I don’t see acting as a big deal,” he explains. “I don’t feel it was a great achievement.

“Showbusiness became a means to an end and always was, as far as I was concerned.

“Having found my faith, that was more important for me, rather than worrying about Hollywood.

“Hollywood is very decadent place. There’s drugs and sex and alcohol; I didn’t need that kind of life.”

The Dartmouth Park Film Club screening starts at 7pm.