Man in the Mirror, part 1

It's the voice - all string vest and indignation, straight from the pubs and garage forecourts of south London - which works its coercive charm. Suddenly, Michael Caine, movie star, restaurateur and English institution, sounds like an oral cartoon of himself. He is dressed in the yachting-club chic of grey flannels, pale-blue shirt and double-breasted blazer, with his famously hooded eyes conveying a mixture of triumph and conviction behind the equally famous lenses of his sales-rep glasses.

And right now, in a suite at London's Hyde Park Hotel, the main room of which is somewhat larger than a badminton court, Michael Caine's voice is raised in a challenge bordering on self-righteous incredulity. The subject under discussion is the influence of cinema and television on public taste. More specifically, the point is Madonna. Every third word, approximately, is stressed.

'I'll bet you a pound, right now, I'll bet you a pound that within weeks of that film coming out, every girl in town'll be walking around with an Evita hair-do and dress. Bet you a pound, right now! And it's going to be the whole Evita thing, with the funny shoes from the Forties and the whole look.' Certain that the point has been made, and that the argument - which never had a chance to start - has been won, Caine sinks back into the cushions of an enormous sofa and finishes the subject off. 'Now Madonna - an' I see a lot of Madonna, cos they live in South Beach Miami - Madonna was in that costume for months before they even started the movie, and all the girls are picking up on it down there. So there you are. Pound. Right now!' As ever, Caine wins.

Caine is in London for the film-festival screening of his latest movie, Blood And Wine, a brilliantly-acted, vicious thriller directed by Bob Rafelson, in which he co-stars with Jack Nicholson as an emphysemic British villain, lurking in Miami to pull off one last heist. The previous evening, amid much glitter and many superlatives, Caine was made a Fellow of the British Film Institute. But a doughnut's throw from the front steps of the Hyde Park Hotel is the bus-stop from which, if Caine so chose, he could travel back to the south-London stamping grounds of his childhood, adolescence, and his first, brief marriage to the late Patricia Haines.

Just south of the Thames, gentrified now but once a mixture of workers' terraces and Edwardian villas in deep decay, is the grey belt of inner-city postal districts that shaped Caine's accent and his unyielding outlook on individual destiny. From the tail-end of the Old Kent Road - where Caine was born Maurice Micklewhite on March 14, 1933, of a Billingsgate porter and a 'charlady' - through to Camberwell, where the family moved when he was six months old, then on to Elephant & Castle, where they were reunited after the Blitz, was a short journey through the remains of Victorian London. Later, as a struggling young actor in the debris of an impetuous marriage, Caine lived with Haines in two rooms at the top of Brixton Hill.

The need to escape, as much as a self-consciously artistic calling, was at the basis of Caine's ambition. Along with Max Bygraves and the three Charlies - Chaplin, Drake and the gangster Charlie Richardson - Caine would be one of the south-London boys who found celebrity, despite the odds.

'I'm a class warrior. I've stopped banging on about it these days, but I do believe that class is a cancer in this country, and I saw it waste so many incredible intelligences that I grew up with. I'll give you a for-instance: people ask me if I ever went to drama school, and I say 'no', because I didn't know there were any. We didn't have a television, the wireless was usually tuned to the racing for my father, so where was I going to find out there's a thing called 'drama school'?

'Cinema and television have got rid of some of the more extreme forms of ignorance, but then a lot of people used to say to me, 'Oh, when I was your age, I wanted to be an actor', and I'd say, 'No you didn't. You probably wanted to be rich and famous, but you didn't want to be an actor - otherwise you'd have done it.' Acting is like being gay, or something, you don't have a choice. You see people of my age who've been in rep all their lives: it's not much of a living, but they're actors, and that's what they have to do.'

This article by Michael Bracewell appeared in The Guardian Online on 8 February 1997, and, as such, is © copyright Michael Bracewell/Guardian Media Group.