Encore for Earl Cameron, Britain's first black film actor
Graham Young meets an actor who broke the mould and a few barriers on his way to the top.
Earlier this year, James Cameron’s Avatar beat his own all-time box office champ Titanic.
And namesake David Cameron became Britain’s youngest Prime Minister for almost 200 years.
But while those achievements prove that records are there to be broken, nobody can ever take away Warwickshire-based actor Earl Cameron’s claim to fame.
The youngest of six children, Earl was born on August 8, 1917 in Pembroke, Bermuda.
By the end of the 1940s, he’d become the first British black star to appear in a British film, Pool of London.
Directed by Basil Dearden, the diamond robbery story featured Earl’s black seaman character Johnny chasing a white girl called Pat (Susan Shaw).
Sixty years later, Earl, who now lives in Kenilworth, is still working.
Recent credits include The Interpreter (2005) with Sean Penn and Nicole Kidman; The Queen (2006) alongside Oscar-winning Helen Mirren and this year’s critically-acclaimed Leonardo DiCaprio hit, Inception.
A campaign to raise £400,000 towards the cost of a documentary about his life is now under way, led by Midland businessman Ken Meeson.
In a case of life imitating ground breaking art, Earl married the first of his two white wives four years after making Pool of London.
His 40-year marriage to the late Audrey produced five of his six children, and he has now been married to his second wife Barbara for 16 years.
But Earl’s journey from Britain’s oldest foreign territory includes blood, sweat and tears – some of which are still rolling today.
“I’m very proud to have been a pioneer not only in films after the war but also by being the only black actor at that time having worthwhile parts in the theatre,” he says. During our interview, a tear rolls down Earl’s cheek from his left eye.
He’d arrived in Britain just when the Second World War was beginning in September 1939 and soon he was struggling to make ends meet.
“It was almost impossible for a black person to get a job at that time,” he says.
Earl recalls lying ill in bed with pneumonia and pleurisy in St Pancras Hospital having “thrown in the sponge” thanks to pre-penicillin medication suppressing his appetite.
As he weakened, his bed was moved to a distant corner where a nurse in her early 20s told him she’d have to send a telegram to his widowed mother, Edith, about his death.
Picturing his mother in tears, Earl found the resolve to eat some unappetising food.
“I ate all of the porridge given to me by a dumpy nurse who was not nice and told her to thank the nurse who’d been on the previous evening,” says Earl, dabbing his wet eye. “She said there was no other nurse. To this day, I don’t know who this nurse was, or if she was an angel. But she saved my life.”
Naturally shy, Earl was the youngest of three boys and three girls and was just five when their father, Arthur, died.