This article was taken from our archives. It first appeared in the July 1999 issue of The Bermudian. It appears here exactly as it did originally.
“Excuse me, Sir, are you an actor?” A fifty-something Englishman asks as Earl Cameron passes him in the lobby of a small hotel in Ealing, West London. Flashing a film-star smile, Cameron walks over and graciously introduces himself. “I thought I recognized you!” the man beams. “I must say you are looking well.” Cameron is clearly chuffed, though with his full head of silvery-white hair, supple skin, and a youthful glint in his eyes, he looks years younger than age 82.
In Britain, he is a household name and one of its leading black actors. He has appeared in West End theatre productions, more than 30 films and numerous television specials and series, including the popular detective show Maisy Raine, being rerun on the BBC this summer.
Yet in Bermuda, where he was born, raised, and most of his family live, few people would recognize him walking down Front Street, let alone in a hotel.
Most Bermudians probably have no idea Cameron is the James Bond villain Pinder in Thunderball, that he appears alongside Sidney Poitier in A Warm December, or that he starred in the British best picture Sapphire, one of the first films about mixed-race relationships.
Cameron once recalled in an interview with a British newspaper how it was such a touchy subject at the time that the audience left the cinema as if they had been to a funeral.
Cameron’s career peaked in the 1950s and ’60s when his performance as Johnny in 1952’s Pool of London established him as a premier British actor. As a coloured merchant seaman who has a platonic romance with a white woman, it was a role that mirrored some of his own life experiences.
An Observer critic gushed at the time: “One thing comes shining out of Pool of London, and that is the performance of a young Bermudian actor named Earl Cameron.” On the other side of the Atlantic, the New York Daily News was equally impressed: “The case of the Negro seaman, his loneliness in London, is handled with good taste, which makes effective drama. The role is played with commendable restraint by Earl Cameron.”
His performances were praised in other films too, including in Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter and Emergency Call, in which he played another seaman. He also starred in a string of less critically successful African-theme films such as Safari, Killers of Kilimanjaro, Simba and Tarzan the Magnificent. His dozens of television appearances include everything from Sunday Night Theatre to The Dark Man to Doctor Who and Lovejoy.
His daughter Philippa, a British theatre actress, recently picked on something common to many of her father’s roles — he dies. “As a child I used to burst into tears when it happened and had to be told he wasn’t really dead,” she said in a recent interview with the London Evening Standard.
Cameron’s last films were 1973’s A Warm December and 1976’s The Message. After those two films, Cameron gave up his acting career cold, having at last found “that something” he was looking for.
“Once I became a Baha’I, showbiz became secondary to me,” he says. “Roy Stines in Bermuda introduced me, and I declared at the home of our friends, the Munsiffs in London. I suppose I was intrigued by the Baha’I concept of one single race of people and one religion; there is one God no matter what you are, all are embraced, and women are equal. I love the fact there is progressive revelation.”
Cameron moved his wife Audrey and their five children to the Solomon Islands, where they lived for 15 years, helping to spread his new-found religion. To support his family, he bought an ice cream business, Be Cool Dairy, which their son Simon continues to run successfully today.
Cameron returned to London just over five years ago when Audrey fell ill. After she died, he resumed his career as an actor, although fully aware it would not be what it once was. He also remains active in the London Baha’I community, working on the World Citizen Project and appealing for peace in Kosovo. His acting work consists mainly of theatrical voice-overs and small television and radio parts.
“I am waiting for some good grandfather role to come along,” he laughs.
Interestingly, he tells me he is also the subject of a BBC documentary in the making about what are known as visitations or near-death experiences, which he believed he encountered many years ago in London’s St. Pancras Hospital when he almost died of pneumonia.
Before moving to the Solomon Islands, Cameron lived in Ealing, near the famous Ealing Film Studios, which produced many of Britain’s best films. He now lives in nearby Acton with his second wife Barbara and one of his daughters, Serena, a teacher. His other grown children are Philippa, the actress; Helen, who lives in Israel and works with her husband in the Baha’I World Centre in Haifa; Jane, who works as a secretary in London; Simon, who runs the ice cream business in the Solomons; and his oldest, Quinton Astwood, the only one who lives in Bermuda.
Wife Barbara, who was married to Howard Swainson, is also a Baha’i. She lived in Bermuda for more than 30 years, working in retail and at Centre Re as an administrator until marrying Cameron. One of the first women to get into the local service clubs, and a former Kiwanis president, she met Cameron at a Baha’i function on the Island shortly after he had returned to London from the Solomon Islands.
She admits she was apprehensive about returning to England to live. Although she was born there, it is not home, she says. Both her son Gary Swainson and her sister Jennifer Sykes live in Bermuda.
“I love my Bermuda!” she exclaims. “I miss being able to walk down the street and see someone you know.” The couple often think about returning.
“I love Bermuda too,” Cameron says, “but I can take it or leave it. I would like to spend the rest of my life in Bermuda — when I reach that stage. Why am I still here? I ask myself that question every day. If I can find a way to go back I will.”
Cameron, who grew up in Hamilton and attended Central School, outgrew Bermuda early on. His wanderlust led him to join the Merchant Navy. At first, he worked as a steward on the Eastern Prince, sailing to New York and South America. But when the Second World War broke out, Britain sent for the ship. “That is how I happened to come here,” he says. “I arrived in 1939 at the age of 22. I was young, adventurous and London was very appealing in more ways than one. An attractive young Welsh lady very much influenced my staying too, but that didn’t last long.”
His attempt to see the world was not without its hardships and it led him on a couple of hellish journeys on the high seas, made worse by the fact that “like a typical Bermudian,” he had left the island without a passport. “I had no specific qualifications and apart from that, there was an awful lot of racial prejudice in London at the time. It was almost impossible for any person who was not white to get a job.”
But Cameron used the charisma that was to make him a film star, and to the amazement of his friends, landed a job as a dishwasher in the very respectable Charing Cross Hotel.
Homesickness did eventually set in, but only after Cameron nearly died of pneumonia one treacherous British winter. After his release from the hospital, he headed straight for Liverpool to find any ship sailing west in an attempt to get back to Bermuda — in war times a ship’s destination was kept secret so he had to rely on street talk. But without his passport, no ship, not even the Monarch of Bermuda, would take him on. It was 1940, on the day of his birthday, that he finally found a ship that would employ him as crew.
He sailed out of the River Mersey dreaming of a Bermuda sunset: unfortunately, he had wound up on “the most terrible ship” and stoked coal all the way to Calcutta. The misery and poverty that greeted him on arrival there was something he will never forget.
“I grew up in a nice comfortable little Island, playing tennis and swimming,” he says. “It was a good life in those days. You could leave a job in the morning and get another one in the afternoon.”
Alone in a land as far from Bermuda as he could possibly get, and weakened by the awful shop food while not fully recovered from his bout with pneumonia, he wound up in hospital again. Determined not to go back on the ship that brought him to India, he resourcefully pretended to be worse than he was so he could stay in hospital longer and miss the ship’s sailing, and then have to be repatriated to the U.K. He enlisted the help of a local doctor and his plan would have worked. But it turned out the ship took on an all-new Indian crew and the Egyptian captain himself came to tell him the good news that he could return to Britain as a passenger. Once back in London, he had to forget about going back to Bermuda and concentrate on earning some money. He landed a job as a hotel kitchen porter and lived in Soho, which had a large black community at the time. He found he was immediately drawn to the area’s lively theatre and club scene.
“I can do what you guys do,” he cockily told the director of a leading musical show one night. When an actor did not turn up for work for the third time, the director gave the plucky young man his big break. With barely time to rehearse, Cameron took the stage in the Palace Theatre revival of Chu Chu Chow, which went on to become one of the longest-running West End musicals of the time.
In 1946, after the show closed, he finally made it back to Bermuda but found the island was too small and insular for his liking. He stayed for only five months, working in different hotel jobs, before heading back to London. Cameron toured with various theatre groups, eventually making his serious acting debut as Joseph in the West End production of The Petrified Forest. Parts in Anna Lucasta and The Respectable Prostitute followed. But it was as an understudy for the lead role in Deep are the Roots that Cameron says he learned his craft as an actor. “This role did more good for me than anything I have ever done,” he said.
During the play’s run, he greatly improved his diction with the help of voice trainer Amanda Ira Aldridge, daughter of the great black actor Ira Aldridge. From there he never looked back. Film critics have often argued that Cameron would have had a career like Sidney Poitier, who won the Best Actor Oscar in 1963, had he worked in the U.S. rather than in Britain, where there were few good roles for black actors.
But Cameron says: “I’m not bitter — there’s more to life than acting.”
Surprisingly Cameron’s films, many of which broke new ground in the way they dealt with racial prejudice and social issues, have never been showcased in Bermuda, and he has only ever performed on stage in the Island twice.
The first time was early in his career in a small local production of Anna Lucasta at the old Opera House on Victoria Street, (across from Peoples’ Pharmacy) which he described as having “the best theatre Bermuda had.” The second time was in 1970 after he had become a well-known British film actor, and it was a disaster by all accounts.
Cameron was asked by the arts council of the time to star in and help put together a major local theatrical production to be staged at City Hall.
“I was supposed to play Othello, but unfortunately the English director Robin Midgley, who was supposed to come down to direct did not get on well with the local group putting on the production. He did not like their attitude — he found a lot of infighting going on among them.
“Othello was cancelled and I was asked if I knew another director who would come down. I remembered Mike Leigh (who would later direct the Oscar-nominated Secrets and Lies) from a workshop and got in touch. He decided he wanted to do Galileo.
“But I just wasn’t prepared for it. It was also over four hours long, which was ridiculous and he would not cut it. I had tremendously long lines to learn in a month or so.”
Cameron wanted to pull out, but did not want to disappoint Bermuda and the other actors in the production, who included Ruth Thomas.
“What could I do?” he says. “I had committed myself. But it was a disaster. We did not have enough rehearsal time.”
Cameron says that around the same time he did attempt to put together a Bermuda-based theatrical group, which would employ other Bermudian actors and tour the U.S., Canada and the Caribbean. There was interest in his idea from then Premier Sir Edward Richards and former government leader Sir Henry Tucker, but nothing came of it.
Cameron feels it came down to cost and politics — “local officials being too scared to stick their necks out” — and with a family to support, he had no choice but to return to England to focus on his career.
Cameron still has a fondness for the theatre and he and his wife often make trips into the West End, recently seeing such box office hits as Guys and Dolls, Miss Saigon and Blood Brothers.
They love weekend trips to Richmond Park and curry at their local, Ruby’s. They keep up with Bermuda events through their families, and view the recent offer of U.K. passports to Bermudians with interest.
“Prejudice in England never bothered me,” Cameron says. “I met with awful incidents of racism on tour. I’ve had doors slammed in my face. But I believe a lot of people who act prejudiced aren’t it in their hearts. I don’t find any obvious prejudice in England today. There was a time, yes. I think an EU passport would be a wonderful advantage for Bermudians to travel and work all over Europe. There was a time when I would have been the first to say ‘yes’ to Independence but there is no good reason today, although I am not that close to the situation in Bermuda. There are certain advantages to Independence but there also a lot of disadvantages. So I just don’t know.”
In the meantime, he and Barbara hope to visit Bermuda again soon, hopefully in time for the annual County Cup games and Cup Match. “Nothing beats the good feeling of being back with your own people and watching a typical Bermudian cricket match,” Cameron sighs.
Sadly Earl Cameron passed away on July 3rd, 2020. He was 102.
Earl Cameron’s Filmography
Pool of London — 1951
The Heart of the Matter — 1953
Simba — 1955
Sapphire — 1959
Killers of Kilimanjaro — 1959
Flame in the Streets — 1961
Thunderball — 1965
Two Gentleman Sharing — 1970
A Warm December — 1973
The Petrified Forest — BBC, 1956
The Buccaneers (The Slave Ship) — ITV, 1956
A Man From the Sun — BBC, 1956
Soldier of Fortune — ITV, 1957
Sunday-Night Theatre (The Concert) — BBC, 1959
The Death of Bessie Smith — ITV, 1965
Doctor Who (The Tenth Planet) — BBC, 1966
The Prisoner (The Schizoid Man) — ITV, 1969
Jackanory (Coming of Kings) — BBC 1, 1972
Lovejoy — BBC 1, 1995
Kavanaugh QC — Carlton 1997