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Cameron, Earl (1917- )


Main image of Cameron, Earl (1917- )

From the moment he first appeared on screen, as a young Jamaican in Ealing Studios' underrated Pool of London (d. Basil Dearden, 1951), Earl Cameron brought a breath of fresh air to the British film industry's stuffy depictions of race relations. Often cast as a sensitive outsider, Cameron gave his characters a grace and moral authority that often surpassed the films' compromised liberal agendas.

Born in Bermuda in 1917, Cameron first arrived in Britain on the eve of the Second World War, working in the Merchant Navy. In 1942, he talked his way into a part in a West End production of Chu Chin Chow, which in turn led to training with the granddaughter of black American actor Ira Aldridge. Cutting his teeth in repertory theatre, he attempted to break into films with unsuccessful auditions for Men of Two Worlds (d. Thorold Dickinson, 1946) and Cry, the Beloved Country (d. Zoltan Korda, 1952).

His break came in 1950 when cold-calling an Ealing casting director won him the part of Johnny in Pool of London. Made in the wake of Ealing's hugely successful The Blue Lamp (d. Dearden, 1950), it was ostensibly a diamond-heist caper, heightened by the documentary authenticity of its location photography. One of the first British films to deal with mixed-race romance, it also placed Cameron's Johnny at its moral centre, his performance the most naturalistic amongst the ensemble of deceivers, crooks and cheats. The film was a hit, as was Cameron.

But despite great reviews, Cameron's success didn't lead to stardom and he found little work without a studio contract. Filling his time with bit parts and cameos, Cameron's struggle reveals the lack of opportunity for black actors during the 1950s. Not only were there few black characters in the mainstream industry, all roles on offer were race specific.

It wasn't until 1955's Simba (d. Brian Desmond Hurst) that Cameron appeared in another major part. A drama about the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya, Cameron played Peter Karanja, a medical doctor, trying to balance his admiration for Western civilisation with his Kikuyu ancestry. Placed again at the drama's moral centre, Karanja's heroism shames Dirk Bogarde's reprehensible Alan Howard, though he ultimately dies for his convictions. Unlike his experience with Pool of London, Cameron's excellent reviews were rewarded with a busy schedule, and for the rest of the decade he worked consistently.

Adopting a necessarily broad canvas, Cameron quickly accumulated a large number of film and television credits, mixing noble television dramas like A Man From The Sun (BBC, tx. 8/11/1956) with potboilers like the Victor Mature vehicle Safari (d. Terence Young, 1956). Yet, despite a CV that included a couple of Sy Weintraub's Tarzan movies, Cameron, aware of the industry's potential for presenting stereotypical images of black people, was proud of never demeaning himself. By 1959, his reputation was such that he no longer had to audition for landmark British race dramas Sapphire (d. Dearden, 1959) and Flame in the Streets (d. Roy Ward Baker, 1961).

By the 1960s, Cameron, like most supporting actors, found fewer opportunities for significant parts in a shrinking film industry. Occasionally, his transition to the work-dependable world of TV was interrupted with good film roles like Captain Abraham in Guns at Batasi (d. John Guillermin, 1964) or as James Bond's Caribbean assistant, Pinder, in Thunderball (Terence Young, 1965). On television, his appearances in sixties favourites like Danger Man, Doctor Who, Emergency Ward 10 and The Prisoner were tempered with leading parts in harder-hitting single dramas like Obi Egbuna's Wind Versus Polygamy (BBC, tx. 15/7/1968) and Leon Griffiths' A Fear of Strangers (ITV, tx. 10/5/1964), a two-hander with Stanley Baker about institutional racism in the police. This pattern of working continued into the 1970s where spots on TV regulars like Crown Court and Jackanory were balanced with supporting roles in, for example, his friend Sidney Poitier's A Warm December (US, 1972) and a scene-stealing cameo in the ambitious The Message (Al-Risalah, d. Moustapha Akkad, Libya, 1976). After a final appearance in Cuba (US, 1979), Cameron retired, moving to the Solomon Islands as a member of the Baha'i community.

Never hindered by age (he was 32 when he played twenty-something Johnny), Cameron resumed his career in the 1990s. A run of minor television cameos - including a 2001 episode of Eastenders (BBC, 1985-) - eventually led to a return to cinema, appearing in The Queen (UK / France / Italy, d. Stephen Frears, 2006) and enjoying a late career as screen villains in the low-budget horror, Revelation (d. Stuart Urban, 2002), and opposite Nicole Kidman in The Interpreter (Germany / US / UK, d. Sydney Pollack, 2005) as fictional dictator Edward Zuwanie.

Dylan Cave

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Flame In The Streets (1961)Flame In The Streets (1961)

Melodrama dealing with race relations and mixed-race romance

Thumbnail image of Heart Within, The (1957)Heart Within, The (1957)

An innocent black man accused of murder is befriended by a white boy

Thumbnail image of Pool of London (1950)Pool of London (1950)

Two sailors on leave are caught up in a diamond smuggling racket

Thumbnail image of Sapphire (1959)Sapphire (1959)

The murder of a black girl in London reveals widespread racial tension

Thumbnail image of Simba (1955)Simba (1955)

Love story set amidst the Mau Mau's uprisings in Kenya

Thumbnail image of Crown Court (1972-84)Crown Court (1972-84)

Long-running afternoon court room drama series with a real-life jury

Thumbnail image of Fear of Strangers, A (1964)Fear of Strangers, A (1964)

A policeman tries to convince a suspect that he committed a murder

Thumbnail image of Man From The Sun, A (1956)Man From The Sun, A (1956)

Dramatised documentary about a West Indian immigrant in London

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Thumbnail image of Black British FilmBlack British Film

Pride, pressure and rage

Thumbnail image of British African StoriesBritish African Stories

Stories of colonial and post-colonial Africa

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