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Sir Michael Caine

The Whistle Blower crack

Fact can occasionally be stranger than fiction. The more so, when the Government Communications Headquarters, is based in Cheltenham. Back in the 1980s stories continued to swirl around the town about the treachery committed by Geoffrey Prime.

The spy had breached the official secrets act on 35 counts. He turned out to be a mole at the old communications center, before the futuristic ‘Doughnut’ was constructed in Benhall. Prime was slapped in jug on a 35 year sentence, for handing over classified information to the Russians. Even today, all 4,000 spies at GCHQ, remember that case as a penance, for any sleight of hand with the enemy.

About ten years after this scandal, film Director Simon Langton, made a spy thriller for Columbia Pictures from John Hale’s book, The Whistle Blower. Many of the location scenes were shot in Cheltenham. Some film critic’s thought the characters were grossly mis-cast. How could a cheeky cockney like Sir Michael Caine, play such a heavy part as Frank Jones, a retired British Naval Officer. He was father to Robert, who worked on the Russian desk at GCHQ, played by the normally effervescent Nigel Havers. Langton soon directed him into apparent suicidal oblivion as The Whistle Blower. He was reported to have jumped from a top floor apartment along Lansdown Road.

Sir John Gielgud portrayed the enigmatic Sir Adrian Chappel, a member of the hierarchy at GCHQ. The story was so convoluted, even the herrings blushed. Sir Adrian made treacherous liaisons’ with the Russians, against Queen and Country. Gielgud’s character was shot dead by Frank Jones in accidental retribution against the demise of Robert.

I found it curious when Sir Michael Caine, appeared at The Centaur during the 2010 Cheltenham Literary Festival, that he never made any reference to his major part in The Whistle Blower. Come to think of it, he barely mentioned the film in his latest book “The Elephant to Hollywood”. Michael admitted to an audience of over 2,000, that having been broke once; he was driven to accept virtually every script, to pay the household bills.

Michael’s time while shooting in Cheltenham, was mostly spent in his chauffeurs car. He immersed himself in the phlegmatic persona of Frank Jones. Some Caine fans voiced despair, saying, ‘come back Alfie, all is forgiven’. Alfie was bread and jam to Michael. Actors get awards for being mis-cast, by playing parts that are alien to their own character.

In reference to chauffeurs, Michael recalled how The Mayor of Cheltenham’s constant driver, inadvertently got into the act, while peering from an open window, on the top floor of the Municipal Offices.

The scene showed Michael Caine and Nigel Havers in character, walking along The Promenade, in deep discussion. They stopped beside the statue dedicated to those soldiers who served in South Africa. There behind the close up of Michael’s head, is the council chauffeur, doing his ‘allo mum’ bit. The building was supposed to be a government head office in the film. So the offender got a right rollicking from Director Simon Langton, for intervening after he had bellowed ‘roll the camera’s – action’.

Contrary to the chauffeur’s impromptu appearance, David Reynolds, at the time worked for the traffic department at Cheltenham Council. His duty was to close roads as required for filming. He asked Simon Langford if he could be an ‘extra’ in the production. The director happily decked him out with a blue rain coat and gave him a brief case.

David’s big moment came when Robert, went to Cheltenham Spa Station to meet Caine’s father figure off a train from London Paddington. Two trains arrived at the station before Michael Caine, was seen by an astonished public, disembarking the third from the guards van.

Father and son met on the bridge as Michael Caine walked from number two platform. David’s appearance came when he rushed to catch the same train. He brushed past Robert and almost bumped into Frank before father and son embraced. As ordinary travelers mingled within the shot, David’s maneuver was carefully choreo-graphed, to ensure everything was right in take one.

Despite the inclimate wea-ther at the time of filming in Cheltenham, Michael Caine had fond memories of sampling some of the restaurants and pubs in town with Nigel Havers. Whether GCHQ approved of the story, and the rather melancholy, John le Carre type of the characters, we will never know. The critic is probably bundled into a fusty file, somewhere in the depths of the Doughnut. Marked ‘not for James Bond’s eyes’.

One thing we can be sure of, Cheltenham took Michael Caine to heart. Somewhere, on a housing estate close to GCHQ, there is an area christened ‘Caine Square’. The cockney actor, was absolutely chuffed when I informed him.