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Michael Winner (1935-2013)

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  • Michael Winner (1935-2013)

    Today's DMB Life of the Day....


    Winner, (Robert) Michael (1935-2013), film-maker and food critic, was born on 30 October 1935 at 40 Belsize Grove, Hampstead, London, the only child of George Joseph Winner (1907-1972), businessman, and his wife, Helen, nee Zlota (1906-1984), who was born in Praszka, Poland. His paternal grandfather was a Russian Jew who became a naturalized British citizen in 1910 and set up a successful clothing business. Winner's father ran a branch of the family clothing chain before becoming wealthy as a property developer, enabling the family to move from Alexander Avenue, Willesden, to Lancaster Gate, Bayswater. Winner attended St Christopher School, a co-educational Quaker boarding school in Letchworth. Passionate about films, from the age of fourteen he wrote a weekly column, 'Michael Winner's Showbiz Gossip', for the Kensington Post that enabled him to interview many film stars. He left school at sixteen to receive intensive academic training at a London tutorial establishment. He read economics and law at Downing College, Cambridge, although his main energies were spent editing the university newspaper, Varsity, and he graduated with third-class honours in 1956.

    Displaying the relentless drive and self-belief that characterized his whole career, Winner gradually learned the craft of film-making through fashioning documentaries and working as assistant director or producer on television series and second features. He wrote and directed the spy thriller Shoot to Kill (1960) and the naturist picture Some Like it Cool (1961) before graduating to first features with Play it Cool (1962), a pop musical starring Billy Fury. West 11 (1964) was more substantial, a sympathetic study of anomie filmed almost entirely on location in Notting Hill, always Winner's preference. Clashes with the producer Daniel Angel about casting convinced Winner to set up his own company, Scimitar, to produce as well as direct his own films, which he also edited, often under a pseudonym (Arnold Crust).

    Preferring to work continuously rather than wait for the ideal project, Winner's output was prolific and of variable standard. The System (1964), another sharply contemporary exploration of alienation starring Oliver Reed, attracted considerable critical approbation when it was finally released in America in April 1966 as The Go-Getters. Winner was offered a six-picture contract with Universal Studios and made three further films with Reed, The Jokers (1967), an exuberantly iconoclastic comedy; I'll Never Forget What's 'is Name (1967), a follow up to The System, depicting Reed's character disillusioned by success as an advertising executive; and Hannibal Brooks (1969), a spoof of the Second World War action film made for United Artists, which allowed Winner to demonstrate his developing skills as a director of large-scale films.

    In the 1970s Winner consolidated his reputation as a director of swift-moving action films, directing Burt Lancaster in the western Lawman (1971) and the spy thriller Scorpio (1973). In between he made The Nightcomers (1972), a prequel to Henry James's The Turn of the Screw, a suggestive sado-masochistic character study starring Marlon Brando, the actor he most admired. Winner was prepared to work for nothing on what was his most artistic film. He returned to more commercial film-making with Chato's Land (1972), the first of six films starring Charles Bronson. The Mechanic (1972), a hard-edged, brutal gangster film, and The Stone Killer (1973), about an assassin, were both successful but Death Wish (1974), in which Bronson played a liberal New York City architect who embraces vengeance after the murder of his wife and rape of his daughter, was their defining collaboration, an intelligent analysis of the deep roots of vigilantism in American society that was highly controversial but also hugely successful and influential.

    With his obsessive need to make films, Winner accepted many inferior projects, including Won Ton the Dog Who Saved Hollywood (1976), but the remake of The Big Sleep (1978), starring Robert Mitchum, the action transposed to London, was stylish. The 1980s was an undistinguished decade, characterized by two weak Death Wish sequels in 1982 and 1985 and Bullseye! (1989), a lame comedy starring Roger Moore and Michael Caine. However, The Wicked Lady (1983), starring Faye Dunaway, was knowingly camp, and A Chorus of Disapproval (1989) was a thoughtful version of Alan Ayckbourn's bittersweet comedy. In the 1990s, having moved back to London, Winner made only two films: Dirty Weekend (1993), a rape-revenge movie with a female vigilante that aroused considerable controversy; and Parting Shots (1998), a black comedy revenge thriller.

    Winner sustained his celebrity status through the extremely successful 'Winner's Dinners' column in the Sunday Times Magazine (1993-2012), a political column for the News of the World (1994-2003), and frequent articles in the Daily Mail in which he aired his right-wing views. He made numerous appearances on radio and on television and hosted two ITV series, Michael Winner's True Crimes (1991-4) and Michael Winner's Dining Stars (2010-2). He directed and appeared in numerous advertisements including those for esure where he coined what became a national catch phrase, 'Calm down, dear! It's only a commercial'. His autobiography, Winner Takes All (2004), was followed by two further volumes of recollections, an anthology of his restaurant reviews (2009), and a collection of Jewish jokes (2012). He was also in the public eye through his charity work for the Police Memorial Trust, which he initiated after the death of WPC Yvonne Fletcher outside the Libyan Embassy in April 1984. However, he was also highly critical of the 'establishment', denouncing the public school system and Oxbridge graduates, and turning down an OBE in 2006 because it was 'what you get if you clean the toilet well at King's Cross station' (BBC News, 28 May 2006). He later claimed also to have turned down a knighthood.

    Winner maintained a flamboyant lifestyle, smoking huge Monte Cristo cigars on set and arriving in a chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce. He was frequently profiled in his lavishly decorated mansion, Woodland House, on Melbury Road in Holland Park, the former home of the painter and illustrator Sir Luke Fildes, designed by the noted architect Norman Shaw in 1876-7 in the Queen Anne style. He had a succession of beautiful girlfriends, but finally married the actress and dancer Geraldine Annette Lynton-Edwards (b. 1938, daughter of Bertram Lynton-Edwards, engineer), whom he had first met in 1957, on 19 September 2011 in Chelsea Old Town Hall; the witnesses were Michael Caine and his wife, Shakira. Winner's health was damaged by his sybaritic existence and he had a major heart by-pass in 1994. He died of a heart condition in London on 21 January 2013. His estate included a collection of over 700 paintings, notably the Dutch masters and turn-of-the century book illustrators, including Arthur Rackham and E. H. Shepard, and 200 colour-washed Donald McGill drawings. Winner had intended to leave Woodland House to the nation but the intention stalled when Kensington and Chelsea council was unable to meet the £15 million cost of purchasing the freehold.

    Winner's brash arrogance-'A team effort is a lot of people doing what I say' was one of his catchphrases (Sunday Times, 5 April 1970)- his showmanship and commercial success put him at odds with the British film-making establishment, which preferred restraint and fastidiousness. For his part, Winner was consistently critical of an indigenous film culture that he considered parochial, and lacking imagination and international appeal. He found the American ethos-that film is, fundamentally, popular entertainment-more congenial:

    American money saved me from oblivion. I always laugh when people ask me why I don't make British pictures and tell me I'm British and owe a great debt to the British cinema. I owe nothing whatsoever to British cinema: nothing. They've rejected me all my life. (Harding, 13)
    Although his later films in particular were frequently simply opportunistic and often mediocre, Winner was, for roughly a decade (1964-74), a perceptive chronicler of alienation and disillusionment; his oeuvre contains several films that deserve to be more highly valued and remembered.

    Andrew H. Spicer

    Sources London Look (28 Jan 1967) + Mirror Magazine (22 April 1970) + K. Gough-Yates, Michael Winner: director (1970) + Variety (5 Jan 1972) + G. Gow, 'Interview with Michael Winner', Films and Filming (Aug 1973) + The Observer (7 July 1974) + B. Harding, The films of Michael Winner (1978) + Sunday Express Magazine (19 April 1978) + Sunday Times Magazine (10 April 1983) + Mail on Sunday Magazine (15 May 1988) + B. McFarlane, An autobiography of British cinema (1997) + M. Winner, Winner takes all: a life of sorts (2004) + M. Winner, Unbelievable! My life in restaurants and other places (2010) + Daily Mail (27 July 2013) + WW (2013) + b. cert. + m. cert.
    Archives FILM BFI NFTVA, performance, light entertainment, documentary, and interview footage SOUND BL NSA, documentary, interview, and light entertainment recordings
    Likenesses photograph, 1960-69, Getty Images, London [see illus.] · obituary photographs
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