He was panned by the critics, but loved by audiences. The American movie industry admired him, chiefly for working to schedule and bringing films in either to or below budget. But the British picture industry appeared to be embarrassed by him, fearful that he might be regarded as a loud, self-centred boor. On the set, he could be a bully, but many of his friends in the film world found him charming and witty.
Whatever the criticisms, the cinema made Michael Winner seriously rich. He lived in a 46-room mansion in Holland Park, attended by a staff of nine, had an impressive collection of paintings, ran five cars, including the obligatory Rolls, and there was usually a private jet on standby.
Winner was hooked on films as a boy. Aged 14, he wrote a syndicated showbiz column. At the age of 20, he charmed his way into interviews with such Hollywood luminaries as Marlene Dietrich and James Stewart. He started out in the film industry by writing films and documentaries. Over the years, his output was prolific – 30 pictures in 40 years and Winner did not always include in his resume an early travel short, This is Belgium, largely shot in East Grinstead.
Early on, he made Play It Cool, featuring two big pop stars of the day, Billy Fury and Helen Shapiro, and Some Like It Cool, a comedy set in a nudist colony (both 1962). The following year, he cast Frankie Howerd in The Cool Mikado – the worst film, Howerd said, he had ever worked on. Winner enjoyed working with the hellraising Oliver Reed, who appeared in seven of his films, including I’ll Never Forget What’s’isname (1967), a comedy in which Orson Welles, surprisingly, took second lead.
Until 1970, Winner worked only in Britain, but then made his Hollywood debut with Lawman, a Western starring Burt Lancaster. Having made an impression in America, Winner’s career took a big leap forward when he made another Western, Chato’s Land (1972), with Charles Bronson.
In 1974, the two men produced the first of two Death Wish films, the pictures with which Winner is now mostly associated. By contemporary standards, they were unashamedly violent, an issue that in one respect worried Bronson.
“Winner is a very sadistic man,” Bronson once said. “He loves women jumping out of windows and landing on picket fences. Also women getting raped.”
An amateur psychologist might make much of the connection between these scenes and Winner’s relationship with his mother, who used the money made by his father, a property dealer, to fuel her
gambling addiction. At Winner’s bar mitzvah, she threw a poker party, leaving him to look after the guests’ mink coats in a bedroom.
After filming an adaptation of Ayckbourn’s A Chorus of Disapproval, a flop, in 1989, Winner made his last movie in 1998, Parting Shots, starring singer/songwriter Chris Rea as a man who is mistakenly told that he has only six weeks to live and starts to kill people who have adversely affected his life. It was once voted the 42nd worst film of all time.
A new career beckoned. Winner became an often vituperative reviewer of restaurants for The Sunday Times; he set up the Police Memorial Trust, a charity dedicated to raising plinths in memory of officers killed while on duty; and he was a founder member and lifetime honorary member of the Directors’ Guild of Great Britain, a professional organisation, later a union, representing directors across all media with the aim of improving their terms and conditions.
In addition to all that, he appeared in television adverts, especially a series for an insurance company that sold a million policies while he was with them. They spawned the catchphrase “Calm down dear, it’s only a commercial”, which, when partially directed by prime minster David Cameron, in the Commons, at shadow chief secretary to the Treasury Angela Eagle, led to accusations of him being patronising.
It appeared Winner might have thought he should have received greater honours for his work. When he was apparently offered an OBE, he turned it down, saying: “An OBE is what you get if you clean the toilets well at King’s Cross station.” But you never knew with Winner. Did he really mean it? Was he being controversial? Or was he just trying to be funny?
Michael Winner, who was born on October 30, 1935, died on January 21, aged 77.