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Another fine vintage, Marcus, you've hit a purple patch

Contradicting his image, the film director-restaurant critic-columnist brings his autobiography hilariously alive for Matthew Garrahan

Published 25 September 2004
Financial Times

(Charlie Bibby)

Michael Winner is not very popular in the offices of the Financial Times. Not because of the quality of his films, such as the Death Wish trilogy, nor even because of the accuracy of his restaurant reviews, in which he regularly berates purveyors of food that fail to meet his exacting standards.

No, he is unpopular because of a rubber ball he gave me when I left his palatial house in west London. Whenever the ball is squeezed, thrown or caught it emits a cry in Winner's own voice of "Calm down dear!" - his catchphrase from an irritating series of television advertisements for an insurance company. After several colleagues threaten me with physical injury, I am forced to put the ball on a high shelf to avoid the temptation to squeeze it.

In the commercials Winner appears as himself, or rather as the brash and arrogant public personality that he has cultivated over a 40-year career in the film industry. His films are not generally beloved of critics; in fact, in some circles his work is broadly detested. For example, his most recent film Parting Shots, which he made six years ago, was described by the Daily Mail as "the most horrible torture for audiences that Winner has devised" and "profoundly offensive". Yet he has scored some hefty commercial successes, notably with Death Wish, and worked with the biggest names in the industry including that film's star, Charles Bronson, and Orson Welles, Ava Gardner, Marlon Brando and Burt Lancaster.

In person, sitting in the private cinema of his home, he is rather different from his public image. He has a prosperous stomach and fuzzy white chest hair peeks out of his open-necked shirt. A beaming smile rarely leaves his face and he guffaws uproariously, often wiping tears from his eyes, when regaling me with some of the stories that appear in his new autobiography. Rather than being arrogant, he is disarmingly frank and funny, reminding me of my Jewish grandmother who has a similar fondness for saying what she likes and laughing while doing it.

The grandson of a Russian immigrant whose naturalisation papers were signed by Winston Churchill, Winner was an only child who still has vivid memories of the second world war. This solitary upbringing was partly responsible for his enduring love of film. "I think if you are brought up as an only child you are quite lonely. During the war there was a real lack of glamour so you could go to the cinema and see these wonderful people on the screen. They were so elegant, so witty. They required nothing of me. I didn't have to do anything other than pay a few pence and watch. I thought 'This is it!'. I wanted to be part of it."

He realised early on that journalism offered a route into that world. Aged 14, while still at his Quaker boarding school, he secured a regular showbiz column which was published in several local London newspapers. "It was the Fulham Gazette, the Paddington Mercury, the Kensington Post - probably about 17 newspapers in total." Having his name in print opened the doors of the London Palladium where the likes of Nat King Cole and Gracie Fields would appear every week.

"The PR at the Palladium was a man called John Carlsen, who had a very big moustache. He said: 'I love you Michael. You come on a Monday and then by Thursday I have 17 columns to show the stars. They think they are all big papers - they don't know they only sell three copies'."

Sadly, it was not a well-remunerated job. "Never got paid for it. Every time I mentioned money, they said 'Have another cup of tea'. But it was enough for me. Aged 14? It was heaven!"

After Cambridge University, he returned to London and set about trying to break into the film industry. It was the late 1950s and not an easy industry to crack, although he did have some success making short documentaries that would accompany the main features playing in cinemas. "My father financed a 20-minute short I made called This is Belgium, which was largely shot in East Grinstead because it rained too much in Belgium."

The film that made his name, though, was a "dreadful nudist film" called Some Like it Cool. "Someone took this film of four naked girls playing with snowballs and John Trevelyan, who was a wonderful censor, passed it! I'm not sure he didn't bring in the whole Swinging Sixties himself. Anyway, after seeing the money this film my people rang me and said 'We have to start a nudist film in two weeks - this is hot!' So I wrote a script, the film cost £9,000 and made its money back in the first week."

His film career is outlined in the autobiography which, to my surprise, was a rather good read. Celebrity biographies tend to be turgid affairs with dubious puns in their titles. Winner Takes All is no exception to the rule on puns but by contrast, the writing is in the same refreshing, staccato style used in his Sunday Times column. And although too many glowing reviews of his films have been included, it is very funny.

He is fond of using exclamation marks for emphasis. They appear regularly throughout the text! There is also a lot of name dropping, such as: "I always thought that as alleged double murderers go, O.J [Simpson] was extremely pleasant!" This is the way he speaks. He is a natural raconteur and dictated most of the book into a recorder while sat at his study desk.

While some of London's restaurant owners may disagree, he is also someone who does not bear grudges - his friendship with Burt Lancaster being a good example. "He was my dearest friend," he says. "But he tried to kill me twice. The first time he physically grabbed me and held me over a ravine, screaming and shouting the most awful abuse. Who cares? He was the most marvellous man and you have to look at someone as a whole. Everyone has rows - if you cut everyone off you had a row with, you wouldn't talk to anyone, would you?" He laughs that spluttering, infectious laugh.

He was most active making films in the 1970s and 80s, when his work included an adaptation of Agatha

Christie's Appointment with Death and The Wicked Lady, which starred Faye Dunaway. In the last decade he has carved a niche as an acerbic restaurant critic in The Sunday Times. He is popular with readers; indeed, he even commissions his own Mori polls and then sends the results to the editors that employ him. "It drives the papers mad. In the News of the World I was the most read columnist and in The Sunday Times I am the second or third best column. I send them the results without comment - costs me five grand a time. Ha ha ha ha ha!"

It is this sort of behaviour that has earned him his public reputation as a bit of a big-head. Winner, though, couldn't care less. "I've decided philosophically that the only point of life is to avoid boredom. Ha ha ha! That's the only point, avoid it at all costs. We all go through life accepting things that we know will be boring, which are boring. Why do we do this?"

His family certainly wasn't boring although he did not spend much time with his parents ("It was a case of sitting at home or having dinner with Orson Welles. I'm afraid there was no choice"). However, he does regret not being closer to them when they were alive and says the act of writing about the breakdown in relations with his mother was "heartrending".

The cause of this friction was his mother's gambling addiction. While his father was successful in the property industry, Helen Winner loved to gamble and was a well-known face in the Cannes casino. When George Winner died, he left the contents of his house, the paintings and antique treasures he had collected to her and stated that they should be given to Winner when she died.

Instead of doing that, Helen sold all the goods to pay her enormous gambling debts. "Not many people lose £8m at the Cannes casino in the 1970s, believe me. And then she stole the deeds of the flat we had there and sold that. Stole them! That was left to me as well! People said to me: 'You have to sue her'. But how do you sue your white-haired old mother in the French courts? I thought I'd see the Evening Standard hoardings: WINNER SUES MOTHER. I thought, that's a laugh - give her the fucking paintings, I don't care. Ha ha ha ha!"

He may make another film next year but as part of his work as chairman of the Police Memorial Trust is concentrating on establishing a permanent memorial to murdered police officers, which will be in The Mall in London. The memorial is due to be unveiled by the Queen when it is completed next month. "I get these wonderful letters from the palace - will you please give us a date [for the opening], it's on the Queen's highest priority. So I say: 'I'm dealing with builders, fellas. Don't call me I'll call you'. Ha ha ha ha!"

And with that, he is showing me out of the door and going to get his photograph taken, insisting, like Orson Welles, on the lens not being below his eye level. "Every actor knows that - if it's below [eye level] you get all the jowls."

Later, when I am getting off a Tube train, I hear his distinctive voice. Has he followed me, or am I going mad? No, it is the rubber ball in my pocket shrieking "Calm down dear!"

Death Wish, dear? Charles Bronson in Winner's 1974 film