Michael Winner may be slowing down a little as he approaches his 74th birthday, but he is still as irascible and entertaining as ever. Interviewed by Bryony Gordon.
Published 7 August 2007 The Telegraph
Michael Winner at his home in London (Martin Pope)
It is not every day that a girl finds herself in the bedroom of Michael Winner. Actually, it used to be every day – he tells me that he has probably had about 130 girlfriends, not to mention the one-night stands – but it isn't any more. He will be 74 this year. For the first time in his life, he has a fiancee, Geraldine, whom he has known most of his life. She is downstairs, sewing. They have separate bedrooms, hers tucked discreetly behind his, and I imagine that he has a little bell that he rings when he wants to summon her to his boudoir.
Anyway, here I am, in his bedroom, which is about the size of a ballroom (Geraldine's is only about the size of a normal bedroom). It has the highest ceilings I have ever seen outside a cathedral and there is a bloody great big chandelier dangling over his bed. There are reading glasses dotted strategically around the place, so he is never far from them, and a disturbingly large number of teddy bears.
His assistant, Dinah – one of six household staff who cater to his every need – explains to me that Mr Winner, as she still calls him after 20-odd years of working for him, has collected the teddies from his exes. He is still friends with most of them, a fact I find astonishing given that he admits he often behaved very badly.
"Men are pigs, darling," he says at one point. "I really have every sympathy for women that they actually have to choose one of these arrogant, stupid morons to settle down with and marry. I spend a lot of time helping them [his former girlfriends] because they were marvellous people and they had to put up with me often being unfaithful, often shouting. I am too decrepit now even to walk but I think if you and I had had an affair, we would have still been friends."
I had asked for a tour of his 40-room, £35 million mansion in Holland Park, complete with swimming pool and steam room, because he plans to leave it to the nation as a museum when he dies. I love the idea of a museum of Michael Winner almost as much as Michael Winner does. It will be a sort of natural history of a man best known for directing such films as Death Wish (1, 2 and 3), and Won Ton Ton, The Dog Who Saved Hollywood. No, scrap that. A man best known for the "Calm down, dear!" catchphrase that features in those car insurance adverts. "Calm down dear, it's only an interview!" he laughs, a bit like Basil Brush.
I don't mean to sound cruel because he really is the most entertaining company and he has had a most interesting life, as is evident in the photographs that are dotted all over the house. There's him with his good pal Michael Caine, and there he is with Roger Moore, and Sean Connery, who seems to be kissing him, and oh look, there's the Dalai Lama, and Tony Blair, and the Queen. Of Her Majesty, he has this to say: "She likes me actually. When I was ill recently she sent me a signed photograph. That was very nice but why didn't she send it 'to my best friend Mikey'? Haha!".
There are postcards from Liz Hurley, Sophia Loren and Joanna Lumley. He trots out endless anecdotes about Marlon Brando, Orson Welles and Burt Lancaster ("he tried to kill me three times, but he only ever tried to kill his friends"). He name-drops as if his life, or rather his career, depends on it – he even manages to make a reference to Dean Martin when talking about hernia operations.
But he doesn't socialise much any more, he says, as we settle down in his private cinema. "I am a recluse, a grumpy miserable old git! Hahaha! If I am asked to a big dinner, I want to know exactly who is at the table, otherwise I'm not coming. What's the point of sitting with people that bore you? Can you imagine having to sit next to Freddie Forsyth for an evening? Oh my God. I'd rather watch the spin-dryer or put my head in the oven."
I think that his reclusiveness probably has more to do with ill-health. Two years ago he caught a rare virus that nearly finished him off. As only Michael Winner could, he caught the virus after eating an oyster at the five-star Sandy Lane hotel in Barbados. "When I got to the hospital they said, 'this was Princess Margaret's room' and I said 'that's wonderful – but she died'."
He almost had his left leg amputated and now he is quite frail, physically at least half the man he was. His hands shake and he can no longer drink as he has cirrhosis of the liver – it's a shame, he says, because he has a cellar full of fine wines. But he still has a perma tan and is sprightly enough to start filming a new reality show for ITV, in which people cook for him in their homes and he judges their cuisine – I say he must know a bit about food having reviewed restaurants for The Sunday Times for years now. "What do I know about food? Nothing! Food critics are the most useless people in the world. There's absolutely no need for them whatsoever."
I don't know why he bothers – he certainly doesn't need the money, having invested wisely in property (Brando once said to him "how much are you worth naked on the street?" to which he replied, "before tax or after tax?" The answer, by the way, before tax, is about £70 million).
But isn't it great that he might get a whole new career as he nears his mid-seventies? "It's very funny, isn't it?" he guffaws. "If it happens it could be the first time in the history of the world that a 74-year-old cripple becomes a TV star. Hahaha! I'm disabled and aged. ITV are scoring two brownie points on politically correct grounds. Even Selina Scott can't object to that."
Selina Scott, who sued Channel 5 for age discrimination when they refused to employ her, is a particular bugbear for Winner. "Now we're told you can't fire anyone on TV if they are over 50 because it's ageism. So that means you have all these stupid women who think they have a right to a job forever."
I say that there aren't many women in their seventies being given their own television series; perhaps that is indicative of both ageism and sexism. "Who cares? If you're an employer and you think a young person would be more attractive to the audience... Selina Scott didn't get her job because she was a genius or a rocket scientist. She got it because she looked good and flashed her legs about."
He is on one now. "I grieve for this country. It is so different to how it was in the forties and fifties. If I was prime minister I would be to the Right of Hitler. No immigration! Shoot anyone who commits a crime! Shoot people who park in the wrong place in front of my garage! I would be ferocious. And believe me, it's needed."
He famously switched from the Conservatives to Blair in 1997. Who would he vote for now? "Hmm, very tricky," he ponders. "I mean Gordon Brown is not a bad human being, but he's a plodder. No charisma. None, zero. Total charisma bypass. And then David Cameron... well I'm not holding my breath for him. I think he's a lightweight. He's a tailor's dummy with a voicebox."
I leave Winner's abode with a card thanking me for a "very enjoyable chat", a stress ball that emits his "calm down, dear" catchphrase when squeezed, and the quite shocking realisation that I really quite like him.
"Oh darling," he says just before I go. "Anyone can be good in an interview. Even I can be. But that doesn't mean I'm not the world's greatest arsehole."