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Calm down, dear - it's only £12m

Published 27 July 2013
The Telegraph

Michael Winner lived a life of excess but was generous to friends

Michael Winner learnt early on in his strange, entertaining life that fantasy made all things possible. If people could be persuaded to believe something, it didn’t really matter if it wasn't true, and so in the late 1950s Winner launched his movie career with a film called This is Belgium that was shot almost entirely in East Grinstead.

The reliance on fiction extended into his own overwrought, bon viveurish persona, which disguised a shy, rather solitary nature inherited, as Winner believed, from a lonely childhood. Last week we learnt a little more about the gulf between the public Winner and the real one, with the disclosure that he died drowning in debt.

Being extremely rich was a core part of Winner's engaging schtick. Readers of his newspaper columns were treated to tales of his wretched excess, indulgence and gluttony that paid no heed to the austere mood of the times. He lived in a 47-room mansion, spent £90,000 on his annual winter holiday in Barbados, and always parked his Rolls-Royce on the double yellow lines outside whichever splendiferous restaurant he was visiting, because, he calculated, the fines cost little more than a return taxi fare.

There had been occasional hints that Michael’s stash was not quite as dizzying as he liked to suggest, but few were prepared for the details that emerged last week. He had run up debts of £12 million, mostly pledged against the value of his London home, which he claimed - wrongly - to be worth £60 million.

The gross value of his estate is estimated to be £16.8 million, but after the debts are cleared it shrinks to £4.75 million. A hefty inheritance-tax bill of around £2.5 million looms, along with legal and administrative charges, leaving - assuming there are no other obligations waiting to emerge - a total of barely £2 million.

The word "generous" was much used in tribute when Winner died in January, aged 77. Most of his friends were alluding to his generosity of spirit but Michael, it appears, was no slouch when it came to dishing out the actual readies - especially to the women in his life.

His wife Geraldine, whom he married in 2011 when he was 75 and she was 70, was left Woodland House, the director's ornate Victorian pile in Holland Park, plus £5 million. Further gifts of cash and property were made to at least one ex-girlfriend, Catherine Nielson, and his long-serving PA, Dinah May. Both are understood to have received large tax bills.

Throughout his life, Winner had an intriguing relationship with money. His father, George, was a successful Jewish businessman whose substantial wealth was frittered away at roulette and poker tables by his eccentric wife, Helen. "She was a congenital gambler, who squandered my father's fortune that would have been my inheritance," he once explained. "When my father died she took the jade, the furniture, the antiques which would have been mine and sold it, sometimes out of the back of a car."

By the end of her life, Helen - reduced to living in a tiny room at the Carlton Hotel in Cannes, where she could be close to the Riviera's casinos - was trying to sue Michael for a holding of shares left to him by his father.

Quite how much he did inherit - like everything else about Winner's finances - has never been clear. The lease on the Holland Park house was bought by his father in 1946, but Michael claimed that it never passed to him, and he had to take out a new lease using the money he had made as a Hollywood film director in the 1970s. The freehold of the house is owned by the Dorset-based Ilchester Estate, which London property experts suggest would cost at least £15 million to acquire.

A few of Winner's films, particularly the Death Wish series starring Charles Bronson, did well at the box office, but he also had strings of flops, and showbusiness gossip questioned whether he could have made as much money as his lifestyle - and boasts of vast secreted riches – suggested. His career in the big time was over by 1985, and for the last 20 years he earned a far more modest crust in the fields of journalism and TV commercials.

His attempt to sell Woodland House for £60 million was ridiculed by top-end London estate agents, who pointed out that it needed substantial work and that the lease had 33 years left to run. He claimed to have £35 million salted away in Guernsey, but there was little evidence of this in the figures leaked last week.

Winner made good copy out of his battles with the Inland Revenue, but the settlements were expensive - £3million plus £500,000 in legal expenses - and suggested that he was badly advised, reckless or greedy. Millions more vanished into failed investment schemes - one of them run by the notorious fraudster Roger Levitt. In an interview with the Telegraph in 2008, Winner shed a rare light on his attitude to money. "I have resisted the idea of debt all my life," he said, "but my tax lawyer pointed out that whenever I bring money into the country, I have to pay 30 per cent tax. He said to borrow instead . . . so now I have a large mortgage and millions in loans, split between the Bank of Scotland and Coutts. Of course they know I can easily pay it off because I have £35 million in Guernsey."

He went on to reveal, in tones of indignation, that American Express had recently refused to authorise some of his purchases because "some idiot thought I was spending too much".

Michael’s memoirs, published three years ago, bore the title Unbelievable. Much of his life was exactly that, and now the bills are in, we can only hope that there will be enough left to make a film of it.