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Obituary: Michael Winner, film director and restaurant critic.

Michael Winner

Michael Winner

  • by ALASDAIR STEVEN
 

Born: 30 October, 1935, in London. Died: 21 January, 2013, in London, aged 77.

Michael Winner delighted in being controversial. His reputation as a director is based on the Death Wish series which he made in the 1970. Winner replaced Sidney Lumet as director and recast Jack Lemmon with Charles Bronson, helping turn the film and its sequels into hits. Winner went on to direct Marlon Brando in The Nightcomers and Sir Anthony Hopkins in A Chorus of Disapproval.

Michael Robert Winner was born into a wealthy north London family but after his father died his mother gambled away much of the family fortune. After school he read Economics at Downing College, Cambridge where he edited the undergraduate magazine, Varsity.

In the mid-1950s he joined the BBC as an assistant director and got his first credit in 1958 as the script writer for Man With a Gun. Two years later he directed his first film, Shoot to Kill.

In 1962 Winner demonstrated his love for the unusual with The Cool Mikado, starring Frankie Howerd and Tommy Cooper. It was not a box office success.

His controversial film The System began a partnership with the hell-raising actor Oliver Reed. Over the next 25 years they made six films, of which the best was The Jokers, which co-starred Michael Crawford. Winner’s 1969 Second World War satire Hannibal Brooks – with Reed as a prisoner of war put to work in Munich Zoo – gained support in America and he was asked to direct Lawman with Burt Lancaster and Lee J Cobb.

The Nightcomers, a prequel to The Turn of the Screw, followed, starring Brando and a host of British stars, including Harry Andrews and Thora Hird.

In 1974 Winner and Bronson joined forces to make Death Wish. The decision would define their careers and bring fame and much fortune. None of the films found favour with the critics (one called it an “immoral threat to society”) but the public flocked to see them, loving the aggression and the raw approach to upholding law at a time when crime in the US was rising.

But there was no disguising the outrage at the film’s unremitting violence and a brutal rape scene. Winner and Bronson defended the film, saying it was “a commentary on violence” that was “meant to attack violence”.

The sequels were less successful and proved pale imitations of the original. Some films in the 1980s (The Wicked Lady with Faye Dunaway and Screen for Help) did little to rehabilitate Winner’s reputation. A Chorus of Disapproval and his 1988 reworking of Agatha Christie’s Appointment with Death – with Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot – gave further evidence that Winner seemed to be out of touch.

But with typical panache Winner never gave any suggestion of being downcast. He was a regular guest on chat shows where he puffed at his cigar and dropped names. He remembered the glory days when Welles, Brando, Caine, Mitchum and Kubrick were all muckers. The stories then flowed with greater glee in the Daily Mail and his Sunday Times column. The latter became something of an institution. It was primarily about food and restaurants but with typical bravado Winner wrote about what he wanted.

To his credit he printed 
letters from readers who disagreed with his scathing reviews. He preferred to frequent the grandest hotels of the world such as in Gstaad, Los Angeles, the South of France and Barbados. However, he did also give honourable mention to, among other Scottish venues, the Highland Cottage, Torosay Castle and Inverlochy Castle.

Winner spoke his mind and did not care who he upset. He described Margaret Thatcher as “one of my favourite ladies” and warmly supported her government. He was a strong upholder of law and order and was founding chairman of the Police Memorials Trust. In 2005 he welcomed the Queen when she unveiled the National Police Memorial in The Mall.

Winner lived in some splendour in his 46-room mansion in London’s Holland Park. There he housed his collection of fine furniture and original children’s book illustrations, including the earliest drawings of Winnie-the-Pooh. Winner inspired mixed feelings from friends, readers and colleagues. He greatly enjoyed such notoriety. He was certainly never easily pigeonholed and thrived on being a thorn in the side of chefs, the establishment and society.

Winner is survived by Geraldine Lynton-Edwards, whom he married in 2011.

 

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