Obituary: Michael Winters, comic

Mike and Bernie Winters in 1958. Picture: TSPL
Mike and Bernie Winters in 1958. Picture: TSPL
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Born: 15 November, 1930, in London. Died: 24 August, 2013, in Gloucestershire, aged 82

Mike and Bernie Winters were a hugely popular stage and television double act who gained fame in the late 1950s. They rapidly became household names through their own comedy programmes shown at peak time on a Saturday night. Their fame grew rapidly and the brothers topped the bill at many summer shows and pantomimes. They were initially seen on BBC TV’s Variety Parade and proved a great success with the public and went on to make regular appearances in shows such as Big Night Out and Sunday Night At The London Palladium.

They were the Cockney rivals to Morecambe and Wise and fought for the top comedy spots on the airwaves. Once Eric Morecambe was asked what he would have been had he not been a comedian.

Quick as a flash he replied: “Mike and Bernie Winters.” He added with a mischievous smile: “Very cruel.”

It did, however, demonstrate the intensity of the competition.

Mike Winters (born Michael Weinstein) attended the City of Oxford High School and then won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music where he studied the clarinet.

In the Second World War Winters served with the merchant navy but after a medical discharge he re-enlisted with the Canadian Legion as a musician and was promoted to the rank of captain.

After the war the brothers formed a double act playing music, cracking a few jokes and doing impressions and gained further fame when they won a talent contest at the Manchester Stage Door Canteen. They then entertained the troops in Vienna, Ulster and the Gulf. In 1953 they appeared at the London Palladium.

Early in their career they came north to Scotland. The Glasgow Empire was known as the graveyard of English comics – for years Eric Morecombe and Ernie Wise delighted in relating the story how their friend Des O’Conner had fainted on stage there during his act.

Mike and Bernie Winters were no more successful. On their first visit to the Empire Mike dashed on to the stage full of gusto and enthusiasm and started to play an up-tempo number on his clarinet. Bernie, all smiles and flashing eyebrows, waved and welcomed the audience. From the stalls a heavy Glasgow voice shouted: “Christ, there’s two of them!”

Mike and Bernie Winters became fixtures on television screens for two decades. They had the knack of providing undemanding family entertainment and incorporated the changing trends in the entertainment business.

Their sketches were short and snappy but delivered in a relaxed and stylish manner. No smutty jokes; just the occasional questionable innuendo and plenty of manic goings-on.

There was music and a few songs and the format for their ITV Big Night Out was revived every year for over a decade.

Their guests included appearances by the major stars of the era – including, in 1964, The Beatles. The Fab Four appeared “for a guffaw with Mike and Bernie” and asked the brothers to sing their songs. In a sketch they then carted Mike off unceremoniously to an operating theatre on a trolley.

Undoubtedly their appearances on ITV’s Sunday Night at the London Palladium were their most prestigious booking but Big Night Out featured high in the ratings.

They starred with Frankie Howerd and Tommy Cooper in the 1963 film The Cool Mikado, directed by Michael Winner.

Working so close together was initially a binding factor and made the rapport between the brothers immediate and exciting. Over the years, though, this closeness led to a certain coldness and the two had an acrimonious split in 1978.

Mike spent much of his time in Florida where he had a house and became involved in promoting theatre clubs in Miami with the boxing manager Angelo Dundee. He also co-produced, directed and performed in the first British professional pantomime ever to be seen in Florida.

There was a reconciliation in the early 1980s between the brothers but the two never worked again. Bernie died from cancer in 1991 and Mike was clearly bereft at his funeral. Mike Winters married Cassie Chaney in 1955. She and their two children survive him.