Tuesday, 22 January 2013

RIP: Michael Winner

I do not lurk. I ponce about, cause trouble, bring light and happiness to the world and generally behave with impeccable (if misplaced) self-assurance. (Michael Winner)

British film maker Michael Winner has just died, aged 77. He himself said that "A little vulgarity is a thoroughly good thing.", and he was just that, a larger than life persona, vulgar, rich, pompous (but not really arrogant), and very much at home with the persona that he had created. He often seemed preposterous, a kind of living caricature, just like one of the larger than life characters we meet in Dicken's Pickwick Papers.

Winner might have been a great director, but instead became a jobbing workmanlike director, most notable for the Death Wish films, where Charles Bronson was the actor delivering a performance that is so wooden and stilted. Bronson could deliver good performances, as in the Great Escape, for example, but Winner clearly was not a director who could coax an emotional performance, not did he want it. Bronson plays Paul Kersey, who is supposed to be a liberal New York architect. After his wife is murdered and daughter is raped, he seeks revenge and becomes a  a gun-wielding vigilante. He is totally unconvincing either as a liberal architect or as a vigilante. But the public evidently liked it enough for it to turn a profit, and sequels followed.

And only Winner could direct the oddest version of Gilbert and Sullivan, entitled The Cool Mikado (1962), and starring Frankie Howerd, produced by Harold Baim (the king of the quota quickies). He had a brief flirtation with drama documentary, with the kind of series on might expect - "True Crimes". When the plug was pulled on it for its somewhat gruesome reconstructions, he lamented "But the public loved True Crimes"!

His stint as a restaurant critic was always fun to read, because it wasn't really about food at all, but an excuse for him to be self-indulgent in prose. As the Guardian noted:

Michael Winner was not as other restaurant critics. The fact was, he didn't really give a toss about the food, as long as it wasn't too demanding or showy. For him it was about the room and the service. Most of all it was about Michael Winner, and whether he was having an utterly terrific time. He was Mr Toad of The Wind in The Willows made flesh. And how could you not like Mr Toad?

Over the years people would rage about his column in the Sunday Times. What, they asked, did the man know about gastronomy? Not much, to be fair. But that's to misunderstand the job. Restaurant critics aren't there to sell restaurants. They are there to sell newspapers, and he did that very well indeed, mostly by giving people an insight into the life of a rich and famous man with an overweening ego. Whether he was dismissing Michel Roux Snr of the three Michelin star Waterside Inn as a chef "fit only for motorway cafes", calling the famed Spanish restaurant Arzak "ghastly" or declaring AA rosettes to be "worth less than a used plastic cup" as a measure of quality, he was always highly entertaining. (4)

The Telegraph had a number of typically Winner quotations, but then Michael Winner was the kind of man who would deliberately say something slightly provocative just to get quoted. Here are some of the best:

. 'If you want art, don't mess about with movies. Buy a Picasso'
. 'The truth of the matter is that muggers are very interesting people'
. 'Men are awful: arrogant, nasty creatures'
. 'Hitchcock said actors are cattle, but show me a cow who can earn one million dollars per film'
. 'He was a very good actor but he wasn't used as an actor as much as he should have been because he became famous as Peter Ustinov'
. 'I don't want to live in a tolerant society. I want to live in a very intolerant society'
. 'In this business disaster is always just around the corner'
. 'Women like to be treasured for themselves. They don't get taken in by men with money. In fact, I did far better when I was an assistant director'
. 'The hardest part of directing is staying awake for nine weeks at a stretch'
. 'Since the plate decorators and poncified chefs took over, food has not improved at all. It has become pretentious. It has become mini-portions, whose descriptions on the menu take longer to read than the food takes to eat'
. 'An OBE is what you get if you clean the toilets well at King's Cross station. I really don't care if I get anything or not'
. 'Children should not be allowed to go on holiday. They scream, they shout, they yell. All children should be locked up until the age of 10 and only selected ones should be let out when they are 10'
. 'The only way to hold a decent dinner party in Hollywood now is to have a séance'
. 'I do not lurk. I ponce about, cause trouble, bring light and happiness to the world and generally behave with impeccable (if misplaced) self-assurance'

I rather liked Michael Winner, although I didn't like his films, not because of their violence, just because they were not, on the whole, very good films; equally, I didn't agree with some of what he wrote. But he had a lively ebullient style, and never seemed to want to be taken too seriously. I think he knew exactly how he sounded and enjoyed it, and above all loved being entertaining as a public persona, making typically outrageous comments, but rarely malicious ones. On one notable occasion, he demonstrated unexpected support for lesbians, when the host expected him to be a reactionary conservative who would side with his own bigotry:

He appeared as a guest on LWT's new Friday evening talk show, hosted by Richard Littlejohn. Two lesbians, including the former leader of Lambeth council, Linda Bellos, had been invited on to the same programme to be insulted by the host, who turned to Winner to invite him to say a few words in favour of the traditional nuclear family, and got an answer very different from the one he was expecting. Appalled by the sight of Littlejohn brandishing a test tube, a yoghurt carton and a pathetic eagerness to offend at Linda Bellos and another lesbian mother, Winner exploded, "I think the lesbians have come over with considerable dignity and you have come over as an arsehole". (3)

As he told the host, "I'm quite appalled - and very nearly walked out - to be on a British television programme where lesbians are wheeled in for you to make smutty and offensive remarks to".

He's the kind of character who will leave a void. In his case, a rather large, almost spherical one, as he would have been the first to concede.

(1) http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/film-news/9815983/Michael-Winner-in-quotations.html
(2) http://www.irishtimes.com/blogs/screenwriter/2013/01/21/michael-winner-and-the-lesbians/ [You Tube Clip]
(3) http://blogs.independent.co.uk/2013/01/21/michael-winners-finest-hour/
(4) http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/wordofmouth/2013/jan/21/michael-winner-unique-restaurant-critic

1 comment:

Bob Hill said...

Good Blog Tony but you forgot to mention that Michael founded the Police Memorial Trust. That legacy will probably outlive his film making.

I am not surprised he had problems with Linda Bellos who could make life very difficult for those who did not agree with her.