Obituary: Michael Winner

Michael Winner with film camera Michael Winner's first work as a director was satirical but he became more well-known for his action films

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Film director Michael Winner, who has died aged 77, is probably best known for the Death Wish movies. A flamboyant character, he enjoyed a series of high-profile relationships, most notably with the actress Jenny Seagrove.

Michael Winner provoked great passions among those who knew him.

To some people, he was a visionary, whose films, especially his early ones, exhibited a remarkable narrative ability.

His detractors called Winner a purveyor of violence and sleaze, a dilettante who traded his talent for the transient pleasures of the bon viveur.

Start Quote

My sympathy is totally with the little old lady who gets bashed over the head with an iron bar”

End Quote Michael Winner dismisses criticism of Death Wish

Michael Robert Winner was born in London on 30 October 1935, to Jewish expatriate parents. His mother was Polish and his father of Russian extraction.

He attended the Quaker St Christopher's School in Letchworth, Hertfordshire. He met his first star, John Howard Davies, on the set of Tom Brown's Schooldays in 1950, and submitted a story to the Kensington Post, who give him his own showbiz gossip column, aged 14.

Winner went on to study law and economics at Cambridge University. According to his official website, he was, at 17, the youngest student there and graduated aged 20.

He avoided National Service by pretending to be homosexual, and was immediately classed as "unfit for military service".

Throughout his education, Winner was fascinated by the film industry, and would often blag his way into film studios and interviews.

Michael Winner in 2005 Winner said he abhorred violence

This led to graduate work as a journalist and film critic (at the NME), before he joined Motion Pictures Limited as a writer and editor in 1956.

Winner worked as a journalist on London's Evening Standard before moving into film production, directing his first film, Shoot to Kill, in 1960.

His second film was a comedy about nudism, called Some Like It Cool.

By the mid-1960s, Winner had established himself as a successful director.

Working with stars such as Oliver Reed, Michael Crawford and Frankie Howerd, Winner captured the spirit of the times with a series of fast-paced comedy thrillers like The Jokers (1966) and I'll Never Forget What's 'is Name (1967).

His 1969 World War II adventure Hannibal Brooks saw Reed's prisoner of war, Stephen "Hannibal" Brooks escape through the mountains to Switzerland with an elephant in tow.

The film was praised by US critics and soon Hollywood beckoned. Winner worked with Charles Bronson and Jack Palance on the lyrical, yet morally ambiguous, Chato's Land (1971).

He wrote, produced, directed and edited most of his movies himself and said that the film of which he was most proud was The Nightcomers (1971), a prequel to Henry James's The Turn of the Screw, starring Marlon Brando and Stephanie Beacham.

Winner eschewed the studio, preferring to work on location. This approach added gritty realism to the Death Wish films, the first of which appeared in 1974.

A look back at Michael Winner's career

The three Death Wish films starred Once Upon a Time in the West's mouth organ-playing cowboy Charles Bronson as the liberal-turned-vigilante, Paul Kersey and were a violent apologia for individuals taking the law into their own hands in an atmosphere of rising urban crime.

Kersey's character shocked many cinemagoers by being judge, jury and executioner. As the Death Wish body count piled up, Winner dismissed the criticism he received.

"My sympathy is totally with the little old lady who gets bashed over the head with an iron bar," he said.

"Not with the youngster who did it and gets sent to the south of France for six weeks to turn into a lovely human being."

Michael Winner said that he abhorred violence and, after the murder of WPC Yvonne Fletcher outside the Libyan Embassy in London in 1984, he founded the Police Memorial Trust to erect plaques to police officers killed on duty.

After directing a number of remakes, including The Big Sleep (1977) and The Wicked Lady (1982), Winner returned to the vigilante theme in 1993 with the disturbing Dirty Weekend, in which his protagonist was now female.

In all, he made more than 30 films. As directing jobs dried up, Winner's private life made more headlines than his films. Although unmarried, he enjoyed a string of affairs with attractive women, usually many years younger than he was.

Michael Winner with Jenny Seagrove at their home in Holland Park, West London, in 1988 The director shared a west London home with actress Jenny Seagrove in 1988

For six years, he enjoyed a relationship with the British actress Jenny Seagrove, but he denied that women were only interested in him for his wealth or fame.

"Women like to be treasured for themselves," he said.

"They don't get taken in by men with money. In fact, I did far better when I was an assistant director."

He did eventually settle down in 2011, at the age of 75, when he married Geraldine Lynton-Edwards - who he met in 1957 when he was a 21-year-old film-maker and she was a 16-year-old actress and ballet dancer.

He said it felt "terrifying but wonderful" to be married after so many years.

'Pompous, rude and brash'

As well as producing and directing films, Winner carved himself a niche as a newspaper columnist, most notably with his often outrageous restaurant reviews in the UK's Sunday Times.

Often called "pompous, rude and brash" by others, Winner said that, underneath, he was actually a shy and lonely person.

The director lived in some splendour in a 48-room house in London, with five servants and a vast collection of art and books, which he once said he planned to leave to the nation.

Winner was a regular guest on the BBC's Any Questions, and also appeared on TV's Question Time. In the 1990s, he presented the series Michael Winner's True Crimes on ITV. Winner also did TV commercials for the insurance company Esure, coining the slogan: "Calm down, it's only a commercial."

He was the subject of This Is Your Life in 2001.

'Kind and wonderful'

Winner's website quotes Sir Michael Caine's tribute from the programme: "I am here to tell everybody, Michael, you are a complete and utter fraud. You come on like this bombastic, ill-tempered monster.

"It's not the side of you I see. I see a man who has a tremendous artistic eye. You have an incredible legal brain. Before I even go to my own lawyer I talk to you first. You're extremely funny, very sensitive, very kind and very generous. I hope everyone believes me when I say that you are a kind and wonderful person. And I'm not kidding."

In 2006, it emerged that Winner had turned down an OBE in the Queen's 80th birthday honours list for his part in campaigning for the Police Memorial Trust.

He told the Sunday Times newspaper: "An OBE is what you get if you clean the toilets well at King's Cross station."

Winner had a history of heart problems and underwent surgery in 1974 and had a triple heart bypass in 1993.

Winner had been ill for some time prior to his death. Last summer, he said liver specialists had given him 18 months to live.

In October, Winner told The Times he was not frightened of death and had researched the issue of assisted suicide.

"People should have the right to terminate their own life. I am very happy to snuff it. I've had enough time on earth. I'd be happy if someone gave me the plug to pull."

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