Winner Calms Down

Great Britain, Media, Observatory

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I’m going to break the last taboo here.

I’m going to speak ill of the dead – well, not ill, exactly, but anyone who met Michael Winner has to admit; He was a very strange man, which in itself makes him rather likeable.

The press has this to say; ‘Michael Winner, bon viveur, restaurant critic and arguably one of the best known British film-makers of the 20th century has died at the age of 77’, which is pushing it a bit.

He behaved so appallingly to my staff that no-one would pick up the phone to him, so I had to go and see him in person.The wealthy filmmaker greeted me in his luxurious painting-filled Holland Park House dressed in a Onesie (long before they were called that) and talked about himself in the third person, Gollum-like, which was disconcerting.

He spent a lot of time in his beloved Barbados, the Caribbean island that the wealthy middle-class English ruined by turning it into a hellhole of horrible snooty English restaurants.

But what I and others found endearing is that he made some of the worst films of all time. He made a couple of decent ones too, but you wouldn’t have wished his CV on a dog. Here’s the passage I wrote about him from my memoir ‘Paperboy’.

‘During my very many trips to the Odeon, I discovered one English director in a special class of his own. He was the English Ed Wood, the worst director of all time, and from 1960 to 1998 he silted up cinemas with some 34 films, nearly all of which were unwatchable. Michael Winner, bon viveur, restaurant critic, director, producer, writer, editor, actor and casting director never knew when he was making a horrible mistake – in casting, in writing, in directing, in everything.

There was something irredeemably cheap about a Michael Winner movie. His casts were stuffed into the kind of clothes that become collectable costumes for bad taste parties. The men wore purple patch-pocket wide-lapel unlined cotton suits of the kind once found in Mister Byrite. The women all looked like hookers, or rather how a man would imagine hookers should look, with tight nylon blouses, shiny boots and big hair.

Best of all, so far ahead of its time in a cast that united, for the first and last occasion, the terpsichorial talents of Stubby Kaye, DJ Pete Murray and lip-pursing comic Frankie Howerd, was ‘The Cool Mikado’, a film frequently offered up as the single worst film ever made. This production employed the John Barry Seven to rework the songs of Gilbert & Sullivan, setting them against the dancing of Lionel Blair, the camp and mysteriously heterosexual choreographer, with eye-rolling end-of-the-pier tit-and-bum jokes from Mike & Bernie Winters and Tommy Cooper.

In common with nearly all of Mr. Winner’s films, ‘The Cool Mikado’ had the kind of cinematography one associated with lower-end porn films. Everything looked cheap and cramped. Everyone looked sweaty. The crimson and green sets were emetic, the dialogue and dancing were below the level of a drunken stag night. Even to a child it looked technically inept. Dialogue lines were stepped on, camera lines got crossed, angles were wrong, jokes misfired, everyone jostled for camera attention except the extras, who were chatting among themselves, waiting for direction or nodding off. There appeared to be no survival of Gilbert’s original plot, although it might have been there – it was hard to tell because one scene had very little connection with the next. After a while the film became a Dadaist artefact with the power to hypnotise the hardest-hearted critic.

One day, I knew, this film would be recognised as a visionary work of art.

I realised what I had to do. I needed to rewrite the script and put it right. Rushing home, I dug out my notebooks and began storyboarding the entire screenplay from memory. It was time to use my imagination to produce something worthwhile and meaningful. Where better to start than by rewriting Gilbert & Sullivan via Michael Winner and Tommy Cooper? I could correct all the mistakes, right all the wrongs, and turned a fat, smelly old sow’s ear into a beautiful silk purse.

In the weeks leading up to Christmas I worked feverishly on the script, often including Plasticene model Polaroids of particular scenes. Then it was simply a matter of tracking down Mr Winner’s swanky Holland Park address and mailing off my masterwork. I felt sure that the director would be thrilled to have all his continuity errors, poor characterisation, weak plotting and tenth-rate overdubbing pointed out to him. Thrilled by my initiative, he would commission me to make a new version, putting everything right.

The only thing was, I hadn’t thought to make a copy of the script before I asked my father to post it.

After patiently waiting for about a year, I realised there was a good chance that the director might never get in touch with me. The obvious truth, that Bill had completely forgotten to post it, never even occurred to me.’

He will be missed, actually, because at least he had real opinions and could be unintentionally funny. I suspect his late catchphrase, ‘Calm down, dear’, will live on even if ‘The Cool Mikado’ is forgotten.

12 comments on “Winner Calms Down”

  1. Ken Murray says:

    Finally a personal opinion that hasn’t been tempered into palid vapidity by the fear of American style litigation. How refreshingly honest!

  2. RH says:

    I must confess a soft spot for Hannibal Brooks and The Jokers…

  3. Simon Sperring says:

    Re. Michael Winner. Thank you for putting the record straight. Winner was, as you so rightly point out, a truly dreadful film maker. You have however omitted to mention what must surely be his defining blight on society, the ‘Deathwish’ movies. I think that Winner can be said to have been one of the first directors to realise the financial profits to be gained by appealing to the lowest common denominator of audience emotions – revenge. With Charles ‘rockface’ Bronson he created what has become a drearily common scenario in the movies; ordinary decent person (often with some hidden martial talent, see ‘Seagal’ et al) unleashes his/her anger onto a succession of greasy, fat, ferrety looking thugs, giving them the beating their bad behavior and poor social skills so obviously demand. I wonder if the world might have been a better place if Winner had never had the misfortune (for us) of having gone into the movies. Now about Simon Cowell…

  4. admin says:

    It’s been put online loads of times before, but I loved what Winner said to slimebag TV host Littlejohn; “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. It is an absolutely shameful exhibition of vulgarity directed toward a minority. I think the lesbians have come over with considerable dignity and you’ve come over as an arsehole.” Well done, dear!

  5. neil b says:

    His esure adverts made the Cillit Bang adverts less irritating (knowing giggle).

  6. John says:

    THE SENTINEL is one of my favorite schlocky horor movies from my teen years. My brother and I couldn’t get enough of movies like that. I’ve just added it to my Netflix queue. Long overdue for a reviewing. RIP, Michael Winner, warts and all. Anyone who defends verbally assaulted lesbians is AOK in my book.

  7. admin says:

    Well, Neil, you’d know about the irritation factor of the Cillit Bang commercials, but you were very funny in my play ‘Celebrity’. LADIES AND GERMS, WE HAVE BARRY SCOTT IN THE HOUSE! Check out his fans’ remixes on YouTube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O-_ZkSsksiM

  8. Paul says:

    Will remember him for THE SENTINEL.

  9. Mike Cane says:

    Really, you had to live in America — OK, New York City — to understand the attraction of the first Death Wish movie. Dirty Harry too. Given how things have improved (yes, really), seeing those movies today makes me feel a bit dizzy. R.I.P. Michael Winner.

  10. Alan Morgan says:

    Michael Sackville-Baggins.

  11. Alan Morgan says:

    I have to say that with your life and career Chris you’ve dropped some interesting names – but Barry Scott must top ’em all. When the doodlebugs buzz and songs are sung in tiled tube stations it will be the stern voice of Barry Scott that will tell London to endure. Hourly, from bell-mouthed amps on every lamp post.

    ‘Hi, I’m Barry Scott. And that was the all clear. Rubble, settling brick dust? They’re a challenge for most but…’

  12. Harriet connides says:

    Seeing him speaking up for lesbians and calling Richard Littlejohn an ‘arsehole’ has been the highlight of my year ( so far!) even if it did happen in 1994! Time for a re-appraisal, methinks!

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