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.