20 | Jul | 13

Richard Johnson

Taking The Michael

A weird thing to me happened today. I was reading some critic’s review, pulling apart the main course of a well-meaning chef, thinking “I miss Michael Winner”.  At least when Britain’s most irritable, pompous restaurant critic pulled apart  the main course of a well-meaning chef he did it with a smile. I met Winner a few times over the years, and had the privilege (maybe that’s overstating it rather) of interviewing him for the Sunday Times Magazine. It wasn’t an easy interview. But then life isn’t easy. And he left his mark on me to the point where I miss him. Even now. Here is the interview.

It’s raining. And Michael Winner wants to know how long it’s going to last. Exactly. The schedule of Parting Shots, his new film, depends upon it. “It’s a shallow trough, sir” says a helpful assistant. “Fuck all that. Is it going to keep pissing down between now and midnight?”. The assistant gets the meteorology centre on the mobile. At ú11 per enquiry, it’s not cheap. Winner mutters something about how the overpaid meteorologist has only-been-right-once-so-far-any-bloody-way. “Stop in half-an-hour, sir” says the assistant. Winner pulls a face. The assistant disappears behind a wall to shout at the meteorologist. Winner’s mood spreads like ripples on a pond. Pity the poor meteorologist’s wife tonight.

Winner catches sight of a Citroen Xantia parked where it shouldn’t be. In bloody shot. In the old days he’d have just had a tow truck drag it away. We are talking about a director who reversed the traffic flow over the bridges of New York to make Deathwish III. A man who blew up a car in Piccadilly Circus for You Must Be Joking. In the middle of the rush hour, for God’s sake. But that sort of behaviour wouldn’t go down well in Hampton Wick. According to the Residents’ Association, the Xantia belongs to the nice man in number three, and he’s not back until 6.45pm. It’s only 5pm, but Winner seems calm. Deceptively calm. “I am calm. If this happened a few years ago I would have gone hysterical. Now I let it wash over me.”

Winner is still a man of action. He’ll tell you as much. Last week he decided he wanted to shoot a short scene of the new movie on London Underground – something the BBC would have taken at least two months to organise. But Winner just went ahead and shot it. With a skeleton crew and enough small change to pay for six singles to Shepherd’s Bush. “There was this voice over the Tannoy saying `No filming is allowed on the Underground’. Fuck him, I said. We stayed on the platform. It was perfect first take, thank God. Just before we jumped onto the train, two Underground officials came round and said `Will you go away?’. I was indignant and said `But we’ve had this arranged for months’. Terribly naughty of me.”

He once put a 12 man-cordon across the Ginza so he could film down Tokyo’s busiest street. Highly illegal, of course. “I had a man on a walkie-talkie saying `The police have grabbed me, Mr Winner. They’re pulling me away. Mr Winner?’ I heard the van door close, then his walkie talkie went dead. It was heroic.” Winner expects. And most of his men – the only females in the crew are wardrobe and make-up – are happy to do their duty. Last week, Mitch was charged with stopping the traffic down Prince of Wales Drive, one of the busiest roads in London. Poor Mitch. In ten seconds, the queue was 30-cars long. Mitch was worried about being run over, and legged it to the pavement. He was awarded Parting Shots first Moron badge.

There are 150 badges for Parting Shots – lime green, two inches in diameter, with Moron printed in black type. They are awarded whenever Winner sees fit. “Moron is a much-used word on this set” says Winner. “It’s a jovial word. A jovial word used by a group of people having fun.” One extra doesn’t see the funny side of being called a moron, and objects to BECTU, the Broadcast Cinematograph and Theatre Union. Winner points out that the crew have had t-shirts printed saying `I’m One Of Winner’s Morons’. To prove his point, Winner awards himself five Moron badges. Today he’s disappointed to see Mitch isn’t wearing his badge. “What can you do?” I shrug. “Fire him” says Winner. I only know it’s a joke when he smiles.

Winner is 62. It’s easy to forget he was once an Angry Young Man. One of his first movies, West 11, was a scabrously authentic movie about bedsit land. Daddyo. That’s when he was a Social Realist. But then he’s been most things in his time. His first film was This Is Belgium. “We started in Belgium, but it rained so much we had to finish it in East Grinstead.” Over the years he’s tried his hand at cowboys and indians (Chato’s Landscape), horror (The Sentinel), restoration (The Wicked Lady), and even cute-dog-saves-Hollywood (Won Ton Ton). But it’s Deathwish people remember. Shame, really – The Nightcomers with Marlon Brando was a Venice and San Francisco Festival Jury Entry. And A Chorus of Disapproval won at the Cologne Film Festival.

Parting Shots is a black comedy starring Felicity Kendal, John Cleese, Bob Hoskins, Ben Kingsley, Joanna Lumley, Oliver Reed and Diana Rigg – a dream of a cast for a movie lover. Winner has always loved the movies. One afternoon he was watching Gary Cooper in Unconquered, when a man put a hand on his thigh. “I moved to another seat. No point in missing the film – it was Cecil B De Mille.” When Winner listed his top twenty passions in Esquire magazine, movies were only beaten by `farting’ and `Come Dancing’. Cecil B would not have been so irreverent. And Cecil B would not have listed `Having a pee when you really need one’ at number 19 . But then Michael Winner is much, much funnier than Cecil B De Mille.

He loves all the trappings of the job. The eyepiece round the neck to check the framing, loudhailer (should the situation demand it) and his hand-made director’s chair from Italy. He used to employ a boy on set as `official carrier of the cigars’. In an effort to introduce multi-skilling, the boy was also made `bearer of the matches’, but that was back when Winner would unwrap his first cigar of the day at 9am. Back before his heart attack and triple by-pass. Back in 1983, when he gave his last box of Monte Cristo to Andrew Neil. He hasn’t smoked since. “It’s saved my life. Better than that – it’s saved me a member of staff.”

Winner begrudges staff. You sense he would rather do the whole damn thing himself. Screenplay for Parting Shots is by Michael Winner and Nick Mead. From a story by Michael Winner. Produced and Directed by Michael Winner. Edited by Arnold Crust (Winner’s pen name) in a Michael Winner Film. I see a pattern emerging. Winner likes control – even his friends call him the Fuhrer. The nickname dates back to 1969 when Winner was recreating the Olympic Marathon in The Games. Hundreds of Italians were lining the streets and, well, you can see how it might go to a man’s head. “I said to Terry [O’Neill, the photographer] `We shall be in Abyssinia in days’. Then I did the salute.”

This is the man who has said that a team effort “is a lot of people doing what I say”. It’s industry wisdom that production and direction should rub up against each other – two separate disciplines creating artistic tension. Winner disagrees. That’s why he’s producer and director. Winner doesn’t want to rub up against anyone. “What usually happens is that there’s a conflict of interest. And a conflict of command. I want to be able to make a choice without having to consult someone else. If I’m buying a jacket, I don’t want to have to phone my producer. `Fred, I’m thinking of the grey double-breasted. That all right?’. This way the crew can get immediate answers.” And Fred gets to work with a director who doesn’t treat him like a wardrobe boy.

Chez Nico, Park Lane. Sunday September 7.

Fellini would use bicycle thieves to give his films authenticity. Well, Winner’s using Chris Rea. A singer who has never actually acted before. Winner was originally looking for a young Walter Matthau to star in Parting Shots. When he heard that in Germany they call Rea `the English Walter Matthau’, he was sold on the idea. Rea was only down to do the film score, but he screen-tested like a natural. “Better than that” says Winner, “he looks like Charles Bronson. From Middlesborough.” Rea is evidently loving the Winner experience. “Michael is an auteur” says Rea. “Which makes it easy on me, as long as I do what I’m told.” Auteur is the polite word. I don’t think it’s the word the crew use.

Nico, the restaurant proprietor, is looking on. He’s afraid to say it, but his langoustines are beginning to smell under the film lights. “Least of my problems, dear” says Winner. Winner’s far too busy. The cameras are about to roll. The familiar cry goes up. “Ready? Hang on – lost my glasses…Action!” Rea waves his napkin above his head to summon a rather nonchalent head waiter. “Do you, in fact, serve food here?” is his line. The gesture isn’t exaggerated enough. “Like this” says Winner. The draft from the napkin is enough to displace Felicity Kendal’s hair. Rea smiles. “I’ve never done this sort of thing before” he says. Michael Winner most definitely has.

Winner never eats with the crew. He knows they don’t want to have him there. At lunch he chooses to eat out – burger bar, brasserie, whatever, but always `out’. He knows the jokes – how restaurants are thinking of putting `Michael Winner free zone’ stickers in their windows. How the best table is the one where Winner sits – and the worst is the one next to it. He actually gets a bit miffed by it all. Especially the suggestion that his Winner’s Dinners in the Sunday Times are good or bad depending on the servility of the waiter. “Can’t they see that the character who writes Winner’s Dinners is a creation? Surely they can see it’s tongue in cheek. It’s really not me.” I need some convincing.

If Winner likes the look of what someone else orders, he just leans over and takes it. Even if he’s never met the person before. Of course, he then picks up the tab. “I’ve only done it twice” says Winner. “Once I took a quarter of a sandwich. Once I took some fish. And ended up paying ú187 for it, so I don’t think they were badly off. It was Granny’s birthday, and they had been having champagne. I should think they pray I’m in every restaurant they go to. They weren’t exactly upset. They said `Would you like some of Granny’s birthday cake?’ And that was before they knew I was paying for the meal. So the child had a little less fish. It won’t do him any harm.” You can see how people might just take him the wrong way.

At table with Michael Winner you learn to talk quickly. And not very often. If it’s an anecdote, make it short. And shove the punchline near the front or you won’t get to finish. Unfortunately, he’s such a good story teller, you really don’t mind. He’s not ill-mannered. Once he was telling his Cannes stories – which do involve a lot of swearing – and managed to upset four elderly people at the next table. “I felt absolutely terrible. Picked up the tab.” Today he knocks over table four’s vase in an effort to hurry up the bill. Picked up the tab. It’s just that he doesn’t think. Like with the boy’s fish. If that had been John Travolta’s fish – however good it looked – it would have stayed on John’s plate. Winner can just be a bit of a bully.

The Goose and Granite, Fulham. Thursday September 25.

Today it’s an early start. But then Oliver Reed likes to start early. When Winner was negotiating terms with The Goose and Granite, there was a slight hiccup (and bilious aftertaste) when the landlord heard Reed was to star. “In the end it was fine” says Winner. “I said to the pub `You can pay us if Ollie’s in a drinking mood’.” Reed is ready. But he could be readier. “Michael – should I have a pink gin?” he asks. The pair have made six films together, including The Jokers and Hannibal Brooks, and know how to turn on the patter. “I don’t think a pink gin’s a good idea” says Winner. “I really don’t. Remember the day you showed everyone in Chorleywood you thingy, dear?”

Everyone on a Michael Winner film set is a `darling’, a `love’, or a `dear’. Not gender specific, you understand. And it’s a form of address that can take new cast members by surprise. “I’ve killed or been killed in more Westerns than I can remember” said the undeniably rugged Robert Ryan after appearing in Winner’s film Lawman. “But this is the first time I’ve ever been called `love’ by the director. I guess that’s the English’.” When Gareth Hunt arrives on set he knows what to expect from Winner. But the rest of us don’t. “My liege!” shouts Hunt. “My lord!” shouts Winner. It’s like the pair are meeting over a log in Sherwood Forest. The atmosphere among the actors is friendly. And a lot of that is down to the Fuhrer.

Reed is busily rehearsing. “Hands?” he mutters. “Bloody stuck on the end of your arms. What do you do with them?” Rea is looking on – but probably not learning a great deal about the actor’s art. The next scene requires Reed [and his hands] to walk toward the bar. This is one actor who doesn’t need to ask his motivation when he’s walking toward a bar. Winner just lets him get on with it. “I like that” says Reed. “When you walk into a pub, you just walk into a pub. That’s what you do. Inexperienced directors love the sound of their own direction, and interfere a bit, but Michael just lets you stroll along. That which doesn’t come naturally, doesn’t deserve to come at all. And Michael really understands that.”

On my way to the car park at the Goose and Granite, I’m cornered by a four-man deputation. Like a press gang from BECTU. “You’re the guy from the Sunday Times Magazine, aren’t you? What you going to write?” They want to tell me about the real Michael Winner. About how a rigger called Clive (“a big geezer”) once held him off the edge of a scaffold. “Just got the right hump with him”. And a set painter “who put him flat on his arse”. That – according to the boys – is why Winner doesn’t employ set painters any more. And then there’s the story about the chauffeur. Couldn’t put up with Winner’s foul mouth, so just left him by the side of the road. This deputation would certainly not be working for him again. Winner, it seems, makes enemies as easily as he makes friends.

That’s probably why Winner’s favourite hobby is litigation. He won’t be badmouthed unfairly. He hates journalists (“19 of the 20 people I want to kill are journalists”) and tapes all his interviews. Today he’s suing his local council for libel. “You’ll be mentioned by name on Sunday [in Winner’s News of the World column]” he says to some poor councillor on the phone. “And you won’t enjoy it”. Winner enjoys playing People’s Champion in the News of the World. If the portable vacuum cleaner simply refuses to work after three days, he does really wants to know. “The nicest thing ever written about me was on my school report when I was eight. It said `Michael Winner is very popular because he always takes up the cause of any boy he feels has been wronged’. I can’t think of anything nicer to go on my tomb stone.”

Normansfield Hospital, Teddington. Tuesday October 7.

Winner is filming a policewoman walking across the floor of Normansfield Hospital. She’s delivering a cup of tea. “That cup of tea should be handed to a distressed lady” says Winner. “If’s she’s not distressed, I’ll make her distressed.” The distressed lady is from a local amateur dramatic society. The policewoman is a real policewoman. For reasons only Winner will ever know, he calls her Snitch. He’s not very good with names. “Snitch, darling? Snitch? Come in with the tea, dear.” By take three, Snitch has become Mitch. Then Snatch. The others find this funny. The policewoman doesn’t. “Gareth? Stop grinning like a twit.” Sometimes it’s like he’s directing the lower sixth.

“Mr Kubrick checks the light in every cinema in America, you know Richard. He has somebody view every single print of the film for him, for goodness sake. David Lean would stop a scene in Dr Zhivago because 15 yards from the camera they were serving fake caviar. He would say `It offends me’. The control I have is loose by comparison.” Not according to Peter Davison. Today Peter’s feeling jolly undervalued actually. “If you surround yourself with good people, it’s a bit of a shame not to use them to their full potential” he shuffles. “On this film you are told where to stand, and what to say. It’s not about artistic interpretation. And when you say something critical, Michael just says he’s the director, and you’re the actor.”

Winner laughs when I tell him. It’s a half-hearted laugh, but a laugh nonetheless. “In motion pictures, the script tells you what to say. That’s not unique to my pictures, is it? And in a motion pictures – which, incidentally, Peter Davison is not used to – you have to tell people where to stand, otherwise they won’t be on the screen. The reason they’re given marks, which Mr Davison has had some trouble hitting today, is that if you miss them by six inches, half your head can disappear off the screen. Marlon Brando didn’t worry about that. Paul Scofield didn’t worry about that. Never mind what Peter Wotsit says. Just ask Joanna Lumley. Or Oliver Reed. Or Bob Hoskins.”

While he remembers, Winner takes a picture of Vanessa (his girlfriend) and Felicity Kendall for the family album. “Me, now” says Winner, handing the camera back to Vanessa. Winner just can’t help himself. He’s star-struck. Then he has his picture taken with Oliver Reed and Joanna Lumley. Ollie wants to point at Winner (in that `I’m having my picture taken’ kind of way), but Winner makes him put his finger away. Then I get called to have my picture taken with Winner. It’s churlish to refuse. When the photo comes back from the developers, we’re blurred. So we re-shoot. With Chris Rea, this time. It arrives by post the next week. Some would see it as presumptuous – like being given an autograph when you haven’t asked for one – but I’m still touched.
St Joseph’s Church, Highgate. Monday October 13.

Parting Shots is the story of wedding photographer Harry Sterndale (Chris Rea) who is told he only has six weeks to live. So he decides to settle a few scores before he goes. Brian – a real-life wedding photographer – is here, on the final day of filming, to advise Rea just how the job’s done. He’s used to Anglican weddings, and is, quite frankly, surprised at how modern the Catholics are being by allowing a photographer to walk backwards down the aisle. By the time we get to photographing the family, Brian is advising maybe just a little too much. Chris Rea smiles – and leans towards me. “To paraphrase Mr Winner, `We’re here to make a movie, not a fucking photography video’.”

Vanessa has been drafted in to play the bride. She’s chosen her own groom (Tristan, her co-star in a dance/video project promoting European apples) and she’s overacting for all she’s worth. “Cut” says Winner. “Can’t stand it any more.” Maybe all this “having” and “holding” of another man is more than he can stand. Vanessa beams at him romantically. She has, according to the tabloids, tamed the man with the allegedly gargantuan Y-Fronts. “Don’t believe anything they say. My private life is, in fact, very quiet. I’ve been with Vanessa four-and-a-half years. I was with [Jenny] Seagrove six-and-a-half years. Hardly breaks any records, does it?”

The priest isn’t happy. “Can we do that again?” he asks. Winner timed him doing the vows (23 seconds, allowing for one dramatic pause between `to have’ and `to hold’), but the film-friendly priest thinks maybe he was a little slow. He’s excited to have the cast and crew in his church. It’s no more trouble than the local choral society, who turn the place upside down with their Messiahs and their Requiems. Besides, it’s something to write about in the parish newsletter. Winner reshoots the vows, then grabs the walkie-talkie on his way past the collecting box. “I asked for two sausages in a bread roll one hour ago, and I still haven’t got them”. This is the nearest I see to shouting.

He laughs to see the focus puller wearing shorts. Again. Winner bet he couldn’t wear them for every day of filming. Over the past month he has focus-pulled in gentleman’s clubs and London restaurants – and broken six dress codes. If anyone asked (and they did) he claimed he was an actor in costume. To get into Moore Park Golf Club he had to say sorry, but he couldn’t wear long trousers because of a skin complaint. Winner’s movement order for today – in deference to the Catholic faith, of course – specifically requested “no baring of knees” in the church. The focus puller has ignored it. Even though it’s an autumn day. Unless, of course, you subscribe to Winner’s meteorology service. In which case it’s hotter than in Agadir. And that’s ú11 please.

Winner decides to call the office and dictate a few memos to Mr Fraser before lunch. Mr Fraser is an old school friend. Mr Fraser used to make Mr Winner’s bed for two-and-six, and then do his washing-up for sixpence. Of course, the headmaster at their Quaker school did frown greatly upon the practice when he found out. “He said it was the power of the purse” says Winner, “and that was obviously something they were against. But Fraser wanted the money. Still does.” Now Fraser runs Winner’s office, and that means dealing with his boss’ irascible manner anything up to 10 times a day. The two are friends, but you would never know it to overhear their calls. Maybe it’s shyness. Maybe it’s just indigestion.

Lewis Gilbert, the film director, says “One doesn’t know where the real Michael lies, and where the self-invented Michael begins.” And Gilbert’s known Winner for years. It’s like looking through a thousand mirrors. It’s clear watching him on set that the biggest performance you get on Parting Shots is from Winner himself. Winner insists he is actually very shy. “Immensely shy” he says. “And if I say I’m shy to a journalist, they just laugh. I’m shy going in to a room. I’m not the man you read about in the press. They’re only interested in Mr Rumbustious. I very seldom go out – but it’s `Oh, your so gregarious, always at first nights’. I go out two nights a week on average.”

“I’m asked to 30 events a week. I used to put the invitations on the mantlepiece so I looked important. It sounds awful, but they want to say to their friends `Michael Winner’s coming to dinner’. They think you’ll be entertaining. Now, when people say `Will you come to dinner?’ I say `Who else is coming?’. So they tell me. I say, `Well, quite honestly dear, I don’t want to sit for three hours with those people’. If there’s an expert on art, or an expert on gardening, I’ll go. But if it’s what I call the riff-raff of the social scene, I’m not interested. I don’t want to hear where they got their clothes, what restaurants they go to, or where they went in the South of France. They bore me.”

He denies all the crew’s stories. “Absolute nonsense. Clive was a rigger who wasn’t being let in the union because he was black. I took up his cause.” The set painter? “Well – our sets don’t paint themselves. And may I drop dead of Aids tomorrow if I’ve ever been hit by a crew member. Well, a German extra once tried to throw beer over me in Austria. But he had bad aim. And I’ve never had a problem with chauffeurs.” Winner likes being a contrived bombast. Maybe, once upon a time, his bite was worse than his bark, but not now. It’s just that no-one is prepared to believe him. And I’m not sure he really wants anyone to know. He hails me a taxi, and the driver pulls over – smiling. “That bloody Michael Winner” says the driver. “I wasn’t stopping, you know. I was surrendering.”