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Wednesday 17 September 2014

A film and food guru who feasted on the good things in life

Published 27/01/2013 | 06:00

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Michael Winner, who has died aged 77, was one of Britain's few commercially viable film directors; he also followed a late-flowering vocation as a restaurant critic, becoming the UK's most outrageous food writer with his opinionated column, 'Winner's Dinners'.

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In the course of a film career lasting 40 years, he made more than 30 pictures, among which were sharp social comedies such as The System (1963) and The Jokers (1966). But he derived his wealth and lasting reputation from later Hollywood hokum, notably the frenzied and graphically violent Death Wish series.

Winner's controversial blockbuster, Death Wish (1974), starred Charles Bronson as an architect on a mission of vengeance after muggers murder his wife and rape his daughter.

Many critics complained that the film exploited American paranoia over rising urban violence. The public, on the other hand, could scarcely get enough of the action – cinema audiences burst into applause each time a mugger was shot on screen.

Most American film writers took Winner seriously as a director, admiring his swift efficiency and unerring knack of coming in on, or under, budget. But in Britain he was widely regarded as a flaky, loud-mouthed show-off.

He was larger-than-life. He drove a Rolls-Royce, had 100 phones in his 46-room mansion, paid no attention to his appearance and was rarely seen without a Montecristo cigar.

Surprisingly for a man who described his most successful work as a "puddle of blood", Winner was house-proud to the point of obsession. He had a staff of nine who had to sweep every carpet, dust every picture and polish every surface daily, and he admitted to spending occasional evenings dusting the tops of his doors.

An only child, Michael Robert Winner was born in London on October 30, 1935. His grandfather, a Russian immigrant, ran a chain of menswear shops, but his father went into property and prospered.

Winner's eccentric Jewish mother suffered from a lifelong addiction to gambling, and Winner recalled that at his bar mitzvah she threw a poker party; he spent the evening answering the door and taking coats to the cloakroom. She was a regular at the Monte Carlo Casino, where she lost more than £3m. "She used to pawn my father's oils," Winner recalled, "and she sold the deeds to my penthouse to pay her debts, but what can you do? You can't sue your aged mother."

She even became extremely fond of Winner's Limerick-obsessed neighbour, the actor Richard Harris. When Harris died in 2002, Winner said: "The lights have dimmed a lot with his passing. He was my neighbour for 10 years, and he was the most wonderful, warm character. My mother adored him because he'd come round and chat to her and get coffee and sugar."

Winner's other Irish connections extended to adding measures of Baileys Irish Cream to his daily coffee and Barbados, where he frequently holidayed. He was full of praise for the way JP McManus, John Magnier and Dermot Desmond restored the exclusive hotel Sandy Lane to its former glory.

While visiting, Winner once persuaded Chris De Burgh to perform a rendition of the diminutive star's hit song 'Lady In Red' on the hotel piano. Winner had barked at De Burgh: "Come on, Chris, don't ponce about, we'd like a song. It would be very nice to go with the bacon and eggs."

Winner was educated at St Christopher Quaker school in Letchworth. A lonely child, and something of a misfit, he sought consolation in the cinema, and spent his weekends and holidays writing about film stars for various papers.

After Cambridge University, he began writing screenplays, mainly thrillers. In 1958 he had his first full-length screen success with Some Like It Cool, a vehicle for pop star Billy Fury set in a nudist colony during the 'Twist' dance craze.

Throughout the 1960s Winner specialised in socially-observant comedies such as The Jokers (1966) and I'll Never Forget What's'isname (1967), both starring Oliver Reed. Reed responded well to what he described as "a director who shouted louder than I did", and Winner used him again in his 1968 film Hannibal Brooks. To avoid Reed's excessive drinking, Winner always stayed at a different hotel.

But his biggest success came with Death Wish, starring Charles Bronson. He went on to make two sequels which, while critically mauled, were financially successful. "I'd have Bronson starring in Death Wish XXVI," he insisted, "if I thought it would make a profit."

Winner dismissed claims that he was encouraging anti-social behaviour with the violence in his films. "The public likes action," he said. "It takes their minds off the real world, and that's what entertainment is about."

In recent years, he was most famous for 'Winner's Dinners', an acidic weekly column about food and restaurants in The Sunday Times. His love of rich food and cigars caught up with him. In 1993 he was told he would have to undergo a triple heart bypass. Then, in January 2007, he contracted the rare disease vibrio vulnificus after eating an oyster.

In 2011 he married Geraldine Lynton-Edwards, whom he had met in 1957 when he was 21.

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