Michael Winner dies, aged 77

Veteran film-maker and critic dies at his Kensington home

Veteran film director and critic Michael Winner has died, aged 77, in his Kensington home. Liver specialists told him last summer he had between 18 months and two years to live. He had looked into assisted suicide in Switzerland, but found the bureacracy off-putting.

His wife Geraldine, who he met aged 21 in 1957, but did not marry until 2011, has said: "Michael was a wonderful man, brilliant, funny and generous. A light has gone out in my life."

Winner wrote film and TV reviews from a young age. He started at Cambridge University aged 17, editing the student newspaper "Varsity" and commissioned work from fellow-students Michael Frayn and Jonathan Miller.

His best-known films include Scorpio (1973) and the first three episodes in the Death Wish series between 1974 and 1985.

His final film, Parting Shots (1999), began with a man being told he had six weeks to live. The man decides to kill people who have wronged him during his life, and hires an assassin to take him out, rather than let him languish and expire in jail. Total Film declared the work "offensive", "incompetent" and "bad in every possible way", while Empire named it the 42nd worst movie of all time.

However, in recent years he was better known for his Times column "Winner's Dinners" and for his appearances on the Esure car insurance adverts. His slogan, "Calm down dear...", became a British commonplace, and suggested last year that David Cameron may possibly have watched ITV at some point in his life.

During his appearance on This is Your Life Sir Michael Caine told Winner: "You've been a friend to me, Michael, for a long, long time. Whenever I read a newspaper I never recognise the person who is my friend. I'm here really to tell everybody that you are a complete and utter fraud. You come on like a bombastic, ill-tempered monster. It's not the side I see of you."

Winner described himself on Twitter as "a totally insane film director, writer, producer, silk shirt cleaner, bad tempered, totally ridiculous example of humanity in deep shit." Instant opinions being his forte, Twitter seemed a natural home for Winner. One can only assume he made all the shots he had in him before parting. Here are a few of the best.

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism