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 a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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