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.

JESSICA NELSON/MOMENT OPEN
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The fisher bird that unites levity with strength

We think the planet's fish are rightfully ours. But the brown pelican is known to snatch fish from other birds in mid-air.

If ever there was a time when I was unaccountably happy, it was the day I first saw the Pacific. I had just started working at an office near San Jose and, three days in to my first week, a colleague drove me south and west on a back road that seemed to run for hours through dense stands of Douglas fir and redwood, not stopping till we were just shy of the coast, the firs giving way to wind-sculpted specimens of California cypress and Monterey pine.

Here we parked and walked the rest of the way, coming over a rise and finally gazing out over the water. The Pacific. The idea of it had been part of my mental furniture since childhood, though I didn’t really know why, and what I saw both confirmed and confounded the image I had of that great ocean. But the thing that struck me most, the true source of my unaccountable happiness, was a long flight of brown pelicans drifting along the waterline, just ten yards from the shore, more elegant than I could have imagined from having seen pictures and captive specimens in zoos. This is not surprising, as what makes the brown pelican so elegant is how it moves, whether diving from astonishing heights in pursuit of fish or, as on this first encounter, hastening slowly along a beach in groups of thirty or forty, head back, wings tipped up slightly, with an air of ease that would give the term “laid back” a whole new definition.

The brown pelican: it’s a slightly misleading name, as the predominant colour varies from cocoa-brown to near-grey, while the breast is white and the head is brushed with a pale citrus tone, rather like the gannet, to which it is related. The birds breed on rocky islands off the Central American coast and travel north to hunt. In recent years, concern has been voiced for the species’ long-term safety: first, because of an observable thinning of the eggs, probably caused by pesticides, and second because, as recently as 2014, there was an alarming and inexplicable drop in the birthrate, which some observers attributed to huge fish-kills caused by Fukushima.

On an everyday level, though, pelicans, like cormorants and other coastal dwellers, have to be protected from those among the human population who think that all the fish in the ocean are, by some God-given right, unaccountably ours.

But none of this was in my mind that day, as I stood on that white beach and watched as flight after flight of pelicans sailed by. Out over the water, the sun sparkled yet the sea was almost still, in some places, so the bodies of the passing birds reflected in the water whenever they dipped low in their flight. What did come to mind was a phrase from Marianne Moore’s poem about another member of the Pelecaniformes family – the “frigate pelican”, or frigate bird, which she describes as “uniting levity with strength”. It’s as good a description of grace as I know.

Yet grace takes many forms, from the absolute economy with which an old tango dancer clothes her unquenched passion at a Buenos Aires milonga to Jürgen Schult’s world-record discus throw at Neubrandenburg in 1986, and we have to learn from birds such
as the pelican what we mean by “levity”, and “strength”.

How else to do that, other than by closely observing how the natural world really operates, rather than how we think it does? Later, in her poem about the frigate bird (an accomplished flier and an even more accomplished thief, known to pluck fish from another bird’s grasp in mid-air), Moore extends that notion of levity: “Festina lente. Be gay/civilly? How so?” and adds a quote from the Bhagavadgita that, to my mind, gets to the heart of the matter: “If I do well I am blessed/whether any bless me or not . . .” The lesson we learn from the noble order of Pelecaniformes is exactly this: of the many prizes we may try for, grace transcends all.

Next week: Nina Caplan on drink

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times