Obituaries: Vincent Winter

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The Independent Culture
PHILIP LEACOCK'S film The Kidnappers (1953) was one of the most popular British films of the post-war years, and one of the few to achieve wide popularity in the United States (where it was called The Little Kidnappers).

It was a charming tale, written by Neil Paterson, of two small boys, orphaned and sent to live with their grandfather in a bleak area of Nova Scotia at the beginning of the century, who long for a dog but are denied owning one by their puritan guardian. When they find a baby in the woods, they are delighted at last to have a pet and secretly keep it as one. The film's success was largely due to the performances of the two young lads in the leading roles, John Whiteley and, playing his younger brother, the chubby-cheeked Vincent Winter, who managed to be totally endearing without ever becoming self-consciously cute. It is the little dog-lover Davy (Winter) who suggests, when the boys are deciding on a name for the infant, "We could call it Rover."

Whiteley and Winter were both given special miniature Academy Awards for their "outstanding juvenile performances", and Winter went on to have a lifelong career in show business, though not eventually as an actor. (His co-star, Whiteley, gained an Oxford degree and became curator of a college art collection.)

Winter was born in 1947 in Aberdeen, Scotland, and was only five years old when discovered by a children's coach, Margaret Thompson. Whiteley had already played a major role in Charles Crichton's Hunted (1952), but Winter was without experience. Philip Leacock recalled: "We brought the children in to test for the parts; we did play situations, as we did with the film itself. Vincent couldn't read so he had to be firmly taught lines - he had a memory like a computer. He would do his own lines aloud and then silently mouth everyone else's words!"

The naturalism that Winter conveyed gave no hint of the primitive methods of training. "If we had a little white ratting dog," he suggests to his grandmother, still hopeful, "it wouldn't eat but rats and it could have a wee end off of my ration on a Sunday."

Whiteley, nearly three years older, was also Scottish, and part of the two boys' charm lay in their melodious Aberdeenshire accents. "Is it our babby now?" asks Winter after they discover the child. "It's mine," replies Whiteley soberly, "but you can have a loan of it while I've other business." Left alone to tend the child, Winter carefully feels its arms before commenting, "Got some good fat on you, babby."

Though he played in films for the next decade, Winter never again found a role or script as good, but his performances were always watchable. While making the Errol Flynn adventure tale The Dark Avenger (1955), he so captivated Flynn that reputedly the actor wanted to adopt him, and in the tense B-movie Time Lock (1957), tautly directed by Gerald Thomas in pre-Carry On days, he engendered audience concern as a child trapped in an airtight bank vault.

After his performance in Gorgo (1961), in which he compassionately displayed empathy with a sea monster, despite its intent to devastate London, he was signed by Walt Disney and starred in the popular tear-jerker Greyfriars Bobby (1961), his empathy this time with the bereaved Skye terrier of the title. For Disney he also starred in Almost Angels (1962), in which he sang (dubbed) with the Vienna Boys' Choir. The writer John Holmstrom amusingly described the film, retitled Born to Sing in the UK, as "a kind of All About Eve rethought in terms of the Vienna Boys' Choir. Sean Scully played the Bette Davis part of the supplanted prima donna, and Vincent Winter an innocent version of the Anne Baxter." He went on to add that the film was saved partly by "Winter's all-conquering niceness".

Other Disney films included two delightful family films directed by Don Chaffey, an enchanting version of Paul Gallico's classic children's story The Three Lives of Thomasina (1963) and The Horse Without a Head (1963), in which Winter was one of a group of children who foil bank-robbers and find the stolen loot hidden in a broken toy horse.

Now in his teens, Winter found that good parts were becoming scarce, and he was advised by the Disney producer Hugh Attwoolf to study the technical side of the business. He worked as a "runner" on the Disney swashbuckler The Fighting Prince of Donegal (1966) and graduated to production assistant on such films as Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1971).

After settling for a time in Melbourne, Australia, where he worked as a stage manager, he returned to England in the mid-Seventies, functioning as assistant director on The Sailor's Return (1978), production manager on Superman II (1980) and Second Unit Assistant on a lavish fantasy made by the Muppets team, The Dark Crystal (1982). On Kenneth Branagh's Henry V (1989) Winter held the important post of Production Supervisor. Last month, he was in Turkey, where he was acting as a consultant on a project to build a new film studio.

Earlier this year, he was invited back to Hollywood for a group photograph of former Oscar winners, and he confessed later how delighted he was to discover that such stars as Gregory Peck and Dustin Hoffman were staunch admirers of both The Kidnappers and Winter's enduring performance in it.

Vincent Winter, actor: born Aberdeen 29 December 1947; died 2 November 1998.