Michael Winner: Big mouth strikes again
He usually arrives at restaurants in a private jet. What will Michael Winner make of the Golden Arches? Deborah Ross treats him
Tuesday 02 March 2010
When I invite Michael Winner to lunch at McDonald's in Wood Green he readily accepts, as I rather knew he would.
I then feel bad and even try to talk him out of it. Michael, I say, Wood Green is known locally as Hood Green for all its prowling hoodies; hoodies who are mostly accompanied by those powerfully squat, fat-bollocked Staffordshire Bull Terriers sometimes called Tyson and sometimes called Killer. Michael, I continue, last time I went to see a film in that badlands of north London and pulled down the seat, it had a huge penis graffitied on it. Michael, I further continue, when I opted to not sit on that seat – sit on a penis?; at my age? – and pulled down the next one it had "Fuck You!!" scrawled on it. Do we even think the second exclamation mark was necessary, Michael? Wasn't the point rather well-made with the first? Michael, you don't have to do this. I thought it would be amusing to take you out of your comfort zone, away from Sandy Lane or dining with your hundreds of celebrity friends (ie, Michael Caine) but I can now see it's a rotten, lousy, stinking, mean-spirited, cruel, low, putrid, patronising, cheap, shaming and pathetic idea. "Next Thursday, darling?" he suggests. And we're on.
So, McDonald's in Hood Green, which is situated on the high street, between an amusement arcade and a shop offering the faux-est of faux Ugg boots for £4.99, it is. I arrive first and wait outside; wait while keeping a safe distance from the two fat-bollocked Staffies already tied to the railings. (I have nothing against Staffies, by the way, and do understand they can be very sweet when not otherwise occupied with taking your leg or your nose off.) I am informed of Michael's whereabouts every two minutes or so. Either he calls from his car – "I'M ON GREEN LANES, DARLING!" – or his PA calls from his office: "HE'S ON GREEN LANES, DEBORAH!" I eventually spot his vintage Rolls-Royce nosing down the high street, past all the shops with "pound" in the title: Poundworld, Poundstretcher, Poundland; useful shops which may or may not one day go upmarket, as in Twopoundworld, Twopoundstretcher and Twopoundland. It's a small dream of mine. Anyway, Michael's driver parks up and then Michael exits the car. This causes quite a stir. Particularly among a group of large, black ladies who shriek hysterically: "It's the calm-down-dear, man ... it's the calm-down-dear, man." And then keep repeating: "Nice to see you, nice to see you ... calm down, dear!"
"Thank you very much. Thank you. Bless you," says Michael. He is 74, quite thin these days and actually quite frail. He was desperately ill in 2007 with a bacterial infection caused by the flesh-eating bug Vibrio vulnificus – he contracted it after eating oysters in Barbados – and his left leg is shot, basically. "They took away three balancing tendons as well as the Achilles tendon," he says. "I'm crippled." He spent seven months in The London Clinic – "it cost me a million and five, darling" – and was in terrible pain. I ask if the experience changed him. "I wasn't changed," he says. "God didn't speak to me the five times I was near death." I don't know if he then wrote a letter of complaint to God's boss, but am guessing so. ("It's un-fucking-believable! I can't remember the last time I was so badly treated. And God says he's in the comforting industry! It's beyond belief!") I offer to help him into McDonald's, even try to take his arm to steady him, but he won't have any of it. He is wonderfully proud. If Michael Winner has a vulnerability, it may be that he would never want anyone to see just how vulnerable he can be.
We step inside. Do I need to describe it? The interior of a McDonald's? The muzak? The sour stink of gherkin? The fluorescent lighting that leaches all skin colour? The drooping, resigned shoulders of the worker mopping the floor? The slumped teenage girls surrounded by their Primark bags? Have you been to Primark, Michael? "No. Why would I go to Primark, dear?" It's also full of half-dressed children – why are the children in McDonald's always half dressed? – throwing stuff at each other and just stuff generally. A little girl tosses a French fry carton which gets Michael on the shoulder. "Lovely," says Michael. "Shall we book for New Year's Eve?"
The photographer, David, arrives and says we'll have to do pictures outside as McDonald's will not allow photography inside on the grounds that it will "disturb customers". Michael takes this news calmly and in good cheer. Only kidding! And boy, does he go off on one. It is: "Just take the bloody picture. What are they going to do? Shoot you? If you think they're going to take you outside and shoot you, I've got news for you: nobody gives a shit." David does not look convinced. Michael carries on: "Do you think they are going to throw us out? Believe me, they are not. Take the fucking picture. They said in the letter it would disturb customers. We could take 60 photos. Nobody cares. Idiots." Then, to me, it is: "Don't you agree, darling?" I say I do agree but, in effect, it's trespass and McDonald's is famously litigious. "Oh, I'll deal with them later. Take the bloody picture," he says. Another small dream of mine: to have been born with the name Egg McMuffin, so I could simply call McDonald's' head office and say: "I think you'll find you do not have permission to use my name." I have very small dreams, as you can see. You may say you were born Filet O' Fish, if you like.
We find a table. I do not know if it's the best table in the house, but it is certainly the only available one. There is a draught. "I'm sitting in the freezing cold," grumbles Michael, grumblingly. He is an astonishing grumbler. He grumbles about how much he was paid for his new TV show, Michael Winner's Dining Stars, which started last Friday night on ITV. "It was originally going to be an hour in the afternoon, and I did a deal for that, and I reckon that on an hourly basis I was getting less than a Pimlico plumber on a Saturday call." The money went up when the show was recast in the evening, he says, "but it's still not a serious amount. When the producer said, 'Mr Winner, what do you want to get from this programme?' I said, 'Fun, fun, fun. It's certainly not for the money.'"
The show, which is peculiarly fun, in a demented, argghh sort of way, has Michael visiting the homes of ordinary people, sitting at their dining table like some kind of gimlet-eyed, homicidal Jewish grandmother, and then passing judgement on the meal. This may involve crying and awarding one of his wonderfully pointless dining stars (Justine) or not crying and not awarding a wonderfully pointless dining star (Dean). I later ask Michael if he wasn't a little harsh on Dean. To say his goat curry was disappointing is one thing, but to tell him his family is boring? Ouch! "I'm there to tell the truth," says Michael. End of.
Back to McDonald's, where Michael is now looking around, rather as if for the maitre d'. And then the penny drops. "Is it self service?" he asks. It is Michael, yes. "This is a disaster," he says, "and I've got no money. I never carry money." I say it's on me. I'm good for it, so long as you promise to take me to The Ivy in return (ha!). He says he is not entirely a stranger to Wood Green, and actually started his career here. "The first commercial I ever made was in Green Lanes and it was for a firm called Elizabethan Tape Recorders. They went broke about a year later so I think you can say my commercial did not turn a corner for them. Do you queue here? And then they produce the food and then you take it away? Is that what happens?" Yes, I say, that's what happens. He gets up, holding onto the table. "Look, the tables are nailed to the floor," he says, "in case the customers take the table! Ha!"
We join a queue. I say: this isn't your first visit to McDonald's, surely? He says he went once when Trevor McDonald was making a programme on fast food. "I went to the McDonald's in Kensington, but it was full of PR people getting the food for me. Now they don't even want us to take a photograph. Unbelievable!" Are you fond of hamburgers generally, Michael? "I'm very fond of hamburgers," he says. "Best hamburgers in London are at The Ivy. Very good hamburgers. The Wolseley I adore, but they never get them right. They're either overdone or underdone ... this is a bloody wait, isn't it?"
We eventually arrive at the counter where we are served by a young woman who doesn't make eye contact. She may be depressed or only in it for the money. Or both. "Hello, dear. Are you alright?" asks Michael. Then it's: "Darling, I would like a Big Mac. Do you still do a Big Mac? I'll have a vanilla milkshake." "To eat in or out?" asks the girl. "Wait a minute," says Michael, "this is very important. I'll have a three chicken selection dip." "Sauce with the chicken?" asks the girl. "Sour cream, chilli or barbecue?" "Barbecue," Michael replies, "and now I'm going back to the table. I'm a cripple."
I wait for the order and then bring the food to him, along with some bad news. The milkshake machine is broken, I tell him. I had to order ice-cream instead. This time, he does remain calm; is able to shrug it off as if it's nothing. Only kidding! (And I can't believe I got you a second time! Man, you are so dumb.) He says: "The milkshake machine is broken? It's a bloody outrage. An outrage! This is a major outlet. How DARE they have a milkshake machine break down. Why don't they have two? So if one breaks down they can still serve the customer. Milkshakes are one of their main items. It's beyond belief."
Michael, I say, why do you get so angry? It's only a milkshake. Get over it. He says: "If a meal isn't any good it doesn't worry me deeply. There is always another meal coming up so you can't cry over a single meal. But I don't shrug it off because I'm paid not to shrug it off." He has been writing his Sunday Times restaurant column, Winner's Dinners, for 15 years. It is always wonderfully entertaining involving, as it usually does, Michael arriving somewhere by Bentley or private jet, ordering the most expensive item on the menu, and then picking a fight. He'll berate the maitre d' for not giving him the best table or serving freshly squeezed orange juice that somehow isn't freshly squeezed enough. And in those 15 years he's never had a week off; not even when he was at death's door for all those months. "I even managed to write it in intensive care while drugged to the hilt," he says. Michael, I say, you're mad. He says: "It focused my mind on something." The fact is, I don't think he could bear it if his column didn't appear. It might mean he doesn't count.
We set to the food. He starts with his chicken, described as "tender chicken breasts in a crispy coating" but which actually look, I'm afraid, like turds rolled in cornflakes. Michael speaks into his tape recorder, as he does whenever he is reviewing a restaurant. He says: "Chicken is ghastly beyond belief. The batter is very heavy. The chicken is absolutely tasteless." He starts on his Big Mac, so I start on my Big Mac. I haven't, actually, had a McDonald's for years and was rather looking forward to it. I remember when the first McDonald's opened in London – it was in Woolwich, in 1974, when I was 13 – and queuing round the block for a Big Mac, and thinking it was the most heavenly thing ever. Now it all seems to me like food for people with no teeth or, at the very least, advanced gingivitis. Nothing needs biting or chewing. This is food you can gum. Michael takes one taste of his Big Mac then discards it. "Very stodgy and slushy," he says.
I ask him what his earliest food memory is. He says he went to a Quaker school in Hertfordshire which only served vegetarian food, but one day the piano teacher took him to a cafe where he had sausage and chips and remembers saying to the teacher: "This is the most wonderful meal and when I'm old I'm only going to eat sausage and chips." Or perhaps it's his mother's meatloaf, "which had an egg going right though the middle – brilliant". Would your mother have been amused by Dining Stars? "My mother would have been very amused. She used to go into the top restaurant in London at the time, Wiltons, and she'd say to the owner's wife, who hated her, 'Your smoked salmon, it's not salty is it?' And the owner's wife would say, 'Of course not, madam,' so my mother would say, 'Can I taste it?' She'd taste it like she was tasting vintage wine and then she'd say, 'No thank you, I'll have something else.' Wonderful woman!"
His mother was a gambler who gambled away £50m of his family's fortune and was always much more interested in what was happening at the card table than in Michael. I am no psychotherapist – except on Tuesday mornings – but, even so, have always suspected that Michael's big-baby tantrums must have something to do with still wanting mummy to come and pick him up. Have you, Michael, ever given therapy a go? He has not, he says. He even says, quite seriously: "Can you imagine talking about yourself? I'd be bored to death. I'd fall asleep after the first minute and a half." He then adds: "Actually, when I parted from [Jenny] Seagrove, John Cleese's then-wife [the psychotherapist Alyce Faye Eichelberger] said, 'You're very wounded, you should see a psychotherapist.' So I went to this man in Notting Hill – 40 quid a time, I remember – and he said, 'Why have you come?' I said because Alyce Faye told me to. He said, 'Do you think you should be here?' I said no, not particularly, and then said: 'I'll tell you what, tell me why you think I should come again and if you convince me, I'll come again.' He said, 'I don't think you're ready for me yet,' and I never went again." He adds that the ice-cream, which is like a Mr Whippy in a pot, is fine, "although would have been better without the chocolate sauce" while the chips "are actually quite good".
Time to go now, and so it's into the back of his Rolls to do some photographs. We take a Big Mac with us, which sends Michael into major fusspot mode. He doesn't want drips on the upholstery. "I've just had it redone. Ten thousand pounds, it cost me!" He is still mad about the milkshake. "Three o'clock in the afternoon, queues everywhere, and you can't get a milkshake? Absolutely disgraceful!" He says he is pleased to have survived Wood Green. "I need a sticker saying: I have survived Wood Green," he says, as the Rolls pulls away from the kerb.
Actually, he hasn't been discombobulated at all. I now realise you can never take Michael Winner out of his comfort zone as he is his own comfort zone. It's kind of what makes him Michael Winner. And God love him, if God is around today. (He's not? Un-fucking-believable! Beyond belief! A disgrace! An outrage! You can fill in the rest.)
Michael Winner's Dining Stars, Fridays, 9pm, ITV
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