Mike Winters: Comedian who forged a popular but troubled double act with his brother Bernie
Wednesday 28 August 2013
Although always in the shadow of the great Morecambe and Wise, Mike and Bernie Winters were British television's other popular comedy duo during the Golden Age of Television. Mike was straight man to the gormless twit played by Bernie, who wore a bowler hat, pulled a toothy grin, grabbed his elder brother's cheek and called him "choochy face". The pair's boisterous, unsubtle, knockabout humour and music-hall crosstalk kept them at the top for 15 years and the professional partnership ended only when brotherly acrimony resulted in their splitting up.
They followed in a long line of comedy double acts, such as Jewell and Warriss, but, like many, including Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, and Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin, they failed to get along together – a tragedy made greater by the fact that they were brothers. At the age of 47, Mike Winters put behind him almost 30 years in show business and left Britain for Florida. He reinvented himself as a "businessman", although in reality he tried writing for a while, owned a nightclub and disappeared into obscurity. "I left Heathrow airport signing autographs, got off the plane to complete and utter anonymity," he recalled at his Miami Beach home. "I left Mike Winters, celebrity, came here Mike Winters, deadbeat."
Born Michael Weinstein in Islington, North London in 1930, the grandson of a Russian Jew and son of a bookmaker, he attended the City of Oxford School before studying clarinet at the Royal Academy of Music. While there, he was invited to play his instrument with a quartet at the Stage Door Canteen, the Services entertainment centre. He brought in on drums Bernie – two years his junior – who had found little success treading the boards as a comedian in dance halls.
The pair teamed up with the comedian Jack Farr in an act called The Three Loose Screws, which included impressions of the film stars Lionel Barrymore, Charles Boyer and Ronald Colman, and toured variety halls. Branching out on their own as the comedy double-act Mike and Bernie Winters, the brothers performed on the BBC radio show Variety Parade (1955), and shortly afterwards in The Benny Hill Show at the Leicester Palace Theatre.
After appearing on a bill with the entertainer Tommy Steele in 1956, they became popular with the younger generation and were picked as resident comedians for the BBC's first pop music programme, Six-Five Special (1957-58), which was aimed at a youth audience and presented by Pete Murray, Josephine Douglas and, later, Jim Dale. The comedy duo also appeared in the feature film version, 6.5 Special (1958).
Fame was short-lived and the pair split up in 1959 when Bernie was offered film work by the producer Cubby Broccoli, although they were reunited as themselves in Michael Winner's film The Cool Mikado (1962), a modern-day version of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. The double-act reformed and their agent, Joe Collins – father of the actress Joan and novelist Jackie – landed them a booking on Sunday Night at the London Palladium, and they were then invited to appear in the 1962 Royal Variety Performance. Even then the pair considered emigrating to Australia, but their career was revived when they were chosen as hosts of the ITV Sunday evening variety show Big Night Out (1963).
One week the brothers arrived at ABC Television's studios in Didsbury, Manchester, to present the live programme and, seeing the number of young fans waiting outside, thought they had finally made it big. But Mike Winters recalled, "We stepped confidently from the car and we were right miffed when the kids hardly took any notice of us. I asked the doorman what it was all about. 'The Beatles are on the show today, sir,' he said."
The Fab Four also appeared twice in the brothers' subsequent series, Blackpool Night Out (1964-65), presented from the ABC Theatre, Blackpool. The duo then landed several of their own comedy series, including Mike and Bernie's Show (1968-71), Mike and Bernie's Scene (1970) and The Mike and Bernie Show (1972).
In 1970 Mike Winters suffered a breakdown and left his brother to perform a summer season alone. Then, the pair received a critical mauling of their television sitcom, Mike and Bernie (1971-72), scripted by Vince Powell and Harry Driver and featuring the pair as two out-of-work music-hall comedians trying to make a career in showbusiness.
At about this time, as the result of an argument, they decided to split up for good but remained together until 1978, following the death of their father. Mike Winters explained at the time: "The reason it didn't happen earlier was because my father always wanted us to be together. He died last year, so we felt we could go our separate ways."
While his younger brother forged a new career on British television as a presenter of game shows, accompanied by his St Bernard dog Schnorbitz, Winters moved to the US, wrote some sketches for The Dick Emery Hour (1979), collaborated with Angelo Dundee on the legendary boxing trainer's autobiography, I Only Talk Winning (1983), and opened a club, Mike Winters' Miami Room.
Amid the bitterness the pair hardly spoke to each other until they were reunited and put their differences behind them in 1985, when Winters travelled from Florida to a London hospital for a minor operation. "It was a feud that finally got on top of us," said Mike. "I'm so happy it's over." His younger brother was subsequently diagnosed with cancer of the stomach, which spread to his liver and led to his death in 1991.
Mike and Bernie Winters' autobiography, Shake a Pagoda Tree, was published in 1976, and in 2010 Mike published a memoir, The Sunny Side Of Winters.
Michael Weinstein (Mike Winters), comedian: born London 15 November 1930; married (one son, one daughter); died 26 August 2013.
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