Poor little rich boy

Critics of Michael Winner - and he does have a few - tend to concentrate on the crassness of his films, his rudeness in restaurants and the compulsive name-dropping and boasts about money. They rarely mention the man who still wishes there were fairies at the bottom of his garden

Deborah Ross
Sunday 26 September 1999 23:02

At 11am I arrive at Michael Winner's modest Kensington dwelling with its 42 rooms, 100 telephones, impressive art collection, private screening room, swimming pool, Jacuzzi, steam room, magnificent palms out back, one live-in housekeeper, a nice assistant called Diana, a nice man called Mr Edwards who seems to be some kind of handyman ("Why is the pool cover not working, MR EDWARDS? Deborah wishes to see MY SWIMMING POOL!") and five full-time (8am-6pm) dailies. Five full-time dailies! "Well, dear," he explains happily, "every room is cleaned every day. I would be very surprised if I ran a finger along anything and picked any dust up." And if you did? "I would point it out. Of course."

I put it to him, from the off, that he is possibly of that splendid Jewish school which has never really got to grips with the "less is more" philosophy, believing that "more is more", and a lot more is a lot more, and if you have a lot more it would be entirely ludicrous to affect otherwise. He laughs. He is a big, loud, well-fed man who laughs a big, loud, well-fed laugh. We have bonded, I think. I might, even, have stood a chance of becoming his next companion had I been a 36 (D-cup), a pantomime dancer, and 22.

He later, even, takes me up the grand staircase to see his bedroom. It is the most magnificent bedroom, the size of several council houses knocked together, with a stunning wall of north-facing, 40ft windows, whizzy-whiz electronic blinds and a rifle by the king-size bed. Hang on, a rifle by the king-size bed? Are 22-year-old, 36 (D-cup) pantomime dancers proving more reluctant these days? No, apparently not. "It's in the pathetic belief that if someone is in the garden, you can blast them with the air-rifle, and you don't have to call the police and get them arrested or anything." His moral imperviousness is a marvel. This man may well be some kind of genius.

Anyway, one of his dailies (I assume) lets me in at the security gate. She abandons me in the hall, which is OK, because it gives me time to admire his collection of original children's-book illustrations by Arthur Rackham, EH Shepard, Heath Robinson. These were the pictures he loved as a boy and still loves because, "I would like to believe in fairies at the bottom of the garden". Watch out you don't shoot them, I caution. He says, haughtily: "I can tell the difference between a burglar and a fairy, dear."

I think, interestingly, he might have spent much of his adult life trying to purchase back the childhood he never really had. This house is, actually, the house of his boyhood. His father leased it after the war and turned it into flats, but Michael gradually bought out the other tenants and restored it. Soft toys are mawkishly scattered throughout. Amongst others, I am introduced to Reggie (a rabbit, in the drawing room), Freddy (a polar bear) and James (a teddy, in his office), and Humpty (a Humpty) in that magnificent bedroom. After The Third Man, he counts Bambi and Snow White as his favourite films.

Have you tried to buy back your childhood, Michael? "Yes, dear. Totally, totally. I've never had children, family, all the things that, in theory, make you adult." I'm not sure he's ever even lived with anybody in this 42-roomed house, although he will insist he has. "I lived with Seagrove, dear." I thought she had a flat round the corner? "Yes, but Seagrove came here every day at 6pm." Seagrove? Not Jenny, his actress girlfriend for more than six years? Does everything have to be owned? Possibly, yes.

Diana collects me and takes me down to meet Mr Winner in his private screening room. You do tend to forget Michael Winner is a film director. Many people, possibly, want to forget Michael Winner is a film director. (Death Wish, Dirty Weekend, Parting Shots... aaghh!) Michael, though, does not want people to forget he is Michael Winner, the film director. This room is wall-to-wall photographs. It is Mr Winner with Charles Bronson. Mr Winner with Faye Dunaway. Mr Winner with Jeremy Irons. Mr Winner with Marlon Brando. Mr Winner with Burt Lancaster.

He is, yes, the most spectacular show-off. It is: "I'm going out to dinner tonight with Michael Caine, which will be a nice event." And: "Death Wish transformed cinema. They lecture on it in America!" And: "The other day I saw my friend Don Black, the lyricist - that is, Andrew Lloyd Webber's lyricist - who lives opposite... " And, in his "Winner's Dinners" column in The Sunday Times: "I think at pounds 29,000 for 22 nights (at the Sandy Lane, Barbados), which is what I have paid, one is entitled to be a bit picky." Too right!

I know a lot of people find this self- aggrandising distasteful - and I'm not sure I don't - but I do find it compellingly distasteful. Thrillingly distasteful, even. Blowing your own trumpet is one thing, but this man blows his own orchestra! It's incredibly impressive, in its way. I think, here, I might even be trying to say I like him, actually. Still, it is easy to see why so many find him off-putting. He, however, imagines it's to do with jealousy.

"In America, it is very different. If you have a big car, dear, people say: `I want to have that car. How do I get it?' Here, they say, `bloody fat slob, got a big car'. And this even though all my cars are 40 years old. I spend less on my cars per year than the average family in a council house." Of course, what it costs to fill the tank of one of his old Rolls- Royces would probably be enough to feed such an average family for a year. Still, he seems utterly compelled to say these sorts of things. And I'm fairly certain it all goes back to "mumsy". Mumsy, I think, has quite a bit of explaining to do.

He didn't have much of a childhood. Helen Winner, his mother, was a compulsive gambler. This is well known. But I hadn't realised quite how substantially she had trampled all over his psyche until I tried to find out more about his father, George, a property developer.

What was your father like, Michael? "Oh, my father was an angel. When people meet me they say: `Ah, I knew your parents. Your father was such a wonderful man, and your mother..." and then they pause... and then they say, `she was a little difficult'. My mother was nuts... she lost pounds 8m at the Cannes Casino."

But your father? "She was always an inveterate gambler. She was a very good card player. Poker, gin, bridge. She turned my bar mitzvah into a poker party, while I sat alone in the bedroom, amongst the mink coats. When my father was alive she would play, but play within reason. But when he was dead... well, if you play it costs money. All the paintings and things in this house were left to me, but she'd literally take a painting off the wall, put it in a taxi, and sell it to a dealer in Cannes... today they would have been worth pounds 25m, no question."

I give up on dad. Did your mother love you? "In a way too much, but it was a strange love. It turned on very strong and then it would vanish. It was a love but, you know, my mother was brought up in Poland which is the most anti-Semitic country in the world. She saw Jews forced to push peas along the road with their noses. She saw rabbis hanging by

their beards. These things have a cataclysmic effect on people."

But you can't have understood that as a young boy, surely? "I didn't understand it at all. She was not interested in me and my considerable achievements. At 14, I had a column in 16 papers. [He did showbiz interviews.] I went out to dinner with Louis Armstrong! I'd tell mumsy and she'd say `The zeros didn't come up at all last night'."

And this is it, I think. Mumsy took no interest in his "considerable achievements". So now everyone else has to? I put this to him in my brilliantly clumsy, Freudian way. He laughs loudly, then says: "A very dear friend of mine said `you should really go to psychoanalysis'. I said: `Your husband has been in psychoanalysis for 30 years, and there still hasn't been a result!' MR EDWARDS? HAVE WE MENDED THE POOL?"

I am taken down to the pool. It is, yes, immensely beautiful. It even has one of those current machines that you are meant to swim against. "Too strong for me... flattens me... but my girlfriends like it." Ah, the girlfriends! Jenny, of course, who left him in 1993, and the odd bit of kiss'n'tell hanky-panky (my own favourite is Simone Hyam, 20, 36D-cup, ex-Grange Hill, who told the News of The World about skimpy towels and massive Y-fronts. She shocked Michael by going to the press - "I thought she wouldn't, dear, being a nice Jewish girl from north London, like you" - and now Vanessa Perry, a young ex-actress who was, yes, a dancer in pantomimes but is now a personal fitness trainer.

So, Michael, tell me, what attracts you to older women? He laughs again - he can laugh at himself easily - and says: "People ask me `what can you say to a 20-year-old?' Well, a 20-year-old is the world's greatest expert in the life of a 20-year-old. Why should that be any less interesting than the life of a 50-year-old? People say, `you can't sit down and have an intellectual discussion about Proust'. I don't want to have an intellectual discussion about Proust! At the end of the day the most important thing in life is to have people about you who give you pleasure."

And who you can lord it over? "What drives me mad is when people say they're only there for the money. They never ask for a penny, these girls."

The money. I'm not quite sure where it all comes from, frankly. He insists it's all his own, and that he inherited very little. Still, he was left with considerable property interests which, cannily, he sold just before the crash in 1987. Money is a big thing with him. Money, actually, does seem to underlie most of his relationships. His mother (who died in 1984) actually spent the last 10 years of her life trying to sue him for the shares and other things that his father had made over into Michael's name. As it turns out, his oldest friend is John Fraser, who now works in his film company and who he has known since boarding school, where Michael used to pay John to clean his room. There is certainly a pecuniary dimension to this relationship.

And, as I discover, Michael was something of a petty thief at school - stamps from Woolworths, ten-bob notes from other boys' pockets. He says he has no idea why he did this. "Why should I, at a thoroughly respectable school, go round picking pockets of the boys in the class? All I know is that it was a brief period and I've done all I can to make amends. I sent the chairman of Woolworths pounds 500. There was one boy, Patrick Clotworthy. I stole a ten-shilling note from him. But I later found him and gave him many hundreds of pounds."

He does so like to patronise others with his wealth. It means a lot to him, and may even define him. And poor Patrick Clotworthy! "He's a biscuit salesman now..."

Anyway, it is 1pm, and I'm invited for lunch. This means his own steak has to be cut in half, which is sweet of him. He takes a lot of pills - "This is Vitamin C. This is Vitamin E. These are for my heart. These are to stop my hair falling out. They're marvellous." But your hair isn't falling out, Michael. "It was before I started taking these!"

We sit at this massive dining table. The water comes in a crystal jug. Ice for the water comes in a separate crystal bowl. Lemon for the iced water comes in another separate crystal bowl. It is all very grand. Still, you can't help thinking about that boy who sat alone among the mink coats at his own bar mitzvah, Tragically, perhaps, he will always be that boy. I do hope he never shoots those fairies.

`Winner's Dinners', a collection of MichaelWinner's restaurant reviews, will be published next month by Robson Books, priced pounds 16.95

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