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Critic Michael Winner dies, aged 77

Film director and restaurant critic Michael Winner has died, his wife Geraldine said today. He was 77.

Mr Winner, who made more than 30 films including the blockbuster Death Wish series, had been ill for some time and died today at his home in Kensington, London, where he was being nursed by his wife.

Paying tribute to her husband Mrs Winner, a former dancer who he married two years ago, said in a statement: "Michael was a wonderful man, brilliant, funny and generous. A light has gone out in my life."

In a film career which spanned more than 50 years, he worked with some of the biggest stars in Hollywood, including Marlon Brando, Robert Mitchum and Faye Dunaway.

He later reinvented himself as a restaurant critic, writing about food in his typically flamboyant style in his Winner's Dinners column for the Sunday Times.

Winner, whose appearance in adverts for motor insurance coined the catchphrase "Calm down dear, it's only a commercial", also founded and funded the Police Memorial Trust following the murder of WPC Yvonne Fletcher outside the Libyan embassy in London in 1984.

More than 50 officers have been honoured by the trust at sites across the country. The initiative led to a National Police Memorial being erected in the Mall in central London.

Steve Lloyd, trust manager and vice-chairman of the Police Roll of Honour Trust, said: "Michael had been ill for some time, but this is still a sad loss. Michael was a keen supporter of police charities and in particular was the founder of the project that let to the National Police Memorial being placed in the Mall in London.

"There is no doubt that Michael's work will be continued and we at the Trust pass on our sympathies to his family at this sad time.

"The work he did on behalf of the policing family brought a lot of comfort to those he recognised."

Winner had an early introduction to showbusiness - by the age of 14 he was writing a column for local newspapers interviewing stars from Louis Armstrong to Laurence Olivier.

His time as editor of the Cambridge University newspaper, Varsity, saw him lead a team that included Michael Frayn and Jonathan Miller, before stints as a film critic on Fleet Street.

He got his break in 1956 when he started making documentaries and short films and went on to make dozens of films including an early role for David Hemmings alongside Diana Dors in the 1963 film West 11.

Other notable films included a remake of The Big Sleep, with Robert Mitchum as private eye Philip Marlowe, and Hannibal Brooks, which starred Oliver Reed as a prisoner-of-war who makes a bid for freedom with an elephant from a German zoo.

But he is probably best known for the 1974 film Death Wish, which starred Charles Bronson as a mild-mannered architect who becomes a violent vigilante after his family is attacked in New York.

Actor John Cleese paid tribute to his friend. "I have just heard the very sad news about Michael.

"He was the dearest, kindest, funniest and most generous of friends. I shall miss him terribly," he said in a statement.

Restaurant critic Jay Rayner wrote on Twitter: "RIP Michael Winner. He could be absurd and made some lousy films. But he could also be a rather lovely man. Winner made life more interesting."

Journalist and family friend Rod Gilchrist described Winner as "one of the most extraordinary people you could ever meet".

He said: "He was one of the last of the great Hollywood showmen. Given to extravagant gestures, he lived life at 100mph. He could by turns be incredibly generous, funny, playful and kind, while at the same time Mr Winner made a formidable adversary.

"With friends he was very loyal, supporting many financially through times of hardship.

"His films always had populist appeal, but Michael was also a man of refined tastes, enjoying great art. He was also a passionate advocate of the nation's architectural heritage which his own home, a Queen Anne revival mansion in Kensington, bore witness to.

"Michael cared deeply about the society we live in. When Pc Yvonne Fletcher was murdered by Libyan terrorists in St James's Square in the early eighties, he called for the founding of the Police Memorial Trust which honours officers with memorials where they fell.

"When no one came forward, Michael founded the trust himself. He subsequently poured much of his fortune into supporting it and was tireless in his work for it.

"Mr Winner's impeccable connections ensured that four prime ministers attended the laying of memorial stones at different times around the country and the Queen unveiled the National Police Memorial in the Mall in 2005.

"I don't know anybody else who would have done this or achieved so much for the police and the memory of their officers who had given their lives fighting crime. He was utterly unique."

TV mogul Simon Cowell also paid tribute.

"I'm very sad to hear about Michael passing away. He's become a very good friend over the years and someone whose company I have always really enjoyed," he said in a statement.

"Laughter was never far away when Michael was around and he is someone who the more I got to know, the fonder I got of him. I am sure there are a lot of other people who, like me, will really miss him."

Peter Wood, chairman of insurance company esure which Winner helped advertise, said: "Michael was one of the last of the great British characters who prided himself on being difficult while actually being incredibly charming and sensitive deep down. Few people could help make a company famous with an ad-libbed phrase in an advert but he did that for us. The world has lost a colour from its palette with his passing."

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