Michael Winner was one of the most delightful interviewees I have come across in 20 years as a journalist. He was also the most generous as well as the greatest showman I have met. Showbusiness ran through his veins, and his impresario inclinations extended even to interview situations.
I interviewed him three years ago, in March 2009. Having read of his appreciation of punctuality, I turned up early at his Holland Park mansion – directions to which he had personally emailed me, following on from a phone call in which he had asked me to produce a letter from my editor, proving my credentials. Entering the palatial Winner residence reminded me of one of those early scenes in a Raymond Chandler film noir – two of which Winner made in the 1970s – where the private eye Philip Marlowe gets to thoroughly case the joint of his potential new client before they meet (while wondering if he's being checked out, via a spy hole).
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I was led into the house's private cinema where I was to await the arrival of "Mr Winner". The 15-minute wait gave me just enough time for two speedy tours of the vast, mogul-style screening room, the walls of which were covered with photos of Winner with legendary movie stars, mostly taken on the sets of his own films. He was, after all, a direct link to h the "golden age" of Hollywood, having worked with such old school stars as James Stewart, Robert Mitchum and Ava Gardner towards the end of their careers.
I may have been there to talk about his Fat Pig Diet book, but movies were Winner's passion –and, once I'd got used to the fact that he was recording the interview and was obviously very wary of unfamiliar journalists, and once he'd realised that my favourite films were from the same era as his, we got on like a house on fire. Not only were movies his passion but they had also, clearly, been a comfort, an escape, to him during a pretty horrendous and lonely childhood. The bluster and rudeness that he often displayed in public masked a much gentler, quieter and insecure character in real life.
I interviewed him a second time, 18 months later. It was a phone interview and I have no idea if he remembered who I was – though he had sent me a letter saying how much he had enjoyed the article I'd written after our face-to-face interview. (Another rare event in the world of celebrity interviewing.) He was publicising another book, and as we said good-bye, he said: "You are coming to the party, aren't you?" Well, no, I hadn't known anything about it but an invitation then materialised, Willy Wonka-style, and my friend and I got to spend the most surreal and fabulous evening quaffing champagne, while hob-nobbing with Winner's close friends, among them Michael Caine, Barbara Windsor, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice – all of whom chatted to us like old friends.
I remembered that Winner had told me that during his days as a cub showbiz reporter he had interviewed Louis Armstrong backstage at one of his London shows. The amiable Satchmo had invited the young Winner to join him and his wife for dinner at his hotel; Winner had never forgotten this "magical" experience. Perhaps that's why he was so generous with his own hospitality.