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Obituary: Michael Winner

Obituary by Jack Foley

FILM director Michael Winner has died at the age of 77, his wife Geraldine has confirmed.

Best known for the Death Wish vigilante films starring Charles Bronson, Winner was also a respected newspaper columnist. He had been ill for some time and, last summer, revealed that liver specialists had only given him 18 months to live.

Paying tribute to her husband, Mrs Winner said: “Michael was a wonderful man, brilliant, funny and generous. A light has gone out in my life.”

Born in Hampstead, London on October 30, 1935, Winner was educated at St Christopher School, Letchworth, and Downing College, Cambridge, where he studied law and economics.

But he indulged a passion for writing at an early age, contributing his own column to the Kensington Post from the age of 14 after successfully submitting a story to the newspaper.

He also developed a keen fascination for film during that time and would often blag his way into film studios and interviews, which led to work as a journalist and film critic for the NME.

In 1956, however, he took his first steps into movie production by joining Motion Pictures Limited as a writer and editor, although continued to work in journalism on the Evening Standard.

He finally directed his first film, Shoot To Kill, in 1960, before following that up with a comedy about nudism called Some Like It Cool.

By the mid-1960s he was able to concentrate on his work as a director and collaborated with the likes of Oliver Reed and Michael Crawford on a series of successful comedy thrillers.

But he also underlined his diversity and penchant for ambitious undertakings when he directed the 1969 WWII adventure Hannibal Brooks, which saw Oliver Reed’s prisoner of war, Stephen ‘Hannibal’ Brooks, escape through the mountains to Switzerland with an elephant in tow.

This, in turn, brought him to Hollywood’s attention and he was able to make his first Western, the violent revenge thriller Chato’s Land, with Charles Bronson and Jack Palance in 1971.

In the same year, he wrote and directed the film he has since claimed to be most proud of, The Nightcomers, a prequel to Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, starring Marlon Brando and Stephanie Beacham.

But he was to enjoy his biggest success in 1974 when he re-teamed with Bronson for the first Death Wish movie – a film that shocked many viewers with its approach to violence and retribution.

Winner remained unapologetic for the film’s sympathies, however, even though he personally abhorred violence. Indeed, he founded the Police Memorial Trust to erect plaques to police officers killed on duty following the murder of WPC Yvonne Fletcher in 1984.

He went on to mix his filmmaking career with writing, garnering further notoriety for his often outrageous restaurant reviews in the The Sunday Times newspaper.

And he was a regular guest on the BBC’s Any Questions, and also appeared on TV’s Question Time, ever keen to provide commentary on social events.

In 2006, it emerged that Winner had turned down an OBE in the Queen’s 80th birthday honours’ list for his part in campaigning for the Police Memorial Trust, insisting in typically provocative fashion, that “an OBE is what you get if you clean the toilets well at King’s Cross station”.

But he continued to live life to the full, residing in a 48-room house in London with five servants and a vast collection of art and books. He also settled down in 2011 when he married Geraldine Lynton-Edwards, at the age of 75, a woman he first met in 1957 when he was a 21-year-old film-maker and she was a 16-year-old actress and ballet dancer.

Tributes have been paid by all who knew Winner. Among them, composer Andrew Lloyd Webber said he would “deeply miss” his friend, writing on Twitter: “True originals come rarely in a lifetime.”

While Monty Python comedian John Cleese said: “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.”