Film director Michael Winner, who died this week aged 77, was a man who liked to ‘live it large’.
Quite an irony really, considering he enjoyed a notorious reputation for his Charles Bronson vigilante film Death Wish, which became a trilogy stretching from 1974-85.
Winner’s final film, Parting Shots, wasn’t intended to be his swansong when it was released on May 14, 1999.
During a promotional visit to Birmingham that week, he was effervescent about plans to move on from comedy towards horror with a film called Crystal Balls.
“It’s about an evil clairvoyant and it will be quite violent,” he said, a ready smile licking his lips in eager anticipation at the prospect of causing another storm in a gilt-edged teacup.
You can only ever take people at face value and I found Michael Winner to be delightful company.
Eight years before he almost lost a leg after eating an oyster meal in Barbados in January, 2007, the then 63-year-old Winner had a rotund physique with oily flesh.
He was charming, jovial and irresistibly larger-than-life in his own bedroom suite at the then five-star Swallow Hotel in Five Ways.
A few years earlier, I’d interviewed Adam Faith in the same hotel in similar circumstances, the latter fresh from a shower and wrapped in the kind of bathrobe which, he had learned over the years, defined just how good an establishment was.
Winner was equally old school – no PR interference by his side, just a love of the finer things in life.
Thanks to his Sunday Times restaurant column, Winner’s Dinners, he was arguably already more famous for criticising food and service that wasn’t up to scratch than for his 30 movies.
In order to glamorously promote the regional premiere of Parting Shots in Birmingham, Winner decided to take 16 Birmingham Mail readers out to dinner before sending them on a coach to see the premiere at the Odeon New Street.
As a money-cannot-buy showbiz prize, it was a great idea, brilliantly executed.
On the food front, it was not only extremely generous of Winner to fund the meals with all the trappings for 16 readers of our sister paper, but brave for a man whose reputation would have no control over what came out of the kitchen.
This, in essence, defined the character of the Cambridge-educated law and economics graduate who had launched his career at the age of 14 writing showbiz news for the Kensington Post prior to editing his university’s newspaper, Varsity.
Before flying back to London on a private aeroplane after our chat, Winner generously reflected on a career which had seen him push back the boundaries of taste and decency with the likes of Death Wish.
And directing everyone from Robert Mitchum, Joan Collins, Edward Fox, John Mills, James Stewart and Oliver Reed to Burt Lancaster, Orson Welles, Anthony Hopkins and even Marlon Brando.
Not bad for any Brit, never mind someone so often criticised. “We’re still really good friends,” Michael told me.
“Marlon will ring me up six times a night, each with a different voice before admitting who he really is.”
Lamenting that censorship in Britain was ‘‘the toughest in the world’’, he said: “Television is slightly more accessible, but I don’t think it matters late at night.
“I don’t accept that hordes of six year-olds are walking down the stairs at 1am, or secretly putting on the video without dad knowing it’s whirring round.”
Winner was accompanied in Birmingham by his then latest girlfriend, dancer and actress Vanessa Parry who, I pointed out, was typically barely half his age. Again.
“Well, would you go out with someone of my age?” he quipped.
No, but surely he must come to grief with some of the fathers of these women?
“Never have,” he said. “We normally get on very well.”
Michael’s period of success also left him with his biggest regret.
“Yes, I do sometimes wish I could have had children, but I’ve never married.”
In Parting Shots, pop star Chris Rea played a photographer who, having been given six weeks to live, decides to shoot the people he reckons have let him down the most.
His weapon of choice was a 9mm handgun similar to the one used to murder Jill Dando three weeks before my chat with Winner.
But the tone of the film was light-hearted and Winner was dismissive of films inciting such violence.
“As soon as I heard about the murder of Jill – whom I have met – I thought it must have been someone she knew,” he said.
“Most deaths are within the family. Or a spurned lover. They’re nearly all lovers.”
Winner finally tied the knot with Geraldine Lynton-Edwards on September 19, 2011 and wrote his last Winner’s Dinners column for the Sunday Times last month.
He died on January 21, 2013 in London, the city of his birth and luxury lifestyle.