I’m going to be a big TV star. Big, big, big. Well, maybe not. As the saying goes in the movie world, every film is a great success until it’s released. My peak-time ITV1 show Michael Winner’s Dining Stars, one hour of me (could anything be better?), is currently much loved by those aware of it. If it flops, they won’t answer my phone calls. That’s show business. The gag is that I enter homes of real people and judge their cooking. On the way my life is contrasted with theirs. Then I come to their town or village and accost people in the street — some marvellous conversations occur — eventually arriving at the victim’s door. You’ve heard of the play The Iceman Cometh. This is The Axeman Cometh.
It was massively enjoyable in spite of some oddities. It’s the first time I’ve been employed as the front-of-camera star. Behind the camera — that I’m used to. I knew I was in trouble on the first day. I was filmed getting onto a private jet to take me to Italy. I paid for that, not ITV. They’re a bit short of cash. It was a Thursday and the crew had five days in which they could have turned up at Lake Garda to film me and my adorable fiancée Geraldine. They’d chosen the following Monday. ‘Dare I ask,’ I said with underlying menace, ‘have you checked the weather forecast for Lake Garda?’ They looked at me as if that was a really stupid question. ‘No,’ they said. ‘We always do in movies,’ I volunteered, ‘so I checked it for you. The Monday you’re planning to shoot shows non-stop rain and low cloud. Tomorrow, sun all day. I suggest you get out there to film tomorrow.’ They did. It was sunny. On the Monday it rained non-stop.
Another day we went to Bruges. I left Ostend airport in a car sent by the hotel. The director and crew waited for transport supposedly arranged by the production manager named Button. Hit no buttons that I noticed. Nothing turned up. The director rang the number he’d been given and waited. Still nothing. Eventually he rang the hotel they were booked into. They sent a car from Bruges. A two-hour delay, when every second was needed for filming. I made my feelings known. There were seven production executives listed. Between them, they couldn’t get a taxi to an airport. My hotel room was in the basement overlooking a car park. For E25 more I could have had a canal view. Obviously Matt Walton, executive producer, didn’t think me worth it. Compared to movies that I’m used to, mostly my own, the production was shambolic. I’ve employed top production managers. Stanley Kubrick and I spent hours on the phone discussing the minutiae of location filming, crew rates and all the details that matter on a movie. Compared to the slapdash attitude on my TV outing, there was a major difference. You won’t notice it on screen. I did.
Another time, filming in Wilmslow, from 8 a.m. to midnight, I rested for an hour at 5 p.m. at a local hotel. I saw I’d been booked for the night at the Piccadilly hotel in the centre of Manchester. ‘Why,’ I asked, ‘am I expected to travel 45 minutes into Manchester and more in the morning rush hour to get back to the motorway to Longridge when we’re inches from the motorway now? If I stayed here I’d save at least an hour and a half of travel.’ ‘The production manager looked at the map and thought the distances were the same,’ said Mr Walton. ‘Distances aren’t the same time-wise when you’re on a motorway versus wiggling through traffic lights, one-way streets and traffic congestion in Manchester city centre,’ I observed acidly.
Then there was a day filming in the Coronet cinema at Notting Hill Gate. I got up at 6 a.m. for make-up, hair, the usual twaddle. We lunched from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. From 3 p.m. to 11.30 p.m. I sat on a rickety rusting chair in a cold concrete spot outside the ladies toilet with my assistant-cum-hairdresser Dinah and my make-up lady Joan. No one even offered us a cup of coffee during those eight and a half hours. Occasionally Dinah went out and bought some coffee. When, later, she mentioned the lack of catering to a crew member she was told, ‘There was masses of food and drink in Cinema One upstairs.’ No one told us! We were left to starve and die of cold.
There’s a nasty Hollywood crew saying about artistes: ‘Bring on da puppets.’ That was largely the attitude of the production team. I’d have fired most of them. I know I’m not Leonardo di Caprio, Johnny Depp, Meryl Streep or anyone near the top of the star tree. But courtesy would have been appreciated. It was a great experience regardless. I loved the warmth, consideration, and sometimes confrontation, from people who hosted me for dinner. I adored meeting people on the streets, not as a professional smiler, but as me. Mr Walton may not be a genius at organisation but he’s a particularly nice person with a great sense of humour. At an early meeting he asked one of the most intelligent questions put to me in 60 years in the entertainment industry. He said, ‘What do you want to get out of this, Mr Winner?’ I answered ‘Fun. Fun for me, fun for the audience, fun for everyone involved.’ It was fun. I hope you find it so when it reaches your TV in February. Think: if it’s a success I can be a monster. If it fails I’ll go back to being a bum. No problem there. I’m used to it.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated January 9, 2010