But Winner is frank in admitting that his career as a columnist was only a means to an end: “I never wanted to be a journalist. I wanted to be a film director – but I had to get near people in movies.” Although much of his directorial output can be mocked with the clear eye of hindsight, it is hard to disagree with Winner’s statement that “I worked with the biggest stars of all time.” His actors included Robert Duvall, Oliver Reed and Burt Lancaster, of whom he speaks with particular affection: “My best friend in the industry was Burt Lancaster. He threatened to kill me three times. But he was a wonderful man – he only threatened to kill his friends.” If Lancaster was Winner’s best friend, though, it was not this relationship which was to make him most famous. Winner is, in fact, probably best remembered for his work with Charles Bronson, who starred in the Death Wish films, although Winner admits that, after their first film, “I didn’t think he liked me.” However, their professional relationship was secured when Bronson insisted that Winner direct his next picture. There is a danger that any discussion of Winner’s prolific directorial career simply turns into a dialogue of name-dropping. But Winner’s attitude to the film industry, so different to the distain he applies to other fields, prevents this from happening: “I’m a fan. Everyone in the industry is a fan. To suddenly have Orson Wells and Marlon Brando on the phone…It was a great thrill.” Although he frequently refers to these screen icons by their first names, it smacks, not of ‘luviness’, but of a true fondness for his colleagues, especially Brando, with whom he was close friends and who he spoke to only a few days before his death. This attachment appears to have been mutual as Brando once commented, “Michael Winner is the only person I’ve ever met who doesn’t talk to me in the way he thinks I wish to be spoken to.” Certainly Winner does not seem to be one for unwarrented flattery.Gradually our discussion moves away from his film carreer, on to his charity work for the Police Memorial Trust. Winner was instrumental in the campaign to get the Police Memorial erected in The Mall. This task took him ten years, and the memorial was eventually unveiled by the Queen in April 2005. For this work Winner was offered an OBE. An honour some would think, but not Michael Winner, who refers to the award as a “bloody insult…I’m perfectly happy to carry on my good work without any recognition.” However, when pressed further on the subject, Winner does admit, “I might have accepted a knighthood, to be honest. I wouldn’t have accepted anything less.” Such honesty might be refreshing, were it not for the feeling that Winner has said it all before. His anti-establishment, devil-may-care lines seem decidedly rehearsed; Winner is a practised media personality who knows exactly how he comments will go down with those who read them. On the surface, it is very easy to dislike Michael Winner. He is a man whose career in film revolves around violence and smut, and who is now predominantly known for scathing food reviews and a supremely annoying car advert. Indeed, even the Oxford Union, where we met, did not escape the cutting tones of Winner’s pen. Writing about the experience later, he described the food as “pretty awful”, although he admitted that he very much enjoyed the company. Maybe a high tolerance for hacks should be added to the charges against him.Fittingly, then, our conversation opened with Winner’s own journalistic career at Oxford – which is odd, because he went to Cambridge and edited Varsity. In a move that Winner describes as a “major upheaval”, he decided to bring out an Oxford edition of the paper. This not only caused enough scandal to make the national newspapers but, unsurprisingly, caused a bit of a stir in Oxford as well: “I learnt when I was coming here that some of the Cherwell staff were going to throw me in the river. So I took the precaution of bringing with me the Cambridge Water-Skiing team.” His final words on his experience with student journalism sum up the legacy he left at Varsity: “When I became editor of the paper, it was extremely rich, had an enormous amount of money – and by the time I’d finished, it was broke!” Chastise him all you want. He was selfish and irresponsible, but he did what every student paper would secretly love to be able to do: publish what you want, spend as much as you want and hang the consquences. This seems to be Winner’s philosophy of sorts; do what you like and leave the clearing up until tomorrow.However, Varsity was not Winner’s first foray into the abandoned world of journalism. He had, in fact, been writing a column for the Syndicate of Local Newspapers since the age of fourteen. This job came about following a visit to Winner’s school from the publisher Paul Hamlyn, who was persuaded by Winner to give him copies of all his film books. Then, in a characteristically daring act of self-promotion, Winner rang all the film studios, claiming he was writing a book for Hamlyn, allowing him access to the world of movies, which was what he really wanted. He met and interviewed all the big names of the day, including James Stewart, Marlene Dietrich and Louis Armstrong. Winner punctuates these stories of his adolescent japes with a laugh that fills the room, and would probably cause the corners of even the most hardened mouth to twitch upwards. Yet nestled within his nostalgia, there is a sense of something lost. He believes that the film industry has “changed beyond human belief”, and there is an implicit admittance in this statement that his tactics would have gotten him nowhere in today’s market. Yet Winner’s brash behaviour in the public eye seems only a cover for the difficulties he has recently experienced in his private life. At the beginning of the year Winner was admitted to a private hospital in London, having contracted the bacterial infection Vibrio Vulnificus. Often incurred after eating contaminated oysters, the disease has a 50 per cent mortality rate within the first forty-eight hours. Winner himself “was pronounced dead five times.” But despite the seriousness of his illness – which lead to media reports that he may have to have a leg amputated – Winner remains pragmatic about his brush with death: “People asked, ‘what did it make you realise?’. I said, ‘That illness is a fucking nuisance.’” Some might say more than a nuisance; Winner was in hospital for three months and has estimated that his medical bills totalled at least £750,000. After the near-death experience, things seem to be looking up for Winner. He has become engaged to his girlfriend, Geraldine, whom he first met in 1967. Yet even after forty years, Winner is in no hurry to tie the knot. Almost in a parody of his own insurance adverts, he explains: “Please, please, I’m not getting married, dear. I’m engaged. I said to Geraldine, ‘It’s taken me seventy-one years to get engaged, don’t hold your breath for the wedding.’” Indeed, this is Winner’s first attempt at matrimony, despite – or perhaps because of – claiming to have slept with over one hundred and fifty women. When asked if he regrets never having had a family, Winner replies with characteristic candour: “You can have the life with children and a family, or you can have the life that I’ve had, as a very lusty bachelor. And the life I’ve had has been marvellous.” Winner also appears to have conducted his seductions with class; he remains close friends with many of his ex-girlfriends and speaks to some of them “three or four times a day” on the telephone. There are not many people around today like Michael Winner. He is one of the old guard, and there is a sense that he, too, realises this. He speaks of his life in the past tense as if the fast times are over, and a quiet reflection is now due; he is, after all, a pensioner. In frail health himself (he has been limiting public appearances this year), he also makes references to looking after old friends and ex-girlfriends when they become ill, sounding far less like a celebrity than a sheltered housing resident. This feeling of nostalgia, therefore, makes it easier to forgive Winner’s pomposity and his practised responses. It also means that, deep down, it is very difficult to dislike Michael Winner; the most that can be mustered is slight disapproval, couched in grudging admiration.