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Winner on Losers: West 11 on Blu-ray

  The strange thing about director Michael Winner's career is that he almost willingly turned himself into a joke. There were some pretty unpleasant things happening in many of his films, but by the end of his life he had turned into this opinionated buffoon, sending up his overbearing image on television commercials and writing deliberately provocative food criticism columns that seemed designed to get chefs to spit in his soup before serving. He gave many, many interviews, most often when a star had passed away and he was insistent on paying tribute: according to these, he had met, known and worked with just about everyone in showbiz.

And the way he died seemed to have been invited by his hubris, after having eaten a bad oyster some years before that affected his health poorly, then on top of that trying a steak tartare his immune system was in no way capable of coping with. Was this a streak of self-destruction after his previously bullish self-confidence? He did have a reputation of yelling at actors and crew who did not conform to his belief about the way things should be done, and the treatment of women in his stories grew worse with each release, so that it was perhaps no surprise that he would fall victim to the #MeToo movement for a spot of bad behaviour behind the scenes.

Albeit the accusations came some years after he had actually died, so who knows how he would have defended himself? But for a supposed talent who appeared to relish the dreadful reviews his pictures received as the decades passed, there must have been some reason he was able to make these films, hadn't there? You don't hire all these big names out of the blue, after all, and they seemed to appreciate working with him even if the results were lambasted. To understand this enigma, you had to go back to the nineteen-sixties, when Winner was establishing himself, and the film that announced him as someone promising, part of the British New Wave, was West 11.

He had started making shorts and quota quickies, applying himself to the craft until helming a 1962 pop music vehicle for Billy Fury, Play It Cool, which did well enough to encourage him to be more ambitious with the all-star The Cool Mikado the following year. Alas, the film was a disaster, shoddily made and a major flop, therefore Winner quickly regrouped and tried out a work on the opposite end of the scale, one of those kitchen sink, angry young man dramas that were just about retaining their popularity as the sixties wore on. With a Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall screenplay intended for Joseph Losey, who turned it down, he crafted a piece that was very 1963 in tone.

At least, very 1963 pre-Beatles, for their arrival on the scene was when the nineteen-sixties began to swing and Britain, it seemed, escaped its post-war torpor. Now, naturally, there were entertainments that shook up the nation before that, but with the Fabs there was a sense that the younger generation who did not remember the Second World War, never mind the First, were finally getting to have their say in shaping the culture, and Winner was part of that. The only thing was, you did not have to be serious about it, and a sense of humour was an important weapon in the arsenal for the generation gap, something noticeably lacking in the material of Winner's grim film.

West 11 was based on a well-regarded novel by Laura del Rivo called The Furnished Room, another example of the younger writers' growing influence, and though the director had clashes with his producer, often about casting - Winner wanted Oliver Reed and Julie Christie, who were available, he got Alfred Lynch and Kathleen Breck - and the fact this sort of downbeat drama was becoming more the domain of television, he did create a kind of achievement here. He deliberately courted an X Certificate which in those days would guarantee an audience looking for something with sex and violence, and he got one, something unthinkable in these days when a 12A or in America, PG-13 is the most desirable certificate, but an indication of what expectations were for the public back then. They even highlighted the X in the advertising, the trailer animating the postcode West 11 by turning the two 1s into the cross of the X.

Nowadays? It's a 12, a mark of what has changed, but this was still a bleak, adult little film which sees Lynch pack in his men's outfitter's job to aimlessly drift through the pre-gentrification Notting Hill area, bedsitland, essentially, populated by the young escaping family life, and the poor who cannot afford anything better. Diana Dors was probably the biggest name here, though they obviously could not afford her for too long, as a divorcee who knows she's being exploited for her maintenance payments, but is doing so to hang onto her youth regardless; it's probably the best performance in the film. Eric Portman was the dodgy major who snares Lynch into crime, our antihero's feeling that life had stalled shared by his generation, though here not boosted into another realm by the pop music, but by something really horrible. The sixties was a tumultuous decade, and Winner stuffs this with signifiers to appeal to the target audience, yet West 11 acts as an awful warning about what would have happened had Britain not opened up to new experiences and stagnated instead. Kind of like Winner's career did - but he did have a very strong sixties.

[StudioCanal release West 11 on Blu-ray with the following special features:

Interview with Film Historian Matthew Sweet
Original Theatrical Trailer.

Maybe this will prompt a revival of interest in the film, it's certainly worth another chance.]

Author: Graeme Clark.


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