You know your place in comedy when you’re replaced by a dog – only to discover the new act is better received than you ever were.
His double-act with brother Bernie made Mike Winters one of the most successful acts of the Sixties and early Seventies, if hardly the best loved. When Michael Parkinson asked Morecambe and Wise what they’d be if they hadn’t been comedians, Eric famously replied: ‘We’d have been Mike and Bernie Winters.’
The other most repeated story about the duo comes from the time they first played the Glasgow Empire. The act would start with Mike playing his clarinet. After a couple of minutes Bernie’s face peeked through the curtains, prompting a shout from the audience: ‘Christ – there’s two of ’em!’
The act, formed on the variety circuit, split in the late Seventies, Mike being replaced by Schnorbitz the St Bernard, amid reports of bitter animosity between them. Mike, now 80, moved to Miami, where he’s lived ever since, apparently becoming something of a player on the nightclub scene.
Should you be wanting any insights into the showbiz life, though, The Sunny Side Of Winters is not for you. Although he is said to have made up with Bernie before his 1991 death, Mike never goes into their personal relationship or break-up here. Instead we get such hilariously vapid accounts of the time he met Sean Connery on the stairs (this brief encounter gets a chapter of its own), the time their Auntie Lily gave Jack Benny a salt beef sandwich, and of not mustering up the courage to meet Frank Sinatra
‘Dudley Moore and I could have been great friends,’ he says in another showbiz exclusive. ‘But we never got to know each other.’ He bases this on the time they met at a Sixties party and discovered a shared passion for ‘pretty girls and fast cars’ – surely the rarest of combinations. ‘Pulling away at four-point-nine seconds to sixty mph has the exhilaration and passion of Artie Shaw’s clarinet solo on Stardust,’ Winters recalls telling Dud, with remarkable clarity 40 years after the event.
But then he has got a long memory: He’s still got a grudge from the time he and Bernie were bounced from their usual celebrity football team when some bigger stars turned up for a charity match in 1957.
However, it is not all driven by such lifeless recollections, as he can leap from the banal to the bizarre. Like the times he attended a séance with Dusty Springfield, with ‘spirits’ spelling out ominous words on the ouija board, and the table suddenly moving. Spookily their plane home hit troubles… but luckily landed all right in the end.
There’s a certain charm in how unaffected this all is – this is clearly a book that hasn’t been vetted by agents or publicists to see how it might make him appear. Winters has little obvious self-awareness, too, which is endearing, even if it doesn’t make for the most engrossing reading.
He certainly doesn’t handle things outside showbiz too well. Visiting occupied Vienna as a part of a post-war concert troupe, Winters drops into travelogue mode, reciting odd facts about the Austrian capital, calling it the home of Albert Einstein [it wasn’t], ‘who revolutionised science’ lest you not know who Einstein was. ‘The River Danube flowed through the city [no shit], which as the birthplace of Johann Strauss and the waltz, of Sigmund Freud [wrong again] and psychoanalysis. And of Adolf Hitler [no, him neither] – and we all know what he brought to the world!’ Gotta love that little exclamation mark.
During his trips around post-war Europe, he gets philosophical: ‘Did we hate the Germans? We agreed we didn’t hate the German people, we hated the people, wherever they came from, who had committed or supported those heinous atrocities against their fellow human beings.’ So, to be clear: genocide = bad.
Then there’s a chapter where he tells of when he helped organise a visit by Prince Edward to Miami in 1994, which reads like the minutes of the meetings, with page upon page of tedious detail such as: ‘I got hold of my American associate, Tricia Naron, a former director of the Coconut Grove Chamber Of Commerce, and asked her to make me an appointment as soon as possible with the marketing director of the hospital.’
Winters is certainly well-connected in Florida. The son of Samuel a professional boxer and gambler from North London and ‘someone you didn’t mess with’, his work in the Miami nightclub game also brings him into contact with a few of that city’s shadowy figures, about whom he’s very sympathetic. ‘I guess there’s good and bad in every walk of life,’ he says of the gangsters.
With such romanticism towards the criminal, the dabbles with the occult, pointless anecdotes and naïve writing style, you might think these memoirs were written solely to feature in such mickey-taking live shows as Bad Book Club or Celebrity Autobiography. And, no doubt, they soon will.
- The Sunny Side Of Winters by Mike Winters is published by JR Books, priced £18.99. Click here to buy from Amazon at £11.34.