Biography: Mike and Bernie Winters

Mike and Bernie Winters

In an industry where comedy double acts have always been an integral mainstay, certain partnerships - while undoubtedly successful - have nevertheless found their talent eclipsed by those all too rare true giants of the genre. In the case of brothers Mike and Bernie Winters, they had the rare misfortune to find themselves standing in the shadows cast by the titanic comedy duo of the all-powerful and incomparable...Morcambe and Wise.

Yet despite such overwhelming opposition, the brother's from Islington succeeded in carving themselves a television career, which, while sometimes turbulent, sometimes tempestuous, afforded them a warm and welcoming place in the living room of millions of appreciative viewers.

Mike Weinstein was born in Islington (North London) on 15th November 1930, at his family home, a flat in Canonbury Lane above an off-licence, which Mike says was very handy because his parents threw a party to celebrate his arrival. His younger brother arrived on 6th September 1933 at the now demolished Salvation Army Maternity Home in Old Street and, as he weighed a formidable fourteen pounds, was promptly nicknamed 'Primo' by the nurses, after Primo Carnera, the world heavyweight boxing champion. By that time his family had moved to Highbury Mansions in Upper Street. In the brother's biography, 'Shake a Pagoda Tree', published in 1976 by W.H. Allen, Mike remembered the area as one of the toughest in London. "Thieving and violent robbery were commonplace, shootings not infrequent, and the police patrolled always in pairs."

When Bernie was three the Weinstein family moved to a house in Tottenham across the road from Georgie Marks, who later became Harrison Marks, innovator of a new concept in photography. Mike recalled that it was with Georgie that he mounted his first 'promotion'. "We would dress up in whatever clothes we had managed to scrounge from our parents and put on shows in our garden." Bernie was the more stage-struck of the two and enjoyed his first success on a day trip to Canvey Island, where he won a children's talent competition. From these humble beginnings the two of them agreed that they reached the dizzy heights of mediocrity and so went their separate ways. Mike went off to Oxford for his education and then on to the Royal Academy of Music where he learned to play the clarinet and Bernie fancied himself (in his own words) as "either a great drummer or a great gangster." Bernie's friend was Danny Sewell, younger brother of George who went on to star in such shows as 'Special Branch' and 'UFO'. Danny was the local heavy and used to look after Bernie. "If anybody said anything nasty to me, he (Danny) hit them."

An early photograph of the brothers.Having knocked about the local dance halls for a bit Bernie used a family connection to get himself a spot at the Regency Club in London's Soho where he played the ukelele, sung a bit and told a few jokes. When the war broke out Mike joined the Merchant Navy as a catering boy but never made it on board ship, as he arrived late after a farewell party at a friend's house and made the excuse that he was suffering from severe head pains. The doctor diagnosed sinusitis and signed Mike off for two months sick-leave. Bernie told Mike that a man called Tony Gerrard was running a talent contest in Manchester and suggested going along for an audition as a double-act. The boys won the contest and were rewarded with a one-week tour. During this tour they met Sammy Kearns who was putting together a Canadian Army Show Unit, which was to be part of the Canadian Legion. Kearns needed two musicians and took on Mike and Bernie. When the war finished they were invited to go to Canada and carry on with the show, but they declined. They'd had a taste of show business and now wanted to try their luck closer to home.

As before the Weinstein brothers (who had already adopted the Winters stage name) failed to set the entertainment world alight and at various times the duo went their separate ways to pursue other forms of income, although they always ended up bringing the act back together again. In those days they had not settled on which of them was the best funny-man and which was the better 'feed' and often swapped the roles about. It was only after Bernie took the comedy lead on a permanent basis that things began to happen for them. On 25th June 1955 they made their first TV appearance on a BBC show (recorded a Shepherd's Bush Empire) called 'Variety Parade' and shortly after that got a booking on 'The Benny Hill Show' on stage at the Leicester Palace. A couple of years later they got their biggest break to date when they landed the comedy slot on a new BBC series produced by Jack Good and aimed at a teenage audience. The show was called '6.5 special' and was a major hit for the corporation and the boys stayed with it until 1958.

If they thought that '6.5 Special' would make them a bookable act they were proved sadly wrong. As Bernie wrote in their autobiography, "When we went out on our own all that adulation didn't mean a cup of cold tea. In other words, the '6.5 Special' was big but we were not. We played to acres of empty seats just about everywhere." The following year they went their separate ways yet again when Bernie broke up the act to become a film star.

Mike and Bernie make a movie - 1958.The boys were playing pantomime in Southsea in 1959 when Cubby Broccoli and Irving Allen sent for Bernie. They were about to shoot 'Idle on Parade' with Anthony Newley and William Bendix. Bernie recalled, "Cubby said 'I saw you on television and I think you'd be very good." The offer was fifty quid for a days work. I Thought, "Bloody hell, its tremendous money." I agreed to do it." Broccoli must have been impressed with Bernie's performance because soon after shooting was over the producer offered him a five-year, hundred-thousand-pound contract. It was an offer that Bernie couldn't refuse, and although it meant he couldn't do the shows with Mike any more, he kept to the agreement he made with his brother to split everything fifty-fifty. Bernie soon became disillusioned with the film business though and after a year he and Mike decided to brush up their act and do a summer season.

Their agent, Joe Collins (father of actress Joan and authoress Jackie) managed to get them some spots on ITV's premiere variety show 'Sunday Night at the London Paladium' and in 1962 they were invited to appear before the Queen in that years 'Royal Variety Show'. They thought that they had reached the peak of their potential in Britain and were debating on whether or not to try their luck in America or Australia when they were offered the job that was to establish them as major stars.

Mike and Bernie with TV producer Philip Jones.Joe Collins offered them a three-year stage and TV contract to include the Russ Conway TV show. Conway decided not to go ahead, but producer Philip Jones persuaded ABC to star them in a series instead. The show was called 'Big Night Out' and was recorded in Manchester. It featured top-flight guests and was a big hit, especially up north where it made the top five ratings. 'Big Night Out' was followed by 'Blackpool Night Out' which the boys also hosted and by the time it had finished (1965) they were a big hit. Bernie played the clown and became familiar in his bowler hat with his soppy toothy grin, his head tilted to one side as he pulled the more serious Mike's cheek and call him 'choochy face'. It went down well with the public and following this success they immediately went into a series of stand-up / sketch shows ('Mike and Bernie's Show') and followed this with a new series a year right up until 1973. But in 1978 the act broke up yet again, only this time it was a permanent split and it led to much publicised animosity between the brothers.

Mike and Bernie Winters.Mike moved to the USA and Bernie went solo, signing a deal with Thames Television which saw him score a number of successes, not least of all a series called 'Bernie' in which he appeared with a new partner -a St Bernard dog called Shnorbitz. He also starred alongside Leslie Crowther in ATV's affectionate tribute to British music-hall stars Bud Flanagan and Chesney Allen. Although the brothers made their peace in the 1980's they never worked together again and on 4th May 1991 Bernie tragically died of Cancer. He was 58. Mike Winters passed away on 24 August 2013.

Although not of the comedic stature of Eric and Ernie or later on the two Ronnie's, Corbett and Barker, Mike and Bernie Winters were gifted and appealing professionals whose canny brand of rough and smooth comedy routines added much welcomed additional laughter to a time when quality comedy truly was king of the nation's television screens.

Biography: Laurence Marcus & Stephen R. Hulse. July 19th 2001

for Television Heaven