Thursday, January 26, 2006

Tony Wilson, Factory svengali, newscaster (role model for Alan Partridge?)

Interviewed in Glasgow, on the release of the film 24 Hour Party People, 19 March, 2002.
By Alastair McKay.

When he does business seminars, Tony Wilson (yours from the Society for Business from £2,500 a night) likes to quote Sid Vicious. Sid was once asked his opinion of the man in the street. “Fuck the man on the street,” he replied. “The man on the street is a cunt.”
Coming from a punk heroin addict, this remark may seem unremarkable. From a former colleague of Richard and Judy, less so. Somewhere between these two, wearing a mischievous smile, lies Tony Wilson.
To gentleman of a certain age, Wilson was the founder of Factory, an enigmatic record label based in Manchester. It spawned Joy Division (who became New Order) and, in its second wind, the Happy Mondays. Factory was an unusual label, because it believed in reverse PR. It did not seek publicity for its acts or book advertising. It did not believe in plugging. Its acts were not encouraged to do interviews. The records were generically packaged in ultra-cool design by Peter Saville.
The other Tony Wilson was the presenter of Granada’s early evening news. Those who have seen him in this role attest that he made a slightly unusual mainstream presenter - always smuggling references to his other life in between the headlines. Wilson was the switched-on sidekick of Bob Greaves. It is Greaves you see on shows of televisual bloopers, being assaulted by an elephant.
Wilson, it is fair to surmise, has always been aware of his own mythology. It is at the core of a new film, 24 Hour Party People, directed by Michael Winterbottom and starring Steve Coogan as Wilson. Already, the film has prompted a good deal of media interest, much of it unsympathetic to Wilson. He affects not to care, quoting a maxim that his public image is none of his business.
Coogan plays him as a slightly more pretentious version of his fictional alter ego Alan Partridge, which has led to some speculation that Wilson might have been the model for the Partridge character. (Coogan and Wilson met in Manchester, and have worked together previously).
Even the mention of Partridge causes Wilson to bristle. He launches into a long and involved anecdote about the actor John Thomson: he was impersonating Wilson on Piccadilly Radio, and pretending to snort cocaine, when Coogan, who was Thomson’s flatmate, called in, pretending to be Wilson, and threatening legal action. Thomson returned home, worried and devastated, and Coogan (and their other flatmate, Caroline Aherne) kept up the pretence for a couple of hours.
“Anyway,” says Wilson, “it’s a long story.”
So, later, Thomson is on The Fast Show, and he invents a character who presents a jazz show, and it transpires that, according to Thomson, 40 per cent of the jazz character is Wilson.
As he tells me this, Wilson looks proud: “Even though I hate jazz.”
And Alan Partridge? Well, Wilson and Coogan were doing an interview recently, and someone asked Coogan whether there was any of Wilson in Partridge and - according to Wilson - Coogan replied: “Absolutely not. However, there’s a lot of me in Alan Partridge, and therefore, there’s a lot of Alan Partridge in me doing Tony.”
Wilson pauses, untroubled by the overlapping layers of truth and fiction, and re-edits his thoughts. Sometimes, his rambling syntax and his mild grooviness make him sound like Jimmy Savile.
“So I’ve said that he’s kind of diffident as me in the film. Whereas, I am rather like a rhino coming out of a thicket on most occasions.
“So,” he edits his re-edit, “although in the film they use the motif of ‘this guy’s a wanker and a twat’, I think they also make me slightly heroic in some instances. I was an inadvertent hero.”
Wilson’s heroism is, he may now be realising, more economically expressed in the film than his prattishness. The heroism occurs at the end, when negotiations to sell Factory break down. The Factory contract - which stated that the artists owned everything and the company owned nothing - is pulled from the wall and Coogan, as Wilson, says: “I have protected myself from selling out because I have nothing to sell.” (This didn’t happen, but the contract did exist, and it was signed in Wilson’s blood).
Wilson contends that there is a chippiness about Mancunians: a distrust of success. He cites the fact that Manchester United fans boo the club’s chairman Michael Edwards.
“What a bunch of hypocritical tossers. The fact that the man who has made us the biggest football club in the world can’t walk out on his own pitch. Also, they boo Mikael Silvestre, who is our best attacking defender. So, that’s Mancunians. It was a Mancunian who shouted ‘Judas’ at Bob Dylan in 1966, because he wasn’t playing folk music. How dare he?”
Still, Wilson claims that he doesn’t mind being seen as a fool. Why not?
“I haven’t got a very significant answer,” he says. “I don’t know, really.”
Tony Wilson is fond of the Hollywood maxim about myth and truth (faced with the choice, print the myth), but there are a few things which illuminate his character. Above everything - possibly even self-regard - he is proud of Manchester. His insistence that greatness can happen in his home city, without reference to London, underpins his less conventional career decisions. Factory operated outside the music business. Wilson the broadcaster is a local celebrity, but has made only fleeting appearances on the network.
“In my area, which is a great area, we have always had world-class presenters. In the 1950s, when I grew up, I can just remember Gay Byrne. In the 1960s, Mike Parkinson, Mike Jones, Brian Trueman, Chris Kelly. In the 1970s, Anna Ford, me. In the early and mid-1980s, it was Richard, Judy, and me. Oh yeah, there was about three years of that.
“I have spent the last ten years, watching - well, not watching - Granada, horrified and angry, that we have one first-class presenter in Lucy [Meacock] and no others. For ten years it’s been Lucy and a third-division presenter. And it angers me. I’ve almost written letters about it.”
Wilson is about to return to his old job as a news presenter. Broadcasting, he sometimes says, is the thing he is best at. Also, there are bills to pay.
Scroll back a few years, and the roots of Wilson’s civic pride reveal themselves. His German grandfather moved to Manchester in 1901. The city, he says, has always welcomed foreigners. Wilson’s family had a small chain of jewellery shops and, when Wilson was five, they moved from Salford to Marple, thinking the country would be a better place to raise a child. At the age of 11, Wilson won a scholarship to Catholic grammar school De La Salle, and spent the next few years commuting back to Salford.
“I’m beginning to remember that I probably began hiding behind a persona at about the age of 13,” he tells me. “I remember thinking I had a certain persona at school. Maybe that’s just developed over the years.”
What happened at 13?
“My parents were very worried when I was 11 that I would fail my 11-plus. I was an only child, and there wasn’t much confidence about my capabilities. It was a very pleasant surprise when I got through to grammar school. A bit of a shock that when I got there I got into the A-stream. Another shock at Christmas when I came top of the A-class. Then at Easter I came top, and at summer I came top. They also found out that in the entrance exam, out of 950 people, I’d also come top.”
He mutters something about the “lower middle-class kid’s protective blanket of righteous rightness”.
“But being very clever was a bit embarrassing. And probably the defence mechanism was to be, slightly, the class joker. Slightly the fool.
“The fools in Shakespeare are the only ones that have read the play, that know the play. They know they’re not a character in the drama. I liked that. And then I hid behind that, and it developed, I suppose.”
I tell him he has been compared to Peter Mandelson. He professes to be delighted. “That’s good. The architect of New Labour. I have no problem with that. I like Mandelson. But why would someone compare me to him?”
The ceaseless spin, I suggest - the sense that the truth matters less than getting the message over. He looks a bit wounded, and says that his hero is [Sex Pistols manager] Malcolm McLaren, but that he does care about truth.
“The one thing I hate about Mandelson is the Millennium Dome, because the Dome is what you get when you ask the great and the good to come up with a creative idea. It was a disaster, and I was delighted when it failed. That’s the main problem with New Labour - their reluctance to offend the great and the good. You absolutely must offend the great and the good. Margaret Thatcher understood that. She was, in Peter York’s great phrase, a Maoist.”
So, I say, how can you ignore the man in the street if you are representing him when you read the news?
“You’re not,” he says, “you’re reporting your region. Turn on, and you will get a feel and an understanding of your region. As a broadcaster you don’t think ‘what do they want to see tonight?’ Well, you shouldn’t. The Granada news programme for the last ten years has been cookery and gardening tips. On a six o’clock news show? I know we invented this wonderful morning coffee format with Richard and Judy for This Morning, but just because it’s successful for then ... what a disgusting idea!
“Now, at first, the man in the street liked the cookery and gardening slots. In the end, it wore off. But even if the man in the street wanted gardening and cookery at six o’clock, I wouldn’t give him it. I’d give him the news.”
There is, it transpires, a broader moral.
“If you are your own customer, you deal with yourself. If you love yourself, as you should, you make the best thing you can.
“You know, the Walkman was not devised by a focus group. It was devised by the head of Sony, who said ‘can you make me something so I can hear music while I play tennis?’”
The Factory club, the Hacienda, was the same. Factory built the kind of club they wanted for themselves, based on the super-discos they had seen in New York.
“By not building it for the man in the street, we spent five years haemorrhaging money. But, strangely, in the end, it worked. That,” he says, “is an example of our aimless serendipity.”
But why hire Bernard Manning for the Hacienda’s opening night?
Pour ├ępater les bourgeoisie,” he says. Then, with a little smile: “Ooh, I haven’t said that for years.”
Wilson’s mobile rings. It is his partner, Yvette, the former Miss Great Britain.
“Hello honeychile,” he says, his accent correcting to something more Mancunian. “I’m all right, I’m just in the middle of an interview, being mister media man.”
There is a short pause, in which the cartoonish squeak of Yvette’s voice can be heard apologising.
“No,” Wilson says, “don’t be sorry. Never be sorry.”