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Anthony Wilson – The tribute

Phil Griffin marks the end of the Wilson reign

Published on August 13th 2007.


Anthony Wilson – The tribute

For three decades the edge that Manchester has had over every other UK city outside London has been Tony Wilson. He has died, and he cannot be replaced.

This is extraordinary and not easily explained. Without him and, he might suggest, Catholic grammar schools, Granada Television, the Lesser Free Trade Hall, the Internet and certain ex officio developments in pharmaceuticals, Manchester would not have the shape and quality it has today.

I first saw Tony towards the end of the 1960s, on his feet, talking in a room in Adelphi High School on Chapel Street, Salford. Debating with sixth form girls was a sort of courting ritual in days of single sex education. I next saw Tony standing in a corridor to the right of the entrance to the Electric Circus in Collyhurst. It was towards the end of the 1970s and he was wearing a fashionably large hat. Of course he was talking, oblivious to the drip-drip leaking from the men’s toilet above his head. Undeterred, he went on to make his point.

He had already made the foreshortened iconic series So It Goes when I joined Granada in 1978. This was the era of Bob Greaves, Trevor Hyatt, Anna Ford, David Jones and others. It was David Plowright’s Granada and at its heart was Tony Wilson. The heart was Regional Programmes. There was World in Action, Coronation Street, great drama, current affairs and documentaries, and Granada Reports was the brand signifier, the marque on the bonnet. Tony presented many important programmes you will read about in exhaustive obituaries, but the point is that he related most of all to regional programmes. He brought flair, knowledge and intelligence into the studio. He was fearless, uncompromising and flashy in front of cameras. He fancied himself rotten. Ask any spark, make-up artist or stagehand and they’ll all testify to his peerless skills, generosity and good nature. He’s amongst the greatest television presenters on the planet, ever.

Beyond what he called his day job he had a life, and this, for me is his unique quality. It seems that Tony never particularly wanted to climb the television pole that lead to producing, directing and exec-ing. Where was the thrill in that? In television he came in, often at the last minute, took up his position at the sharp end, and scored the goals for his team. In his music, almost the reverse was true. Maybe he saw himself as an ordinary musician who wanted to lend power to extraordinary musicians who needed him. He created the space and pumped the oxygen. He even shaped the industry that would, he fervently hoped, be their support, life-blood and, with luck, their fortune. And he cared as much for the audience as he did for the artists.

Tony Wilson’s third and most mercurial career happened by default. In the 1990s he turned love of his city into the driving force for its renewal. This was an undefined role that, at last, gave scope to his improvisations. He and his partner Yvette Livesey invented the annual music forum, In The City. He said he wanted to do something for Manchester Music that wasn’t just a band. He very soon realised that the music, and all its reverberations through popular culture is the city. His association with great co-Factory founders including Martin Hannett and Rob Gretton, who predeceased him, was bearing late fruit. Manchester began to redefine itself around Wilsonian principles of originality, bravado and can-do. Fellow Factory man Peter Saville is left to carry it forward in two words; original modern.

The other and earlier Anthony (christened Jack) Wilson of North Manchester became Anthony Burgess, comparable professional irritant with whom Tony shared enthusiasms for music, delinquent youth, classical debate, poetry and opiates. In his autobiography (appropriately) titled “Little Wilson and Big God” Burgess wrote, “If the revolution was ever to be fomented in England, Manchester would be the hotbed”. Tony was once asked in an interview, whether he was Marxist or anarchist? “No” he said, “I’m Catholic”. And that’s the best thing of all. Tony Wilson, survived by two women he married and one he didn’t, and by his children Oliver and Isobel, was, despite all and in essence, the best of all things a man can be; he was endlessly, incorrigibly interesting. The greatest Mancunian of the last half-century has died. Let the city be his memorial.

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