That Tony Wilson

Friday, April 5, 2002 by

Given that Granada’s regional opt-out timeslots have so often been occupied by the works of Tony Wilson, it’s only fitting that they should use one of said timeslots to transmit a self-produced retrospective of his unique and truly individual career path.

Although the documentary had clearly been produced to tie in with the release of 24 Hour Party People, a feature film that tells the story of the rise and fall of his record label Factory with an appropriate mixture of artiness and wit, this documentary did not concentrate solely on his adventures in the music industry. Instead, it gave equal prominence and consideration to the role for which he is best known to the majority of television viewers – as a reporter and presenter for Granada, with a career that spans an incredibly disparate set of televisual genres. Like him or loathe him, you can’t deny that Wilson has always represented the embodiment of Granada’s key broadcasting strengths – namely their commitment to covering the arts scene and local concerns – and this programme set out to celebrate his erratic but always interesting progression through television and music.

As might be expected, the coverage of Wilson’s involvement in the music industry was both extensive and detailed. Factory Records and its attendant nightclub The Hacienda were explored at great length, with a satisfying amount of attention being paid to the less well-known acts that have appeared on the label over the years (indeed, the superb Durutti Column provided the documentary’s theme tune, Anthony). However, equal prominence was also given to Wilson’s vital but little-documented days as the presenter and main instigator of a chain of shows for Granada that sought to provide a televisual platform for what were then emergent and exciting new sounds.

So It Goes was the first British television programme devoted to the punk rock phenomenon, giving significant exposure to the likes of Iggy Pop and marking the first ever television appearance of The Sex Pistols. Several former members of the programme’s production team were interviewed for this documentary, and all of them spoke of how much they respected his opinion and input into production, as he was actually going out to live shows on a regular basis and discovering bands and music for himself. The section on So It Goes was also remarkable in that it covered the comic contributions to the programme – which came from figures no less notable than Clive James and Peter Cook – as though they were just “one of those things” that show up old television programmes!

Another landmark Wilson-driven music show covered by the documentary was The Other Side of Midnight, a late 1980s show that sought to cover the arts in general but is now chiefly remembered for providing early television exposure for bands like The Stone Roses, The La’s, Happy Mondays and Inspiral Carpets. While The Other Side of Midnight has been raided for many clip shows in the past, including a 1996 documentary on Granada’s laudable history of music programming, the reference here was fleeting and Wilson was keen to stress that the programme dealt with the wider sphere of arts and not just indie bands. As the musical content of the programmes was his responsibility, it would be easy for him to retrospectively rely on that as an easy boost to his reputation, and the fact that he chose to concentrate on the programme’s general challenging nature instead cast both him and the production team in an extremely positive light.

Meanwhile, the considerable airtime devoted to studying Wilson’s television career was equally impressive. The production team had clearly gone to great lengths in scouring the archives to locate material that was either interesting or useful in illustrating points, and the sheer wealth and variety of footage on display here is testament to how careful Granada have been to maintain and preserve their archive. The earliest footage, dating from the early 1970s, included pristine newsfilm (including the surreal sight of him failing to control a hang-glider!) and studio sections from Granada Reports, and even from these initial appearances it was obvious how different Tony Wilson is from the average television presenter – opinionated, irreverent, and generally larger than life. These selections were followed by clips from all manner of other programmes, including his controversial tenure as presenter of World in ActionUpFrontFlying Start, programmes offering advice to school leavers, and even his Channel 4 game showRemote Control. Although the on-screen reference to the latter was sadly all too brief, it was still significant. As Remote Control is obscure and now largely forgotten, and indeed was made for a different channel, it could conceivably be used as a yardstick to measure the depth that this documentary was prepared to go to in attempting to give proper coverage to the subject.

Mixed in with this was suitably untypical and unexpected footage of the Factory bands, ranging from a fuzzy VHS recording of an early performance by Joy Division to a distinctly pre-fame Happy Mondays running through Do It Better in a tiny venue. All of which suggested that whoever was responsible for selecting the clips had an understanding of and genuine interest in (or at least had attempted to cultivate them while working on the programme) the music and ethos of Factory Records, instead of just lazily reaching for an off-air copy of Happy Mondays doing a lousy version of Step On from that live show that was televised by Granada in 1990.

As might be expected, the clips of Wilson and his musical associates in action were punctuated by interview footage of “talking head” contributors. Although the term now commonly provokes dread in the more discerning breed of television viewer, That Tony Wilsonwas in truth evidence of how the technique can actually be employed to thoroughly entertaining and informative effect if the programme makers apply a bit of hard work and selectivity to the process, instead of just opting for getting whichever Heat magazine favoured celebrity was hanging around the building to show their face.

Everyone featured in this programme was directly related to Wilson and his career, and more importantly they all had something of worth to say. Despite the “trendy” nature of the subject matter, which if anything has intensified in relation to the release of 24 Hour Party People, the production team did not resort to picking obvious contributors, and there was not a self-important celebrity in sight. The most famous contributors from the music world were Peter Hook and Stephen Morris from New Order, both of whom gave valuable insights into the story behind The Hacienda and Wilson’s personality in general. Happy Mondays bassist Paul Ryder, hardly the most instantly recognisable member of the band, appeared to provide some interesting background detail about the Factory Records “scene”, as did Vini Reilly and Bruce Mitchell of Durutti Column, whom it has to be said are barely recognisable even to some of their fans! Even the interviewees who spoke about Wilson’s television career were sensible rather than obvious choices, including former on-air colleagues Lucy Meacock and Bob Greaves, and although Richard Madeley and Judy Finnegan made substantial appearances, they were not afforded any form of star status by the programme and clearly felt relaxed enough to offer some proper insights into their experiences of working with Wilson.

Overall, the interviews served to enhance the programme rather than detract from it, and after so many years of being force fed the likes of Kate Thornton and Ricky Gervais offering non-opinions on interesting topics, it’s somewhat refreshing to be reminded that this is still actually possible.

Despite what the tabloid leanings of its title might suggest, That Tony Wilson was a superb celebration of a provocative and adventurous broadcaster by those who gave him the freedom (and indeed the restrictions to react against) to produce his greatest work. This was echoed by his closing comments in the programme, in which he explained that he has stayed with Granada instead of pursuing more lucrative offers from elsewhere because they gave him the “chance to do what I wouldn’t have been able to do elsewhere.” The fact that a programme of such quality and high entertainment value should be limited to a regional opt-out slot while hopeless clip shows detailing nothing in particular have a regular national platform is ridiculous, but it only serves to further underline his sentiment. There are some combinations that work when you wouldn’t expect them to, and Wilson and Granada are one of them. After so many years of producing fascinating television together, it’s only fitting that a look back at his career should be equally well made.


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