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BBC TwoNewsnight
Last Updated: Friday, 29 June 2007, 09:22 GMT 10:22 UK
Tony Wilson - Manchester legend
By Stephen Smith
Newsnight Culture Correspondent

Manchester music pioneer and TV presenter Tony Wilson is speaking in a keynote debate on the city's future at the Manchester International Festival, which began on Thursday.

Tony Wilson
Wilson has been a pop impresario, club owner and TV personality
Long before Simon Cowell corkscrewed himself into a pair of slacks and made The X Factor, there was another man who combined the roles of telly peacock and pop impresario.

His name is Tony Wilson. To generations in the north west of England, the teatime barmcake will always be a Proustian reminder of Wilson, the long-time host of the early evening Granada Reports.

Music fans owe him a debt for Joy Division, New Order and the Happy Mondays, the standout bands of his Factory Records label.

The old showbusiness accolade, or complaint, "he's never off" might have been coined for Wilson. He was Factory's ubiquitous figurehead, or talking head.

He was also a kind of maitre d' at his club, the Hacienda.

The Hac, as the place became known, went on to become the hotbed of the acid house scene, of Madchester, with the exotically wardrobed Wilson acting as its eminence cerise.

Blue Monday

DJ Mark Radcliffe recalls Wilson calling at his Piccadilly Radio studio late one night with a fresh pressing of a New Order record "and if he wasn't actually wearing a chiffon scarf, you sort of felt that he was".

It is somehow characteristic of Wilson that he persuaded Radcliffe to play the B-side of the waxing, thus denying him the opportunity of being the first DJ to spin Blue Monday, which went on to be Britain's best-selling 12-inch disc.

The two lives of Tony Wilson, the showbiz entrepreneur and the bloke off the telly, were documented in the biopic Twenty Four Hour Party People, with Steve Coogan taking the role of the north's answer to David Frost.

The Newsnight team beat a path to Wilson's city centre loft apartment, partly because of his role in the festival, but also because we were brought up short to learn that a man of Wilson's centrifugal energies had been diagnosed with cancer.

New Order
New Order's Blue Monday was key to Factory Record's success
We invited a reluctant Wilson onto a Ferris wheel in the heart of Manchester. "It ruins a perfectly good square and it's a poor imitation of something London's done a lot better," he says. "We shouldn't be doing it."

It is said of film and TV stars that "the camera loves them", but what really makes the difference is when that love is returned. Place Wilson before the lens and you can see him breathing out.

"I find it easier talking to that piece of glass than I do talking to you," he says.

His assignments for Granada included hairy-chested activities such as hang-gliding and canoeing, attempted without benefit of practice or instruction.

"I was John Noakes minus the training," Wilson says. His dangerous sports, as they weren't called then, almost certainly wouldn't be sanctioned in today's culture of risk assessment.

They were "and finally" items in which that term appeared to have been taken all too literally. "It was 'let's kill Tony,'" recalls the presenter.

Wilson is a Cambridge graduate, a fact he likes to place on record. He has views on the subject of semiotics. To this extent, he's not what you expect of a local telly presenter.

All in all, Wilson is nothing if not affected. But he claims not be affected, in another sense of that phrase, when his manner duly winds up a proportion of his audience.

Shaun Ryder of the Happy Mondays
Shaun Ryder of the Happy Mondays continued Factory's success
"Everywhere I go in Manchester, it's 'You wanker!' That's how we are up here. Now they know I've got cancer, they're all being nice to me," he says with a moue of displeasure.

Does he have any regrets? "Yes. Not going to Barbados."

Wilson sent one of his bands to record an album on that balmy isle because he was under the impression that it was free of smack.

"What we didn't know was it was crack central." The band sold everything to pay for drugs, including their clothes, and ended up sitting on the beach at breakfast time watching the local fishermen putting out to sea in their simple skiffs and second-hand Armani.

"I'd love to have been there to see that," says Wilson.

When you see what some make out of being a TV personality or a music mogul, you could be excused for feeling dismay at the vapidity of it all.

But Wilson's two-pronged career calls to mind the figure of the Corinthian all-rounder, the professional footballer who used to turn out for his county cricket side in the summer, perhaps, or the civic-minded Shetlander who is postie and milko all in one.

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