The last time I met Tony Wilson, who died on Thursday 10th August 2007, he had just resigned his job as presenter of Granada Reports – the show that made him a household name – to campaign for an elected regional government in the north west.
It was an initiative floated by Tony Blair’s Labour government in the summer of 2003 and spearheaded, if that’s an appropriate term in the circumstances, by the pugilistic and ebullient John Prescott. The deputy Prime Minister’s ambition split the nation – but not, as he intended, into self-governing regions. Rather, it divided opinions.
In the north west, a coterie of local personalities including Wilson, comedian Steve Coogan who, ironically, played him in the movie 24 Hour Party People, Sir Alex Ferguson, then manager of Manchester United and Happy Mondays’ frontman Shaun Ryder, enthusiastically backed the plan and formed The Necessary Group to take the campaign forward.
Manchester’s leading politicians however, were dead against – so much so that MP and former Manchester city council leader Graham Stringer almost came to blows with Prescott on stage during a public debate. Manchester’s preferred option was for a city region – along the lines of the former Greater Manchester area – which came to pass earlier this year with the election of executive mayor Andy Burnham.
Though Tony Wilson has been dubbed “Mr Manchester” for his legendary status in the city’s Madchester music scene, having launched Factory Records and the Hacienda night club, his horizons spread further, imagining a mythical territory of “Granadaland” – a term now all but airbrushed from history by ITV – as a self governing entity.
In the early weeks of 2004, when I was a columnist with the Manchester Evening News with a broadly sceptical view of Prescott’s plans, he rang me about a brilliant idea he’d had and suggesting I take him out for lunch over which he’d reveal all.
We went for a thali at Shimla Pinks, an Indian restaurant opposite the Crown Court in the pre-Spinningfields era. He pulled from his pocket a piece of paper on which was drawn the top left hand quarter of the English flag, the Cross of St George.
“It’s the north west’s own flag,” he exclaimed triumphantly, revealing that the design was created specially by Peter Saville.
“The design is brilliant and searingly obvious,” said Tony. That much I got. What I didn’t get was his claim that the design recalled the Peterloo Massacre when the cavalry charged a large political gathering and seized its flags.
As things turned out the only time the flag made it up a flagpole was when it was photographed by photo-journalist Aidan O’Rourke.
For when the first referendum was staged in the north east of England – considered by Prescott to be the most likely region to support his version of devolution – voters rejected it by 700,000 to 200,000. The defeat was so crushing that Prescott abandoned plans for votes in the north west and elsewhere.
Tony’s complete misreading of the political mood revealed a rather endearing naivety that contrasted with a public persona that often appeared to be mischievously knowing, narcissistic, foppish, flippant, pompous and glib.
For all the self-promotion, however, there was never any doubt that regenerating Manchester – in which he included his Salford birthplace – physically and culturally after the grim post- war period was his life’s opus.
A Catholic grammar school boy, he had joined Granada as a reporter after reading English at Jesus College, Cambridge.
In 1975 he was offered a job in London by the BBC, but turned back a few miles from the capital and vowed he’s never leave the north again.
Through the 1980s he had parallel careers in television and the music scene, from which – despite making Factory a global brand and the Hacienda the coolest club on the planet – he made a lot less than a fortune.
But as Manchester boomed in the 1990s, Wilson was one of the prime movers, along with the likes of property developer Tom Bloxham and Simply Red former manager Elliot Rashman, whose opinions mattered in the city and were listened to.
All three were members of what became the “McEnroe Group” – catchphrase “you cannot be serious” – who reacted with disbelief at Marketing Manchester’s fledgling attempts to promote the city in the immediate aftermath of the IRA bomb.
Rashman’s tribute to Wilson when he died of a heart attack, aged 57, following surgery for cancer, is still resonant today: “He selflessly and sometimes shamelessly promoted our city all over the world. Wherever Tony went, he took Manchester with him, proudly championing it like a doting parent.
“There isn’t a PR firm on the planet that could have achieved what Tony did for Manchester. And he did it all for free.”