Don Jones’s memories of working with Tony Wilson

One of the first people I worked with was Tony Wilson, who I just thought was a fascinating character from day one. I knew who he was, obviously, before I joined Granada, but one of the first times I went out with a crew was with Tony Wilson. I learnt more from him that day than anybody else that I ever worked with, I think, in terms of going out and shooting something. Absolutely fascinating. And I’ll never forget it because I was working for local programmes or Granada Reports probably at the time, and it was a local boat race between Salford and Manchester universities on the Irwell, which obviously would greatly appeal to Wilson in itself.

So I was told to set this up as an item and I’d hardly ever been out with a crew at this point and I was quite scared. I remember Wilson turning and saying, “What have we got?” So I told kind of what the ingredients were, and he thought for what seemed like thirty seconds, and then said, “Right, this is what we’ll do. We’ll film this then film that, then I’ll do this piece to camera, get in the boat with those people and we’ll row up and down the river and we’ll shoot that, and then I’ll interview him and do this piece to camera, and then…” And that’s what we did. At the end of it he said, “write this down,” and I got my pen and notebook out and he went: “this is the order it goes in, it’s X Y Z followed by A and B. Give that to the editor and I think you’ll in find everything’s OK.

And I went back to the office, and it went together beautifully. I was just astonished, because even when we were doing it, I couldn’t really quite visualise it. And I suddenly realised, this is what filmmaking was all about: working it out, putting it together not necessarily in the sequence it’s going to end up in, but then knowing how the whole thing comes together. I just thought, the guy’s a bloody genius.

And he just completely got it. He could picture the thing onscreen from the word go and he knew what he wanted. I did quite a lot of filming with him after that, and he never ceased to amaze me. He always had an angle and a witty line. He brought all sorts of things to it.

Also, he had crazes when… he was madly into American football at one point and there was a guy called William Perry who was known as the refrigerator. And we went out and shot this American football piece between two teams in Manchester on some recreation ground somewhere. At one point he said to me, “Go and get a box! We need a box! We need a box!” He didn’t even tell me why, he just said “I need a box that somebody can stand on”. And of course he found the biggest, fattest bloke in Salford or wherever they were and turned him into the refrigerator by standing him on a box. So when Tony interviewed him, he was up there somewhere.

I did a piece with him in Ski Rossendale once. There was him and Ted Robbins and it was a comedy piece at Ski Rossendale. We all went in a minibus, and as we pulled into the car park, he turned to me – I was the researcher – and said, “We’re going to need a St. Bernard dog”. I remember the crew all smirking and looking at me and going, “Good luck with that one then.” And I said, that might take a while. And he went, “Don’t worry, we won’t need it in the first hour, but we will need a St. Bernard dog. And it must have a brandy barrel round its neck.” So he’d obviously dreamt this up on the minibus.

So I went into the office at Ski Rossendale. There were no mobile phones or Internet then of course, so I got the Yellow Pages out and found the local vet. I rang him up and said, “Do you know anybody with a St. Bernard dog?” and they said “Yeah, we do, we know two people”. I said, I’m at Ski Rossendale, is there anybody near Ski Rosendale? And they said, yes, there’s one just round the corner. And I said, do you think it’ll have a brandy barrel? They said, all St. Bernard dogs have brandy barrels, it just goes with the territory.

So they gave me the number and I rang this woman and explained the situation, and she said, well I’m only round the corner. I said, can you walk round now, and ten minutes later, the St. Bernard turned up with the brandy barrel. The crew were astonished – Wilson didn’t bat an eyelid. He just said, can you ask it to wait a while, we’re not ready for that bit yet! I think he was secretly quite impressed.

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