It will come as no surprise to regular readers of this blog how keen I am on the Madchester scene. When Michael Winterbottom's film 24 Hour Party People came out in 2002, I went to see it at the cinemas twice and it fast became one of my favourite films. I loved the way that the film recreated the whole scene and the immersive, bewildering world of Factory Records, populated by so many eccentric creatives and larger than life characters. However, there was one particular character who intrigued me and that was Don Tonay, the owner of the Russell Club in Moss Side.
The Real Don Tonay - photo taken from the Excavating the Reno site,
a site dedicated to the Moss Side cellar club that Don owned in the 1970s.
In the film, Tonay is played by Peter Kay as your stereotypical northern club owner, not too dissimilar to the type of comic creations Kay is known for. But I quickly learned that this was not a truthful account of Don Tonay, a man with Irish, Italian and Jamaican heritage (a Jamaican father and Italian mother I believe, though I may be wrong) who was a much suaver and more imposing figure than the film depicts.
In Tony Wilson's suitably eccentric novelisation of the film (only Wilson would approach his own life story in such an irreverent fashion; as he says in the film "I agree with John Ford. When you have to choose between the truth and the legend - print the legend" and that's literally what he does in this book) he depicts the real Tonay thus;
"The front door was open. They walked straight in. At the bar, cashing up, a tall, striking, late-middle-aged man in a fine cashmere overcoat. Imposing wasn't the word. Self-assured as only someone who took on the Krays and lived can be. Story was, he came from the tenements of Dublin's North Side, tough as those streets. After a slight altercation with London's premier family, he has come north"
This then, is corroboration for a bit of mythologising I had once heard in a Manchester boozer when raising the subject of Don Tonay. Rumour has it, a sage in his cups informed me, that Don Tonay had heard that the Kray twins were coming to take a look at Manchester in the late '60s. The train from London Euston arrived at Piccadilly and the brothers decamped to be met by Don and what can only be described as a posse of hard bastards. The Krays took the next train back.
Is it true? I dunno, but I'd like it to be. Already, I'm falling into the Tony Wilson school of 'printing the legend'.
In his book, Factory: The Story of the Record Label, Mick Middles elaborates more on Tonay's 'gangster' qualities;
"The Russell Club had numerous guises, mainly though as the PSV Club (Public Service Vehicle...no, I never understood that, either). It had made its name in later days as a suitably downbeat reggae-orientated venue handily placed, as it was, for nearby Moss Side. (Tony) Wilson had chanced upon the venue following a meeting with the owner, local 'businessman' Don Tonay. He was, in the eyes of Wilson, ' an incredible character...a civilised gangster'
Tonay, undoubtedly, had style. He was a tall, commanding handsome man in his late forties. Each night, after prowling around the club, he would leave at precisely 1 a.m. A van would pull respectfully onto the car park. The rear door would open to reveal two beautiful prostitutes in reclining poses, between whom Tonay would stylishly flop. The door would be pulled shut and the van would cruise away into the night. Tonay's style was a throwback, of sorts, to the gangster tradition - he did have links, it was strongly rumoured, with the Kray fraternity - and most people who knew him, and knew him well enough not to cross him, regarded him as a lovely individual. One is tempted, of course, to break into Pythonesque tales of a Piranha Brothers nature; 'Oh yeah Don... he was a lovely bloke...' etc, and such cliches wouldn't be too far from the truth as Tonay ruled his patch with an iron hand, be it a loving hand or otherwise. This was, perhaps, typified by a conversation overheard at the Russell Club one night when Magazine were performing. The band's van had been cynically and pointlessly broken into in the car park. Two 'drug squad' officers, standing at the bar - drinking Red Stripe - were heard to mutter, 'Whoever broke into that van will be very sorry...very sorry indeed...pity for him that it wasn't our precinct. Don will sort them out, poor guys'
Tonay had a few other quirks. There were signs in the club that read 'NO TAMS ALLOWED'. It was difficult to know quite what this meant. However one clue could be the time Tonay wandered into the club and, spying three Jamaican guys in woolly hats, screamed 'Haaaattttts!', following which the offending articles were removed. On another occasion Tonay entered the club at 2 a.m, and two or three straggling tables remained - students mainly - only too slowly finishing their Guinnesses, smoking dope, chatting about the evening's gig. 'Don't you know how to clear a club out?' asked Tonay, his question directed at Alan Wise, his sidekick Nigel, and Wilson. Wilson answered pointedly, 'No...not really, Don'. Tonay proceeded to pick up a table, hurl it in the air and, before it crashed to the ground, screamed 'OOOOOUTTTTTTT!!!!'. The students, needless to say, filed out respectfully, silently, nervously."
"Don was actually quite an erudite gangster who's been involved in political activities all over Africa. He went off to be a paratrooper and had been involved with certain members of the African National Congress. He'd gone to Africa and dealt in iron pyrites. Fool's gold. Don was a fascinating character and I really took to him...he was a pirate...he was a fence. The police used to come round to his house and he'd say, 'how's things, guys?' and they'd say, 'we're broke, Don': they used to openly come round to take money, so he was still involved."
Whilst Lindsey Reade, Tony Wilson's first wife, recalls in her book, Mr Manchester and the Factory Girl, that Tonay was;
"A man of Irish gypsy descent with black wavy hair...(Don Tonay) looked like a big Mafiosi character. Tosh (Ryan) recalled accompanying Don's right-hand man to collect Don from the airport after a trip to Italy. The first thing Don said was, 'Anything happen?' '5 Mitten Street got torched,' came the reply. (This was a shebeen that Don owned.) To which Don responded, deadpan, 'Anything else?'
So as you can see, the reality was far and away quite different from Peter Kay's interpretation in 24 Hour Party People - even though the film retained Tonay's flamboyant mode of transport home from the Russell Club each night.
Emphatically NOT the real Don Tonay,
played by Peter Kay in 24 Hour Party People
On my special limited edition DVD of 24 Hour Party People (number 1756 of the DVD release which, of course, has a Fac number too: DVD424) there is a great extra entitled From the Factory Floor; an in-vision DVD commentary of Winterbottom's film, featuring the likes of Peter Hook (Joy Division/New Order), Bruce Mitchell (The Durutti Column), Martin Moscrop (ACR) and Rowetta (Happy Mondays), and chaired by the delightful Miranda Sawyer. In it, Hooky talks about Tonay and how radically different the film chose to portray him, and unconsciously challenging the Middles anecdote that made it into the movie;
"Don Tonay wasn't like that though was he? He was much more aloof, much more of a gentleman, you wouldn't catch him in the back of a van with fuckin' hookers. It's probably a good thing that he's dead, the poor bugger, otherwise we'd all have our legs chopped off for that!"
Later on, as Peter Kay makes his first appearance in the film, Sawyer asks the group to recall the real Tonay. Hooky is somewhat confused as to what Tonay's ethnicity was; "Was he black or Italian?" he asks, and Moscrop replies "Italian" "He was very dark skinned though wasn't he?" Hooky continues. "He was from Manchester, but he was of Italian descent" Moscrop concludes - which differs from Wilson's claims that he was originally from Dublin. It's left to Bruce Mitchell to fill in more detail;
"He was a very serious level. He wore like £500 suits...and a £500 suit in those days was a serious suit. He run all the blue beats, he ran all the deliveries of the beer to the blue beats, and this guy was seriously cool..."
Mitchell then goes on to say something that is presumably libellous as the sound drops out! When it returns, he concludes with "...But he was a very charming guy as well"
The performance by Peter Kay, and the way the character is written in the film, still rankles with Hooky;
"But that's such a strange portrayal. That portrayal of him, if you knew him, is the strangest"
Ultimately, it's Moscrop who sums it up in relation to the audience;
"Everyone knows who Peter Kay is, but they don't know who Don Tonay is"
In short, the film required the depiction of a northern club owner, Peter Kay was, at the time, playing a northern club owner in his sitcom Phoenix Nights, therefore the film cast Peter Kay, a popular comic, to more or less play himself. A case of printing the legend rather than the truth again.
Did you know Don Tonay? Do you have any stories about him? I'd love to hear from you if you do. Just drop me a line in the comment section below.