The Celebs we cornered, and the ones we didn’t

Whatever happened to the Peter O’Toole interview? Why wasn’t I invited into Gina McKee‘s parlour, bought drinks by Dave Stewart or treated to a slap-up meal by Glenn Hugill?

This is my 2007 introduction to the very last piece to appear in the Celebrity Supporters series.

It was about the ones we didn’t nail. People who wouldn’t help, or didn’t feel qualified to. One who promised so much only to disappear from our radar. Others who turned out to be non-supporters or, worse, Mags.

Those failures, coupled with the misery of being a Sunderland fan in the dark days of 2003, could have given me something German scientists had just then identified as post-traumatic embitterment disorder. But the series was great fun to produce and when it came to an end, there were plenty of people to thank……………

All Good Things Must Come To An End

Never mind the curse of Hello!, the unwritten law that makes a messy break-up inevitable for celeb couples who greedily accept the magazine’s loot to boast how much in love they are.

The curse of 5573/Wear Down South is the real one to avoid. It works in reverse: wriggle out of doing a Celebrity Supporter interview and watch your life or career go down the spout.

Well, that’s the fantasy. It doesn’t always work in practice.

But we’d be mightily cheered up if we heard that Dave Stewart, Gina McKee, Martin O’Neill, Peter O’Toole, Glenn Hugill, Olga Korbut and Niall Quinn‘s wife had got their comeuppance.

This is naturally just a spot of light-hearted teasing. We wouldn’t want any real harm to befall them, of course. But don’t say it could never happen. Look at the critical hammering dished out to Gina McKee for her portrayal of Irene in the remake of The Forsyte Saga.

How can she be so sure it had nothing to do with her refusal to talk to us about the fly-on-the wall series Premier Passions?

Our seduction technique could not been more carefully designed to flatter, with no attempt to conceal our (sincere) admiration for a formidable actress.

No matter. Her final rebuff, though polite, was conclusive: “I’m really not in a position to talk about Sunderland AFC as my knowledge of the club is minimal.”

That response completely missed the point that she didn’t actually need intimate knowledge of SAFC to make her thoughts on narrating the TV series utterly fascinating to other supporters of the team her family certainly follows, including the ordinary fans who appeared in the programme.

And what about Dave Stewart: the brains of the Eurhythmics who grabbed a footnote in medical history when a temporary aversion to having it all made him the world’s first known victim of Paradise Syndrome?

He took the easy option of ignoring every approach. After one of his people suggested he might yet be willing to speak to us, we tried one last despairing ploy.

Not only did we praise the elaborate red and white striped décor of the restaurant at his Marquee club in Islington; we spent money eating there, and spoke glowingly afterwards about the food. All to no avail. Then came news that the Marquee had gone into administration. Shucks.

There may, of course, be a good reason for his silence. Although Stewart has been seen on the pitch drawing the half-time raffle, not all his connections with Sunderland are cheerful ones.

He told one interviewer he did agree to meet that he was bullied so badly as a boy that he used his pocket money to get as far away from the place as possible every Saturday.

Peter O’Toole‘s connection with SAFC remained a mystery to me until very recently. Last summer, I thought I had made a breakthrough when my obscure musical interests led me to interview Linda Thompson, the folk-rock singer.

She turned out to be one of his closest friends (her husband, Steve Kenis, is his agent). She had an idea that the link had something to do with his Irish father playing for us. This seemed implausible – and there is no trace of such an individual in the records – but Linda and I did a swap: Tony Benn for Peter O’Toole.

I promised to send Benn a copy of her album, Fashionably Late, which she excitedly signed “from a fan” (prompting an equally effusive reply) and she set to work on O’Toole.

“Normally he won’t do interviews,” she assured me. “But he’s so mad about sport that I’m sure he’d do this”.

Oh no he wouldn’t.

“I spoke to Peter who is in Tunisia shooting a picture,” Steve Kenis told me a couple of weeks later. “But he said that his tie to Sunderland AFC, if you could even call it a tie, was strictly historical and very tenuous.

“It was all really to do with Roker Park. Since they moved to the Stadium of Light, he has not really considered himself to be in the Sunderland AFC group or family or whatever. So he thanks you very, very much but says sorry, it’s not for him. He has not considered himself a supporter since the move. Everything they meant to him was when they were at Roker Park.”

Beyond this, I knew only that O’Toole had mentioned it on television some years ago.

But a plea for help on the Blackcats e-mail loop brought instant relief: one subscriber, Ian Ewart, said his grandfather had worked as a builder’s labourer in Sunderland “with an Irish fella called O’Toole – and according to my dad it was none other than Peter’s fatha”.

This, Ian thought, probably accounted for both the Sunderland connection and the ‘reticence in recounting his humble origins’.

Another e-mail, from Michael Storey, put flesh on bones. He came up with a story the Sunderland Echo ran this year (ie 2002) as O’Toole was pondering whether to accept an honorary Oscar (he did in the end).

The Echo began by quoting snippets from O’Toole’s memoirs : dad – “Captain Pat” – had “served an apprenticeship as a metal plater and shipwright in the North East of England, where my grandmother ran a pair of second-hand furniture shops. At the end of Great War his 20s were running out and he turned to gambling. Captain Pat lived…. As an itinerant racetrack bookmaker”.

The Echo‘s John Howe was helped in his researches by a bit of his own family history. His grandfather also knew O’Toole senior and worked for him as a bookie’s runner. John found that Pat had been a man who, though well-liked, lived “on the fringes of the law” and may well have been talked into leaving Sunderland by the police.

The family eventually settled in Leeds, where Peter was brought up, but father (and, in turn, son) maintained a “strong affiliation” with Sunderland, through football.

During the 1980s, the Echo added, O’Toole made a low-key return to Wearside, staying at the Seaburn Hotel (now a Marriott), while digging for the autobiography.

Maybe O’Toole genuinely, though just as wrongly as McKee, felt he had nothing to say that would interest us. But writing several years on, and deep into the first phase of our Irish revolution, I’d be irritated to hear he had renewed his allegiance to Sunderland.

Glenn Hugill was the most baffling. The much-travelled former Coronation Street actor, presenter of The Mole, director and writer is a Durham lad.

He is devotedly red and white and even offers a link from his website to (it doesn’t work,or didn’t at the time).

What’s more, he responded instantly to my first request via his agent, leaving his mobile number and telling a colleague: “Let him know I’ll do it. Always happy to talk about Sunderland.”

That was nearly two years before this piece, wrapping up the series, was written. Despite strenuous efforts on our part, we hadn’t been able to get him to keep the promise. Wear Down South‘s uncompromising message to him in the face of this setback? “Don’t get too cocky, Hugsy. You might think you’re too busy to bother with a piddling little branch newsletter. But the Curse could put paid to that sooner than you think”.

It has not, to be fair, been a great couple of years for getting celebs, whether truly busy or just self-important, to give time to babble on about Sunderland. And we were a trifle optimistic with some of our targets.

Olga Korbut had supposedly declared at the height of her golden gymnastic career that she’d looked our for Sunderland results since becoming hooked on our 1973 FA Cup exploits. An e-mail to her representative, who was undoubtedly more keen on commercial offers (WDS fees for interviewees rarely reach six figures these days), predictably brought no response. Nor did a repeat message, to the same source in 2007, have any more effect.

Gillian Quinn can be forgiven her snub, partly because she’s married to one of the best things to happen to SAFC in decades and also because he probably forgot to pass on our letter.

We thought her a good candidate for the fairly thin reason than that she had been described as “wife, mother and Sunderland supporter” in a series of TV ads for Persil’s Irish equivalent.

Of the rest, Celtic FC went sharply down in our estimation, offering no reply to a request for a tiny piece of Martin O’Neill‘s time to discuss his boyhood affection for SAFC. We do not know whether the club’s press office even bothered to pass on the separate letter enclosed for Martin’s attention.

Neil Tennant, one of the Pet Shop Boys, has more than once been called a Sunderland fan. Untrue. “As much as he supports any team (he doesn’t really), it would be Newcastle United,” his man told me. “But not enough to talk about it.”

Similarly, my hunch that Bryan Ferry might be a fan, since he comes from Washington, fell at the first hurdle. A cursory check through clippings showed him to be another Mag, as I am sure most Wear Down South readers could have told me.

The charismatic Irish folk singer Christy Moore once told me he’d always had a soft spot for the Lads. But his allegiance might not quite stretch to a column; he did, after all, take care to add: “If it was against Leeds United, mind you, my heart would be with Leeds”.

Then there was Patrick Stewart, alias Capt Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek.

“There is some strange rumour about that I support Sunderland,” he said in a magazine interview shortly after the whispers finally reached me. “It is largely, I think, because I drew the lucky tombola number at halftime at Roker Park.” In fact, he’s an ardent Huddersfield fan.

In lean times, we considered treating the BBC Radio Newcastle and Metro commentators Martin Emmerson and Simon Crabtree – and their summarisers, respectively Nick Pickering and Gary Rowell – as celebrities as opposed to Sunderland-supporting journalists and ex-players.

But we never quite got round to them, or to ringing up Chris Beattie who played a Mag in the film Purely Belter but it is red and white, the former boxing champ Billy Hardy or members of an indie band called Kenickie.

Other suggestions came and went. Now that the series has ended, I am sure more names will crop up from time to time. Only the other day – June 2007, I mean – I heard from the brother of the former England cricket captain Bob Willis.

Born in Sunderland, as I knew, but left it as a tot and grew up, alas, as a Man City fan. There is one other tenuous link. Like Roy Keane, he is a Bob Dylan fanatic, in his case to the extent of adding Dylan as a middle name by deed poll.

But I must thank those who did take part, or who helped in lots of ways to make interviews happen.

The series had left me with warm memories: drinks with Kate Adie by the Thames, two enthralling hours in the company of Alan Price, a grand afternoon with Melanie Hill (at Charlton away, seeing us score AND get a point).

And there were heartening reminiscences and quotes from Terry Deary, Robert Kane, Bob Fox, Lesley Douglas, Sir Tim Rice, Steve Cram, Denise Robertson, Joe Simpson, <strong>Sean Landless, Lord Puttnam, George Reynolds and Khalid Kannouchi.

Thanks, also, to Joan Dawson, Trevor Longstaff and Ian Todd for their patience and help, to countless fellow-supporters who suggested subjects and to Mike Amos for dipping so hungrily, for his Northern Echo columns, into the Celebrity Supporters pot.

At the Sunderland Echo, Graeme Anderson and Ian Laws – as well as John Howe – gave much more time to appeals for assistance than they needed to.

Beginning to sound like a grim Oscar acceptance speech? Then I’ll leave you with one last thought.

Amid constant talk about press standards and ethics, Wear Down South led the way. Do not forget that series ended at a bad time to be a Sunderland supporter, the club newly relegated and Mick McCarthy scrambling toegether a makeshift team for the coming 2003/2004 season.

So I was able to declare that the end of the Celebrity Supporters of Sunderland series also brought an end to Wear Down South‘s intrusion into the private grief of public figures.

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