A Mancunian Don: The Real Don Tonay

A version of the following article first appeared on my Blogger site in January and November of 2019. My thanks once again go to Donna Tonay for her help and information.

This month marks the 18th anniversary of Michael Winterbottom’s film 24 Hour Party People. I went to see it at the cinemas twice in April 2002 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

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.

Emphatically NOT the real Don Tonay, played by Peter Kay in 24 Hour Party People

In the suitably eccentric novelisation of the film by Tony Wilson (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.”

Alan Wise himself had this to say in a conversation with New Order frontman Bernard Sumner, included in Sumner’s memoir, Chapter and Verse;

“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. 

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.

I personally got the opportunity to print the truth a little later. In November last year I was contacted by Donna Tonay, daughter of Don, who wished to set the record straight. She also provided me with the photographs of her father I have published here.

I started by asking Donna just what her father’s ethnic background was, given that it was the source of much confusion and conflicting opinions among the Factory set;

“My Dad always said he was from Dublin. But we are not really sure. We know he changed his name but we don’t know what it was before. My Mum has a lot of theories about that. It was either during the war to avoid going back or to get away from his family. Who knows. He would never tell you. He definitely was Irish. He knew Dublin like the back of his hand. I have had a DNA test and I have come back as 70% Irish so I think that was true. His friend, Phyllis, Phil Lynott’s (Thin Lizzy) mum said they were neighbours when they were children in Dublin”

I asked her about Don’s life prior to owning the Russell Club, home of the Factory nights;

“He opened the first blues in Moss Side called the Monton house. Engelbert Humperdinck used to try and get in every night, but he was too young so my Dad said he was throw him out most nights” 
“He owned property all over Moss Side and rented it out. If they didn’t pay their rent he would smash the toilet so they had to move out. He said it was cheaper to buy a new toilet”
“When he met my mum they travelled around the country opening illegal gambling dens, as gambling was illegal in the ’60s. In their place in Bristol, Cary Grant used to come in”
“It was my stepdad, who was one of the Quality Street Gang, that allegedly put the Krays back on the train (when they arrived in Manchester with an eye on taking over the city). The Thin Lizzy song, ‘The Boys are Back in Town’, is about them”

One thing that everyone seemed to agree upon, I said, was that Don Tonay was a handsome, tall and well-dressed gentleman. A cool man who was a world away from the blunt northern club owner stereotype played by Peter Kay in 24Hour Party People. Donna agreed and confirmed this;

“My Dad was always well-dressed and well-spoken. He wore silk socks and handmade shoes. He was also 6ft 4″. Saying that, he could always scruff it and get cracking with whatever needed doing in the clubs or many shops that he owned”

Returning to 24 Hour Party People, I asked if the family were consulted at all on the production;

“We were not consulted. A friend of mine was friend with one of the cameramen who got me onto the set where I had an argument with Tony Wilson, as my dad had only just died of a massive heart attack on the 19th September 2000 and this was November of that year when they were filming. He (Wilson) had the good grace to apologise. You see, there would be no Factory without my dad, he bankrolled it all.”

Donna concluded with her belief that her mother should write a book. It’s one I emphatically agree with. Hollywood film stars, music legends and gangsters, it would make for great reading!


4 thoughts on “A Mancunian Don: The Real Don Tonay”

  1. Don Tonay was irish, He loved trotting races and often took part. He was best friend and partner on many occasions with my dad. They ran among other things the St James Billiard Club in the side street off the top of Oxford Rd, at the side of the Odeon Cinema. Six snooker tables out front and a large illegal card gambling area behind a small bar where I aged 13, often used to serve tea and coffee all night.
    I never met Donna Tonay. I think her mum’s name could have been Rhani….not sure.
    He was truely as Donna describes him, tall, strong Dean Martin looking. Quiet, with a look which could be very intimidating.
    I believe he was attacked once by his own irish wolf hound, the dog from his scrap yard. It surprised him at night in the hallway and he managed to defend himself and lock it in the front room. No mean feat.
    My Dad, Don and their pal Cid Otti were good friends and trusted partners.
    We used to call Cid, “Sir Dotty” because my mam said that’s how it sounds.
    Well that’s enough, I’ve already said too much.
    good luck with your research. And yes, the way he was portrayed in 24 hour party people was atrocious.

    Liked by 1 person

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