A Midlander’s odyssey from South to North West
There was one aspect of moving to Manchester that came as a complete surprise to me: the difficulty in spending any significant length of time without hearing the dulcet tones of Ray Winstone. One of the most distinctive voices of the East End of London seems to have followed me up the M6, and I don’t seem to be able to shake it off.
Part of this is fairly unsurprising, working as I do in TV Sport. Whether it’s the Johnstone’s Paints Trophy, the Premier League or the Champions League, it’s pretty difficult to watch football of any kind without Ray and his three disembodied heads popping up at half time and exhorting us to “Get yer mobiles and laptops ahhhht” on behalf of one of the many bookmakers jostling for a share of the lucrative online gambling market.
Which is all fair enough. Although occasionally I do wake up at night wondering if life really is “all about the in-play”.
But something has been bugging my friends, colleagues, and not least of all, me. Why is he advertising a Levenshulme-based scrapyard on the Manchester frequency of Britain’s best-known indie music station?
This has been going on for some time, and it’s become cult listening. There you are, innocently pulling up at the traffic lights with the Arctic Monkeys on the wireless, and before you know it you’re back in the Winstone zone again. He’s cornered the market in working-class geezer voiceover. Promoting German-built commercial vans isn’t entirely unexpected, but on top of that, Ray has seemingly been out and about representing “one of Manchester’s most reputable scrap merchants” for well over a year now.
Sometimes it’s his hard man image that does the trick, and on other occasions his more sensitive side is brought to bear. And quite often both at once. We’ve been invited to visit their premises on business or even to “…just pop daaaahn for a cuppa tea. Feel the love, baby”.
In the name of persuading the citizens of the North West to get that old piece of junk off their driveway, we’ve heard him rapping on the radio to a piano backing track (“take it away, maestro!”) and, most recently, apparently competing on Mastermind. His specialised subject? “Scrapping cars.”
Ray Winstone is a famous and successful actor. He’s been nominated for BAFTAs. He’s won an International Emmy. He was in seminal films like Scum, Quadrophenia and Sexy Beast. And given his regular appearances in the ad breaks on virtually every TV Sports channel known to man, he can’t be short of a few bob.
So we have spent many an hour debating how such a thing came to pass.
One of the more plausible theories that has been put forward is the Japanese advert one. In the ’80s it was fairly common for British celebrities to cash in on their status by doing adverts for Japanese TV. Witness the toe-curling embarrassment that was Liverpool FC legend Kenny Dalglish advertising what I’m fairly sure is brandy and the snappy and entertaining way that Honda used Madness to sell their pint-sized supermini. But crucially it was a way of making an extra few quid without compromising your credibility … until the likes of Clive James exposed it and put it on Channel 4.
I’m willing to bet – partly on the basis that a bloke who was once called out by my landlord to fix my washing machine when I lived in North London claimed to be friends with Ray and said he’d occasionally come out on calls with him for a laugh when he was between jobs with nothing to do – that Ray doesn’t know many people in the North West and his mates probably won’t get to hear it. And if they do, what the hell? He’s still playing the part of a rough-around-the-edges working class Cockney Geezer.
I have also done a certain amount of internet research, to satisfy my curiosity, and found a hitherto unknown (to me, at any rate) connection between Ray Winstone and scrap. In 2011, alongside the likes of Colm Meaney, Jack Huston and Louise Redknapp, Ray appeared in a caper movie called The Hot Potato in which he plays an East End scrap merchant who happens on a lump of uranium and tries to flog it off to the highest bidder.
So maybe he feels so at home in a metal-recycling environment that the radio ads were just the next logical step for him. But is there really that much money in scrap? Or, like the washing machine-fixing lark, was he just a bit bored one day and agreed to do it for a laugh? And is it genuinely Ray on the radio, or just a really convincing-sounding Winstone impersonator?
I have at least managed to crack that last one. I rang the scrapyard and asked. That was easy, because I’ve inadvertently memorised their phone number – it’s one of Ray’s answers on Mastermind.
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Supported by funding from @HeritageFundUK, Betty’s Back! will explore James’s life and works in the context of the 1920s, when the portrait was painted, and will also reveal artwork by Betty Durden Green for the first time.