BIG INTERVIEW: Sports photographer Tony North’s life in pictures
Craig Salmon talks to Tony North, who has spent the past six decades working predominantly as a sports photographer both at home and abroad.
Whether it’s been capturing the death-defying stunts of some of the best rally drivers in the world, showcasing the genius of a comedic legend – or even the more mundane task of recording a village coffee morning – Tony North has always ensured his subjects remain in the sharpest of focus.
The 79-year-old photographer – who turns 80 in August – brought the curtain down on a distinguished and highly interesting career, which has spanned almost 60 years, last month.
A staff snapper who worked mainly on the Morecambe Visitor, Lancaster Guardian and Lancashire Evening Post from the early 1960s – North’s career took a different course in the early 1990s.
Having worked as a photographer at rally driving championships in his spare time, it was in 1991 that he decided to take the plunge and go freelance full time.
It proved to be a pivotal moment in his life as he then proceeded to spend the next two decades or so working in far flung places such as South America, the Middle East and Africa. Tasked with capturing the action at some of the biggest motorsport events across the world in the racing calendar,North reckons he has visited 31 different countries over the course of his career.
His love affair with motorsport has been lifelong, so much so that he remembers the days when he used to take pictures of vehicles, which would be described as classic cars nowadays, when they were brand new and being introduced to the world for the very first time.
North, who lives in Morecambe, has travelled to places such as New Zealand, Argentina, Kenya and Kuwait – and rubbed shoulders with the great and good of the sport along the way.
North said: “At one time I was working at the World Rally Champ-ionship,the Middle East Rally Championship and the Asian Pacific Rally Championship – and, of course, I was doing the British Rally Championship.
“I remember I used to do a lot of work for Marlboro who are, of course, a big sponsor in the world of motorsport. Through that I did the Safari Rally, in Kenya, for 12 years on the trot.
“I was pretty busy and had a good life out of it.”
On one particular occasion, North was asked to travel to Argentina and ended up spending time at the home of one of the biggest names in the history of motorsport.
“I used to do work for all the big car makers like Audi and Ford, but I remember Mercedes started getting into the rally scene,” said North.
“Anyway I was asked to go over to Argentina and when I touched down at the capital Buenos Aires, I remember it coming over the tannoy on the plane, ‘If there is a Mr North on the flight, please can you make yourself known to one of the flight attendants’.
“Anyway, that’s what I did and I was then met by these two men, who were wearing these big crombie coats. I remember thinking, ‘Blimey, what’s this all about’?
“I was whisked off to the VIP lounge where there was a limousine waiting for me to take me to the hotel.
“Anyway at the hotel, the Mercedes public relations guy asked me if I could do him a favour. The Mercedes importer for Argentina was holding a cocktail party at his penthouse suite in Buenos Aires for the drivers and the team manager, etc, and they wanted to know if I could take some pictures?
“I said no problems – that’s what I was there for.
“Anyway just as he was leaving, I asked him who was the Mercedes importer for Argentina, to which he replied, ‘Juan Manuel Fangio’.”
Legendary Argentinian Formula One racing driver Fangio won the World Drivers’ Championship five times in the 1950s – the first of which was in 1951 and the last occasion in 1957.
It was a record which lasted 46 years until it was surpassed by Germany’s Michael Schumacher, who went on to win seven drivers’ championships, in 2003.
“I couldn’t believe it,” said North. “I was going to the home of somebody who at the time was the greatest Formula One driver the world had ever known.
“But what a nice man he was – his penthouse was right in the centre of Buenos Aires overlooking the city. It was beautiful.”
While North enjoyed being on the outside and snapping all the daredevil action performed by the rally drivers, he was not too enamoured when he was afforded the opportunity of being a co-driver on one occasion.
“A lot of the work we did was promotional photoshoots with the rally teams,” said North.
“I remember one time I was sent to Cockermouth to do a photoshoot with Ford. Ford had the late Colin McRae and the Finnish driver Tapio Laukkanen racing for them.
“Anyway we had done the photoshoot and I just remember saying to the Ford team who were there, ‘Do you know what, I have never actually been in one of these cars’.
“Next minute a crash helmet was handed to me with the message that Tapio wanted to take me around.
“So I was strapped in this Ford Focus which Colin McRae normally drove.
“I have never known anything like it. We were changing direction in mid-air – the g-force when he stepped on the brakes was incredible.
“I remember after we had done one circuit, Tapio asked me if I wanted to go around again – I said, ‘No you’re okay thanks.’”
Away from his career in motorsport, North worked for the most part in North Lancashire. With his roving role, he was often seen as the face of the local Press and became friendly with prominent figures in the community – people he would go on to photograph on many occasions.
One person who became a friend of his was comedian Eric Morecambe.
“I became very friendly with Eric,” said North.
“His parents lived at Hest Bank. I was always beating a path up there and this is when Eric was at the height of his fame.
“I always remember one occasion when Eric had been made a honorary president of Morecambe Football Club.
“He was due at Christie Park – Morecambe’s old ground – to do a photoshoot of him doing a bit of a kick-around on the pitch.
“But his Rolls Royce had gone for sale so he had no way of getting down there so I ended up giving him a lift. At the time I had a Mini Cooper – it was like a rally car.
“His son Gary came with us – he would have only been about seven-years-old. We all squeezed in the Mini together and drove to Christie Park. There were a few other photographers and Press waiting for him, and Morecambe officials, and I imagine they were all expecting him to turn up in his Rolls Royce – instead he swept into Christie Park in my Mini Cooper!”