It isn’t there anymore, the West Hartlepool College of Art. Not like it used to be. These days it’s called the Cleveland College of Art and Design and it’s just one part of a larger institution (there’s a sixth-form campus down the road in Middlesbrough.) To this day I feel a bit of a tingle every time I walk or drive past it with my parents during one of my all too rare visits back home to Hartlepool. Situated near the marina, and just around the corner from the local multiplex, the current curriculum covers everything from fashion to photography to, of course, film production. The college’s most famous alumni, Tony and Ridley Scott, still cast a shadow over the town. They’re heroes. Arty North Shields kids who took on the world. Tyneside moguls, straight out of Stockton.
I remember the first time I saw Crimson Tide as vividly as any screening I’ve ever attended. It was at the Showcase in Nottingham (I worked on the concession stand there when I was 16 for the princely sum of £2.30 an hour + free movies.) Like so much of Tony Scott’s work, it’s the kind of film that thrives on low expectations, a submarine thriller about the end of the world that doesn’t run silent or deep as much as it shouts at itself for two hours, its hand hovering over a big red button, waiting for the signal. I’ve rarely seen a packed, sold-out multiplex crowd as rapt as that performance – to this day, Crimson Tide remains one of the most tense blockbusters ever made, a juggernaut of sweaty-palmed, almost theatrical intensity, a B-movie with an A-grade screenplay and two of the finest leading actors of their respective generations going at each other like it’s Judgement Day. As the credits rolled, the sense of relief was palpable in the room, the words “directed by Tony Scott” our invitation to breathe.
I wonder how many of Hartlepool’s current intake of film students watched Crimson Tide, or True Romance, or The Last Boy Scout and thought “I want to do THAT.” Sure, he’s no Ingmar Bergman. But then again, Ingmar Bergman didn’t make Top Gun, the film that redefined the summer movie experience for a generation. More fool him. Tony Scott’s films are brash, efficient entertainments, – often glossy, occasionally nasty, unashamedly commercial. But they exhibit craftsmanship that transcends their genre, and they trust writers. His films really are state of the action-thriller art. His final film, Unstoppable, a blue-collar banger about a runaway train on a collision course with disaster, evidences this in spades. It’s a smart and visceral slice of blockbuster pie, executed to perfection.
There will be a lot of speculation and conjecture in the press over the coming days about what happened to Tony Scott and why he felt the need to do what he did. It probably won’t be useful. Neither will the sordid and unhelpful descriptions of the exact nature of his passing. None of that really matters right now. Tony Scott flipped cars like no one in the business. His career was a long, slow-motion, rolling ball of flame. He gave us a vampire Bowie and transformed Tom Cruise into the biggest star in the world. To all intents and purposes, he won.