853‘s special correspondent MERCURY MAN meets a recently-retired Goldsmiths professor whose book was turned into a hit BBC drama…
When you meet someone special for the first time your own life gets an unexpected lift, and that’s how it was for me a few years ago when I met Professor Tim Crook in the café at Goldsmiths, University of London in New Cross.
We were both journalists, but his brand made mine look like scribblings on the back of a Sainsbury’s receipt. So mostly I sat and listened, since which I’ve benefited from one or two spin-offs we don’t need to go into.
The other week the careers of Tim and two other pandemic retirees – Professor Angela McRobbie and Professor Dave Morley – were celebrated belatedly at Goldsmiths and The Rose pub down the road. I’ve got hold of notes by Tim and his lifelong friend Richard Shannon, so if you don’t mind I’ll gush forth enthusiastically.
Five thousand words would be skimping it, so I’d better just pick as many cherries as possible before the subs get at it.
Mrs Wilson is a good place to start because many of you must have seen the excellent three-part drama on the BBC in 2018. It told the unbelievably true story of spy and multi-bigamist Alexander “Alec” Wilson, starring Mr Wilson’s actual grand-daughter, Ruth Wilson, who played her grandmother.
And, yes, the original investigative journalist who dug up the story brilliantly was none other than Timothy Simon John Crook! Which, in itself, takes some explaining.
What happened was that, as recently as 2002, Tim began to be approached by individuals who wanted to use his matchless mixture of research and journo skills to investigate events, issues and subjects on a confidential basis that were very personal to the individuals’ life and families.
“Most of the projects remain confidential to those who commissioned them,” says Tim’s notes to me. “What I will say is that I was largely confirming their own courageous, tenacious and hugely impressive investigations; sometimes so very determined and powerfully moving.”
Soon came the Wilson mystery from, amazingly, Richard Shannon.
Richard and his father Mike, Alexander Wilson’s son, asked for Tim’s help to unravel the mystery of “Alec”, who – on top of everything else – was also a successful spy thriller writer.
“This was a classic example of the kind of work I was doing,” says Tim.
“I thought I could sort this out in a couple of days and give Richard and his father some file references to consult at the National Archives and applications they could make for personnel files from the Ministry of Defence.
“It became an amazing odyssey. His supposed death in 1942 had been fabricated, he had several families, bigamous marriages and lived multiple lives in different identities.
“Richard’s father discovered relatives he had never been aware of. He and his older half-brother Dennis, in particular, wanted a written biography of Alexander Wilson. This had to be achieved after Mike had been diagnosed with blood cancer and knew he only had a few months to live.”
The result was Tim’s book, The Secret Lives of a Secret Agent (available with his other books on Amazon). And you didn’t need to be Hannen Swaffer to spot a unique story – with the drama department at the Beeb soon snapping it up.
So … Professor Tim Crook taught radio, media law and ethics, plus audio drama, at Goldsmiths for 30 years. But how did it all begin?
Tim went to Marlborough Primary School in Chelsea during the 1960s. His first appearance in a dramatic production was in red tights performing the role of Red Rooster. The next year he directed and produced a shortened version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, playing the ghost of Hamlet’s father.
He went on to Westminster City Grammar School, where he first met Richard, and failed a maths O-level there with grade D while under the influence of chilled Chablis, raspberry mousse and cold chicken from Fortnum and Masons.
He left school at 16 and founded an independent school magazine called Vox. He did all the type-setting because he was the only boy with a portable typewriter, paid for by illegally working underage for an Auschwitz survivor called Andy, selling smuggled antique icons from eastern Europe in the Portobello Road market.
At nights he served drinks as a barman at the Black Lion pub in Chelsea, directly opposite Island Records’ studios. There he mixed gin and tonics, rum and cokes, Pimms’ and fruit, and Snowball cocktails for Freddie Mercury, Brian May and Cat Stevens among others.
His world of work also included gardening and road-sweeping for the City of London, mainly in Fleet Street where he rifled the dustbins of national newspapers, fascinated by discarded agency copy about news events from PA, UPI and Reuters.
His first foray into journalism was reporting for National Young Liberal community newspapers. He won a place on a radio journalism course at the London College of Printing in 1978. The first feature he sold to LBC – then a London-only news and speech station – was about the history of toilets. This was followed by investigative documentaries on the music business, and punishment drugs on children in care for the BBC and LBC.
He spent two years as a general reporter in the northeast of England – covering strikes, an oil rig disaster, economic recession, record unemployment, and a notorious serial killer. This led to general reporting in London for BBC Radio Scotland.
In 1987, Tim and Richard got together again to set up a multi-award-winning radio drama production company, mainly working for LBC. Then, in the 1990s, came Goldsmiths.
All the while, there was an “angel” guiding Professor Tim.
“For 45 years my angel of a partner and wife Marja Giejgo kept me going,” he says.
“Marja said I should stop selling handbags in the West End and apply to the London College of Printing to do that radio journalism course. And It was Marja who said I should apply for the radio lecturer’s post at Goldsmiths in 1993. That faith and confidence in everything I’ve done is down to Marja completely.”
Nice last par, Tim.
Mercury Man talks to SE Londoners with interesting tales to tell. Read his past stories.
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