TV SHOW OF THE DAY: Fab Vinny (RTÉ 1, 7pm)

Expect a blast of ZZ Top tonight as MT-USA presenter, Vincent Hanley, is fondly remembered...

Men and women of a certain age will be gathered round their tellies tonight for this tribute to ‘Fab’ Vincent Hanley, the Clonmel man who made our early ‘80s lives considerably brighter with MT-USA, the Sunday afternoon videofest that flew back every week from New York to be with us, and which gave the likes of Pat Benetar, Toto, Van Halen, Tom Petty, Billy Joel and ZZ Top a major career boost in Ireland.

MT-USA was at the height of its viewer-grabbing success when in 1987 Vincent learned that he was HIV-positive. Series producer Bill Hughes, who’s central to tonight’s documentary, talked to us recently about his friend…

Once Upon a Time in America

MT-USA series producer Bill Hughes remembers the life of 'Fab' Vincent Hanley. Interview: Stuart Clark

For three glorious '80s years, 'Fab' Vincent Hanley ruled the airwaves with the groundbreaking MT-USA. Series producer Bill Hughes recalls his wonderful life and tragic AIDS-related death

“A guy came up to me about 10 years ago in HMV on Grafton Street and said, ‘I was conceived while my mother and father were watching your show!’”

Despite my best attempts I never had full sex during MT-USA, but I was glued to the screen every Sunday as ‘Fab’ Vincent Hanley treated the nation to three hours’ worth of the hottest music videos from both sides of the Atlantic.

The man telling that HMV story is Bill Hughes, the MT-USA producer who was also one of Fab Vinnie’s closest friends.

A native of Clonmel, Hanley became a household name in the late ‘70s with the then fledgling RTÉ Radio 2 before landing a gig in London with Capital Radio. Turning down a lucrative contract extension, he relocated in 1984 to New York where MT-USA was lovingly assembled.

“He could have kept making good money in England, but Vincent was always up for a new challenge,” Hughes resumes. “Our ‘production office’ was his sublet apartment in the Woodward building on the corner of 55th and Broadway. This was pre-Mayor Giuliani and his zero-tolerance cleanup of Manhattan, so the neighbourhood was pretty earthy. I flew over to New York on Sunday. We scouted for locations on Monday, shot on Tuesday and I flew back on Wednesday. Editing took place in Windmill Lane on Thursday/Friday morning, after which I dash out to RTÉ with the tape. Saturday was spent dying and going, ‘I can’t keep this up!’”

Hughes was rarely alone in the edit suite.

“You’d have Howard Jones, the Thompson Twins and the other overseas artists who were recording in Windmill because of the tax breaks they were getting here, asking to sit in so they could see what other people were up to. MTV had launched in 1981, so the concept of music videos was still very new. Unlike the 30-45 second snatches they had on Top Of The Pops, we showed the whole video including the spoken intros and dramatic set-ups. It was only MT-USA viewers, for instance, that got to see the row Pat Benetar had with her father before launching into ‘Love Is A Battlefield’.

“Because we treated them as a work in their own right rather than filler, we were the first show in Europe to be given Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ and were granted lots of other exclusives.”

These included MT-USA getting to hang out with U2 before their legendary Radio City Music Hall debut.

“There was a massive crowd of ticket-less punters outside who tried to tear Vincent’s laminates off him when went into the venue. Bono, wearing his big Joshua Tree hat, graciously gave us an interview on the Radio City roof, which with Manhattan as the backdrop looked absolutely amazing.”

Asked what Vinny was like off-camera, Hughes beams and says: “He was just one of the funniest. To this day, I have a picture of him by my desk. People thought we were lovers. We weren’t, but in terms of the craic we had we were inseparable. He was a big foodie and loved a good bottle of wine, preferably before or after a Broadway show. Musically, he was a massive Motown and black soul fan. If Diana Ross released anything, it’d go straight to the top of the list. He was a very early champion of Whitney Houston - Vincent thought her voice was magical - and played Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born In The USA’ before it was a hit. His favourite segue was to say, ‘And now, here’s three from ZZ Top!”

With hundreds of thousands of record-buyers watching, MT-USA became the Holy Grail for pluggers.

“Invariably, if we played a song a few weeks in a row it’d become a hit in Ireland,” Bill acknowledges. “To this day, I’ve the gold discs for Alison Moyet’s ‘Love Resurrection’, Sade’s ‘Smooth Operator’, Billy Joel’s ‘Uptown Girl’, ‘Born To Run’ and ZZ Top’s ‘Sharp Dressed Man’, which the artists and their record companies gave us as a ‘thank you’ for breaking them.”

MT-USA was at the height of its viewer-grabbing success when in 1987 Vincent learned that he was HIV-positive.

“Vincent caught the AIDS virus at a time when the medical profession just didn’t know what this thing was or how to deal with it,” his friend rues. “Before becoming Acquired Immune Deficiancy Syndrome, it was ‘Gay Cancer’ and then HTLV-3. Unlike today, there was nothing to alleviate the symptoms or manage the terrible pain. Once it took a grip, it was pretty savage. The first thing was the rapid weight loss which, with him being very body conscious and always going to the gym, hit Vincent really hard. He was into carbs and protein before I’d even heard of them, so he hated the sunken cheeks and looking off colour. It’s fair to say that he went into massive denial and refused to publicly acknowledge what was wrong with him.”

When Hanley died on April 18, 1987 the media was given congenital cerebral toxoplasmosis as the cause of death. It was only quite recently that friends, including Bill Hughes, confirmed that he’d succumbed to an AIDS-related.

“He’d be astonished and amazed that people still remember him,” Bill says, the smile returning to his face. “Vincent blazed a trail with MT-USA that no one of our generation will ever forget.”

And so say all of us!

 

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