Fab Vinny review: ‘Vincent was so out he could never go back in’

In a drab 1980s Ireland, music presenter Vincent Hanley brought back the promise of something more fabulous

The trailer for Fab Vinny, a documentary on the life of presenter Vincent Hanley, aired on RTÉ One on Tuesday 31st October.

 

If you were an Irish kid in the mid 1980s, a time of recession, drab earth tones and television advertisements that outlined the many startling ways an electricity pylon might kill you, chances are you remember Vincent Hanley as its necessary antidote.

Every Sunday afternoon, Fab Vinny was beamed magically into your home from the astonishingly proportioned streets of a fabled big city, bringing music, ebullience, saturated colour, the soul of promise.

The show was MT-USA, a three-hour programme of music videos dispatched from New York City by a neatly groomed guy who made a denim jacket worn over a shirt and tie seem like a logical combo. The church worried that his gifts, featuring the lurid, lascivious displays of Madonna and ZZ-Top, would corrupt the impressionable minds of Ireland’s young. Looking back now, through a misty film of nostalgia, at clips of the show on Cláracha Gaeilge’s moving appreciation Fab Vinny (RTÉ 2, Tuesday, 7pm), I’m endlessly grateful that they did.

Viewed from a distance, Hanley’s story was almost Promethean. Too fabulous for Ireland, his skills and flamboyance as a DJ and entertainer brought him to London and later New York, where he had the generosity to send some of its dazzle back home.

“He was very angry at the idea that people would think he was a small town boy,” recalls his MT-USA colleague, producer Bill Hughes, who describes Hanley, born in Clonmel, as self-created persona: “somebody far more important.” He was winningly confident – “As my mother said, ‘Vincent was so out he could never go back in’,” recalls a colleague – and finally there was only town big enough for such a boy. “I think he was taking full advantage of New York at that time,” says Hughes, carefully measuring every word.

Tragically, it was also the epicenter of the Aids crisis, and the programme conveys the hollowed-out trauma of a then little-understood epidemic as vividly as it had earlier captured the kinetic thrill of its streets and clubs. It’s heartbreaking to see Hanley, tired and gaunt under heavy made-up, presenting the show during his illness; or to hear him denying it on the Gay Byrne show; or to appreciate how unbearably isolating it was for this gregarious personality to end his days in quarantine in St James’s Hospital in Dublin.

The one solace is the compassion of his family, his friends, his community. Hughes remembers strict instructions not to touch Hanley in his later moments. “Of course you did touch him,” he says, “and he was very appreciative of that.” It’s shocking to consider, as the interviewees here do, the skyrocketing rates of HIV infection in Ireland today, and it affirms the importance in sharing Hanley’s story, not as a cautionary tale, but as a necessarily unguarded one.

That this tribute only takes a brisk, tight 30 minutes initially struck me as odd: there’s so much material. But that swirl of energy, the quick pulse of youth and discovery, is what Fab Vinny embodied. It’s a fitting way to remember him.

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