‘Vincent Hanley’s spirit and kindness were so huge. We have to remember him’

TV review: For all the tragedy, this new documentary is an unflinching celebration of Hanley’s life

Bill Hughes’s film about Vincent Hanley is several things at once. Vincent Hanley: Sex, Lies and Videotapes (RTÉ One, 9.35pm) is a celebration of the late MT-USA presenter’s career in Ireland and the UK. It is a lament for his death from Aids at just 33. And it is an excoriating profile of 1980s Ireland, a grey hell steeped in violent homophobia where the choice gay people faced was to leave the country or live in the shadows at home.

In all these aspects, it succeeds. Hughes, a producer, broadcaster and gay activist, traces his friend’s rise from suffocating provincialism in Clonmel to the ever brighter lights of Cork, Dublin, London and New York. This is followed by a heartbreaking chronicling of Hanley’s drawn-out illness. It was something he was desperate to keep a secret, owing to the terrible taboo in Ireland around Aids – regarded by many as retribution against the sin of the homosexuality.

“Vincent always saw a better life ahead,” recalls Hughes, who at moments struggles to hold back tears. “He’d say, ‘listen lovey, I’m going to go all the way’.”

MT-USA became unmissable viewing – a spark of joy amid the drudgery of the 1980s Irish weekend

One area where the documentary perhaps falls down is in communicating Hanley’s talents as a broadcaster. Here the viewer is left fill in the blanks slightly.


Was Hanley, who received the mocking sobriquet “Fab Vinnie” early in his career, a champion of new music in the vein of Larry Gogan and Dave Fanning? Or a raconteur in the style of Gerry Ryan? That he had huge potential was unquestionable – and underscored by the fact he could leave RTÉ in frustration and move to London, where he was hired by Capital Radio and taken on by Terry Wogan and Kenny Everett’s agent.

Nor does Sex, Lies and Videotapes entirely convey how much of a juggernaut MT-USA was. Its format was, at one level, unremarkable. Each Sunday, Hanley, standing against an iconic backdrop in New York, would introduce a selection of pop videos. And yet it became unmissable viewing – a spark of joy amid the drudgery of the 1980s Irish weekend.

But where it matters most, the film is devastating. Hughes, whom Hanley hired to produce MT-USA, meets gay activist Bill Foley, whose organisation, Gay Health Action, encountered huge resistance in trying to educate Ireland about the threat of Aids.

He speaks with Irish Times journalist Una Mullally, who talks about the homophobic killing of Hanley’s housemate Charles Self in January 1982. Rather than solve the murder, we learn, the Garda seemed more interested in interrogating the gay community.

'[Vincent] loved the anonymity of the sex clubs in Manhattan. You could just check your clothes in and slide down a chute into an orgy'

Hughes also interviews Pat Kenny, a contemporary of Hanley’s at RTÉ. Kenny suggests the national broadcaster, staffed in the early 1980s by lefties and liberals, was “a safe haven for people who were gay”.

Sex, Lies and Videotapes is unflinching when discussing Hanley’s final years. Having abruptly quit Capital Radio in 1983, he moved to New York and, alongside creating MT-USA, threw himself into the gay scene.

“Vincent loved to flirt with danger,” says Hughes. “He loved the anonymity of the sex clubs in Manhattan. You could just check your clothes in and slide down a chute into an orgy.”

Aids soon had its claws in him. By the end of MT-USA he was incapable of standing. Hughes would crouch out of camera shot and Hanley would sit on his back. Knowing the end was near, in 1987 he flew back from New York to Dublin. It seems a miracle he had made it.

“He had the smell of death on him,” says Hughes. Actor Gabriel Byrne, who happened to be seated alongside on the flight, helped Hanley to his waiting friend Terry O’Sullivan. Hanley was, by this point, barely alive. He nearly died on the way to St Vincent’s Hospital, only for O’Sullivan to bring him back with CPR.

Those final six weeks were not pleasant. Often, the first a family would know about their son’s sexuality was when they went to see them at St Vincent’s and discovered they were on an Aids ward, we learn from Prof Fiona Mulcahy, who helped treat Hanley in his last days.

Hanley developed dementia, became paranoid and then simply forgot he was dying. And when he did pass away, his family had to run a gauntlet of media intrusion. To be gay in Ireland was unforgivable. To be a gay person who had died of Aids was even worse.

And yet for all the tragedy, Sex, Lies and Videotapes is ultimately a celebration. Hanley died 35 years ago. But, for Hughes, his spirit endures.

“He lives on in me and everyone whose life he touched,” he says. “His spirit, his kindness, his talent was so huge. We have to remember him and we have to live up to his expectations.”