YOU know when you eavesdrop on a pub conversation and think ‘God, I’d love to be involved in that one?’. Well, on 289 separate occasions in the early nineties, RTE screened that very pub chat across the nation — and everyone was invited.
The programme was Nighthawks, and from 1989 to 1993 it changed the language of Irish television with a format that, even today, seems strange and anarchic.
Hosted by Shay Healy, it was Zoo TV before U2 popularised the idea. Screened three nights a week it crammed comedy sketches, music slots, interviews and oddity into its schedule, with Healy as a fusion of barman and presenter. While Gay Byrne’s The Late Late Show was the RTE One institution, Nighthawks was its brattish cousin on Network 2. There was no desk, no divide between audience and interviewees, and oodles of spontaneity. Yet as its host reveals, it very nearly ended before it began.
By the late Eighties Healy had already tasted success across a range of media and was looking for his next project. On asking then-controller of programmes Joe Mulholland whether there was anything on the horizon, he was told there wasn’t. Shay responded a little impulsively, writing Mulholland “an extraordinary letter”, calling the recipient any number of names and lambasting him for not cosseting front of house talent.
“I knocked on his door and he wasn’t there so I shoved it under his door,” Shay recalls. “I am literally walking to the canteen and David Blake-Knox says to me ‘I’m doing this new programme called Nighthawks, I was wondering whether you’d be interested?’ I’m thinking ‘F**k – I’m after sticking this letter under the door’.”
A panicked Shay went to Eoghan Harris, then working as a producer. Harris, he says, advised him to “go over and lick his arse as hard as you can”. Shay apologised for the letter and its insulting tone and Mulholland forgave and forgot. “And that was the start of a glorious chapter in my life,” Shay says, “the four years of Nighthawks.”
To the uninitiated, have a look at YouTube for a Nighthawks interview Healy conducts with punk survivor Johnny Thunders. As people cheerily smoke cigarettes and guzzle beer all around them, Healy leans in and questions Thunders about the various peaks and troughs of his career, both men struggling to be heard over the background din. No-one else in the studio is listening in, making you wonder whether the lack of audience attention meant the interviewee felt more relaxed, and thereby easier to question.
“A lot of people thought the pub was real,” Shay says. “People would open up — the reason was no-one was addressing the camera or compelling you to look at it.”
The set might have looked like a real pub but it was actually Studio 4 in Donnybrook. “It worked to such an extent people would come up and say ‘where’s the jacks?’, like it was a real pub,” Shay recalls. The hospitality bills were huge, but none of the alcohol was on draught, with guests imbibing from cans.
As if to put this theory to the test, along came one of the most seismic broadcasts in Irish television history, and shot in the famous Hell’s Kitchen pub in Castlerea: former Minister for Justice Sean Doherty’s revelation in 1992 about the wire-tapping of journalists’ phones almost a decade earlier, and who knew what and when. As he leaned to speak with Healy, Doherty effectively stated that Haughey had known about the taps all along, overturning a decade of denials.
“It took out Charlie,” Shay says now. After the show aired Doherty made sure the presenter knew the import of what he had divulged. “He did confess that he was bored after 10 years of carrying the can.
“I never gloried in bringing him down,” Shay says of Haughey. “I thought he was a blaggard, in some sense I was outraged by him, in another sense I appreciated the buccaneer in him. He made things happen, the air moved when he walked.
“He was a magnificent creation of himself. He became a squire, he became a horseman and all those things. He created his own myth and lived it to the full.”
Ann-Marie Hourihane showed her comic chops, and careers were started and made. The series featured guests from every walk of life, from a young Graham Norton to Paul Hill of the Guildford Four and a ‘tired and emotional’ Eamon Dunphy.
“We had Alex Higgins on a few times,” Shay recalls, before referring to one memorable encounter with the snooker legend.
“He had been kicked out by the wife, he cried, he was a bit jarred, with tears running down his cheeks and as the camera slid away I said ‘Thanks Alex, that was tough.’ And he said: ‘Have we started?’”
They don’t make them like that any more, and when putting together the hour-long retrospective Nighthawks Rehashed, Healy has a good idea why. “It just kind of proves the majority of people are conservative and don’t think outside the box.” And while the format seemed anarchic, it was often the result of meticulous planning, excellent research and “a whole new grammar” of camera work and production.
“A popular canard is that Nighthawks was canned along with [Prime Time forerunner] Today Tonight,” Shay says. “We weren’t. It’s just as we were finishing I said I didn’t want to do Nighthawks any more.
“Probably the best thing that happened is that we finished after four years,” he says, adding that the show is always remembered with affection for that very reason.
* Nighthawks Rehashed will be shown on RTÉ Two tonight at 10.10pm as part of the TV50 series.