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Vinny Cunningham - the man who has seen it call from behind the camera

Derry man looks back on career

Vinny Cunningham - the man who has seen it call from behind the camera

Vinny, left, takes a break from filming an episode of Lesser Spotted Ulster with presenter, fellow Derry man Joe Mahon.

From a young boy growing up in Derry's Bogside to working with one of the biggest names in music and working on one of television's longest- running television pro- grammes, award-winning Vinny Cunningham has seen it all – from behind the lens of a camera.
Vinny is the man who has brought us top TV series such as Joe Mahon's highly successful Lesser Spotted Ulster as well as the much-lauded Battle of the Bogside, No Go: The Free Derry Story and Insight: Operation Motorman documentaries.
The son of Phonsie and the late Mary, Vinny is the fourth oldest in a family of eight, having two brothers and five sisters.
Born in Meenan Drive in the Bogside in 1966, Vinny, along with his family, moved to Creggan in 1972.
After attending Holy Child Primary School he went to St Columb's College, leaving there after four years to go to St Joseph's Secondary School.
His interest in photography began at an early age.
He said: “I remember taking pictures of the 1981 hunger strike marches, riots and funerals here in Derry. I was 15 at the time.”
His interest in photography continued after leaving school.
“I joined the Derry Youth and Community Workshop (DYCW) in Society Street in 1983 under a YTP (Youth Training Programme) scheme, having been encouraged to do so by Kevin Mahon, who was then a recruitment officer of sorts for DYCW.
“I stayed in the vdeo and photography section until the tutor, Paul McClintock, and I left to establish Online Video. We made corporate films, wedding videos and we even landed the first video contract for Derry City FC to cover all their games at home and away.
“It was a steep learning curve, as back then we had to have 25-30 VHS copies of a game ready for the very many supporters clubs on a Monday night.”
During two periods spent in London (1984-1985) and (1987-1989), Vinny attended various part-time video courses as well as working at Jessops Photocentre in New Oxford Street.
He returned to Derry permanently in February 1989 to join Northland Films Ltd as a cameraman.
Vinny recalled: “We worked on the likes of the hugely popular McGilloway's Way with Olly for UTV until his untimely death in 1994 and then Lesser Spotted Ulster started in 1995.”
In December 1996, the Northland Films team split up amicably. Each formed their own companies. Vinny and Billy Gallagher (sound recordist) set up Northland Broadcast, providing crew hire to the likes of Joe Mahon of Westway Films (who was also previously with Northland Films) on Lesser Spotted Ulster,.
Vinny said: “It's been the very same core crew with Joe since those days.
“We have also crewed literally hundreds of programmes since 1996, from Blue Peter, Newsround to news coverage at Drumcree, Holy Cross, the Good Friday Agreement and many, many others. Never boring anyway.”
Vinny made his first 'big film' in 2001.
He recalled: “Along with Tom Collins, we produced and directed Teenage Kicks - The Undertones with the late great John Peel on his first ever visit to Derry. It was for the BBC but also had a selected cinemas and festivals run all over the world.”
Four years later, Open Reel Productions Ltd was formed to be the documentary production side of things as opposed to a crew hire facility, resulting in a number highly-successful productions.
These included:
- Inisght: Operation Motorman (2012, UTV) examined the role and impact of the largest British Army operation since the Suez Crisis which resulted in the end of Derry's 'No Go' areas.
- Exodus (2008, BBC) told the inside story of why thousands of Protestants left their homes on the ‘west bank’ of Derry, over a 30 year period.
- No Go: The Free Derry Story (2006, BBC NIFTC, Irish Film Board) was a feature documentary which followed on from ‘Battle of the Bogside,' taking up the story from when the British Army arrived on the streets of Derry. It remiered at the Seagate Foyle Film Festival and was nshown at a number of festivals worldwide. It was shortlisted for a number 'best documentary,' including the Würzburg International Film Festival in German, Grierson Documentary Awards, London and the FOCAL Awards, London where it was nominated for 'Best Use of Footage in a Factual Production'.
- Battle of the Bogside (2004, BBC, NIFTC, Irish Film Board) was a feature documentary on the three of riots in Derry that led to the deployment of British troops into Derry in August 1969. Also screened at many film festivals worldwide. It won Best Documentary at the Irish Film and Television Awards and was shortlisted in the Best Documentary Feature category at the Galway Film Festival and Best Historical Documentary at the Grierson Documentary Awards.
- Teenage Kicks: The Undertones (2001, BBC, Arts Council of NI, Irish Film Board) – a documentary film about one of the most successful bands to come out of Derry was presented by the legendary TV presenter John Peel. Two versions of the film were made; one for BBC transmission, the other for Cinema Screenings. It ws screened at every major film festival and was released on DVD by Sanctuary Records and then Union Square Music. It was shortlisted for Best Arts Documentary at the Celtic Film Festival and Best Documentary Feature’ at the Galway Film Fleadh.
- Insight: The Bad Apple (1999) was a 30-minute documentary filmed in Derry, Belfast and New York and told the story centred on one elderly Derry woman’s fight with the New York Police Department to prove that an off-duty policeman murdered her son in the 'Big Apple.' It was the first time ever that an independent production company was commissioned by UTV to produce an episode of their flagship current affairs series and achieved a record for viewing figures - 38% of Northern Ireland watched the programme when transmitted on January 21, 1999.
Looking back, Vinny regards 'the team' as his 'second family.'
“From a crew point of view, well, it's been nearly 25 years now since we became self-employed and it's always been 'one year at a time.' We'll keep saying that as that's all that you can do, whilst keep planning ahead with ideas and so on.
“It's tough most of the time financially as you're constantly having to buy the latest kit every two years.
“Apart from the work we've been doing with Joe, Patrick, Orlagh, Emma and Sarah at Westway Films every year, it would have to be archive films with John Peto (Nerve Centre) as my co-producer/director.
“They are my 'second family' now - we've been filming together since 1995.
“It is still great fun and we all know how each other ticks. We'd need to at this stage.”
Among the shows they have worked on are Lesser Spotted Ulster, Lesser Spotted Journeys, Ulster Giants and more recently, Lough Foyle.
“I have enjoyed all of it, to be honest, getting to travel the country and see all these previously unseen places or find out things about places that we'd seen many times.”
Like many, Vinny, did not escape the fall-out from the coronavirus pandemic.
“it was tough at the start but at least most of our work was postponed rather than cancelled. There are, and will be, very many businesses and self-employed worse off. Joe interviewing people from two metres away is an experience.”
At present, Vinny is involved in making 18 programmes for a new series of 'Mahon's Way' for UTV as well as working on a few ideas himself for submission to broadcasters.
He is doing all that on top of enjoying being in the company of one special person.
“I became a grandfather for the first time in January 2019, so I am enjoying as much time as possible with the now two-year-old Casey.”

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