I first got an inkling that there was something the matter with Tony Slattery in the mid-1990s when I witnessed a commotion outside the Groucho Club in Soho one afternoon. The comedian, still well known but rarely in the public eye, was running up and down in the road, red-faced and shouting at cars. While only slightly more eccentric than most sights outside the well-refreshed showbiz establishment, the bizarre spectacle stuck in the mind. Shortly after that, he completely disappeared.
Slattery began his career in the Cambridge Footlights, part of a glittering generation that included Emma Thompson, Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry. Darkly handsome looks, nimble physicality and quick wits made him a star of the fashionable improv comedy scene, notably in the TV show Whose Line is it Anyway? “His act was based on his exuberance . . . his speed of thought,” says psychiatry professor Guy Goodwin. An old clip of Slattery’s antics slows down until he seems to be staring at the camera with unsettling intensity. Was there always something lurking beneath the dazzling surface?
While his long-term partner Mark Hutchinson still resembles his youthful self, there is barely any trace of the alluring comic in the Slattery of this documentary. Well, he is 60 now, but only in the eyes is it possible to glimpse a faint gleam of former glamour. They are still touchingly affectionate, though as Slattery confesses: “I’ve woken up angry for a long time.” Nevertheless, the overwhelming impression is that of a sweet soul.
In the 25 years since turning his back on fame, Slattery has never had an official diagnosis. “There always was a manic part of me,” he says. His emotional highs and lows were assumed to signal bipolar disorder, but he’s also frank about his past cocaine addiction — up to 10g a day in the 1990s — and continuing dependence on alcohol. At last it’s time to consult the specialists to see if there is any consensus. He has also come out of seclusion to go on a comedy tour of the “an evening with . . . ” variety.
The first stop is a poignant meeting with Stephen Fry, these days a mental health advocate. “How are you darling?” says Fry, warmly, though the disparity in their fortunes makes for an awkward encounter. “You have to try and believe it’s an adventure,” says Fry firmly of the attempt to slay the dragon of mental disorder. Touring a show by night and dropping in on psychiatrists by day might not seem ideal, but sensitive probing by the experts does indeed provide some clues. The key might be hidden deep in Slattery’s past, and their main recommendation seems to be something a perplexed Slattery had simply not anticipated.
‘What’s the Matter with Tony Slattery?’, BBC2
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