TV: Horizon – What’s the Matter With Tony Slattery?, BBC Two

A decade ago I wrote a book about the phenomenon of comedians having mental health issues. Except that when Beyond A Joke* was published society had not really started talking that much publicly about mental health, so instead the focus was on "the dark side" of comedy. Same shit, different name.

I just had a look at the book index and there is no mention of Tony Slattery. Probably because a decade ago he had completely disappeared off the comedy radar. Yet twenty years earlier it seemed as if he was never away from our screens, appearing on panel shows, in ads and, most famously, as one of the high energy stars of C4 improvisation game Whose Line Is It Anyway? 

This Horizon documentary, What’s the Matter With Tony Slattery?, being shown as part of the BBC's mental health season, features plenty of clips of Slattery in action. But what looked at the time like a rapidfire mind now looks like someone in turmoil, maybe someone running as fast as they could to escape or avoid something. And judging by this documentary that is very much the case.

Slattery today, in this compelling documentary, seems to be a different person. There are still flashes of wit and moments of that mercurial twinkle, but he is not the same as he was. And, as the title says, this programme sets out to work out what happened to him.

Anyone who has read recent interviews with him will know he has not been well. What is interesting is that his condition has never been precisely diagnosed. There is depression there but also mood swings. But why? Is he bipolar? Experts here set out to come up with some answers, along the way movingly reuniting Slattery with his old Footlights chum who has had his own fair share of issues, Stephen Fry.

It is not an easy journey for Slattery or his ever-loyal partner Mark. Or for the viewer. One questions is was his condition genetic or caused by a particular incident? We could have maybe done with more about his family background – he sounds like the archetypal bright grammar school lad who landed a place at Cambridge, but how did that fish-out-of-water experience affect him?

Fame did not seem to help him that much. Slattery talks about taking a lot of cocaine in the 1990s when he made it big. At one point at the height of his success he rented a luxury flat on the Thames but was paranoid about being bugged so threw his electrical equipment into the river.

He stopped taking cocaine twenty years ago, but he still drinks too much and now aged 60 would like to rein that in. At one point just before a meeting with a specialist he opens a cupboard in a waiting room and jokes that he thought it was a mini-bar. In fairness it does look a bit like a hotel mini-bar.

But slowly, after he goes from one specialist to another, maybe an answer, if not the answer, emerges. As Slattery suddenly graphically describes during the programme, a particular childhood incident has haunted him. This memory seems to have been, on the one hand buried, on the other, always in the background. He had alluded to it previously while never going into this much detail to anyone, not even Mark.

This revelation seems to be a positive step. By the end of the documentary Slattery is not exactly "cured" but does seem to be at least moving towards a better place. He is gigging again too. The programme shows him onstage and, while he can be distracted, he still has that spark. I'd often see him sitting on a bench deep in thought outside my flat during the Edinburgh Fringe last summer and wish now I'd stopped to chat. Let's hope this film marks the start of a positive period for this distinctive talent. 

What’s the Matter With Tony Slattery?, BBC Two on Thursday, May 21st, at 9pm.

Picture: Sundog Pictures

*By the way, this would also be the name of this website but someone got the domain name before me.

 

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