TV Review: Horizon – What's The Matter With Tony Slattery?

TV Review: Horizon – What's The Matter With Tony Slattery?

A decade ago I wrote a book about comedians and mental health. 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. Though no mention of Tony Slattery.

He was probably not featured 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 classic 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 when he was at the top of his comedy game. But what looked at the time like a rapidfire, livewire mind now looks like someone in turmoil, maybe someone running as fast as they could to escape or avoid something. And judging by this intimate profile 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.

We don't learn a great deal about his family background. Fame did not seem to help him that much, but maybe he would have gone off the rails anyway? 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 warehouse 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.

It is not an easy journey for Slattery. Or his ever-loyal partner Mark. Or for the viewer. One question that keeps popping up is whether his condition is nature or nurture? Towards the end of the documentary he reveals a traumatic, troubling sexual abuse incident that may be a crucial key to unlocking the roots of his mental state. Slattery suddenly, for the first time, graphically describes what happened when he was eight. This memory seems to have been, on the one hand kept secret for over fifty years, on the other, it was always in the background. He had alluded to it previously while never going into this much detail to anyone, not even Mark.

This revelation of what he calls "baggage" seems to be a positive step for Tony Slattery. By the end of the documentary he 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 easily distracted, he still has that innate comedic touch.

I'd often see Slattery sitting on a bench deep in thought outside my flat during the Edinburgh Fringe last summer. I couldn't quite gauge what mood he was in so decided not to approach him. I wish now I'd stopped to chat. Let's hope this film, which is not always comfortable to watch and could not have been much fun to make, marks the start of a positive period for this distinctive talent. 

Watch What's The Matter With Tony Slattery? here

Pictures: Sundog Pictures

*By the way, Beyond A Joke would also be the name of this website but someone bagged the domain name before me. 



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