The last twelve months has seen something of a resurgence for a comedy icon. Best known for his appearances on Channel 4’s improvised comedy show Whose Line is it Anyway in the 1990s, Tony Slattery has emerged from a self-imposed exile to tour his new comedy show, ‘Unrehearsable’.
Walking towards the fireplace in the corner of the timber beamed pub, following the sound of laughter. There sits a man in a bright pink shirt, white wine in hand, telling jokes to a couple opposite.
He jumps up, smile on his face, to greet me. He’s a few pounds heavier, and a few hairs lighter than his days in the media limelight, but it’s unmistakably Tony Slattery.
Tony humbly and awkwardly accepts a belated 59th birthday gift of cake and wine, for which he thanks me a number of times over the course of the afternoon. He seems embarrassed by the attention, but as we sit down, he relaxes for a rambling, erratic, yet thoroughly enjoyable discussion about what the past, present and future holds for him.
Back in the 1980s, Tony graduated from Cambridge University where he joined the legendary Cambridge Footlights, alongside the likes of Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie and Emma Thompson, kick starting his career in music and comedy.
From that point, Tony’s TV career took off. Best known as the mischievous, loose cannon on Whose Line, where he was a regular panellist for the first seven series, he also appeared on, among endless other things, the radio show Just a Minute, hosted game-show Trivial Pursuit, played cameo roles in The Bill and cult sci-fi show, Red Dwarf.
“I was a vending machine [in Red Dwarf]. We just came back from a convention in Nottingham for it”, he says with a sense of embarrassment.
So, why did he disappear from the public eye? Following a mental breakdown in the late 1990s, where he had episodes throwing his furniture into the Thames, spending upwards of £5,000 a day on cocaine and vodka and even had rats eating at his feet during spells of being housebound: “Just staring, not washing, not opening letters and bills, just staring”, a diagnosis of bipolar disorder followed, something he has since spoken openly about on Stephen Fry’s documentary, ‘The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive’.
During those dark days “he trusted a lot of people he shouldn’t have”, says Erica Lear who now acts as Tony’s agent having helped get him back on the comedy circuit. “He was there for people when times were good, but when he needed them, they all disappeared.”
Not all, though. Tony recalls how comedians and former Whose Line colleagues, Mike McShane and Richard Vranch, sought him out at this year’s Fringe. He also proudly speaks of being with his partner, actor Mark Hutchinson, for 32 years. His sexuality was speculated about at the height of his fame, but never disclosed. Was it to keep up his image with female fans? No. “It’s a private thing, and I didn’t want anything like that to worry my family”, he explains.
That’s the impression I get from Tony. He comes across as kind-hearted and genuine, without a bad word to say about anyone and despite drawing sell-out crowds across his run at the Fringe, seems modestly unaware of how popular he still is among his fanbase.
Seemingly out the blue he boldly protests: “On Twitter, I apparently called Clive Anderson a ‘neckless fascist’… I just want to make it clear that I don’t think that!”, heavily suggesting the comment was the work of Erica, who also manages his website and social media because, as she puts it, “he doesn’t trust technology.”
The 2000s have seen a number of short-lived roles in the likes of Stephen Fry’s drama Kingdom, Bad Girls and Coronation Street, but further opportunities were there. Tony recalls being asked to be on the panel for the first series of the American Whose Line is it Anyway, which he turned down because: “It’s too scripted … it’s against the spirit of improv”, as well as the first series of I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here!
“I failed the interview. They ask things like, ‘do you like snakes?’ Yes, love snakes. ‘Spiders?’ Love spiders. ‘Would you eat…’ yes, absolutely. They don’t want that. They want you to scream and cry.”
From the drink and drugs of the 90s, does Tony still live the rock and roll lifestyle today? Not so much.
“After our shows at the [Fringe] we went back to the hotel every night, drank coffee and watched old episodes of Bullseye on Challenge TV.”
Reminiscing about the shows he was once on, he fondly recalls his “good friends” Dale Winton and Rik Mayall, both of whom passed away in recent years, before jumping without explanation to improvised games of ‘Questions Only’, occasionally pausing before a sudden, loud giggle that shocks the punters at the table behind.
So, what’s next for Tony? Would he be up for a Whose Line reunion?
“I have very fond memories of Whose Line. Colin [Mochrie] was amazing, Steve Frost and Mike McShane. All brilliant, very funny”, he says with a grin.
But for now, he’s committed to his upcoming tour, ’Unrehearsable’, alongside his new comedy partner, Allan Lear.
“He’s [Allan] the best improv comedian I’ve ever worked with. Honestly. He’s vicious on stage.”
He recalls one particular joke during a pantomime sketch. He mimics Alan: “Where’s your career, Tony? It’s behind you…”, followed by a devilish stare, “… you beast!”
But is it? If 2018 is anything to go by, his twenty-year absence may just have been sabbatical.
Information and dates for his upcoming ‘Unrehearsable’ tour can be found on his website, www.tonyslattery.co.uk.
by Tom McBeth