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Tony Slattery's glittering comedy, television and movie career came tumbling down when he plunged into depression and addiction... now he's getting back on track

On a visit to Belfast the former member of the Cambridge Footlights tells how he became a recluse, refusing to answer the door or phone, and why he is now telling his story to help others with mental health problems

Comedian Tony Slattery
Comedian Tony Slattery
Ivan Little

By Ivan Little

A top English comic and movie star whose career hit rock bottom after he suffered devastating mental health problems coupled with a drink and drug addiction has taken a huge step along the comeback trail in Belfast.

Tony Slattery, who was in a massive number of TV shows in the Eighties and Nineties, confronted his demons during a two-hour conversation on stage at the Crescent Arts Centre, which was at times hilarious and at others heartbreaking.

BBC documentary cameras followed Tony during his Belfast visit. And he spoke frankly about his spectacular fall from the big-time after years of "over-work" when he was rarely off TV screens.

"I wanted to make hay while the sun shone," said Tony, explaining why he never turned down any offer of a job at the time.

The former member of the Cambridge Footlights was the improv king of the Channel 4 hit series Whose Line Is It Anyway? and he was in big demand for all sorts of TV dramas, quizzes and even soaps like Coronation Street before his classic good looks landed him starring roles in films including The Crying Game, Peter's Friends and Kingdom.

However, around 1996 at the age of 37 Tony's career went into freefall after he suffered a very public breakdown - a mid-life crisis he called it, acknowledging in Belfast that he was addicted to drugs and drink, imbibing two bottles of vodka a day along with 10 grams of cocaine, a very different line from his TV show.

Tony became a recluse who wouldn't answer the door or telephone before friends, after six months of trying, finally persuaded him to seek help and go to hospital.

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Tony said that it was strongly suspected that he had bipolar disorder and even now tests are still ongoing.

He took antidepressants, which he said were "useful" for him but didn't work for other people, whom he accepted found that talking therapy was more beneficial.

Nowadays Tony is back working in comedy and improv - "because I enjoy entertaining" - and he campaigns for greater mental health awareness.

Which was why he was at the Crescent Arts Centre in Belfast as a guest of the CinePunked organisation, who regularly address mental health issues as well as the movies.

Tony said he didn't like the terms "battle" or "struggle" to sum up what he had gone through but he added it was good that mental health was being destigmatised and that people could seek help, although he regretted that treatment was a "postcode lottery in the UK".

Looking back at the worst periods of his life Tony said that there were times when he would throw the furniture from his riverside apartment into the Thames in London but he had enough money "to clear up the pollution".

Slattery (third from right) with Kenneth Branagh, Emma Thompson, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie and others in the 1992 film Peter’s Friends
Slattery (third from right) with Kenneth Branagh, Emma Thompson, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie and others in the 1992 film Peter’s Friends

The Belfast evening with Tony began with an archive clip of the comic at the height of his glittering career.

He admitted the self-evident truth that his looks had changed a lot and he asked the audience to guess how old he was now. A woman at the front generously suggested that he was 52.

Tony said he was approaching his 60th birthday just days after his Belfast trip, his first to the city since he supported The Flying Pickets at the Grand Opera House in 1983.

Tony's parents were from Connemara in the west of Ireland and went to England before he was born in search of a better life, but found prejudice as they sought jobs and places to live.

Tony's parents told him he wasn't a planned child but was the product of their practising what they called "Vatican roulette" as they eschewed any birth control methods. He said even though he and his triplet brothers and his sister lived in slums in England, he had a happy childhood and after his TV successes Tony bought his folks a house and enjoyed "lovely times" as he took them back to Ireland to stay in castle hotels in Galway and Clare.

But he said that as the money rolled in he didn't know what else to do with it and started spending a lot of it "foolishly and selfishly" - an understatement if ever there was one.

As the pressures of what he called his "overwork" started to take their toll, Tony said he faced the dilemma of how to come down every night from the highs of being on stage or on the box.

Which he said was what led to his addiction to cocaine and alcohol that he had first tasted when he was just eight years old, a time when he was abused by a Catholic priest.

He talked too of how around that time a nun in his school hit him around the head and called him a blasphemer after he got the words of the Lord's Prayer wrong. He ended up in hospital with concussion.

Fast-forwarding to his university days at Cambridge, Tony was a contemporary of the likes of Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson and Stephen Fry, who've gone on to become wealthy superstars as their erstwhile friend lives a frugal life in a modest rented home in London.

Back in the day at Cambridge Tony said that he also got the opportunity to have a drink with the late comedy genius Peter Cook, who told him to follow his dreams of going into showbusiness, urging him "to give it a f***ing whirl" - advice which has stayed with Tony all his life.

Tony, whose actor partner of 32 years Mark Michael Hutchinson - "the love of his life" - was in Belfast with him, also spoke of his sexuality and about how many people didn't realise he was gay because he played so many heterosexuals on screen.

"I can't help being butch," laughed Tony, who said that at the height of his fame he didn't discuss his sexuality, adding: "What I did with my external genitalia was no one's effing business."

He said he had "fumbles" early on with women as well as men and added that he was attracted to faces and "whether when people laugh their smiles reached their eyes".

"Sex wasn't so much a part of it," he added.

Slattery on Whose Line Is It Anyway?
Slattery on Whose Line Is It Anyway?

"I've never been interested in sex for its own sake, though some people are driven by that."

He's given up cocaine but still drinks every day. Before coming on stage at the Crescent he'd had half a bottle of white wine.

He argued that alcohol didn't generally make him happy and for the sake of his health, his loved ones and his career he said he would like to stop drinking, but he added that hand on heart he couldn't promise that he would.

Referring back to his cocaine addiction, Tony said it induced delusion, psychoses and other "horrible things" including a jealous mistrust of loved ones.

He said that one of the "comical" side-effects of a drug that medics prescribed for him was listed as sudden unexplained death so he stopped taking it.

He started smoking at the age of 50 but insisted he still doesn't know why.

Tony said he hoped the BBC2 documentary Whatever Happened To Tony Slattery? would give viewers an insight into mental health and prove useful and informative. He also hoped that people would spread the word that mental health issues were nothing to be ashamed of.

Asked where his own problems had stemmed from, Tony said he didn't know and claimed the question was impossible to answer.

The night before his appearance at the Crescent, CinePunked staged another conversation called The Comedy Of Madness between local film historian Robert JE Simpson, Tony and Robert Ross, who is the official historian of British comedy and the Carry On movies.

Their discussion looked at some of the panellists' personal comedy heroes and the impact mental health issues had had on their work.

A promo for the event said that the heritage of comedy was a troubled one, "littered with the shells of those whose genius is inextricably linked with mental health struggles". It spoke of the likes of Spike Milligan, Tony Hancock, Marty Feldman, Kenneth Williams, Stephen Fry and Robin Williams, and said their comedy "pushed boundaries while they struggled in their private life".

Robert JE Simpson said he had seen Tony Slattery in 2018 and this year at the Edinburgh Festival and had been encouraged by the progress that he'd made in the intervening 12 months.

He said he didn't want a "car crash" chat on stage with Tony, who had intimated that there were no areas that would be out of bounds for their conversation.

Robert said CinePunked started out four years ago to have conversations about films and to use films to open up interactive discussions about other issues like well-being, suicide and the Me Too movement.

On one occasion they showed the 1944 movie Gaslight which stars Charles Boyer as a man who is manipulating his wife (played by Ingrid Bergman) into believing that she is going insane.

The film then led on to a debate about domestic abuse, coercive control and the now recognised phenomenon of gaslighting which is essentially the real-life equivalent of what was happening to Bergman in the movie.

Robert said that his organisation were hoping to bring Tony Slattery back for a longer series of discussions on a wider range of subjects.

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