VARIETY / The song and chance man: Has anyone made Tony Slattery an offer he can refuse? Tristan Davies talks to the prolific comedian, actor and gameshow host

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The Independent Culture
It's tempting to think of Tony Slattery loitering in White City or Charlotte Street, propositioning television executives as they leave their offices, getting into their cars and steaming up the windows with heated negotiations. You name it, Slattery will do it. Chances are you have seen him plying his trade on television as talk-show guest, game-show host, film-show anchorman, sitcom actor or leading player in the improvised comedy boom. He's a light entertainment producer's wet dream, a telly tart who can't say no.

Although his name has been linked with Clive Anderson Talks Back, Whose Line is it Anyway, Saturday Night at the Movies, The Music Game, That's Love, S&M and Malcolm the Mountie Always Gets His Can (Labatt Lager Productions), to name but a few, Slattery rejects accusations of indiscriminate promiscuity. 'There are far more punters, to continue the metaphor, I've turned down than given a hand-job to.'

Given that on Monday he could be seen in The Krypton Factor, acting in a two-minute soaplet designed as a memory-test for contestants hoping to be 'the superperson of 1992', Slattery must have turned down some real dogs in his time. Among them, according to most critics, should have been Ps & Qs, the quiz-show on etiquette that Slattery hosted for the fifth time on BBC 2 last night. The reviewers howled as a team of stately home-owners played find- the-Beluga-caviare and groaned as contestants were asked to pronounce the Duke of Buccleuch correctly. Not even Slattery's infamous suggestion at a Bafta awards ceremony that Jeremy Beadle should be 'clubbed to death' generated so many shocked and outraged column inches.

Was he surprised by the reaction? 'I was slightly taken aback by the amount of fuss it caused. I felt like saying surely there are more important things in the world to write about.' So he wasn't upset by the criticism?

'Oh no, no, no,' he says, embarking on a lengthy free-flow rant about the disgusting habits of television critics before checking himself and saying: 'I certainly don't lose any sleep over it. Stephen Fry envisages the scene at the gates of Heaven and St Peter says 'So what did you do in life?' 'Oh, I was a critic.' 'I beg your pardon? What does that mean?' 'Well people did things and I criticised it.' 'Well sod off out of here'. I reacted less with disappointment than with a snort of derision.'

Given the kind of abuse meted out to Slattery for Ps & Qs, his decision to accept the lead role in the musical comedy Radio Times at Birmingham Rep seems a shrewd tactical withdrawal from television's critical minefield. But musicals are not the sound investment they were in 1985 when Slattery took the starring role in Me and My Girl, and, while Radio Times is also a nostalgic wartime comedy built around the songs of Noel Gay, the fate of more recent musicals suggests he may once again be popping his head dangerously over the parapet. Sitting in the stalls during a break in rehearsals, looking sleek and slick in blue-checked show- suit and two-tone shoes, he reflects: 'There's a bit of me which says that when people say something will be the kiss of death then I'll give it a go. I've never planned my career.'

It began by accident, in fact. 'I bumped into Stephen Fry in the street at Cambridge,' he recalls. ' 'Dear boy,' he said, 'you must come and audition for the Footlights'.' From that point on, a promising academic career (he won an exhibition to Trinity to read modern and medieval languages) nose-dived. He left Cambridge in 1982, after a stint as president of Footlights, with no money but bags of confidence (he invited his bank manager to revues to stop him calling in his overdraft).

Slattery established himself on the make-or-break London comedy circuit, doing 'a kind of variety act, with bizarre turns' with the pianist Richard Vranch. It was while performing in the then hazardous, now defunct, Tunnel Club that he realised, as he dodged the bottles, he would never be a stand-up comedian. 'At the Tunnel I had to follow Chris Lynam, whose act that night seemed to consist entirely of cutting himself with a razor and letting blood drip on to the stage. I just got tired of it.'

Whose Line Is It Anyway?, the improvised comedy game-show hosted by Clive Anderson, was to prove the perfect showcase for his talents. Having watched it on television, he put together a video-taped CV of his best material, forced his way into the show and found himself at the centre of a small revolution in television comedy. 'Impro was a good antidote to the excess and waste and crappiness and smugness of a lot of comedy and to the naffness of sketch-shows, where eight thousand quid will be spent on some naff-awful quickie for The Les Dennis Show. Whose Line is just four people and a couple of stools; it's just a brilliantly simple idea for a game. The audience love to see you thinking on your feet.'

Impro revealed Slattery as a great team player, and the rapport he built up with Mike McShane led to the spin-off series S&M in which, most famously, they improvised a day in the life of a pair of testicles. As a writer, too, Slattery favours collaboration. He has a regular writing partner in Richard Turner, an old university friend; they hope to improve upon their joint credits for the incidental material on Ps & Qs and The Music Game with a film script based upon the exploits of Bulldog Drummond. And some of his best sketch work has come from collaborations, most memorably with Craig Ferguson, Robert Llewellyn and Alan Cumming in a sketch featuring a Russian defector who has learned all his English from reading pornographic magazines ('I bulge with happiness. My head is purple and shiny. I plan to insert myself in your country and grow to my full throbbing size as a novelist').

Slattery was invited to perform 'The Dissident' at the Hysteria comedy benefit for Aids by the show's organiser, Stephen Fry, whose name crops up frequently in Slattery's professional biography. Having followed him into the Cambridge Footlights, Slattery delivered Fry's book for Me and My Girl and took over his role as the spoof investigative reporter in This is David Harper (ne This is David Lander). Their style of delivery is almost interchangeable: they share an inclination towards wilfully decorous speech, sparkling with huge clusters of adjectives and dripping with unctuous charm. It is said by some that Slattery is obsessed with Fry and, in Kenneth Branagh's new film Peter's Friends, to be released next week, he has been given the chance to measure up to him.

In what has been described as the British answer to The Big Chill, Fry hosts a university reunion that, in fact, reunites the leading lights of the Cambridge Footlights class of '80, Slattery joining Hugh Laurie and Emma Thompson. Slattery is at pains to emphasise that he auditioned for the part and won it on merit, as it would not be the first time that false conclusions had been reached about his connections. The critical comment that has most upset him was Gary Bushell's description of him in the Sun as a 'classic Channel 4 man - smug, self-satisfied and middle-class'. He is defiantly working-class, an Irish Catholic (one of five children) brought up on a north London estate. It is to his considerable satisfaction that in Peter's Friends he plays the part of a social outsider.

Still buzzing with the excitement of his screen debut ('Ken's a genius'), it is without evident embarrassment or irony that Slattery mentions Peter's Friends in the same breath as Ps & Qs. 'Whether it's a gameshow, a sitcom or a movie, the enjoyment is in absorbing the different briefs and trying to get it right. If you worried about what people thought the whole time you'd never do anything. You've just got to steam ahead and do it.'

With that, he slides out of the stalls of the Birmingham Rep, and slips quietly into wings, waiting to be called.

'Radio Times' is at Birmingham Rep until 3 October (021-236 4455), and at the Queen's Theatre, London W1, from 15 October (071- 734 1166).

(Photograph omitted)