All the rage, and how he survived it: Tony Slattery

deborah ross talks to Tony Slattery

I MEET Tony Slattery in Dundee. Why here, in this cold, wet, place, where the "best hotel" in town is the only one I've ever stayed in where the chambermaid comes in having a fag? We're here to see Tony installed as Rector of Dundee University. This is a serious appointment. The Rector is responsible for representing the students' interests, both generally and at the University Court. Tony will have to come up here several times a year for the next three years, and hold surgeries. He says to the students: "I am going to pour my heart and soul into this." And: "This is my first step back into the real world." And: "This is the most important thing I've ever done. I've done the telly. And it cracked me up." As it did.

Tony did do a lot of telly. Tons of it, in fact. Indeed, for more than a decade he was rarely off our screens: Whose Line Is It Anyway?, S&M, Saturday Night At The Movies, This is David Lander, P's & Q's, Tibs & Fibs, That's Love, The Music Game, Wimbledon Grandstand with the lovely Sue Barker. OK, I made the last one up but, he'd probably have done it if it had been offered. He was almost omnipresent although, funnily enough, never much liked. I mean, did you ever overhear anyone saying: "I just love that Tony Slattery"? Or: "What a genius!". Well, as it turns out, Tony Slattery didn't much like Tony Slattery either. It was, it seems, even worse being Tony Slattery than having to watch him fritter away what was obviously a good mind on increasingly rubbishy game shows. He did crack up, yes. Or, as his psychiatrist told him: "You've lost it. Big time."

This rectorship business is actually Tony's first job in two years, since he had a great, big, fat nervous breakdown. Some may say he had it coming. Even, perhaps, that it was necessary, in a strange sort of way.

"I'd had depression before and it's common and you deal with it," he explained. "It was bleak. I'd withdraw for a bit, but then it would pass. It was like the black dog got you, gave you a little shake, but then let you go. But this wasn't like that. The black dog got me in its jaws and just hung on for two years. It came out of the blue and got mixed up with all sorts of other things. Amphetamine abuse. Cocaine abuse. Complete lack of self-care. A sleep disorder started. The psychiatrists still haven't put their finger on this yet. It was almost periods of narcolepsy - I could sleep for three days at a time, but then wake up at the end of those three days feeling totally unrefreshed - and then I couldn't get to sleep for three days after, so I'd be pacing about with what they call psycho motor agitation.

"And in the depths of those horrible two years, I couldn't work, because I was incapable of turning up anywhere on time. It wasn't so much disorganisation, I might have a meeting or voice-over at 4pm. I'd be up, scrubbed, showered and ready to go by 8am, but then go into a sort of cataleptic trance. I'd sit there, absolutely motionless, just staring at a spot on the wall, or a bit of light on the floor, and then I'd snap out of it at ten to four, and panic. Did I have the right tie on? I'd go through all my drawers. Clothes went up in the air. I'd start to cry. The frustration made me later and later and more and more physically unco-ordinated. I'd eventually turn up with a cut or a bruise or something... do you find my speech pattern very fast? I'm making up for two years of going for months on end without saying a word...

"When did I first seek help? After a five-day period of sleep deprivation, and a close friend, who'd tried in vain to stay in touch, broke into my flat. My speech was disordered. I was very dehydrated from the drugs. My body was making constant jerking movements. I was in a state of hyper- vigilance. The smallest sound would make me jump. My friend said, `In this state, you must go and see a doctor.' I went to a doctor and he said: `Right. You are going to take a taxi and go to hospital'... eventually, I saw a psychiatrist who said, `You've lost it big time.' And then he said, `I can feel more rage and anger coming from you than I have done in approximately 20 years of clinical practice, and now let's toast crumpets.'"

The rage. Yes. I now realise it's what's always been most unsettling about him, this sense that deep down something black and nasty and really not very light-entertainment was going on. I can't think of any other reason why we didn't like him more. Certainly, he's handsome enough. Big, with good hair and very dark eyes. Verbally, he's fantastically dextrous. He can be very funny. He is now thinking about writing a pop-up book on psychiatry.

But that rage. That cruel and immensely unfunny rage, even. He's been known to stand up at award dos and say things like "Jeremy Beadle should be clubbed to death". He once punched a colleague of mine full in the nose for writing something not entirely flattering about him. It did make him, yes, very hard to warm to, as he now seems to understand. "Perhaps people did sense that, as a person, there was something about me that didn't ring true. That inside this cheeky vaudevillian was something quite dark." And, in the end, that dark bit decided to rise and punch HIM full on the nose? Perhaps, yes, he accepts.

He doesn't know where the rage comes from. "It's still work in progress." He says he doesn't know why it eventually turned inward - in the form of self-hatred - and in effect blew him up. I suggest that perhaps he had to destroy himself, so he could start again as someone else, as someone truer. Perhaps the breakdown was his mind's way of using the rage to de- construct the "telly tart" personality he'd become, and was necessary in that sense. He thinks about this then says: "I do think I'm now a deeper, more authentic person. I think the real me, whatever that is, did get buried under this light- entertainment, cheeky vaudevillian persona." Perhaps, I further suggest, this is why, for so long, he seemed to take any work that was offered, and ended up doing a ton of rubbish. If you become what you do, it's hard to stop doing it, because then who are you? "Yes! You're right. I was constantly panicked by the thought of unemployment."

We meet in the Rector's office in Dundee at 9.30am. Stephen Fry was the previous Rector, a hard act to follow, Tony knows. "I can't just step into his shoes. For a start, he takes a size 17 plus, and has a terrible fungal infection." Stephen was a very diligent rector until the Cell Mates business, and he went off the rails for a bit. What is it about you boys? I ask. What is it about you and Stephen and Paul Merton? What sends you all barking for periods? Is it the mismatch between who you are who the public want you to be? Tony says he doesn't know. All Tony knows is that when Paul Merton first saw a psychiatrist, the psychiatrist wanted to know if he ever spoke to people who weren't really in the room. Paul said: "Only when I'm on the phone..."

We go off to meet students in the various bars. "You MUST come to me if you have ANY problems," he tells them all eagerly, and maybe even sincerely. A student tells me that she voted for him in the rectorial elections because, when he came to speak to them, "he just sounded so genuine". Genuine? See what I mean, about the breakdown perhaps having been the making of him? He says, earnestly: "I strongly believe this is the beginning of the second half of my life."

So why did the first half go so wrong? He remembers only a "gloriously happy" childhood. He is the son of Irish working-class parents who came to England seeking work after the Second World War. His mother, Margaret, was a home help while his father, Michael, worked nights at the Heinz factory. They lived on the Stonebridge Housing Estate in Willesden, north London. The fifth and youngest, Tony came after a sister, Marlene, then triplets - Stephen, Michael and Christopher. Marlene was quite a bit older. The triplets went about as a kind of unit, so Tony did spend a lot of time on his own. He can't recall minding but did invent a playmate: "He was called Fred. I made him with some old trousers and a dressing-gown but the only thing I could find for a head was a cricket ball. He looked very Damien Hirst meets Gilbert and George."

He went to Gunnersbury Boy's Grammar in west London, then run by Jesuits, but he doesn't think his Catholic background or Catholic education left him with the usual baggage of guilt and repression, although when I ask him if he feels authentic when it comes to his sexuality - which has always seemed pretty mysterious to me - he comes back with one of the longest and most impenetrable answers I have ever had to stay awake through. It goes like this: "I don't feel politicised about whether I am gay, straight, bisexual, whether I change from month to month, whether I'm not anything at all, whether I'm interested in light-industrial farm machinery... whoever I've slept with, men or women, then for that periods of time of sexual activity you could perhaps define me, but beyond that it's a question I have always found slightly amorphous in my own mind, and so the idea of taking catch-all phrases to say I'm this or this would actually be disinformation. The reality is that I know what I am and what I am is what I'm doing at the time, and that's the most I've ever said about this, because it's a private matter." So, gay then? "As I said, it's a private matter." But our sexuality is so central to our identity, isn't it? "Yes. Of course. But, hand on heart, it's the one area of my fragmented persona that is not an issue."

Truly? I wonder. Did you ever discuss your sexuality with your mum and dad? I ask. "Parents are curious, of course. And they want their children to be happy. But I think the moment a parent says `I think I have a right to know' is the moment the child can legitimately turn round and say `Tell me, what was sex like with dad?' Parental and filial love is one thing, but independent sexual experience is another." Interestingly, the only people Tony made an effort to see during his breakdown were his mum and dad. He'd turn up for lunch once a week, as usual, having first gone down the chemist for make-up to hide the bruises. "I didn't want them to think I'd been in a brawl." He has always loved his parents. But, still, I wonder if his lack of authenticity comes from always having tried to be the son they want, rather than the person he is.

He won an exhibition to read medieval and modern languages at Cambridge and, until he met the Footlights brigade (Stephen Fry, Emma Thompson, Hugh Laurie etc) thought he might be an academic. However, he was persuaded by the agent Richard Armitage to give showbiz a go. For the next 13 years, he did not stop working. Never a holiday. Not once. You name it, he did it. Now, I can see, it wasn't so much about him being versatile, just that he could not stop. Until the breakdown made him.

How bad did it get? Very bad. He stopped seeing anyone, apart from his parents and the bailiffs who, because he didn't open post or pay bills, would turn up periodically to take away his furniture. He would apologetically write them a cheque. Such friends he once had just dropped away, "because I didn't answer their calls or their letters. I didn't open any letters for year. They just piled up by the door. And when someone writes to you 30, 40 times beginning with `I'd love to see you...' then with that friendly irritation, `why haven't you been in touch?' and then with genuine concern and worry, but you still can't reply because you are so withdrawn, then clearly they start to think, `I'll stop embarrassing him and myself, and go away.'"

His psychiatrist thinks he won't break down again, that "he's used all his despair up". He is beginning to enjoy things again. His appetite is back, "and I make a very good shepherd's pie". His sleep patterns are returning to normal. He is interested in working again. He will not, he insists, "fall back into the light-entertainment pit". He now wants to see if he can cut it as a serious film actor. He's about to begin re-contacting his friends. "But, as the psychiatrist said, don't be distraught if they don't give you the response you'd get in an ideal world, if they don't go `Welcome back, Tony. We're so pleased to see you.' I've changed, they've changed, and the friendships may not be recoverable."

He has changed, I think. I'm not saying he hasn't still got a lot of work to do, because he has. But, still, it's a start.

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