Tony Slattery can’t remember quite how it happened, but he was once accidentally locked in one of York’s major tourist attractions.
“The Jorvik Centre,” he says. “Is it still open? I loved that place. I wandered around for about half an hour, because they’d totally forgotten me. It was lovely.” Slattery is back in the city this month with his forthcoming show, an evening where he’ll be up-front with his audience, talking candidly about his career and his past problems with mental health issues.
It is likely to be an interesting encounter. Slattery was once the darling of television, popping up all over the place. He was in the West End, starring in Me and My Girl, and he was breaking in to films, first with Peter’s Friends and then the rather less critically-acclaimed Carry On Columbus.
Tony Slattery was the life and soul of the showbiz party and then it all went horribly wrong. He cannot pinpoint why, or how, or when. There is a gaping black hole in his CV. That’s not just his professional CV, but his personal one as well. And his memory has, somehow, also largely blanked what he said, or did.
For the record, for whatever reason, something happened in his middle-30s and the genial Tony pushed some sort of self-destruct button. He became unreliable. He found solace in drink (vodka was the spirit of choice, and he was downing two bottles a day) and drugs. He was reputedly spending £4,000 a week on his habits, and in consequence, he was dropped by many of his friends and colleagues.
“Some stood by me”, he says quietly, “a lot didn’t. So many fell by the wayside. And, to be honest with you, who can blame them? Who wants to discuss things with someone who has mental health issues? I remember talking to that dear man Danny La Rue a few years back, after one of his shows and when he was no longer the great star that he had once been, and he said to me, ‘Tony, always be nice to people as you climb up the ladder, because you will sure as hell be meeting them as you come back down again. People have a tendency to have very long memories’. I should have had those words of wisdom before I had my problems, not after. I don’t blame others, it was all down to me. I was in the position where, at one point, I was able to dine at the Ritz, and then, only a short time after, I couldn’t afford a packet of Ritz Crackers. In fact, I was feeding myself by picking the cracker crumbs from the front of my jumper. There was no money to buy even a small packet. Can I use the cliché about life being a rollercoaster? And I was nasty to people, everyone around me.”
He became a “monster” as he puts it. “I was used to making people laugh and I was making people loathe me, and apprehensive about meeting me. People will only travel with you for so far, and then they give up, and they say, ‘You are on your own, mate, I cannot try any the harder’. It’s called life. And when people do that, you are so self-obsessed that you just shrug your shoulders and think ‘Well, that’s your problem, chum, not mine’, and of course, that’s ridiculous, because it is, in reality, all your problem. You’ve caused it, not them.”
Does he know what started it? “I just worked too hard. I never stopped, I forgot how to take a break, and I never knew how to say ‘no thanks.’ Without the support of my partner, I’d be dead. No question”.
His partner is the actor Mark Michael Hutchinson, and they have been together, come what life has thrown at them, for many decades. They met when they were both appearing in Me and My Girl, at the Adelphi Theatre.
Slattery will be 60 in November this year and knew he was gay when he was a teenager. “It was just part of me. It wasn’t a problem. Like all youngsters, I was always having crushes. On men, and women. I didn’t keep it a secret, not really, but on the other hand I didn’t go around shouting about it. Why on earth should I? Back then, it just wasn’t talked about. These days, I firmly believe that it doesn’t matter in the slightest who you fall in love with. It happens. Get on with it.”
Now, it seems, he wants to talk about everything, which is the point of the evening with his audience in York. “It will be, I guess, very cathartic”, he agrees. “But look, I don’t want to just discuss my health, there are a lot of other things for people to ask, and I hope they will. But it is an open session, nothing is ruled out, and I’ll answer everything as honestly as I can. Bring it on, let’s have a complete nostalgia-fest. I really do believe that some people who book their tickets to come along will do so because they’ll be saying to themselves ‘Is he still with us? Good grief, I thought he was dead!’”
Slattery was eventually diagnosed with bipolar disorder. That explained why he could go from being rational, charming Tony to raging, illogical Tony in a matter of moments. It only needed something – it could be anything – to flick the switch from one side to the other. These days the drugs and excesses are, he says, behind him.
Slattery is a walking human paradox. He knew that he loved entertaining people from early on. “I was always prancing about on stage doing shows at school. The people I loved watching on the box were Morecambe and Wise. I loved Sunday Night at the London Palladium and The Royal Variety Show,” he sighs happily at the memory.
But then, as the youngest of five children, and from a very down-to-earth background, he found himself at university. Not just any old uni, but Cambridge, where he was set to read modern and medieval languages. “I’d been on one of those school trips and they took us up to Cambridge for the day. I instantly fell in love with the place, and I sort of felt that it was where I had to be, and where life would begin. For someone brought up in East London on a council street, it was nothing short of a wonderful dream.”
But that dream – after a lot of very hard work – came true, and as a student, he found that yes, he loved it all. It was here where he fell in with the crowd who were the life and soul of the famed Footlights theatre group (Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie and Emma Thompson among them). “I’d become acquainted with the two most addictive things after drink and drugs, and they were applause and laughter. Once you have heard those, you are fatally hooked.
“I did get my degree, though”, he points out.
He was – and is – fine when he was out there, on the stage. Yes, he says, he is still on “useful medication”, but he no longer sees his psychiatrist and is a keen supporter of research into bipolar disorders.
He is back on the stage now and part of his return will be a revival of the format of Whose Line is it Anyway? at the up-coming Edinburgh Festival. The York gig is clearly something of a toe in the water for that encounter with an audience.
His outlook is positive. “The best part of life is waking up. A new day is wonderful. Things will happen. Just deal with them. And, just be nice to people,” he says, adding: “Be kind. There’s simply not enough kindness in the world”.
Slattery will get you Nowhere, The Great Yorkshire Fringe, on July 24, 7pm. For tickets go to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 01904 500600.
Bipolar UK: 0333 3233880 email@example.com.