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What's the Matter with Tony Slattery?, BBC Two review - absorbing but troubling search for answers | reviews, news & interviews

What's the Matter with Tony Slattery?, BBC Two review - absorbing but troubling search for answers

What's the Matter with Tony Slattery?, BBC Two review - absorbing but troubling search for answers

How mental illness cut short a brilliant showbusiness career

Still searching: Tony Slattery

In the late Eighties and Nineties, Tony Slattery became one of the most ubiquitous faces on television, appearing regularly on Whose Line Is It Anyway? and Have I Got News For You while popping up in quizzes and sitcoms all over the place (as well as in the movies Peter’s Friends and The Crying Game)

In the late Eighties and Nineties, Tony Slattery became one of the most ubiquitous faces on television, appearing regularly on Whose Line Is It Anyway? and Have I Got News For You while popping up in quizzes and sitcoms all over the place (as well as in the movies Peter’s Friends and The Crying Game). He even became a film critic for a while, hosting Saturday Night at the Movies.

It was probably inevitable that Slattery’s exhausting hyperactivity and somewhat self-admiring persona would begin to pall, but nobody would have predicted the scale of the calamity that befell him. Having become reliant on cocaine and alcohol to sustain his glittering schedule, he suffered a major breakdown in 1996 and disappeared from view for a decade, though he subsequently made various one-off appearances.

The title of Clare Richards’s documentary (on BBC Two) alludes to the fact that despite the emotional problems and violent mood swings that have plagued him, the exact nature of his mental condition has so far not been precisely identified. According to Denise Gough’s narration, most bipolar patients are misdiagnosed three times, and while it’s been said that Slattery was given a bipolar diagnosis, according to this account that’s not strictly true. However, he has been treated by such experts as Dr Guy Goodwin, an international authority on bipolar disorders. Goodwin agreed that Slattery’s symptoms might suggest bipolarity, but would rather describe him as “hypothymic”. I looked it up but I’m not much the wiser.

Slattery is now 60, but looks much older. White-haired, bulky and wearing a permanent frown on his heavily-lined face, he looks like a man condemned to drag a heavy load, for reasons which have never been explained to him. When he’s being interviewed, a variety of expressions keep flickering vividly across his face, from doubt and anxiety to bemusement and irritation. Where he used to whizz with contemptuous ease through his screen performances, now he looks like a skater floundering on melting ice.

His pursuit of the truth about his condition made absorbing viewing, but you didn’t have to have been a Slattery fan to feel pangs of sympathy for his predicament, and perhaps a few stabs of unease about examining it in such intense close-up. His partner Mark Hutchinson (pictured left with Slattery) seems to have been as sympathetic and stoical a supporter as anyone could be, but even he had to admit that he sometimes has to return to his family in Liverpool to gain a bit of respite.

Terrifyingly unfathomable though Slattery’s mental state may be, it seemed that pragmatic, empirical steps may be the best way for him to approach his recovery. Goodwin got him to fill in a regular “digital mood diary” to track his state of mind, though he found it difficult to keep it going. Addiction psychiatrist Professor Julia Sinclair was encouraged that Slattery had been able to give up cocaine at the turn of the millennium, having been hoovering up 10 grams a day. “A fair amount,” the professor agreed, before turning to his alcohol problem. Regularly monitoring his intake would be the most effective way of getting it under control, she stressed (“that’s why Fitbits work”.) Dr Goodwin put it more succinctly: “Alcohol is the problem, and the solution is not to use it.”

Richards had kept a jack-in-the-box surprise for last. Her camera followed her patient into the consulting room of Dr Kieron Mulholland at Queen’s, Belfast, where Slattery described, apparently for the first time ever, his experience of sexual abuse by a priest when he was eight. Slattery himself said he didn’t want to lean on this single incident as the key that unlocks his various problems, but the expert view was that finally exhuming this long-buried trauma could be a crucial step forward. Here’s hoping.

You didn’t have to have been a Slattery fan to feel pangs of sympathy for his predicament

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