Just as commercial pilots presumably can’t let themselves think too deeply about the environmental damage they cause by going to work, so I try not to spend too much time considering the grey morality of my own job. A celebrity interviewer gets famous people to hawk up gobbets about their private lives in exchange for promoting whatever project they have on the go. “So you’ve made a superhero movie – tell me about your divorce,” is my job, paraphrased. And most of the time, it’s fine: they get to promote their film, and I get to tell a good story. But sometimes this transactional relationship is a little more complicated.
When I met Tony Slattery in April 2019, he wasn't promoting anything – I just knew he had a good story, and he wanted to tell it. As we both expected, we discussed the substance abuse and mental illnesses that had so dramatically derailed his comedy career in the 1990s. But we also talked about something else. I asked, if his life had always been as happy as he kept saying it was, why did he have this longstanding reputation for anger issues? There was a long pause.
“I have a feeling that what might have been a contributing factor is something that happened when I was very young,” he replied. “A priest. When I was about eight.”
He had never talked about this with anyone, he said, other than his long-term partner, Mark Michael Hutchinson.
I really don't think the documentary is going to do me any favours in money terms or career advancement. But it may be a good thing to have done
Over the next few days, I phoned him several times, asking if he was absolutely sure he wanted this to go in the piece. He was adamant he did. But I knew we were both anxious: him because he was nervous about how people would react; me because I was nervous about how he would react to his very private life becoming public knowledge. Was I helping him speak his truth or exploiting a vulnerable person? On the one hand, he was a 59-year-old man – who was I to censor his past? On the other, could I really take it on trust when an alcoholic says they want to tell the world about their childhood trauma? In the end, after long discussions with my editor, I went with Slattery’s wishes.
When the interview was published, there was a national outpouring of love for Slattery. So many people wanted to interview him that he became almost as ubiquitous as he had been in the 90s. Dozens of agents contacted me to ask if they could represent him, and book publishers rushed to sign him up. Since then, we’ve stayed in touch: he sends fond messages at unexpected times, and I check in to ask if he’s OK. I wondered what he would do next. Maybe some voiceover work? Some light standup? Instead, Slattery has taken a different route.
By chance, the day of our second interview is exactly a year to the day the first interview was published in the paper. "Good God, is it really? Well, hand on heart, it changed a lot for me because it did have quite a reaction, didn't it?" he tells me on the phone from his home in Edgware, north London. He's self-isolating with Hutchinson, "which is quite nice because we don't have to keep two metres away from one another on the sofa. Also, Mark cut my hair yesterday really well! I still look like George Bernard Shaw and Rasputin because of the beard, but the top is okay."
One of the reactions to the interview was that a documentary crew got in touch with him, suggesting that they film him being treated by mental health professionals. Slattery is self-aware to a fault, so he was wary, not wanting to make what he calls “one of those My Brave Battle Against the Past things. Sorry, that sounds terribly judgmental, doesn’t it?” Also, he really does want to get better, and by making the documentary he would get to see some of the best doctors around. “I really don’t think [the documentary] is going to do me any favours in money terms or career advancement. But it may be a good thing to have done. That sounds self-aggrandising, but I don’t care – I feel better for doing the documentary and our interview. But, mmmm, have you seen the documentary? OK, ummm, can I ask what you thought of it?” he says, going, in characteristic form, from self-doubt to self-confidence and back in mere seconds.
I think that it's a very thoughtful and very careful show. Despite the slightly schlocky title, there is nothing prurient about What's the Matter with Tony Slattery?, which will be on BBC Two this month. It is clear that none of the scenes were set up, but, because Slattery is so honest, every moment is strikingly revealing. In one scene, he meets Stephen Fry, whom he has known since they were at Cambridge together. Fry does his luvvie shtick: "Darling thing! Gorgeous to see you! You know I would walk a thousand miles in tight shoes over broken glass to please you!"
“Likewise. This has always been the case,” replies Slattery with deep feeling.
“I might have exaggerated,” says Fry breezily.
Sometimes, I think maybe one of the problems was that Slattery was just too good for showbiz.
Slattery is in the documentary as he is in life: as open and vulnerable as a freshly peeled orange. In another scene, he and Hutchinson talk to Prof Ciaran Mulholland, a consultant psychiatrist.
“You mentioned an incident with a priest at the age of eight. That doesn’t sound good,” Mulholland says.
In all my exchanges with Slattery, he has always been as gentle as a cloud. But suddenly, in response to Mulholland, we see the anger that Slattery was notorious for in the 1990s, distorting his usually soft features. “Well, it wasn’t pleasant, getting fucked up the arse at the age of eight. No, it was not,” he spits out, glaring at the doctor and the camera and, by extension, the viewers. He then goes into more detail about the abuse, saying things he’d never even told Hutchinson, who sits next to him, devastated. By the end, Slattery is crying.
Slattery stifled this trauma for more than half a century, and there’s no question he needs to talk about it to start dealing with it. But does it have to happen in the public eye? Perhaps: Slattery is an innate performer, so maybe the only way he could start to speak about it was after he was directly asked by the media. I ask him what he thinks about people who worry he is being exploited.
“I’m a pretty good judge of character, except for my own. If I’d got that vibe of voyeurism or prurience, I’d have walked out. And to anyone who thought you were exploitative, I say: ‘Go fuck yourselves,’” he says. This is Slattery being solicitous, anxious that I must never feel any concern on his account, even – maybe especially – when I should. But it is also him being proud: one of the many reasons he struggled to talk about the abuse for so long is he has a horror of being seen as a victim.
He is continuing his therapy, even while in lockdown, and he has cut down his drinking “by about a quarter. And that’s a start.” He hasn’t quite shaken the worry that in talking about his childhood abuse he’s “just whingeing on”. There remains a strong pull of embarrassment that “this terrible thing still weighs and presses down. Please, why, after all this time, why?” But he is starting to accept that it does.
“I’m going to go sententious and pretentious now, but I do think there may be a linear connection from the present to something way back,” he says, stammering strongly over his words, as he always does when referring to the abuse. I ask if he ever thinks about naming his abuser or the institution where it happened.
"It would serve no social or psychological purpose. That is my current thinking. But be assured – 'be assured'? God, what am I turning into? I'm turning into Donald Trump! What's going on with his hair these days? Has he sprayed it with bleach? No, my current feeling – 'current feeling'?! 'Today on Radio 4, it's The Current Feeling.' Anyway, your question. Oh, I don't know. All it is – and now I'm doing a 70s police movie: 'All it is, right, guv …'"
I’ve spoken with Slattery often enough by now to recognise some of his cues: when he stammers, it means he wants to discuss something but is finding it difficult. When he deflects into jokes and impressions, it means we need to move on. And so we move on.
Slattery’s one complaint about my previous interview with him was there wasn’t enough about Hutchinson in it. Happily, the documentary rectifies this oversight, and the love the two men have for one another – Slattery still swooning over photos of Hutchinson from when they met in the 80s – makes for some of the most emotional moments in the show. I ask Slattery if he minds handing over the phone to Hutchinson, and he agrees enthusiastically, “once Mark has finished feeding our psychotic cat, Molly”. Molly dealt with, I ask Hutchinson if he thinks Slattery has changed in the past year. “I was surprised that he said what he did in the Guardian interview, and thought maybe it would take him down a black hole. But by the end of last year, for the first time in a long time, I could see the old Tony. Every day is up and down, but he’s starting to believe that people do seek out his company – that is an upturn,” he says.
The two men got together when Slattery was a dazzling rising star. Through the 90s when Slattery was doing 10g of coke a day, followed by his complete breakdown, then his years as a recluse and now a recovering alcoholic, Hutchinson has never wavered in his devotion. “I could see his vulnerability, his feelings of being lost and alone. When you love someone, you don’t walk away when the going gets tough. He makes me laugh, he makes me cry – no matter what, he’s my constant,” says Hutchinson.
So many reality shows today are predicated on the idea that one simple change will fix everything: unhappy in your marriage? Marie Kondo your flat! Unhappy in your life? Let five queer guys give you a makeover! Slattery says he sleeps better since he started to open up about the past, but these things are all relative: he still wakes up every day at 4.30am, as he has done for years, no matter what time he goes to sleep. "So that's something else for them to figure out," he says larkily.
Is he able to be more compassionate to himself these days? Slattery knows journalists love a happy ending, so he says: “Um, OK. The answer is yes. But with the emphasis, Hadley, on a bit. A bit.” I still don’t know what the right answer is when it comes to putting people like Slattery in the public eye, and Slattery specifically. But I do know that him talking about the past shows he is starting to believe he may have a future. He knows better than to expect instant change, but that he is allowing himself to think that things might change at all is something. It’s a start. It’s a bit. – Guardian
What’s the Matter with Tony Slattery? is on BBC Two on Thursday, May 21st, at 9pm