Home Depression What’s the Matter with Tony Slattery? review – a moving study of...

What’s the Matter with Tony Slattery? review – a moving study of drink, depression and abuse | Television & radio

88
0

In the end, any documentary about mental health is essentially an excavation of layers of pain. Whether that is an inherently exploitative act is arguable and should always be debated, before embarking on either the making or the watching of it. After that, the programme must be judged on how carefully and respectfully it uncovers – or lets the subject uncover – their layers and how successfully it resists the temptation to push the narrative along, faster or further than the subject at its centre seems happy with. By those standards, Horizon’s What’s the Matter with Tony Slattery? (BBC Two) was a beacon for the genre.

Like most of us who came of age in the late 80s and early 90s, I remember Slattery best for his charm, wit, improvisational talent and lovely, impish face on the Channel 4 hit Whose Line Is It Anyway? For a while, he was everywhere – panel shows, adverts, presenting award ceremonies and so on – and seemed to be having a fine old time of it. Behind the scenes, however, the wheels started coming off and a few years later he withdrew from the public eye into a welter of drink, drugs and depression, where he has remained, more or less, for the last 25 years. He no longer takes drugs but he still drinks too much and cannot find equilibrium.

Now, at the age of 60, he has started to re-emerge, with a tour talking about his mental health. While it’s ostensibly about discovering whether his suspicions that he suffers from undiagnosed bipolar disorder, pulsing malevolently under the whole thing there is the issue of the abuse he endured as a child, which he recently spoke about during an interview in this newspaper.

So the hour becomes an examination of the interplay of influences, of causes and effects, of what – really – makes us us. Are drink and drugs causing or aggravating Slattery’s depression, or did he – does he – turn to them because of it? Is he genetically predisposed to depression, or to addiction? Are they both a response to the terrible trauma, explicitly stated in the last quarter of the film (“As bad as that?” says his doctor, quietly)? Does he have an identifiable, classifiable mental disorder? And if so, was it caused or exacerbated by his experiences? How do you tease all these things apart when they have become so deeply enmeshed over decades? How do you work out which is chicken and which is egg, and what the most effective treatment therefore will be?

As a study in the complexity of mental health issues it is very well done, affirming only the certainty that – as Slattery’s friend from university days Stephen Fry puts it: “All the ways people deal with pain if it is undiagnosed are dangerous.” But it is most affecting as a portrait of the power of love. Mark Hutchinson is Slattery’s partner of 32 years. He is honest and clear-eyed about the difficulties, the toll it takes – and remains unshakeably devoted. He takes occasional respite holidays at his brother’s house and that’s it. You would say that they clearly love each other to death, were it not so clear that Hutchinson’s unwavering support is probably what has enabled Slattery to stay in the world for this long.

And you can see why Mark loves him too. The genuine charm, the warmth and profound gentleness – even at his most antic on screen – was what always drew you to Slattery and made him such a success. That is still there. He’s thoughtful and articulate, though he stammers sometimes under stress – a possible legacy of suspected brain damage from an alcohol-related stroke he suffered a while ago. The anger, when it comes, is focused entirely on the architect of his childhood suffering, and he is harder on himself than on the priest. He worries throughout the programme that dwelling on possible causes of his drinking and mood swings is “self-indulgence” and that he should have “shrugged off any baggage” by his age. The psychiatrist, gently too, puts it to him that this is a manifestation of the guilt an abuser induces in a child. “Oh,” says Tony after a moment. “It’s never been put to me like that before.”

We leave him – and Mark – in a slightly better position (Tony has cut down on his drinking, but not stopped) with a long way still to go, but perhaps some seeds planted that may yet flourish in time.

https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2020/may/21/whats-the-matter-with-tony-slattery-review-a-moving-study-of-drink-depression-and-abuse

Advertisements

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.