Tony Slattery has a beef about fake improv. In the late 1990s he was approached about joining the American version of Whose Line is it Anyway?, but was told it would have to be rehearsed. It seemed anathema for a broadcast that saw him, in one (unscreened) episode, make love to the corpse at a funeral.
He says: “It’s a personal bugbear of mine if you say it’s improvised, and it’s clearly pretend improvised.”
If a show is truly improvised it can go anywhere. “The audience can tell, by the sheer mix of fear and panic in the eyes, and that’s when the funniest things can come from. If it’s too pat, it’s not improvised. If it’s scripted, that’s a piece of genius, and it’s called writing. I bow to the writers, but don’t pretend it’s improvised when it’s not.”
In 1979 Tony Slattery won a Fringe First in his first Edinburgh show. Two years later he won the first Edinburgh Comedy Award (which was then called the Perrier Award) with the Cambridge Footlights. It would be hard to imagine any of the company he kept – co-winners Emma Thompson, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie – in the basement, albeit a generous one, of the New Town Theatre on George Street, selling signed CDs after the show to fans mostly of a certain age.
Slattery made his splashy Fringe comeback last year, with a “joyous” reunion of the cast of Whose Line Is It Anyway?, the improv panel show which ran from 1988 to 1999. Now he’s back again with Slattery Will Get You Nowhere, an hour of talk with the comedy historian Robert Ross, and at the Stand on Queen Street with Crimes against Improv.
Fielding Ross’s questions with reminiscences and wit, Slattery’s manner shifts, by turns, from a shuffling, slightly apprehensive old bloke in waistcoat, jeans and bizarrely coloured shirt, to an impish boy of 14, the year he got his judo black belt. “I was a toy boy once,” he chuckles.
Slattery comes alive, his face sharpening with theatrical command, when he clicks into character, doing voices, reciting an entire poem from Whose Line about a passion for a plastic pig. He can’t remember things he did five minutes ago, he says, but with complete acuity things of 25 years ago.
He mostly dodges name-dropping, but recalls drinking with Peter Cook, the father of British satire, in a pub in Cambridge. When Cook asked him what he was going to do with his life, he told him he was thinking of showbusiness, after a degree focused on religious ecstasy in medieval poetry. “Showbusiness,” Cook responded languidly. “Oh, give it a f***ing whirl.”
But the reason Slattery is plying Edinburgh – and not, he teases, living in a Hollywood mansion like Ryan Stiles, who appeared in multiple series of Whose Line in both the UK and US – is that the “whirl” ended with a major nervous break down at the age of 36, fuelled by a mix of depression, alcohol, and a cocaine habit that he later put at £4,000 a week. Matters came to a head when he couldn’t open his door for six months, and when he was stopped by the river police chucking his electrical equipment into the Thames from his riverside warehouse. A career of film and television appearances so ubiquitous that Private Eye made fun of it came crashing off the rails.
Slattery has confronted his demons with medication and a string of interviews, dating back to one with Miranda Sawyer in 2003. In 2006, his old comrade Stephen Fry came to interview him for The Secret Diary Of The Manic Depressive, the milestone Emmy-award winning documentary. Slattery says it was he who introduced Fry to the term bipolar.
In his show he jokes that it was too many quiz shows that finally pushed him over the edge. “No one in their right mind chooses to be depressed. Actually that’s a kind of joke, but it’s also true,” he says, and then tries this one out: “A man comes into a restaurant, he’s sitting alone, the waiter says, can I take your order? The bipolar man says, ‘Yes , I’ll have what I’m having.’”
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More seriously, he says he is delighted with the attention being given to mental health, breaking the “Cinderella taboo”.
“There’s a history in my family of depression and I feel very strongly about it, with this mixture of things. Is it upbringing, is it nature, is it nurture, is it idiopathic? Does it come from nowhere?”
He worries that “like anything, there is always the danger it can be used as an excuse for jumping on a populist bandwagon that is in vogue. Mostly people will see through that. I don’t think you can have too much discussion but there’s always the potential for anything to be hijacked.”
As he wonders how his Edinburgh audience are taking his show, after stops in York and Newcastle, Slattery doesn’t have time for great ambitions: “I have no money, and I’m hoping to earn some in the future. Since I started earning in 1982, there were good times and bad times. I would like to entertain, but also to act.”
Likely guests for his improv show include Sylvester McCoy the seventh Doctor Who, a part for which Slattery was a close contender in his heyday. Others mooted are singer-songwriter comedian Mitch Benn, old friend Su Pollard, and Mike McShane, another alumnus of Whose Line is it Anyway?
He’s not likely to be short of guests, suggests Ross, author of more than 20 books on comedy. At a Fringe benefit this week “all the young comedians were gathering round him like the messiah,” he says. “He popularised improvisation in this country. The fact that he made it up on on the spot, and the fact it was really sharp and really clever and really funny, he was an inspiration to a generation of comedians and he is now the elder statesman.”