At the time, he was one of the best-known comedians on TV, with a reputation for outrageous improvisation and over-the-top humour. His name was Tony Slattery. He was at the peak of his career. And I was working with him.
It was 1990, I was newly married, and the job was a massive internal launch for Norwich Union’s latest venture – Norwich Union Healthcare. I and the First Creative team were operating with a budget of £1.25m. This would cover the main launch event, at the NEC, and a number of roadshow events around the country. And it was my job to write the script…
In person, Tony Slattery was the mirror image of his on-screen personality. He was almost painfully shy, clearly lacking in confidence, and amenable to almost any suggestion. I wasn’t entirely surprised – though very sympathetic – when I learned that soon afterwards he hit a descending spiral of booze and drugs. The alcohol intake was obvious in some of his later TV appearances. But when I worked with him I was charmed by his modesty, and awed by his comic talent.
We’d asked for his input because we knew we had a problem. The presentation would be long, detailed, and factual. We reckoned most audience members would be nodding off after about 20 minutes.
So that’s when we programmed in Tony’s first appearance.
I didn’t script his segments at all. Instead, I gave him an outline setup – he’d be a thrusting (and very annoying) young executive in an expensive office, interrupting the presentation and arguing with the presenter. How exactly he handled that would be up to him.
Needless to say, he handled it brilliantly!
At the launch event, as predicted, the delegates were just beginning to doze off when the neat images on the big screen in front of them dissolved into static chaos. A few moments later Tony materialised out of the fog, peering at the assembled company. ‘Hallo! Hallo? Good God, what’s this – a born-again SDP meeting?’
The interruptions came roughly every 20 minutes, with Tony raking up ridiculous arguments against whatever the presenters had just said. But the coup de grace came with his final appearance. The big hall at the NEC had speakers all along its length on both sides, and this time the interruption was the sound of a helicopter apparently coming into land just outside the hall. Moments later Tony himself appeared at the back of the auditorium, ridiculously dressed in a Biggles outfit with goggles and a gigantic scarf.
The effect was utterly hilarious – and in this final encounter he was finally won over to asking for a Healthcare contract of his own…
Stuff like this was always fun to do, and it was a real privilege to work with a talent like Tony’s. Norwich Union were sufficiently impressed to ask me if I could also write the brochure copy for them. And proved to be one of the most difficult clients I’d ever have to work with. When we finally got the job signed off we went to a last meeting with their publicity team, who were proudly boasting that they ‘ate copywriters for breakfast’ and trumpeting how much they’d spent on the brochures. At which point Mike Mulvihill, First Creative’s director, looked critically at the front page and said ‘Hm. Pity you got the phone number wrong…’
There are times when you can’t help thinking that revenge is very, very sweet…