Published in The Sunday Herald, November 2 2014
If you don’t know Matt Berry by now, you will never, never know him. Essentially, this is because he has, with only a few subtle tweaks of attitude, attire and moustache, been playing exactly the same character in everything he has appeared in for something like a decade. This is not a criticism.
The seeds of the patented Berry character were sewn back in Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace and came to bud in The IT Crowd. But with Toast Of London, in which he stars as Steven Toast, a jaded thespian of a certain age and a lusty nature, struggling to find work in the backbiting la-la-land of London’s theatre district, he is in full, fruity flower.
It’s the second series now, but there is not much to catch up on. Every episode is the same. Toast looks for a job, and grotesquely daft things happen. In the past, these have included the Nigerian ambassador’s daughter having surgery that leaves her resembling Bruce Forsyth, and in the future they include a director with a single eye in his forehead, like a Cyclops. This week, it’s a charity Celebrities And Prostitutes blow football match.
A recurring gag in the show, which Berry created with director Arthur Mathews, is the cruddy voiceover work Toast has to do for hideous young hipster ad men, who offer inane direction about which words he should emphasise. The joke is based partly on the infamous bootleg recordings of Orson Welles losing the will to live while narrating commercials for frozen peas, and partly on Berry’s own experiences as a seasoned voice artist himself. But Toast is not some drawn from life, Withnail & I-esque piece on the actor’s squalid lot. Toast is, fundamentally, most concerned with being extremely stupid.
It’s stupid in a different way from the best of the other current stupid comedies, though: Reeves and Mortimer’s splendid House Of Fools (in which, admirably, Berry played the character Beef the same way he plays every other character); or Count Arthur Strong, the sweet sitcom directed by Mathews’s old Father Ted partner Graham Linehan, coincidentally also about a sort of actor with nothing to do.
Vic and Bob go at it with breakneck vigour, while, in Count Arthur Strong, deceptive care is taken to build plots so all the ridiculous little incidents link together and build their own logic. Toast isn’t interested in momentum or plotting. It has a fittingly shagged-out air, a unique acid-reflux aesthetic. It’s the sheer, crude laziness of the jokes that is the funniest thing about them, and it all stands or falls on Berry’s juicily jaundiced delivery.
In the way Laurence Olivier was famous for building roles from the shoes up, with Berry it begins with The Voice. By now, in fact, he actually looks like he sounds, an uncanny meld of Dickie Davies and Jason King. When he speaks, it is the aural equivalent of being served ripe, melted cheese and hot exotic plums on a velvet plate, with honeyed whiskey and a port chaser. And extra ironic cheese balls. He possesses the kind of tones Barry White might have been blessed with had he been the lovechild of Patrick “The Barratts Ads” Allen and Donald Sinden. Add to this that Steven Toast, like every other Berry man, is a helplessly horny and impatient lothario, and it is as if gout itself was trying to talk you, angrily, into bed. Not for everyone, perhaps. But you’ll know if it’s for you.