It’s Not That Steven Toast Is a Total Failure

Arthur Mathew and Matt Berry's sitcom, Toast of London is almost too weird and wonderful to put into words.

Occasionally one comes across something that’s so unusual that mere written description cannot do it justice, even when it so deserves to be described.

You’re going to read about one of those things now.

Sometimes it’s hard to describe because it needs to be seen or heard to really appreciate. Other times it’s because it’s too weird, its logic doesn’t quite fit the real world’s. Sometimes it’s because it’s so dense, you’re bound to leave out something quite key.

And sometimes, as in the case of the Channel 4 sitcom Toast of London, it’s because of all three reasons.

The show is written by Arthur Mathews (co-creator of Father Ted) and Matt Berry, who also plays the title role, Steven Toast. Berry’s been in many brilliant comedies, such as The Mighty Boosh, The IT Crowd, and Vic and Bob’s House of Fools. He wrote and starred in Radio 4’s I, Regress. He’s also made appearances in The Sarah Silverman Show and Portlandia in the US, and his voice has featured in a video game, an Absolute Radio show, the 2012 London Olympics, and lots and lots of adverts.

Let’s just deal with his voice now as it’s one of the almost indescribable aspects of the show.

Berry’s voice is velvet. It can be totally authoritative, incredibly sexy, and occasionally a bit alarming. Voice is clearly Berry’s main instrument, strengthened by the fact that he’s also an accomplished musician. He’s released a number of albums and has done music for TV, including the series Snuff Box, which he created and starred in with Rich Fulcher, and AD/BC, a rock opera he wrote with Richard Ayoade.

In Toast of London, that voice comes out of the mouth of Steven Toast, who is one of the acting world’s non-success stories. It’s not that he’s a total failure: after 28 years in the business, he’s still consistently working on stage and screen and as a voiceover artist. However, he’s not getting the meatier roles, the higher salary, the awards and accolades he thinks he deserves.

Alas, he is alone in this thought: his agent Jane Plough (Doon Mackichan) is constantly reminding him that his career will soon be ending as she encourages him to take any work he can get; the lads at the voiceover studio, Danny Bear (Tim Downie) and Clem Fandango (Shazad Latif), think Toast’s a total joke; and his mortal enemy Ray Purchase (Harry Peacock) will stop at nothing to destroy Toast’s opportunities.

To be fair, though, Toast himself is usually to blame for his lost chances. He tells off directors whose work he accepts and then finds degrading; yes, he’s one of those who constantly needs to remind people that he is an actor with a capital A. And with that voice, these pontifications come off even more obnoxiously. The way Berry uses his face to exaggerate his sounds is hilarious (one may feel compelled to look away during the sex scenes, but it’s worth watching every reaction). His odd pronunciations (a technique Berry has used elsewhere), especially during the scenes at the voiceover studio, are also very funny.

However, the strange ways he says some words actually reveal just how out of touch Toast is — he’s never heard of sat nav or Lady Gaga, and a running gag in each episode is the mention of a famous actor, to which Toast replies “Who?” In some ways it’s not his confidence or commitment that is driving Toast on, it’s his bitterness at becoming the washed-up, slightly bloated actor his younger self never dreamed he would be.

Berry described Series 1 as “basically the things that happen to Toast on his way to the theatre each night” (Michael Hogan, “Matt Berry on Toast of London”, The Telegraph, 18 October 2013). Thanks to the show’s surrealist slant, though, it’s not quite as simple as that. Sometimes he’s on other jobs. He stars in a vanity project directed by a billionaire with a personal vendetta against the Duke of Edinburgh (the film is called Prince Phillip Scoundrel Dog); he toys with becoming a writer of erotic literature until his literary agent’s reaction to the spontaneous combustion of the heroine puts a stop to his writing career.

In his personal life, he’s desperate for love now that his wife has left him so he’s often out courting dates, including Ray Purchase’s wife (Tracy-Ann Oberman, who plays smoking while sitting in bed and smoking while being taken from behind quite well), and occasionally prostitutes. There are also attempts on Toast’s life — by a crazed director, a submarine captain in cahoots with aliens, and Britain’s leading musical star Michael Ball (played by Britain’s leading musical star Michael Ball), who works part-time collecting poker debts owed to Andrew Lloyd Webber. Oh, and a sex tape of Toast (filmed by his lady friend’s apparently deaf and blind auntie) gets half a million hits on the Internet. Just those kinds of normal things that happen to each of us everyday.

By Series 2, Toast’s regular theatre work in “The Unspeakable Play” has come to an end, so the plotlines change slightly: Toast competes in a Celebrities and Prostitutes Blow Football tournament, is buried alive, is fast tracked to becoming a member of a secret society, and survives a plane crash. You know, as one does.

The people in Toast’s life actually help to make him look relatively normal. During one episode, Jane Plough is “back on the acid”, so we see her trying to kill imaginary bats with a huge flyswatter and getting up to walk away after she plunges out her office window. Toast’s housemate, retired actor Ed Howzer-Black (Robert Bathurst), has unusual tastes in women; in the first episode, he’s all loved up with the daughter of a Nigerian ambassador. Unfortunately, she’s addicted to cosmetic surgery and her last work has left all of her except her left hand looking exactly like Bruce Forsythe (with ample make up and prosthetics, the actor really looks like 1970s Brucie, and it’s pretty damn unsettling to see him walking around in a negligee and snuggling up in Bathurst’s lap). It turns out that Ray Purchase had set himself up as a rogue cosmetic surgeon to operate on a friend of a friend of Toast’s and disfigure her just to piss Toast off; though in the end, Toast admits he’s not actually that pissed off.

There are also other strange touches to the show. There are weird gags that play with reality. At one point, Jane says “He will crush you” as she squeezes her mug, which crumples like paper that she then throws on the floor to the sound of splashing water. There’s the occasional bit of cartoon violence and those mortifying sex scenes. The references to real celebrities (sometimes played by themselves, sometimes by other actors) are matched by the ridiculously-named fictional characters (Duncan Clench, Betty Pimples, Dinky Frinkbuster, and Ken Suggestion are a few of my personal favourites). Perhaps it’s just because Toast spends a lot of time in an actors’ bar, but even the supporting artists in the background are just a bit unusual.

And then there’s the singing.

Berry likens Toast’s singing to the Incredible Hulk: “when he’d get pushed into a corner, [he’d] snap and turn green. Toast gets to the end of his tether and bursts into song.” (ibid, Hogan in the Telegraph) The short musical pieces break from the scenes (sometimes literally like when the walls of the room pull away and disappear during a duet with Francis Bacon, played by Steve Pemberton). They are sufficiently weird, but also quite telling. When Toast confronts obnoxious director Norris Flipjack (Geoffrey McGivern who, as always, plays bonkers wonderfully) and Ray Purchase spit roasting a fox (I mean that literally, not in the Urban Dictionary sense of the word), the scene turns musical. Their song insults Toast’s acting abilities, and he sings back, “I wish I was dead or on TV.”

This kind of strange poignancy may actually be the heart of the show and what has contributed to its acclaim. For all its weirdness and silliness and over-the-top bits, Toast’s story is really quite relatable. It’s the story of someone who dreamt of a certain life, tried everything to get it, but just didn’t.

The pilot was broadcast in 2012, and there’s been a series each following year (Series 3 will begin filming in June with an aim to air in late 2015). In 2014 it was nominated for a BAFTA and for six British Comedy Awards (it won Best New Comedy Programme). It also received the coveted Rose D’or Award for Best Sitcom 2014 and was a Best Comedy Programme nominee at the 2015 Broadcast Awards.

Well, I’ve given it a proper go, though I know this can only scratch the surface of the show’s odd brilliance. Of course, the only real way to guarantee understanding is to watch it. As Rob Smedley at Den of Geek wrote:

Toast of London is one of comedy’s rolling stones. The more you watch it, the better it gets. In isolation the line ‘Yes I can hear you, Clem Fandango!’ is meaningless. But by the fifth time it barrels from underneath Toast’s moustache it feels like a joke we’re all in on (“The Funniest UK Sitcom No One’s Watching”, 7 November 2014).

While adored by those who make up his almost cult-like following, some of Berry’s previous shows have stayed a bit under the mainstream radar. That’s what makes Toast of London stand out; although viewing figures for the first series were low, its fan base (and critical favour) continues to grow in number and intensity. It’s a strange world Steven Toast lives in, but it’s one worth watching.

Splash image: Promo still from Toast of London Series 1