Anyone who’s seen Matt Berry’s BBC iPlayer series of shorts, “Matt Berry Does…”, will already be familiar with the fertile hilarity of the actor’s voice. If some musicians are so musical that they impregnate the front row of their audience, Berry’s comedic delivery is so naturally funny it could probably make a baby appear right there in your living room.
Perhaps the best showcase for his uniquely voluptuous vocals is Channel 4 sitcom Toast of London. He stars as Stephen Toast, a performer with a plummy voice and little else to recommend him. And, like all the best comedy characters before him, he’s entirely lacking in self-awareness, considering himself a successful, award-winning actor, despite his total failure of a career.
It is, arguably, the same joke over and over again, broken down into fairly short skits, but when you’ve got someone like Berry delivering the lines, Toast simply doesn’t get dry. He’s able to deliver even the most absurd and surreal lines with a fully straight face, even while sporting a ridiculous wig and an even more ridiculous moustache. He’s surrounded by equally excellent performers, including Robert Bathurst as his landlord (a retired actor himself) and Harry Peacock as rival actor Ray Purchase.
Guest cameos too, featuring everyone from John Nettles and Steve Pemberton to Matthew Holness and Lorraine Kelly, help to keep toast’s flavours feeling new. The best of the bunch, perhaps, is Mad Men’s Jon Hamm, who plays himself in one instalment. Who doesn’t like Hamm on Toast? Toast, it turns out, likes Hamm very much. After scoffing at the very idea of the star, whom he’s never heard of, he’s bowled over by the man’s charisma – something that Hamm nails with all the panache and class of, well, Jon Hamm. It’s testament to both the casting and writing (Berry co-created the show with Father Ted, Big Train and Black Books veteran Arthur Matthews) that the pair prove to be a perfect double act: Berry swoons with every fibre of his body, from his quivering eyebrows to his faltering larynx, while Hamm takes the chance to remain deadpan, his cool charm only cracking to allow him to look completely baffled.
It’s that kind of contrast that keeps Berry’s character in check, preventing him from becoming one-note, while simultaneously proving that Toast can handle celebrity toppings – hello to (yes) Brian Blessed – without losing its crunch.
Over three seasons, highlights include a production of Twelfth Night solely involving dogs, a slice of erotic literature, and a production of Macbeth broadcast live from the theatre on ITV. That, a porn film and a lot of alcohol, somehow leads to a wonderfully daft revelation involving Stanley Kubrick in one episode – not bad going for a show in its third run, and par for the course for many episodes before it.
But it’s the little details sprinkled throughout that make Toast something to savour: the discovery of another actor who can mimic his voice but is far less annoying, which means his voiceover work could soon dry up, or his repeated conversations with his not-very-useful agent Jane Plough (Doon Mackichan), which fuel the gentle sympathy we have for the dimwit, a man so hapless he uses the phrase “Children in Need” as shorthand for weed and, at one point, creates his own version of University Challenge. If you want a sharp, satirical criticism at the modern entertainment industry, keep walking. If you want a hilariously daft show about a man who narrates documentaries about bees for a living and can make the words “Clem Fandango” laugh-out-loud funny, Toast of London is the show for you.
Toast of London Season 1 to 3 is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.49 monthly subscription.