Toast of London: the best show you haven’t seen

Alison Graham hails another slice of Matt Berry’s comic creation

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Volcanic actor and voice-over artist Steven Toast is Britain’s second finest exponent of acting in high winds. He’s a perpetually angry poltroon, a joyless, narcissistic apology for a human being with a disastrously perverted sexual history, including a brief relationship with a woman obsessed by canals.

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Toast is hilarious, in the way that bloated and deluded comic characters – David Brent, Basil Fawlty – are hilarious. But there are hints of another dolorous, thwarted creation – maybe he’s a filthy, priapic Tony Hancock for the 21st century? “Oh, that’s great. I hadn’t even thought of that,” says Matt Berry, who created Toast with Father Ted’s Arthur Mathews and who’s played him since a successful Channel 4 pilot last year.

Toast of London returns for a second series today (Monday 3 November) after Bafta and RTS nominations, though we must be ruthlessly honest here – its viewing figures were routinely tiny (barely 300,000) so it can probably just about be described as a “cult”. But those of us who love Toast of London hug it to ourselves like a beloved dachshund.

Steven Toast is an angry buffoon for whom life is a string of personal and professional disappointments. He appears in terrible plays and ekes a living as a voice-over artist for TV commercials, where he is tormented by the demands of hipster doofuses justifying their salaries in the sound booth.

Their leader is the gloriously named Clem Fandango, half- witted pony-tailed catalyst of Toast of London’s nearest thing to a catchphrase: “Yes, I can hear you, Clem Fandango.”

In the most memorable scene from the pilot, Toast was urged by Fandango and his half-witted cohorts to say the single word “yes”, over and over again in slightly different ways until he was screaming, “YES, YES, YES,” in frothing exasperation. (Please, I beg you, find it on YouTube.) 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0wgxLWjRZEw

Berry, a comic writer and actor who’s cornered the market in playing bombastic, frequently sexually rapacious men (he was Douglas Reynholm in The IT Crowd), has long had a flourishing voice-over career – he’s the voice of Absolute Radio, and has extolled Volvic and Müller Corners in the past – and based Toast on an angry actor he once met when they both made the same commercial.

“I did a couple of jobs five or six years ago where I was teamed up with an older actor who lost his rag, and I just found it so entertaining and so funny.” Berry’s “co-star” had suffered the torments of the real-life Clem Fandangos of this world just once too often.

“I was quite new to it so I just went along with things, but this actor went mental when we were asked to do it in a French accent. ‘If you want accents, you need to tell us in advance so I can practise the accent before I come. Don’t you dare thrust this kind of thing at me.’ ” Berry says all of this with Toast’s rumbling pomposity.

As for Clem Fandango, his ilk are real, too. (In series two he who adds a patterned onesie to his hip sartorial ensemble). “Clem Fandango is, honestly, hardly a caricature. I could take you to any voiceover session where there are two creatives from Shoreditch [a London totem of all that is nauseatingly trendy] and there’d be absolutely no difference between them.”

“But they have got to look as if they are actually doing something. That’s why they ask you to do stupid things. To you it just looks ridiculous, but they want you to do something different for the sake of being different and it’s just annoying.” 

Mind you, Berry’s voiceover work has served him well in an acting career that began with him playing characters at the London Dungeon tourist attraction after he finished an art degree at Nottingham University: “It was really good fun. You could be Jack the Ripper in the morning and a judge in the afternoon.”

He was spotted by The Mighty Boosh’s Noel Fielding and went on to star in Channel4’s cult comedy classic, Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace (oddly, Mad Men star Jon Hamm’s favourite TV comedy). After The IT Crowd (co-written by his Toast collaborator Mathews), Berry (40) has had a series on Radio 4, I Regress, and guest-starred in Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer’s House of Fools earlier this year.

Back in Toast-world, the new series has attracted game guest-stars, including Midsomer Murders’ John Nettles, Steve Pemberton and Josh Homme from rock band Queens of the Stone Age. Toast himself never learns or grows. Says Berry: “We just find different ways of upsetting him. When Toast’s in jeopardy, that’s when he’s at his funniest. ”

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Toast of London is on Channel 4 tonight (3 November) at 10.35pm