‘When other actors lose their temper, I’m mentally taking notes’

Matt Berry was boarding a London Tube train recently and bumped into someone wearing a T-shirt bearing his Toast of London catchphrase: “Yes, I can hear you, Clem Fandango!”

It wasn’t the first time. Berry once saw the quote – which his character, the laughably self-aggrandising actor Steven Toast, says in exasperation to his hipster voiceover producer Clem Fandango (Shazad Latif) – graffitied on the wall of a public toilet in east London. A thoroughbred racehorse has been named “Clem Fandango”, he tells me.

Now, finally, Toast has gone to Hollywood. Under the mistaken impression that he has landed a leading role in a Star Wars movie, he has moved (after a seven-year hiatus) both to BBC Two from Channel 4 and across the Atlantic for the deliriously surreal new series, Toast of Tinseltown.

“It’s a full primary school education or the distance of an entire adolescence since Toast was last on our screens,” says the show’s writer Arthur Mathews on the set of the show, which in keeping with the title character’s world of unfulfilled expectations, is filmed in Harlesden, north-west London. “But he’s learned nothing.”

“Toast takes on a whole new lease of life in America,” says Berry. The reason for the move Stateside was to avoid covering the same ground as the first three series. “We didn’t want to ruin it. If we were going to do it, it had to be in a different place, with different people,” he says

Matt Berry: ‘Any kind of pomposity is just waiting to be pricked’ (Photo: Bryan Bedder/Getty Images)

Tinseltown is certainly a new playground for Toast – and a new place for him to endure ritual humiliation on a weekly basis. The joy of Toast is that – unlike an American sitcom character – he never wins. “He’s self-deluded and keeps tripping himself up,” agrees Berry.

“It’s very different from the American sitcom model, where there is a lot of resistance to losers and to characters who don’t get what they think they deserve. Our comedy is not like that. We start off with these losers and keep watching them not getting what they deserve.”

Toast’s relentless failure begins the moment he arrives in Los Angeles. “He goes to Hollywood, saying, ‘I’m happy to take on different roles, as long as I don’t have to play the butler or the murderer,’” explains producer Charlie Leech. “And then his agent tells him, ‘You’ve been offered a part as the butler who turns out to be the murderer’.”

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It is fair to say that Toast is not a very likeable character. He is always boiling with rage about the indignities that the industry has heaped upon him. When his agent Jane Plough (Doon Mackichan) tells him that he has lost out on a leading role to his actor rival Ray Purchase, he karate-chops her desk in fury and has to go on an anger management course run by Des Wigwam (Kayvan Novak, Berry’s co-star in the BBC’s American vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows).

“He has some unpleasant traits,” Leech says, “but you always feel for him because he’s a loser and everybody loves a loser. He’s like Eddie the Eagle.”

Matt Berry with Kayvan Novak in What We Do in the Shadows; Novak appears in Toast of Tinseltown as anger management coach, Des Wigwam (Photo: FX Networks/ BBC)

“The Brits love an underdog,” agrees director Michael Cumming. “The trick is to surround Toast with absolute bastards. If you put him next to Ray Purchase and Clem Fandango, then Toast seems like a hero.”

It is this friction between the characters that creates comic sparks. “Some actors come in and say: ‘I can’t be this horrible to Toast’,” Berry says. “And I have to tell them, ‘look, the more horrible you are, the funnier it is’.”

Toast works as a comic creation precisely because he is blind to his own flaws. “Anybody who takes themselves seriously is always going to be funny and fertile ground for comedy,” Berry says. “Look at Captain Mainwaring or David Brent. Any kind of pomposity is just waiting to be pricked. It also really helps if a comedy character has absolutely no sense of humour. Toast only ever laughs at his own jokes.”

That fatal lack of self-awareness is crucial. “There’s a lot of Tony Hancock in Toast,” says Cumming. “He was pompous, but lovable, too. We love pompous characters because they are allowed to say the things we wish we could say. When confronted by irritating hipsters, we would just snigger, but Toast actually calls them out. All the things we merely think, Toast says out loud.”

Matt Berry with Aidan Turner in Toast of Tinseltown (Photo: BBC/ Objective Fiction/ Ben Meadows)

Berry, 47, won a Bafta for his performance as Toast in 2015, and is always on the look-out for new material for the character. He even took inspiration during lockdown from actors who posted videos of themselves online doing Shakespeare “very earnestly”.

“A lot of people I’ve met on jobs have lots of Steven Toast in them, and I’ve always found them really funny,” he says. “When I’m doing voiceovers and other actors lose their temper, I’m mentally taking notes. I’m thinking, ‘great, I can get something out of this. Come on, be angrier. This is gold!’” He refuses to name names.

Berry has the time of his life playing Toast. With his wonderfully rich, mellifluous voice, he swills each syllable around his mouth and spits it out as though it were a glass of the 2017 Patient Cottat Sancerre Anciennes Vignes Sancerre that Orson Welles offers Toast in the scene I watch them film (the deceased director, played by impressionist Lewis Macleod, is inexplicably a wine shop owner). “He’s great fun to play because you can be as ridiculous as you want and encourage every other actor to be equally ridiculous.”

How similar is Berry to his alter ego, I wonder? Not in the slightest. “Toast is somebody who expects to have been given a lot more from life and doesn’t understand why he is not more fêted,” says Berry. “Whereas I’m the opposite. I’m always so grateful that anything has happened to me and sometimes question why it has happened in the first place.”

What’s next for the character? Berry hopes that the series will run and run, although, of course, the future for Toast will be exactly the same as the present – blighted by bitter disappointment.

“He believes he should be the new James Bond,” says Berry. “He is convinced he could do a better job than anyone else.”

‘Toast of Tinseltown’ starts on Tuesday 4 January at 10pm on BBC Two

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