Steven Toast is the Fellini of failure. He’s an actor who can empty a theatre faster than a teargas canister. He’s a more disastrous on-set presence than an Omicron outbreak. And – after six years – he brazenly swaggers back on to our screens this week, proving that it isn’t just a good man you can’t keep down.
BBC Two’s Toast of Tinseltown is an incredibly welcome return for one of the best comic creations of the last 10 years. Toast (Matt Berry) has relocated to Hollywood, following three series of Toast of London – which saw him tailspinning through demeaning bit parts, mortifying scandals and doomed auditions since its launch in 2013. Now, Toast believes he will finally get his due, and the great wrong of his omission from the acting pantheon will be righted.
There is one tiny problem, though: the acting pantheon doesn’t want him. He doesn’t even make it to the opening credits of Toast of Tinseltown’s first episode before a furious Larry David is yelling: “Are you serious? Is this guy a real actor?”
To see Toast in action is to be treated to the enthralling spectacle of a man who unshakeably believes that he is one of the finest thespians of his generation, despite being the recipient of worst actor awards. For the whole of the first series, rotten-veg-hurling protesters greet him upon his entrance to the stage door of the production he’s appearing in – dubbed London’s worst play. He gets the kind of radioactive reviews that have sunk the careers of better men, has been cancelled by the literal PC police and was once buried alive by a maverick director. Toast wants to be the Milk Tray man, but ends up as Basildon Bond. He’s the ultimate fish out of water, an analogue actor in the digital age.
Even his rivalries are the stuff of Greek myth – eternal conflicts played out by idiots. As the screen and stage work dries up, he is reduced to cornball voiceovers where he is tormented by the millennial inanities of hipster sound guys Danny Bear (Tim Downie) and Clem Fandango (Shazad Latif). Toast facing down these Urban Outfitters rejects who have him read out obscene hearing aid adverts, honking horns and whinnying like a horse offers a joy seldom seen on TV. You watch as the generation gap becomes a chasm.
But the real joy is his ultimate rivalry with Ray Purchase (Harry Peacock)– a taller, leaner, more handsome Toast, who looks like a Reader’s Digest knitwear model. In the first episode of Toast of Tinseltown, the ludicrously OTT competition for a movie role and the affections of Mrs Purchase (Tracy-Ann Oberman) has Toast karate-chopping desks in half, with Purchase’s moustache writhing so furiously it’s in danger of leaping clear off his face. The raw physical presence of Peacock’s scenery-chewing Purchase bumping up against Toast’s unbridled contempt and hauteur make it an unmissable watch.
Berry’s role as Toast is responsible for the best performances of his career. Some say that Matt Berry always plays Matt Berry and, admittedly, if you’re looking for the range of Daniel Day-Lewis, you will be disappointed. But this is to miss the point – Berry’s work is best seen as a single piece of performance art, a career-long excavation of a very specific kind of near-extinct masculinity – all Old Spice, coiffured hair and hammy glares. So of course there are deep echoes of previous characters: Doctor Sanchez in Darkplace, Douglas Reynholm in The IT Crowd, his perma-foiled suitor from Snuff Box. Toast, though, is the apex predator of Matt Berry characters. The rest are merely pale imitations.
This is especially true given what a showcase Toast is for Berry’s unique musical output. Many episodes feature absurdist musical numbers that see him do things like duet with a moustachioed child version of himself about the shame of visiting a sex worker. Then there’s the surprisingly catchy masonic ritual ditty On the Square. Given the influence of co-writer/creator Arthur Mathews, there are characters and scenes that wouldn’t be out of place in Father Ted – although the prospect of a Ted/Toast cinematic universe seems likely to remain a pipe dream.
Dreams are sometimes all we have, though, and the saga of Steven Toast is all about one man’s dream to achieve the recognition he manifestly does not deserve. That thick-eared tenacity is the main thing that makes him relatable. If you’ve ever felt out of your depth at work, bewildered by some aspect of youth culture or unjustly overlooked then all of a sudden, he starts to make sense. He’ll never quit. Deny it all you like, but there’s a bit of Toast in all of us.