Burnt offering: Matt Berry’s Toast is no laughing matter

It’s as if two sixth formers had watched a few old DVDs – The Dick Emery Show, Rising Damp, the odd episode of Bottom or Alan Partridge – then written down the first thing that came into their heads. 

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Toast of London
Channel 4

Reviewing comedy is a mug’s game. Unpick a good joke on the page and you kill it stone dead. On the other hand, point out a sitcom’s inadequacies and you’ll receive emails and tweets from top comedy producers implying you have no sense of humour – North Korean-style missives to which it’s impossible to respond for the simple reason that only complete dickheads ever utter the words: “I’ve got a great sense of humour.”

I suppose I could tell you I really love Peep Show and find Not Going Out tedious beyond all imagining. But even this might not make much difference, given that no one sane could possibly enjoy watching Lee Mack with his hand down his pants. So, what to do? It’s a bind. No wonder I’ve always been fascinated by the kind of critics for whom the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and its crazy stand-ups are purest catnip.

Anyway, to Toast of London (3 November, 10.35pm) starring Matt Berry (Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, The IT Crowd) as Stephen Toast, a pompous but exceedingly bad old-school actor who scrapes a living doing voice-over work in studios operated by tank-top-wearing Soho hipster types with names such as Clem Fandango. In theory, this should be purest catnip to me. After all, in my career as a journalist, I’ve been lucky enough to interview both . . . Oh, dear. Perhaps I’d better not get into the business of names here. All I’m saying is that I could not be more alert to thespian ludicrousness if I tried. At least twice I’ve been stuck in a room with an actor so amazingly pontifical, I struggled not to corpse. (Such a good word, pontifical, which brings with it not only the suggestion of a certain kind of camp imperiousness but also a strong whiff of the wholly suspect intellectual snobbery that can sometimes bubble up in those who think they know all about Shakespeare.)

But it’s just . . . not . . . funny. The pilot, when Clem Fandango made Toast say the word “yes” again and again in different voices (“We’re thinking that if you lose the script, it might free you up a bit, Stephen”) was funny-ish. It’s been downhill all the way ever since. I feel the first series relied mostly on puns and light smut and perhaps because of this no one watched it (its audience was about 400,000). Yet Channel 4 still chose to recommission it.

Why? To me, it’s as if two sixth formers (Berry and his co-writer Arthur Mathews) had watched a few old DVDs – The Dick Emery Show, Rising Damp and maybe the odd episode of Bottom, Monty Python or Alan Partridge for good measure – and had then simply written down the first thing that came into their heads. If a bunch of schoolmates were watching each other perform stuff about blow football tournaments for actors and prostitutes, homeless ponies and Frank Bough, doubtless everyone would be in stitches (“Does Frank Bough like to party?” said Toast smoothly, when his long-suffering agent, Jane Plough – Doon Mackichan with a beehive – asked if he liked Dickens). But actors on the telly? No.

The worst thing is the laziness. In the first episode, the writers contrived to get Toast dressed up as Dickens and on to a London bus (humiliatingly, his agent has sent him for a job as a tour guide). But then they simply couldn’t be bothered to go anywhere with it. “That’s a council house,” he said, through a loudhailer. “That’s a lamp post . . . and that looks like an abattoir.”

Toast is having an affair with Mrs Purchase (Tracy-Ann Oberman, in a negligée), the wife of his great rival Ray Purchase (Harry Peacock in Lenny Beige’s cast-offs), and Berry’s and Mathews’ idea of huge, hysterical fun so far as this relationship goes is to have them endlessly humping, robot-fashion, Toast’s eyes crossing at the moment of climax as if he were Nookie Bear and Mrs Purchase was Roger De Courcey. I didn’t trouble, earlier, to fill younger readers in on Frank Bough and his exploits (stick “comb-over” into Google and the relevant details will appear). But perhaps I’ll explain that De Courcey is a ventriloquist who was popular in the 1970s and Nookie Bear was his “irrepressible” dummy. Poor old Roger wasn’t terribly funny either, his hairstyle almost as bad as Toast’s. But at least he didn’t think that if you say the words “penis” and “vagina” in a funny accent, your audience is certain to die laughing. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article appears in the 06 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Running out of Time

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