Matt Berry interview
Matt Berry is the co-writer, creator and star of Channel 4’s award-winning sitcom Toast of London, playing luxuriantly-moustachioed, professionally-frustrated thespian lothario Stephen Toast. Here, he discusses his inspiration for the series, the thrill of winning a coveted Golden Rose, and being shouted at in public.
Where did the idea for Toast of London originate?
I was looking for something to do for Channel 4 and I said I’d have a think about it a long time ago. Because of experience with doing lots of voiceovers, I thought that might be the place to start. Many things have happened to me while I’ve been doing that job. So I started with that idea, and then I added bits and toyed with what to do with it. And I had this other idea at the same time – it started off as just a title – A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Theatre. It was about an actor, between that time when he wakes up, and about 6:30pm when he arrives at the theatre to go on stage. I thought of all the jeopardy that could happen to a performer within that time. And then I suddenly realised they could be the same idea – it had been staring at me all this time. So I fused both ideas together, and that’s how I came up with Steven Toast.
Is he a complete work of fiction, or is he based on anyone specific, or is he a composite of characters you’ve met over the years?
He’s based on a few older actors that I’ve worked with who I’ve encountered when I’ve been doing voiceovers or acting in general.
Having had the idea, why did you decide to bring [co-writer] Arthur Mathews on board?
I met Arthur in about 2005 on a thing I did called Snuff Box for the BBC. He was script editing on that, and he had some amazing ideas. I’d always wanted to work with him anyway, because he really interested me. Every single sketch that I liked he seemed to have written or been involved with. So there wasn’t anyone else in the frame, it was always going to be him. And then I worked with him again on a Radio 4 thing I did called I regress, on which he was again script editor. So he was the obvious person.
How does the writing process work? I gather that you are not only not in the same room, but often not in the same country.
We’re never in the same country. He’s in Dublin and I live in London, so it’s all done by correspondence. We email each other. I might have a rough idea at 4am, Toast joins the cast of a long-running play called The Moosetrap. So I’ll send that to Arthur, and at the same time he’ll have this other idea about him becoming the country’s greatest actor in high winds. So then you fuse them together and twist the plot in between the two or sometimes three main ideas that we have in each episode.
Is it important to have the same sense of humour as your writing partner, or should you be bringing different elements of humour into the script?
I don’t know about different kinds of humour. You should bring in different elements, you should have skills in all areas between you. You need to have the ability to plot properly, to tie things up, as well as create outrageous ideas and really funny situations.
Can you give any hints as to what fans can look forward to in the new series?
Toast gets buried alive in one episode. And he does a voiceover from inside the coffin. And he DOES join The Moosetrap. He meets Francis Bacon in another episode, and he rekindles an old flame, an actress. He joins Calendar Girls in another episode. And he does a bit of blow football in another one.
Michael Ball appeared as himself in the last series. Do you have any celebrity cameos in this one?
Well, yes we do, for example John Nettles and Steve Pemberton. But I can’t give away any more than that. I don’t want to give away too much.
And am I right in saying that we’ll see Clem Fandango out of the recording booth?
Yeah, I can reveal that is true.
Do you ever have people shout “Yes I can hear you, Clem Fandango” at you in the street?
They usually shout “Father!” [from The IT Crowd], and when they’re not shouting that, it’ll usually be something else from The IT Crowd. When it’s not that, it has started to be Clem Fandango, which I’m kind of happy about, because it’s ours.
You’ve done a lot of voiceover work in your career. What do voiceover people make of you now that you’ve lampooned them?
It’s a weird one, because it’s not really the people who work on the voiceovers, the sound engineers. They’re absolutely fine, and I totally respect what they do. It’s the creatives who are sat next to them. The ones from the advertising agency. That’s who I’m aiming at. And they just think that I’m taking the piss out of someone else. That’s what always happens. People never think they’re the person who’s being lampooned.
Steven Toast generally stumbles from one fairly crappy role or voiceover gig to another. What’s the worst job that you’ve had to do in your career?
Oh God, I’ve done telesales. It doesn’t get much lower than that, really. That’s the job I enjoyed the least. I was doing all kinds of things. I was telling people what the share price was of some Australian banks. It was awful.
On a happier note, Toast of London recently won a Golden Rose, which basically means it’s the best programme in the world. How did that feel?
It was fantastic. They had a lot to choose from, [the awards deal with TV from all over the world]. It’s a huge honour. There were some other really good things in the longlists and the shortlists, so it really was a huge honour for us.
Where is the award now?
I’m looking at it. It’s in my front room, underneath my telly.
Toast of London series two will air on Channel 4 at 10.30pm from Monday 3 November.