Clem: "Steven, Steven – This is Clem Fandango. Can you hear me?"
Steven: "Yes, yes, Clem Fandango. I can hear you" (exasperated sigh).
These lines punctuate nearly every episode of both Series One and Two of Toast of London. Never heard of it? Neither had I, until the DVDs landed in my mailbox. Matt Berry fans will recognise him as the lead protagonist, a rather quaffed up and chumped up 'Steven Toast' – a Soho theatre actor extraordinaire, who is possibly more extraordinary than the ordinary. There's a tendency for 'Toast' – as he is fondly and at times emphatically known – to bumble through situations and come out relatively unscathed. Perhaps it is his sardonic wit or reverence for the absurd? Either way, each episode undoubtedly sees Toast f**k something up. And it is this recurring pattern, which makes him delightfully endearing.
Admittedly, I warmed to the show in a rather reluctant and somewhat heels-dragging mode. As a child in the 80s, my British television diet was based on whatever bawdy sketch comedy show regional station GWN or ABC could land their hands on: The Young Ones, Kenny Everett, The Benny Hill Show, Open All Hours, The Two Ronnies, Fawlty Towers and The Goodies etc. Fast forward to more recent times and I do still harbour a great love for great English banter, but the more modern absurdist nature of Toast of London at first felt slightly hipster-ish and a bit like Noel Fielding's Luxury Comedy. I wanted to love it as much as The IT Crowd or The Mighty Boosh – but I just couldn't gel with the some of the abstractedness and over the top elements.
So, I had a break for a few weeks.
Later, I inadvertently stumbled on this adage by English novelist and poet, Thomas Hardy – proving rather synchronous – 'time changes everything except something within us, which is always surprised by change'.
Returning for round two of Series Two, I watched all six episodes in one go. It then hit me like a Matt Berry avalanche; this show is actually pretty damn funny! Why did this happen now and not before? My initial foray into the recesses of his world had felt slightly disjointed and lacking any context. So, to disentangle my first doubts, I read a number of reviews from British-based press. Interestingly, many television critics said the same thing, 'this show gets better the more you watch it'. The mini-sojourn away from Toast-land helped forge an affinity with the Soho-thespian and an appreciation of his malarkey.
The more you can suspend your disbelief and enjoy the revelry of the rich characters, the more innocuous the show becomes. It isn't trying to 'be' anything. Larger than life characters drive this show forward. The antagonistic Ray 'fucking' Purchase – Toast's nemesis – who in surprising twists always turns up for every role Toast has his surreal eye set on. His long-suffering agent Jane Plough (rhymes with 'cough') – a slightly refined doppelganger of Patsy from Ab Fab (save for the episode where Plough gets back on the acid, think 'bat country' Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas). The uber hipster and sanguine, Clem Fandango, who runs the voiceover agency Toast works at and in his charismatic way, irks Toast to no end and of course, Mrs Purchase – a prostitute who in an ironic state-of-play, only charges Mr Purchase for her services.
Now filming their third series, Toast of London is well worth diving into if you are looking for some experimental comedic relief. You can bet if there is a boundary, Berry will be pushing it. While the show won a BAFTA TV Award for best male performance in a comedy (2015) and British Comedy Award for best new comedy programme (2014) – Australians are restricted to only accessing the first episode on SBS (buy the DVDs from the ABC shop!). Over in the UK, the original late Sunday night slot hadn't really done them any favours in the ratings game, "hardly anyone watches it, on the night" Berry advised British press.
Even though there is a certain incognito aspect to its television airing, long-established fans have created homage to Steven Toast – he has his own Twitter account – and quirky one-liners, dubbed 'Toastisms', are now even appearing on toilet walls. Berry told The Independent recently, "If your catchphrase has appeared in men's toilets, then you know you've made it!" Which catchcry would that be? It goes without saying, "I can hear you, Clem Fandango!"