It may sound strange to call any sitcom "encouraging" if I only laughed once, but Toast of London felt like it needs time to grow now the seed's planted; and for viewers to get a better handle on the daft characters and situation. It's the story of acclaimed luvvie actor Steven Toast (Matt Berry), who's destabilised his own career by appearing in a controversial West End play (the title of which is even censored by comical aural distractions if anyone dares utter it). As a result, Toast is now down on his luck and forced by agent Jane Plough ("it's spelt 'plough' but pronounced 'pluff', as in 'Brian Clough'") to take menial jobs like voiceover work; where he's forced by hipsters to say the word "yes" an obscene numbers of times in different intonations. Or audition for the role of a gay policeman in Summer Time Murders at a prison where the show's producer' is being detained for racism. (No doubt inspired by the real-life race row on Midsomer Murders.)
The majority of this episode was spent introducing us to Toast's friends and colleagues, all while giving us a flavour of his daily routine. Amongst them was best-friend and flatmate Ed Howzer-Black (Robert Bathurst), police sketch artist and love rival Ray Purchase (Harry Peacock), and his army officer brother Blair (Adrian Lukis). At times, you rather lost track of what Toast of London's trying to do, such was the feeling of restlessness. There was a lot going on, but it felt so busy that I couldn't engage with much and, as a consequence, felt detached and faintly bored. The saving grace was fruity-voiced Berry himself, best-known for similar performances in the likes of Garth Marenghi's Darkplace and The IT Crowd. He may be a one-trick pony, but it's a damn funny trick. Berry's performance, attitude, and line readings kept the show from falling apart, even if Toast didn't capture my sympathies until the late voiceover audition scene. We'll gloss over the unnecessary way it morphed into a Dennis Potter-style musical number.
I expected better from Arthur Matthews (one half of the partnership behind Father Ted and Big Train), who co-wrote this sitcom with Berry. It just wasn't funny enough for me to recommend, and sometimes the blatantly surreal moments felt misplaced—like Matthews wasn't confident enough doing something relatively straight and satirical, so had to keep relying on Ted-style absurdities. It didn't really work for me, but Toast of London had a strange charm that suggests it could rapidly improve—exemplified by the intentionally farcical sequence of Toast hiding in wardrobe from his lover's angry boyfriend, which was all filmed and performed like a piece of minimalist, arty theatre.
Overall, I'd like to sample more Toast of London before making a definitive judgement, because the pilot overreached, and eccentric sitcoms are often better once you've forged a connection with the characters and understand the lead's personality better. Berry appears to have written himself the perfect character for a break away from supporting roles (including the best reason for his trademark "repertory theatre" voice since Darkplace), but I hope he fine-tunes with Matthews to ensure bigger and more consistent laughs... because a few amusing lines and one sketch-y highlight isn't good enough after 23-minutes.
written by Matt Berry & Arthur Matthews / directed by Michael Cumming / 20 August 2012 / Channel 4