Matt Berry’s Toast of London: “It doesn’t feel like work”
What is the nation’s favourite Matt Berry moment? Youtube, naturally, provides some clues. If I was running a sweepstake, I’d give you short odds on the ‘Girlfriend’ sketches in BBC 3‘s Snuff Box, where our hero dismisses potential seductees with a crashing ‘Fuck You!’ on learning that the lady is already taken. For 3-1 you can have his ‘Cocktail’ podcast (still free on iTunes), where he follows Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s advice to use ‘whatever’s in the fridge’, before concocting a brew made of equal parts Stella, diet coke, milk, champagne and whisky. Newly invented cocktails need a name, so after what sounds like a near death experience through dibabolical vomiting, the resulting cocktail is christnened ‘C***’. Odds on favourite crowd pleaser though is the IT Crowd’s Douglas Reynholm’s response to an accusation of sexism. ‘Now you hold on a minute sugar tits…’
After film appearances in the forthcoming ‘The Wedding Video’ and the over hyped ‘One Day’ his next project is ‘Toast of London’, a pilot for Channel 4. Matt co-wrote it with Arthur Matthews, who, along with Graham Linehan, wrote Father Ted. ”I’ve worked with him on quite a few things before – he was the script editor on Snuff Box. It’s a sitcom about an actor called Steven Toast and the things that happen to him on the way to the theatre every night.” Toast is appearing in a controversial West End play, so is frequently attacked. To add to his problems the pilot sees him having to audition during visiting time, the producer having been imprisoned for racial chanting on the set of his own production. Matt doesn’t know if the pilot will lead to a commission at this stage. ”There’s no firm offer from Channel 4 – they can say yes or no at any time.”
Given the upward trajectory of his career, it would be a surprise if Toast didn’t get a green light. The BAFTA winning IT Crowd was preceded by Garth Merenghi’s Dark Place, described by Matt as ‘80s horror pastiche’. Seen by few people at the time due to a graveyard slot on Channel 4, the DVD has won a cult audience of intrigued comedy heads who have followed the line backwards from the IT Crowd and The Mighty Boosh. Richard Ayoade, who wrote Darkplace and appeared as Moss in the IT Crowd, first appeared on the radio series of The Boosh, before cropping up in series two and three as the shaman Saboo in the TV version. At the root of these comedy connections is the Hen & Chickens pub in Islington.
Matt picks the story up, ‘Noel Fielding and I shared an interest in art and we had mutual friends who were at our art schools. That was the only reason why I was playing rude songs before their show. Matt Holness and Richard Ayoade were doing stuff at the same time and they wanted me to play one of the characters in the televised version of their Edinburgh show (Darkplace). I wasn’t doing anything, I was in the Dungeon, so that was it.’ He rebuffs my suggestion that his start might prove the adage that ‘it’s who you know rather than what you know’ true. ‘If you’re shit, you go nowhere so there’s got to be something there.’
‘The Dungeon’ was the London Dungeon where Matt was working following his sacking from a call centre for eating a double decker at his desk. After that experience of depressing pettiness, “I knew what I didn’t want to do and it was that. So I’ve made sure that I haven’t stopped doing things. Whether that’s doing music, voiceovers, TV comedy or making films. The biggest truism I’ve found is no one is going to do anything for you. You can’t sit back and wait for someone to write something around you, so you have to do it yourself.”
Ah yes, the voiceovers. People seem to love Matt’s voice. Exaggerated for adverts, it becomes a hyper enthusiastic corny boom, most brilliantly as the voice of a cheese proffering Shakespearean mouse (Google ‘Matt Berry Cheese Ad’ and enjoy). If you listen to Absolute Radio, you’ll hear him every day as the voice of their jingles. When he’s Reynholm, his voice seems to embody the character in the IT Crowd: he’s a pompous 70s throwback whose focus is on shagging rather than share prices. With such a wonderfully versatile timbre, it’s perhaps no surprise that Matt’s also a singer. And, it turns out, a multi talented musician, playing everything bar the drums on ‘Witchazel’, the album he released last year.
Initially available as a free download, it was picked up by Acid Jazz for release and has become a slow burn success, helped by word of mouth referrals. The album is a trip, alternately beautiful and odd, with lyrics that are sometimes profound and other times surreal (‘Your penguin’s in the bath, it was put there by your Mum’ on ‘Song for Rosie’). Musically, there is a broad spectrum of influences. It’s psychedelic and folky; much of it sounds like it could soundtrack cult 60s and 70s film or TV. There is hooky funk and there is the lovely, sweeping ‘Take My Hand’ which also boasts a strangely moving video depicting the relationship between a pensioner and a robot. Despite his on screen success, Matt says Witchazel is the thing he’s most proud of. “It’s just the kind of album I would want to listen to. It was done just for me.”
Despite his popularity, a line on the album track ‘So Low’ hints at discontent. “Got to get me to the top, but it’s a million to one shot. I guess I should be happy with my life, but I guess that I am not”. Matt bats this off. ”It’s not about me, I’m more than happy with my lot. It was about another comic I know who is so ambitious that it makes him unhappy and I’ve never understood that. And he’s not alone, there’s a whole bunch of actors like that. They’ll get to a certain point…they’ll be the biggest thing in England and then they’ll get to be the biggest thing in the States and then they’re not the biggest thing anymore and that gets them down. That constant striving…it never ends. And he’s really good.”
Though he refuses to reveal who is referring to, I wonder about his own ambitions. Would he like to have the career arc of someone like, say, Russell Brand? “I’m not sure because once you’re everyones property it’s very difficult to do stuff. I’m more of a private person. I don’t need to be in newspapers or spoken about. I don’t really care about any of that, it’s just about doing decent work.”
Working as an actor or musician can prove to be a notoriously unreliable source of income. Would he have pursued it if success hadn’t come fairly early on? “Something would have happened’ he says, confidently. ‘If you give a shit and you look at the detail and you spend time and you deliver pretty good quality, someone down the line is going to appreciate it at some point.” Talking to him, it’s evident that success has come as a by-product of him concentrating on his passions. “Every album that I’ve made or show that I’ve been involved with…I’ve loved every minute of. That’s why you spend all day and all night doing it, because it doesn’t feel like work.”
Toast of London goes out on Channel 4 on 20 August as part of their ‘Funny Fortnight’Tagged in: Arthur Matthews, channel 4, Douglas Reynholm, Father Ted, Matt Berry, Noel Fielding, The IT Crowd, The Wedding Video, Toast of London
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