Almost as good as watching a much-looked-forward-to-TV-drama is reading A A Gill’s scathing Sunday Times’s TV review the following week. He didn’t disappoint with his review of the BBC 1 Christmas drama, Toast. Although Gill is admiring of the ‘beautifully realised set’ and ‘fine cast’ and he is clearly sensitive to the ‘empty pastry cases’ being a ‘sobbing metaphor of loss, death, gayness, etc. etc’ he finds himself unable to respond to the drama’s comedic elements. Indeed he renders this particular biopic as ‘unrelentingly miserable.’ Mr. Gill, get thee to your iPlayer, and view this drama anew and then review your review for there is much in it to delight the comedy-hungry viewer. Possibly, after the Christmas I had, I was more in need of humour than most and perhaps that’s why I tucked into the funny side of Toast. Ah well, here goes:
I’m sure we’re all guilty of it - whatever social class we belong to, rich or poor, young or old - when we come into contact with something inferior to our tastes we brand it, with our curling lips, as ‘common’. My mother thought sterilised milk was ‘common’ and also ‘common’ were the people who used the term ‘pot towel’ instead of the more demure ‘tea towel’. Not long after I married Martin I contemplated his ‘commonness’ when he left clothes pegs attached to the washing line after the clean laundry had been brought in: “My God, only ‘common’ people do that,” said I. When it comes to food matching my particular refinements there is a whole host of provender I might turn my nose up at – pork pies being one of them. With this in mind I was in complete agreement with Mrs Slater (Nigel’s mum) when she explained to the nine year old Nigel that he couldn’t have a pork pie from Percy Salt’s grocery store on account of it being ‘common’. She then went on to ask Mr Salt for some ‘nice dairylea slices.’ Simple irony always manages to make me smile.
Well now, Mrs Slater dies and Mr Slater employs a cleaner, Mrs Potter (played by Helena Bonham Carter), to take care of his domestic needs. It comes as no surprise to learn that young Nigel has inherited his late mother’s turn of phrase as he lets Mrs Potter know, quite soon after their first meeting, that she is indeed ‘common’. The thing is − how well does Ms Bonham Carter do ‘common’? It’s her rear end we first see, sticking out from inside the Slaters’ kitchen sink unit as she frenziedly scrubs its grubby interior. Her compromised position and the fag lolling from her bottom lip along with her cursing regional accent certainly do supplement Nigel’s blunt summation. And yet I couldn’t help but detect, despite the tart-blonde wig, an unscrubbable veneer of sophistication. Surely after years of hot-stove slaving and the wielding of mops this woman would show some signs of wear and tear? Instead she moved through the rooms she cleaned with the ease and grace of a prima ballerina, prim and neat-waisted, and perhaps safe in the knowledge that underneath it all she was a bit of ‘posh’ roughed up a touch for art’s sake. Of course, it was this notion that made Bonham Carter’s portrayal of Mrs Potter all the more hysterical. Perhaps that’s what A A Gill meant when he referred to her performance as ‘perfectly hideous, with a marvellous, stifled comedy.’
Stifled while simultaneously being ludicrously unrestrained was Mr Slater (played by Ken Stott) and his temper when dealing with the young Nigel’s finicky eating habits. In the drama’s source text, Nigel Slater’s autobiography, I recall Mr Slater force feeding his son a fried egg. In adaptation, the fried egg becomes a Fray Bentos Steak and Kidney Pie – grey and flaccid and totally inedible to a child who, earlier on in the drama, had tasted the gardener’s firm and juicy slice of pork pie. And - in a previous scene, while holidaying in Wales, Mr Slater finds himself wrestling a rising hysteria as he watches his son pick off the tinned ham’s accompanying jelly before eating. A vicarious satisfaction washed over me as exasperated father gave vent to his rage: “For Pete’s sake!” he shouted as he threw plate, ham and jelly halfway down a pebbled beach. I felt for that man; there is nothing I hate more than a faddy eater.
Yes, there was a lot not to like about Nigel Slater as a nine year old boy, and I would partly agree with A A Gill’s definition of the ‘fictional Slater’ being a ‘selfish, self-pitying snob’ but there were moments in the drama when I did warm to his character. Who could not admire a child who isn’t afraid to exchange his school milk for a glimpse and perhaps a feel of his school pal’s willy? And this was after he turned his back on a peek at a girl’s knickers. The look of disgust on this miniature temptress with pigtails was priceless. Indeed, the interaction between these child characters held some of the funniest moments in the drama. Take Warrel for example. In his book, Nigel Slater offers a list of attributes for his friend: ‘Smug, arrogant, stubborn, boastful, impatient and ugly.’ If the real Warrel is anything like his screen presence I would certainly insert greedy. In each of Warrel’s scenes he offers precocious counsel to Nigel on anything from sex to toad-in-the-hole and always with his mouth full of something sweet: “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach” he advises, his nose buried in a Tunnock’s teacake.
Of course, a story depicting a boy who loses his mum and then commences battle with a wicked stepmother is bound to contain some moments of pathos. Yet the whole mood of this drama was anything but miserable. It was altogether a hopeful work; a nostalgic look back on food and how it can represent emotions while offering us a glimpse of the future, and what it might contain for someone who is not afraid to follow his passions. The TV camera takes us back to the 1960s where we witness the young Nigel Slater biting into a perfect slice of toast. The child’s voice-over describes the sensations of tucking into “the rough, toasted crust, the doughy cushion of white bread and the warm, salty butter” and then he glances briefly at the camera. We smile back, sharing his secret. We know that this is the authorial voice; it is Nigel Slater the established food writer and TV cook, perfectly at peace with what he does best. Unrelentingly miserable ... Get a life!