Review: Colonel Moseley reviews "Toast" from 23.1.2011
This piece is taken from my reviewblog in 2011. For some reason, unlike any of the other reviews, it received over 240 hits. I still don't know why...
The BBC's Christmas offerings included an adaptation of Nigel Slater's autobiography "Toast." Subtitled "the story of a boy's hunger", I had previously found "Toast" a compelling read - of which the whole amounted to so much more than the sum of its apparent parts: gastro-porn, misery memoir and nostalgia-fest.
I was also absorbed by the film. It featured captivating performances by the brilliant Ken Stott (fresh, if that's the word for it, from his excellent portrayal of Tony Hancock, reviewed earlier on this blog) as the father and Helena Bonham-Carter - also already reviewed as a formidably unattractive Enid Blyton - as the wicked stepmother.
Written by Lee Hall, "Toast" turned out to be rather more than an entertaining Billy Elliott-discovers-Arctic-Roll-and-Angel-Delight-in-deepest-Wolverhampton sort of story.
Marcel Proust has a lot to answer for. He has set innumerable autobiographers off on the now well-trodden and remunerated path of recherching temps perdu from a sensory angle. In recent years moving beyond the original and reasonably classy, if somewhat crumby, madeleines, the tastes, smells and sights of all sorts of junk, epitomising the minutiae of childhood and adolescence in the second half of the last century, have been used to flog mega-units of autobiographical product through W.H.Smith and Amazon.
From Peter Kay and other well-known media faces, we now have a comprehensive schedule and total recall of the food, confectionery and clothing and most low-brow television programmes through the entire 1960 and 1970's. The thick seam of recollected trivia of those decades had been exhaustively mined and every memory extracted, sieved, brought to the surface and sold on to satisfy public demand.
Thus we can recall all that we ever used to know about Angel Delight, Cadbury Smash, Fray Bentos tinned pies, Spangles, Jubblys, refreshers and Birds Custard. Just as Peter Kay brings back to life deservedly forgotten "Bulls Eye" on commercial TV on Sunday afternoons, Nigel Slater reminds us of "The Persuaders" and "The Avengers."
Although the motif of both the book and its TV version was stuff in tins and packets we might otherwise have forgotten, the real point of both lies in its subtitle: the story of a boy's hunger. Only the boy himself has certain knowledge of the precise nature of the hunger at issue. To this viewer there seem to be several other than the obvious preoccupation with food. One might guess at love, understanding, acceptance, liberation, self-expression, fulfilment and simple sensation - or any combination of them.
We are presented with the perspective of quite a strange little boy subtly played by the 11 year old Oscar Kennedy and as a teenager by the clever and confident Freddie Highmore. He lives in a middle class home with a mother seriously ill with asthma to whom in many ways he is extremely close. The child is not exactly spoiled, but is often self-centred and lacking in obvious sympathy for others. He is not entirely appealing. He has the perspective of a loner and has his own interests and view of the world. He is greedy for particular experiences, sensations and tastes and is frequently frightened of his father's disapproval and disappointed by his mother's failures - as he perceives them.
The key scene in the first part of the film concerns his mother's noble attempt, as death approached, to keep her promise to teach him to make mince pies. Given her total incompetence in a daunting kitchen, that included a huge Kenwood mixer that emerged menacingly from beneath a work surface on a spring, this did not go well and turned into complete disaster when she realised she had forgotten to buy the mince pie filling- leaving the half-made pastry pie cases symbolically empty. This prompted a telling outburst from her charming son, "I hate you. I hate you. I hope you die," which unfortunately before long she does.
The quirky relationship between Nigel and his mother, delicately played with a tired fragility by Victoria Hamilton, lies at the heart of the book and film and is very real. They clearly drove each other mad at times, but were utterly devoted.
The support Nigel received from his mother when his father was being particularly macho and bullying spoke volumes, as did the magical scene of dancing together whilst on holiday. The boy's aching loss and sense of desertion after her death, when left alone in the house and taking comfort in the lingering smell of her scent on old evening dresses were convincing and poignant. To understand the depth of this is to understand and forgive Nigel's subsequent behaviour towards his mother's successor in his father's bed and affections.
The Slater residence in Wolverhampton seemed to echo with loneliness, even during his mother's lifetime. One senses Nigel's isolation and status as a disappointment to his very conventional father, who did not seem to bond with a rather frail son, prone to faddiness over food and to play at grocers in the garden rather than conventionally butch boy's games.
Unsurprisingly and perhaps justifiably. Mr Slater did not take well to his young son's relationship with Josh the gardener with its occasional nudity and close physical contact.
Many things Nigel did seemed somehow wrong in his father's eyes - particularly in his mother's difficult final illness. It was almost as though subconsciously his father was looking for someone to blame for the impending loss and his unbending and very different youngest son proved a defenceless target. The house seemed grim enough during mother's lifetime, but this was as nothing compared to the emotional desert it became following her death.
Ken Stott captured the grief-stricken, angry and frustrated father impressively. He often vented frustrations at the cruel hand dealt to him on the young son who did not meet his expectations.
In all this warfare of a family life, food seemed to become a weapon on both sides. Young Slater used it to despise his hidebound provincial parents and they punished him for his extreme fussiness and inconvenient unwillingness to cope with sundry dairy products. Milk terrified Nigel at school and eggs at home, giving rise to tense and messy confrontations, each a metaphor for the ongoing key conflicts in the Slater household.
After the death of his mother, Nigel's world was further disrupted by the advent of Joan Potter played with huge elan and divine 1960's hair, dresses and cigarettes by Helena Bonham-Carter. Whilst Slater pere is amusingly seen to lust after the curvaceous domestic goddess, Slater fils loathed her more than words can say.
The viewer has some mixed feelings over his viciously snobbish dismissal of "only a cleaner" who compares most unfavourably to his refined and genteel mother. On the other hand, we see that Joan seems to have set her sights on Mr Slater in a calculating way and ultimately takes over the household leaving no space for the memory of Nigel's mother.
The film does however set out to tell the story from Nigel's perspective and we are allowed to share some of his feelings of loss and betrayal as Nigel's father falls further under the spell of what the son regards as an upwardly mobile char.
As ever in this story, food is the key metaphor. Nigel's increasing obsession with cookery and Joan's pride in her housekeeping and wizard-like cooking skills leads to a culinary arms race, partly to win the affection of Mr Slater, in which no quarter is given.
We see set piece conflicts over Joan's secret recipe for lemon meringue pie . Ultimately, Joan's excesses in the kitchen seem to play a part in bringing about her new husband's early death from a heart attack. Confronted with the appalling prospect of continuing to live with his hated step-mother, Nigel then heads off like Dick Whittington to London and takes a job in the kitchens of the Savoy: the rest is history.
It is difficult to comment on this film in isolation. As might be expected, the book "Toast" covers more ground and gives a fuller version of events - including some idea of Joan's family, why the move was made to the house in the country and Nigel's jobs in catering before moving to London.
The more condensed format on TV simplifies somewhat. In this process one suspects the depiction of Joan has broadened and hardened with a slightly cartoonish quality, magnified by Helena Bonham-Carter's larger-than-life performance.
This suspicion is compounded by recent press comment from Joan's family casting doubt upon the harshness of her depiction, stressing that she was not a cleaning lady motivated by greed and even casting doubt upon the place of the legendary lemon meringue pie in her culinary repertoire.
Even allowing for this dissent, I must praise the production and accept its entitlement to reflect the perspective of its central character. Beautifully photographed and performed and reflecting its period perfectly, including the songs of Dusty Springfield, "Toast" captures the very individual insight on the world of an unusual child, who is so different from his friends and family and who very early determines that his only course is to march according to his own drummer.
In recreating the young Nigel Slater's very personal view of the world - in terms of his perceptions, sensibility and sexuality - this film inevitably risks falling foul of the differences in perspective and opinion that normally bring about so many arguments in most families, which are made up of flawed human beings rather than saints or perfect stereotypes. "Toast" reflects the life of one awkward and imperfect family, but succeeds in doing so in an absorbing and often moving way.