Nigel Slater is one of the UK’s most loved food writers and cooks and the Beeb’s adaptation of his early memoirs has left many TV critics happier than James Corden at a Krispy Kreme lock-in, and the author was very happy to talk about Toast with the BBC Press Office…
“Toast started as a short story,” says Slater. “And it started as a story about the food I grew up with. But, as I wrote, I realised that the food was linked to what I was doing at the time and my state of mind. Everything that was going on wasn’t just about a packet of sweets, or a pie or pudding and so I put that down on paper as well. And then my editor looked at it and said: ‘You know, this is a book.’
“It’s an extraordinary thing about putting your life down on paper, in black and white. It’s a bit like keeping a food diary and writing down what you’ve eaten and you think: ‘Oh, did I eat all that?’ It’s exactly the same thing – ‘Did I experience that?’ I didn’t know it was going to be therapeutic. I was just telling the story of my life as a little boy.
“It was only when I read it back when it was a full manuscript that I started to realise that the reason I behaved in a certain way now is because of what happened then. Things fell into place. Very dark patches in my life were a bit clearer and also how and why people reacted in a certain way. It ended up being totally cathartic. But I certainly didn’t ever think it would be. It just ended up like that.
“I wasn’t hesitant at all about the idea of Toast coming to the screen. In fact, the minute it was suggested, I thought: ‘Why didn’t I think of it?’ because it hadn’t occurred to me when I was writing it that it would ever become a film. The minute somebody said to me: ‘It would make a good film,’ I thought: ‘Of course it will.'”
It was readers’ intrigue in learning how Slater managed to become the success he is that helped the book become a best-seller and attracted the attention of high profile UK film producer Alison Owen.
“Alison read the book first and said it was like finding a rare gem,” says producer Faye Ward. “She came running in the office shouting: ‘Oh my goodness – have you read Nigel’s new book? It’s amazing!’ We all read it and absolutely adored it. It’s such an enjoyable read that you felt it would be crazy not to bring it to the big screen.”
Slater’s ability to trigger basic childhood emotions in people, of memories of food and the places, faces and environments they associate with taste, is what has drawn so many to enjoy Toast.
“I think what Nigel’s book does is firstly make you want to eat, but it really triggers memories of what food means to you as well,” says Faye. “Nigel’s book gives you a real insight into how people become who they are. And also it’s very inspiring – it’s about a little boy’s dream of becoming the man he always wanted to be.”
It was Alison Owen who called writer Lee Hall and suggested he read the book. Faye recalls how Lee explained he was busy with a number of projects but once he’d read it, called Alison back immediately. “He said: ‘I really have to do this.’ He somehow managed to cram it in between all the other screenplays he had to do.”
Lee was no stranger to capturing the wonderful magic of children and their emotions, having created a worldwide phenomenon with Billy Elliot.
“What makes Lee’s writing so perfect for this project is that he doesn’t compromise children’s dialogue. He allows them to be who they are and if anything, gives them their own nuanced voice,” says Faye.
Lee was already a huge fan of Slater’s writing. He had used his books extensively for cooking but he’d never read the memoir. “I just fell in love with it,” Hall says. “It’s about a lot of things that I’ve written about before. But this story is brilliantly moving, brilliantly funny, and provocative. So I just loved it from the off, really.”
For Lee it was a daunting task to convert Slater’s memoir to the screen. The book had been constructed as a large collection of beautifully crafted vignettes. These were moments that Slater recalled with stunning detail, but which were ultimately episodic, collated into a large canvas upon which the audience can see the entire scenery of Slater’s young life etched out.
“It was clear to me that there was a proper narrative there underneath, but the way Nigel wrote it dusted the surface,” says Lee. “So it took a long time to piece together, like a jigsaw puzzle, all the little bits that he’d dropped from the book to make a clearer screenplay.”
Slater read Lee’s draft which, for the writer, was an uneasy moment. “I was very nervous about what Nigel would think, but he’s been brilliant about the whole thing.”
Lee explains that Slater maintained a distance between himself and the character of Nigel when discussing aspects of the script.
“Nigel sort of sees this as a different Nigel – a different person, a character. But what was brilliant for a dramatist was that he wrote so beautifully and clearly. All I did was to collect his bits and put them in a different format because everything is really Nigel’s.”
With such a wealth of information and numerous moments to include, writing the script was a drawn-out process for Lee. The script was written to enable the audience to work through the story with Nigel, towards his eventual emancipation from the clutches of Mrs Potter and his upsetting family life.
“I realised it was to do with him being able to leave home and making that gesture to reach out to the Nigel he was about to become,” says Hall. “That gave a whole shape to the script.”
“I knew it was in the right hands,” says Slater. “I think the minute you meet people and they’re going to touch a project of yours, you know straightaway whether it’s right or wrong. And I was comfortable with this – very excited about it.
“I suppose the difference is that when you see something on screen, it suddenly becomes so much more illuminated – and it’s bigger. They were events that seemed quite insignificant and details that were insignificant that, when you write them down, suddenly become very important when you see them on screen. I hadn’t expected really to get such a buzz out of the whole thing. I really did – I enjoyed it. I loved watching the story become a film.”
There was also the question of honing in on Nigel at key points in his youth and how many “Nigels” the production would need in order to illustrate his growing up. The answer was in his relationships with the women in his life – his mum and Mrs Potter. By using these points of origin, Lee was able to structure the script into definitive acts – young Nigel, older Nigel and the eventual escape to the wider world.
“It became clear that the dominance of these two women and what they gave to Nigel would become the pillars of the dramatic structure.”
Balancing the humour with the tragic moments in Nigel’s life was also an important consideration for the writer.
“Realising what massive tragedy he’d gone through, it struck me that the film needed a weight at certain points. The book so deftly and lightly runs across the surface of these tragedies but, as soon as you’ve got real people dramatising it, the weight of the loss and the sadness becomes very palpable. It seemed that it needed to be as sad as it is funny. If it’s not sad, it won’t be so funny and vice versa.”
“There’s been a bit of artistic licence,” admits Slater. “I think there is with any project and particularly with any character that you’re taking from black and white. Suddenly they’re bigger. It’s a deeper thing altogether and what surprised and delighted me is how accurate some of the characters are.”
“There were moments when I was watching the film and thinking: ‘Oh my goodness! That’s exactly how it was. That’s exactly how that person was and how I’d written it.’ I thought it would feel quite foreign and really quite different. But there were so many points of recognition right the way through it.”