Toast Review: Neatly Sliced & Well Buttered..

TOAST: Thursday 30th December, BBC1, 9pm ALERT ME

Anyone trying to turn an excellent book into a worthy TV adaptation should pay special attention to Toast – this is how it should be done. Billy Elliot screenwriter Lee Hall has fashioned Nigel Slater’s touching memoir into a poignant drama marbled throughout with impressive performances (none more so than eleven year-old Oscar Kennedy in his screen debut). This account of the renowned chef’s childhood romance with cookery and his ensuing battle for his father’s affection – conducted through the medium of food of course – is evocative, amusing and supremely refreshing.

We begin with nine year-old Nigel living a comfortable middle-class existence with his domineering father (Ken Stott) and his adoring mother (Victoria Hamilton) in a drab suburban enclance of 1960s Wolverhampton. Increasingly aware of his burgeoning homosexuality and starved of decent cuisine in a Britain still dependent on tinned meats and fruit, Nigel aspires to a greater culinary sophistication than his mother’s best and most reliable dish: toast.

However, when his mother dies and father takes an interest in their raunchy working-class maid Mrs. Potter (Helena Bonham-Carter), a teenage Nigel (now played by Willy Wonka’s mate Freddie Highmore) suddenly finds himself at loggerheads with a woman determined, at whatever cost, to win his father’s devotion. Wanting to fill the vacuum in family life, both characters embark on a competition to dominate domestic life, sparring in the kitchen over who can whip up the best trifle or lasagna. Up against Mrs. Potter’s mantra of “the way to a man’s heart is foodâ€?, nerves are stretched as wide as Mr Slater’s belt as a plethora of meals are served up.

Whilst Mrs Potter may not display the sort of affection you’d expect someone to give to a bereaved child, Nigel’s inherent snobbery is equally as abhorrent, frequently referring to her unsuitability as a step-mother on the basis of her upbringing. When she and his father decide to get married and move to a remote house in the country, Nigel’s patience soon runs out and his desperation to flee the nest becomes an impossible urge to resist.

Shot with a cinematic sensibility, Toast certainly ranks as one of the BBC’s best produced programmes of the year, denoted by its stellar cast and crew. As impressive is Oscar Kennedy’s (‘Young Nigel’) screen debut, seen here displaying an enormous talent for naturalism. Kennedy’s subtle style contrasts perfectly with the comparatively exaggerated performances of the adults, complimenting the overall tone of the piece which neatly shapes the world as seen from a child’s perspective.

Easily a highlight of the holiday period, Toast will appear to be even more impressive when juxtaposed with what’s on offer on rival channels. By no means as simple as grilled bread, this is an expertly executed and emotionally complex story which effortlessly switches from the melancholy to the comedic, without becoming contrived, making it a true triumph.