When a comedian releases an album, it’s a reflex to assume the songs will be comic. British comedy staple and star and co-writer of Toast Of London Matt Berry is a proof this is not always the case.
Boasting hilarious standout roles in Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, The Mighty Boosh and The I.T. Crowd among many others, Berry’s music however is far from funny. Recently releasing fourth solo album The Small Hours, it’s a serious and at times melancholic album, far removed from Berry’s comedic work.
Yet considering that his characters have often had a propensity to break out into song themselves, there was always going to be a bit of problem convincing listeners that he isn’t taking the piss. Especially considering the genres he likes to work in – such as psych-folk, prog-rock and now the ’70s era jazz fusion – are themselves often targets of jokes and ridicule in themselves.
Berry however is adamant. “No, no, no, no, no, no, it’s got absolutely nothing to do with comedy,” he tells me.
Quite the opposite in fact, the album draws on Berry’s moments of self doubt over the past four years since beginning work on Toast Of London. Inspired by “the dark side of TV, and the kind of weird people that turn up once you’re semi famous,” despite the sometimes sombre atmosphere of the album, Berry doesn’t want people to think of him as some kind of stereotypical sad clown.
“I wrote that album over the course of four years, so it isn’t like I’ve been depressed all that time,” he explains.
“But when you kind of doubt what you are doing, or the dark side of what you are doing presents itself to you, that is more interesting to write about than ‘I’ve just won an award.’ No one’s interested in that.”
Stark in its honesty, the album is Berry at his most confessional. “The songs are all based on me, because I can only really write about myself,” he laughs.
An exercise in exorcising his own demons, the songs are cathartic, the process of songwriting serving as a means of self actualisation for the singer come actor.
“In dark times you kind of really draw on that. You can capture all the negativity and self doubt of that situation and instead of worrying about it, you make it into a song. And that’s what a lot of that album is,” he confides.
It’s easy to see why music is such an outlet for Berry, this kind of emotional fragility and self awareness a far cry from the characters he plays on television. Known for his hilarious portrayals of blowhards and dickheads like Douglass Reynholm in the I.T. Crowd or his unforgettable turn as the moustachioed Zooniverse owner Dickson Bainbridge in The Mighty Boosh, he is rarely afforded an opportunity for introspection.
“The characters that kind of work, or that work for me, are massive dickheads and self deluded kind of people,” he admits.
“I just think they’re funnier and they’re more fun to play. And in this industry you are surrounded by them so there is a lot of material to draw on.”
Toast Of London however manages to bring together both Berry’s love of deluded ego maniacs and penchant for themes of self doubt and self loathing. Following hack actor of the London stage Steven Toast as he navigates his way through the twilight years of his underwhelming career, the show, and specifically the character of Toast, allows Berry to explore both sides of his interest as we simultaneously feel sorry for this pathetic character, but can’t wait to see what ridiculous situation he gets himself into next.
Farcical as the character might be, there is still a thread of honesty to Toast’s desperation – or at least Berry’s portrayal – that rings true to anyone who has ever worked in theatre. This is unsurprising though, as according to Berry, the character and his behaviour are all based on real people.
“Toast is a best of, if you like, of the most ridiculous people that I’ve worked with or come across in the theatrical world since I’ve been doing this,” he explains.
“It’s based on three different people, and each of them have a trait that I found very funny. Whether it be they’re so jealous of other actors that they pretend they don’t know who certain people are or something else, all of these traits are pinched from different people to make the gargoyle that is Toast.”
And what a magnificent gargoyle he is, the role even winning Berry a BAFTA. Yet as much as Berry would like to have us think that the character is merely an amalgam of theatre personalities, one can’t help but see a little of himself in the role beyond just his habit of breaking into song.
Listening to The Small Hours, it’s hard to ignore a certain affinity between Berry’s obsession with self doubt and Toast’s seeming lack of it in the face of almost constant failure. The album and the show then can be seen as complimentary yet opposing reflections of Berry’s view of the absurdity of fame and the trials of creativity.
For while Toast in the show seems unable to look at himself and see the tragic figure he truly is, the album is very much an exploration of the sometimes depressing reality of being a working actor.
Despite his current success, Berry knows what it feels like to struggle. Spending years jumping from show to show, he’s seen both the comedy and the tragedy of the life of an actor, and can slip between the masks with ease. And while The Small Hours may seem to show him unmasked and laid bare to world, its tragic face is but one facet of his true character, yet is no less compelling because of this.
‘The Small Hours’ is out now on Acid Jazz/[PIAS] Australia.