Last Night's Viewing: Toast of London, Channel 4 / Our War, BBC3

 

Comedy pilot. Now there are two words that strike fear into the soul. While they're undoubtedly useful for rooting out new talent, for me they always bring to mind focus groups in which hollow-cheeked students sit in subterranean screening rooms tittering unconvincingly at "the next Noel Fielding" in exchange for a beer and a fortnight's supply of Pot Noodle.

For whatever reason, Channel 4 seems to have found itself with the surfeit of the things, so, instead of throwing all its money at one and commissioning a series, it has decided to bundle them together into a "season". To get us in the right frame of mind, it has even called it "Funny Fortnight". You certainly can't fault its optimism.

Last night's Toast of London was an absurdist sitcom that had pedigree, having been co-written by Arthur Mathews, who co-wrote Father Ted, and Matt Berry, from The IT Crowd, who also took the lead role. There was a large number of cameos from the likes of Tracy-Ann Oberman and Robert Bathurst, which would suggest either that Berry is highly regarded in acting circles or that he has dirt on every single one of them.

Anyway, Berry played Steven Toast, a middle-aged actor, recently divorced and of no fixed abode, with a Pepé Le Pew streak of white hair. His career was in decline due to his current role in a West End play that had been panned by critics and had people picketing the stage door due to its unspecified un-PC content. Thus, Toast was looking for another job and his day began with a meeting with his agent, Jane Plough ("It's spelt 'plough' but pronounced 'pluff', as in 'Brian Clough'," she barked), that went on for hours as he followed her from her office, to the hairdresser and on to lunch. Assorted flashbacks offered glimpses into Toast's dysfunctional life, including an extra-marital affair with the wife of an acting rival and his current living arrangements – kipping in an armchair in a house owned by an agoraphobe.

At this early stage it's almost impossible to decide whether Toast of London is really any good, so I shall rely on that most irritating critical fall-back and call it promising. In any other scenario, an actor writing a sitcom about an actor would be a hanging offence, but the surreal element here kept it from disappearing up itself and Berry pulled off the right balance of egotism and pathos.

His character was eminently dislikeable and it wasn't until a terrific scene in which he auditioned for a voiceover, during which he was required to roar the word "yes" over and over again in front of a phalanx of even more hateful Soho hipsters, that we began to feel his pain. This culminated in a song'*'dance number that would have done Dennis Potter proud.

The pain on display in Toast of London was rooted entirely in the ego. On BBC 3's Our War, it was based on real events, including physical injury and fear of death. In 2010 the men of Arnhem Company, 2nd Battalion of the Duke of Lancaster's Regiment were dispatched to Helmand in Afghanistan for a three-day mission that required them to pick a fight with the Taliban in order to stop them killing workers building a new road, an operation that resulted in two fatalities. The film was based both on the retrospective testimony of those who took part and excerpts from the thousands of hours of footage shot by the soldiers in the thick of battle. The difference between their demeanours in the field (boisterous, sweary, bubbling with adrenaline) and back home (reflective, uncertain, watery-eyed) was marked, though saddest of all was the fact that the company was due to go back next year to do it all over again.

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