The Weekend’s Viewing: Toast of London's 'sit' was traditional, but the 'com' definitely wasn’t

Toast of London, Channel 4 // Inspector Montalbano, BBC4

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The Independent Culture

There is a contingent of comedy fans – the really knowledgable ones with the excellent taste – for whom a little-seen BBC3 show from 2006 called Snuff Box represents the peak of British television. Matt Berry, who co-starred in and co-wrote that absurdist dark comedy, set in a gentlemen’s club for hangmen, also stars in and co-wrote Toast of London. So is it the second coming we’ve been waiting for?

Slightly less knowledgable comedy fans, with slightly less excellent taste, may remember Berry as Douglas Reynholm in The IT Crowd or Dixon Bainbridge in The Mighty Boosh, but in this he finally takes the lead, playing portly middle-aged actor Stephen Toast, a role that allows full use of his booming voice. In the opening episode it was all going well for Toast: his agent, Janet Plough (Doon Mackichan), told him he’d won an acting award from a gossip magazine after 28 years in the biz, and women seemed to find him irresistible. So what if one was on bail for attempted murder and the other throws shopping trollies in canals for fun?

Where Snuff Box blended sketch, songs and character into something brand new, this felt more familiar sitcom territory – Toast even shares a bachelor pad, Men Behaving Badly-style, with Ed (Robert Bathurst). Yet while the “sit” was traditional, the “com” definitely wasn’t. When Toast’s flatmate brings home a conquest, it’s not Leslie Ash from next door, but the Nigerian Ambassador’s daughter, who has been transformed into a Generation Game-era Bruce Forsyth  by a vengeful plastic surgeon.

The Berry sensibility was also retained with melodramatic camera zooms, a musical finale and a 1970s feel (albeit now located mainly in Toast’s hairdo). This doesn’t entirely get the BBC off the hook – they still need to commission more Snuff Box – but with the help of co-writer, Father Ted’s Arthur Mathews, Berry hasn’t had to restrain his imagination. Squeezing the larger-than-life luvvie Toast into a Sunday night sitcom set-up has just  become part of the joke instead.

Stephen Toast would no doubt identify with Inspector Montalbano, another middle-aged man tormented by the amorous attentions of attractive young women. Luca Zingaretti is back and bald as ever for a third series as BBC4’s Sicillian detective, and just when we’d got used to Michele Riondino in The Young Montalbano. Usually Il commissario doesn’t like to be bothered with anything as trifling as a burglary, but this one was different. For one, the culprit was targeting Vigata’s clique of wealthy socialites. For another, one of the victims was Angelica, a mysterious beauty with an evident distaste for bras.

BBC4 originally introduced this series to fill the slot left vacant by The Killing and Borgen, but in truth Inspector Montalbano is a lot warmer than its Scandi cousins, and not just because of the Mediterranean climate. Montalbano always has time to finish his morning espresso before heading out to the crime scene, his Keystone Cop assistant Catarella always has a charming malapropism to lighten the mood, and while “government cuts” might mean the police are reduced to using bicycles for stakeouts, Montalbano can still afford a few beautifully cut suits to wear on the job.

Warm became steamy on Saturday night, as Montalbano made his usual leisurely progress towards an arrest. Town gossip Mrs Cannavo offered almost enough detail on the suspects’ wife-swapping antics to put the police off their antipasti di mare and then there was that temptress Angelica.  I know they do things differently in Sicily, but surely Montalbano wouldn’t cheat on fiancé Livia? Then again,  her over-dubbing has gone from bad to worse since the last series, so maybe it’s entirely justified.