Toast, BBC1, Thursday
Just William, BBC1, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday
Other channels used the hiatus between holidays to serve up turkeys. But the Beeb had two treats
Sunday 02 January 2011
The post-Boxing Day/pre-New Year period presents a unique window of opportunity for the programme planners.
For those of us lucky enough not to have to rush back to work are knocking about at home, circumnavigating family politics that will have to wait (again!) and working our way through the leftovers of the Christmas meal and the TV schedules. The ideal target audience.
For those long, dark days we are sitting ducks (or should that be stuffed turkeys?) for fresh, small-screen entertainment – a simple point of fact that only the BBC seemed to fully grasp last week. While the other major channels took advantage of a chance to bury bad films (Cheaper by the Dozen 2, Jurassic Park III etc), the Beeb seized the initiative and presented two productions that would have held their own in the high days of the holidays.
In its 90 minutes, Toast, the drama based on Nigel Slater's memoirs, told us much about the chef/foodwriter but even more about family politics. When his mother dies just before Christmas, young Nigel – brilliantly played by newcomer Oscar Kennedy – is devastated by the loss of the woman who inspired in him a love of food, even if toast is just about the only thing she can prepare to his satisfaction. From her, Slater learnt a lesson he still promotes today: the value of food for comfort. "I still cannot exaggerate how just putting a meal in front of somebody is more of a buzz for me than anything. Maybe that goes back to trying to please my dad," he wrote recently.
To get over the loss of his wife, Slater's dad, portrayed here as part raging bull/part emotional cripple by the ever-excellent Ken Stott, falls for the charms of Helena Bonham Carter's scarily spot-on char lady Joan Potter. What follows is a battle for Slater Snr's love and attention, and the ammunition is scones, lemon meringues, roasts and fresh, steaming vegetables.
Potter and Nigel both know that the way to a man's heart is through his stomach, and – as the strain on both organs increases – the pair slowly kill Slater Snr with culinary kindness. Along the way we get a faultless evocation of 1960s Britain, with every shade of brown represented. By the time Nigel has morphed into the teenaged shape of Freddie Highmore, his destiny is set as firmly as one of Potter's meringues and, with his father gone, he jumps at the chance to escape the woman he can never accept, to find work in a kitchen.
The importance of seizing life's windows of opportunity was not lost on the team behind the Beeb's other post-Christmas winner, Just William. Not that it would have taken a casting director of genius to realise that Daniel Roche – the 11-year-old actor who played Ben in Outnumbered – was born to play William Brown, Richmal Crompton's schoolboy anti-hero.
With his natural curls and even more natural scowl, Roche brought Brown to life as no other child actor has before. But what really elevated Simon (Men Behaving Badly) Nye's adaptation were the moments inbetween young William's adventures and the painstaking attention to detail of its early 1950s period setting.
With an adult cast including Rebecca Front and Daniel Ryan as the long-suffering senior Browns, and Warren Clarke and Caroline Quentin as the nouveau riche Botts, Nye's four episodes – perhaps taking inspiration from The Simpsons – fully appreciated that there was room here for all the characters to manoeuvre. There were storylines involving William's sister Ethel, subplots based around the staff at William's school, visits from members of the extended Brown family and, of course, the sthpectacularly sthpoilt Violet Elizabeth.
The sharpness of the script was evident from episode one, in which William's brother Robert, newly obsessed with Marlon Brando in The Wild Ones, had this exchange with his mother: Robert [mumbling]: "I need to go somewhere." Mrs Brown [not looking up]: "If you're passing the shop could you buy a loaf of bread?" Robert: "No, I need to escape. I'm going to join a biker gang." Mrs Brown: "Righto. Maybe you should borrow Mr Nuttley's motorbike and see if you like it first."
Who of us brought up in the stifling atmosphere of the suburbs will not have had a similar early life exchange, in which a burning passion is reduced, with a seen-it-all-sigh, to the status of hobby?
Thus, while Toast and Just William were both unashamedly nostalgic, both also carried off the crucial trick of ringing true to a 21st-century audience. Good writing, fine acting and a past (unlike the foreign country of Upstairs, Downstairs) that we can all remember and relate to.
It's not too much to ask for is it? And especially at a time of year when, for many of us, the televison screen is the window of opportunity in the corner of all of our living-rooms.
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