For a man who’s most famous for playing a monstrously conceited old ham, Matt Berry holds the notion of the old-fashioned theatrical luvvie in surprisingly warm regard. In fact, it’s the prospect of working with one of the English stage’s most famously flamboyant thesps that has persuaded him to make his West End debut, in a revival of Christopher Hampton’s comedy The Philanthropist, directed by none other than Simon Callow.
‘I’ve always been a big fan, and just really wanted to work with him,’ Berry tells Weekend when we catch up with him early in the play’s run. ‘I’d have done whatever Simon wanted, really.’
Of course, the key difference between Steven Toast – whose various career humiliations form the basis of Berry’s cult Channel 4 comedy Toast of London – and Simon Callow is that the former is a deluded dreamer in the tradition of such great sitcom grotesques as Brent and Partridge, whereas Callow is very much the real deal.
‘He’s a theatrical person, and they’re few and far between,’ says Berry of his current boss. ‘They’re kind of dying out, so I cherish them. He’s got so many stories. Give me that, any day, over some aloof, cool method actor. Who would you rather spend the night with? Not the night with,' he corrects himself. 'Don’t go writing that down. Who would you rather have a drink with, put it that way.'
Hampton’s play, a witty inversion of Moliere’s The Misanthrope, follows 24 hours in the lives of a group of young academics in an English university town. Its impressive young cast includes Simon Bird (The Inbetweeners), Charlotte Ritchie (Call the Midwife), Tom Rosenthal (Plebs) and supermodel-turned-actress Lily Cole.
Berry – at 43, the senior man of the company – plays Braham, a wealthy, egomaniacal novelist. From Douglas Reynholm, the predatory company boss in The I.T. Crowd, to Beef, Vic and Bob’s hirsute lothario neighbour in House of Fools, it’s the sort of role he’s come to specialise in, and which finds its ultimate expression in the luxuriantly moustachioed, badger-haired Toast, for which Berry won the 2015 Best Male Comedy Performance Bafta.
Since its launch in 2012, Toast of London, co-written with Father Ted’s Arthur Mathews, has become enough of a word-of-mouth hit to attract guest stars of the calibre of Sam Neill, Brian Blessed (as Toast’s dad) and, in one memorable episode, Mad Men’s John Hamm.
‘I’d met him in the US, when I appeared on Saturday Night Live,’ says Berry. ‘He said how much he loved the show, and we thought it might be fun, because Toast is such a heterosexual, old-school womaniser, if he suddenly had this crush on another actor. And there isn’t anyone more handsome in the world than John Hamm.’
Toast himself is based on ‘three different actors’ Berry has encountered over the years. Do any of them know? ‘No,’ he says. ‘And even if you told them, I don’t think they’d be able see it. That’s how it works.’
While Toast waits for his big break, his daily reality is demeaning bit parts and endless voiceover work. Berry is no stranger to the latter himself, having used his famously stentorian tones to sell everything from yoghurts and mineral water to price comparison websites.
Fortunately, he isn’t as precious about his trade as the pompously self-regarding Toast. ‘It’s just escapism,’ he says. ‘It’s something that stops people having to think about their debts, or whatever. Of course, art has its uses, but I’m not doing it to change the planet. I’m doing it because I can still get away with it.’
He’s been getting away with it for more than a decade now, since ‘falling into’ his first TV gig in the cult 2004 comedy Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace. Prior to that, he’d harboured no ambitions to be an actor or a comedian – neither of which were popular trades in Bromham, the rural Bedfordshire village where he grew up.
‘It’s good to be born in those kinds of places, because then you have to get out,’ reasons Berry. ‘And to get out, you’ve got to make an effort. So I’m very pleased I was born there. It made me think that the grass elsewhere was greener, and people were having more fun. You need that when you’re young.’
Off screen, there is little sign of the rich baritone that has been his fortune – the Berry boom, it appears, is very much an act. ‘I used to do it at university,’ he recalls. ‘I’d do voices on the phone when I was ordering pizza, which we all thought was hilarious. But it was just mucking about. Your friends don’t go, “Hey, you could get work as a highly-paid voiceover artist…”’
Graduating from Nottingham Trent with a degree in Contemporary Arts, he had no idea what he wanted to do next. ‘I knew what I didn’t want to do,’ he says. ‘The only things I was thinking about were making music and not having a nine-to-five job.’
By his late 20s, he was working in The London Dungeon by day (‘I’d be a judge in the morning and Jack the Ripper in the afternoon’) and fronting his own band by night. (An accomplished musician and songwriter, he’s recorded five albums of what critics have described as a mix of pastoral folk and prog.)
It was gigging as a warm-up act to The Mighty Boosh that got him the Garth Marenghi job, and the Boosh later hired him to play sinister explorer Dixon Bainbridge in their own TV show. Since then, he’s been a permanent fixture on the British comedy scene, while also making headway Stateside in various TV shows and movies, including Snow White and the Huntsman and The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water (he played a magic space dolphin).
Not that Berry often sees himself in such things because, like many who work in television, he claims not to watch it himself. He’s not a fan of holidays either. ‘I don’t want to be sat on my arse,’ he shrugs. ‘There are too many things to be getting on with, like writing or making music.’
Weekend asks if he ever pauses in his packed schedule to reflect on how far he’s risen from his days in The London Dungeon.
‘Every day,’ he says. ‘Just walking past the theatre and seeing my name, I think, what the hell. And how the hell?’
Does he worry, as actors do, that it might all come crashing down?
‘No,’ he says, firmly. ‘I didn’t expect any of it. It’s all been a bonus. There’s no sense of entitlement, or that I should keep going on. I’m just very, very lucky to have done the stuff I’ve done, been to the places I’ve been and met the people I’ve met. If it all stops next month, then I’ve had a bloody good run.’
Published in Waitrose Weekend, May 25, 2017
(c) Waitrose Weekend