British food writer and chef Nigel Slater has written a food column for The Observer Magazine for over a decade and published four best selling food books. He’s hosted a variety of popular food shows- Nigel Slater’s Real Food Show (Channel 4), ” A Taste of My Life” and “Simple Suppers” and “Simple Cooking” for the BBC.
Slater’s best selling autobiography “Toast”, has been turned into an amusing coming-out, coming-of -age story by TV vet director SJ Clarkson. The BBC stylized period piece, shot in the sixties in the British midlands, is full of wonderfully dreary period details, cherry cartoonish montages and delectable food presentation. Oh yes and a soundtrack rife with a Dusty Springfield.
Poor nine-year-old Nigel (Oscar Kennedy), who reads cooking magazines under the covers at night, rather than girlie mags, was clearly born to the wrong family. His perennially grumpy dad, (Ken Stott), the manager of a factory, is driven mad by his fussy eater son, while Nigel’s mum, (Victoria Hamilton-“Mansfield Park”), a delicate asthmatic, would burn water. She relies on powered, bottles and tinned food, scorns fresh cheese and fears spaghetti. Toast is her signature dish.
Doting mum makes a promise to bake mince pies with Nigel, but pops off (sorry) before she can keep it.
When Nigel’s beloved mum dies, Nigel and dad live off toast (hence the title). Nigel will have to muddle through his foodless-loveless childhood until he turns sixteen and signs up for a Home Economics course and learns to make the sort of food he’s dreamed of, and will later make his life work. (Freddie Highmore plays the older Nigel.)
Nigel attempts to cook dad his favorite meal, but it’s ruined when dad comes home late from work. Dad hires Mrs. Joan Potter (Bonham Carter), a working-class scrubber given to slatternly short skirts and an upbeat sensuality. In her predatory hands every little act of cleaning has a meaning all its own,
Lower middle class Nigel (his father is a manager after all) abhors her council-flat “commoness” and even her flair for real cooking can’t win him over. Bonham Carter rips into her performance as the cheeky, chain- smoking, vengeful Joan, in what must seem a cruel class cartoon to British audiences, but here adds comic spice to the film.
Ironically Nigel’s snobbery prevents him from bonding with the gifted culinary “Beatrice” who could lead him out of his tasteless food hell. Instead their relationship becomes a full out competition, through food, to win the affection of Nigel’s dad. (If “The way to a mans heart is through his stomach”, as school buddy Warrel (Frasier Huckle) explains, one wonders how Nigel’s parents ever got together.)
Bewitching him with food, colorful Joan wins the first round and marries Nigel’s father. They move to the midlands. While Nigel and Joan war over meringue pies, newly portly dada develops heart problems.
Nigel eventually exacts his revenge but it is a sad moment, as Joan seems as much a victim of circumstance as wee Nigel once was.
Young Nigel innocently pines over their kindly gardener Josh (Matthew McNulty, “The Arbor”) NIgel’s father fires him. When older Nigel comes out it’s a bit pat, especially in its timing.
Kia Pegg and Rielly Newbold are amusing in an early school scene. Nigel Slater plays a cameo as the Savoy chef who gives him a chance as an apprentice chef.
Cinematographer Balazs Bolygo and editor Liana Del Giudice (she has a wonderful passage of time montage featuring cakes) bring many virtues to the glossy project. Playing at the Nuart-Landmark.