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TV review: Toast of London | Arena | Pussy Riot - A Punk Prayer

Toast of London. Picture: Complimentary

Toast of London. Picture: Complimentary

  • by Aidan Smith
 

I THINK we’re all agreed that Jeff “Skunk” Baxter has had two great jobs in his life.

Toast Of London

Channel 4, Sunday, 10.40pm

First he was the guitarist in Steely Dan and then, if that wasn’t exciting enough, he became an astronaut. I know, I know: Skunk’s Wikipedia page describes the post in more prosaic terms – “defense consultant” – though if you’re a child of the Space Race like me, and a fan of the Dan, then you’ll want to believe this man can fly. But he’s not the only chap boasting a brace of top gigs.

There’s Matt Berry the comedy actor and Matt Berry the singer of progressive folk – mossy, mulchy stuff that sounds like it was recorded in a forest den, in pointy green felt boots, in 1968. The curtains of hair and Department S moustache we know and love from the comedy give the impression of a younger man but not much of one. At large in 1971, perhaps. But Berry’s time is right now and Toast Of London is his first lead role.

I didn’t love The IT Crowd as completely as you lot but I did love Berry’s Douglas Reynholm, the part-bionic, Scientology-parodying sex-pest boss. In Toast Of London he’s Steven Toast, deluded actor. Deluded actors make terrific subjects – Hancock’s Half Hour, obviously, but also Chewin’ The Fat’s Ronald Villiers. So far, we haven’t seen Toast tread the boards and maybe that’s how this will go, with all the drama happening off-stage.

The opener mainly concerned romantic entanglements, beginning with his attempts to disentangle himself from a posh psycho and ending in a failed bid to seduce an alcoholic journalist. There were two fantastic gags that owed a lot to the props department. To the posho: “Oh, I thought you said you were a bee-keeper.” Her: “No, a beak-keeper – I collect beaks.” The journo, on the other hand, collected everything. Toast couldn’t get into her pants because he couldn’t get into her flat, junk filling the doorways apart from tiny spaces at the top which he was too portly to squeeze through – even when down to his black singlet. Promising.

Arena: The National Theatre

BBC4, Thursday, 9pm

Real actors – proper greasepaint gods – were all over Arena: The National Theatre. Johnny Gielgud, Ralphie Richardson, Mags Smith, Deek Jacobi (or as he’s known in our house, Iggle Piggle) and Bert Finney (well, not quite, but down in the laundry room we did glimpse “Hamlet – A. Finney” on a blouson collar). Looming largest, though – and at times threatening to turn the first of a two-part 50th anniversary celebration of the National into his own biog – was Larry Olivier.

Was this brutalist structure managed, in the early days, by a brutalist artistic director? You’d have to be pretty unwavering to handle all those roaring egos, I guess, but there was some evidence that Olivier roared the loudest. Jacobi remembered the company lining up for Larry and his wife Joan Plowright like they were royalty. “He eyeballed me and eyeballed me and eyeballed me until I lowered my gaze,” Jacobi said. “By then my shirt was sticking to my pants.” And Smith spoke of Olivier acting “with an area around him that was difficult to penetrate… was I allowed in?” This was most evident when he blacked up for Othello, though to be fair he may still have been smarting from the lousy reviews likening him to a West Indian bus conductor. Before Larry was nudged out of the National, before his final performance, he knelt down and kissed the stage. “He was saying goodbye to his mistress,” said Plowright. Those crazy thesps! I look forward to the second part.

Storyville: Pussy Riot – A Punk Prayer

BBC4, Monday, 10pm

Justifying the National, Olivier quoted from Shakespeare to promise it would “hold up a mirror to nature”. In the Storyville documentary Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, the feminist shock-rock trio in the Day-Glo balaclavas preferred Bertolt Brecht: “Art is not a mirror to reflect the world, but a hammer with which to shape it.” And boy did PR hammer: a 30-second performance in a Moscow church which shocked Russia, then a trial and sentences (two years in a penal colony for Nadia and Masha, Katia got off on appeal) that shocked everyone else.

Their music is unlistenable but in their courtroom cage the girls were poised, articulate and brave. Amid an explosion of flashbulbs, one photographer said to Nadia: “You look good.” “I always look good,” came the reply. Nadia’s the one with the supermodel pout. Can I say that? A Pussy Riot song, maybe more than one, goes: “Kill all sexists!” But it’s not just me who thinks like this. The Carriers of the Cross are a religious group: all male, black T-shirts, ancient, like doddery Hells Angels. “Pussy Riot’s leader is a strong demon,” said one. “You can tell by her lips, her mouth. She will fight to the end.”

 

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