Describing a movie, the word “sweet” is the kiss of death, but I can’t think of a better adjective for Toast, a funny and charming biopic about the popular British television personality and flamboyant chef Nigel Slater. He may not be a household name on this side of the pond, but nobody who has ever seen his cooking show on British telly can easily forget him. Picture a gay Bobby Flay. You get the picture.
Toast is his story. From the opening credits, in which the cast names appear on cereal boxes on a grocery shelf, to his ultimate triumph revolutionizing the kitchen at the Savoy Hotel, Nigel was a food critic in the making. “I’m Nigel,” says the boy narrator in the opening scene. “I’m 9 years old and I’ve never had a vegetable that didn’t come from a tin.” Some children long for secret decoder rings and electric trains. Nigel dreams of fresh produce. His sickly mother (Victoria Hamilton) is one of the worst cooks in England—a menace in the kitchen whose talent at the stove consisted entirely of throwing cans of braised beef into a pot of boiling water without even opening the lids. The only thing she could make was toast. Nigel’s father (Ken Stott) understandably suffered from severe heartburn. Under the bed covers at night, their eccentric child caressed recipe books with color photos of spaghetti Bolognese and angel food cake. While he grappled with culinary deprivation, Nigel was also exploring his emerging homosexuality, goaded on by his only friend, the sexy gardener who often stripped nude in the potting shed. When Mom died of asthma, his stuffy, working-class father fired his strapping crush and hired a new housekeeper named Mrs. Potter (Helena Bonham Carter, in the funniest role of her career), on whom he developed a crush of his own, much to the little boy’s horror. There was nothing wrong with Nigel that a good meal couldn’t cure, but although Mrs. Potter was a great cook, she was a slovenly, common low-life who competed with the boy for his father’s affection. Scrubbing, polishing and bleaching her way into their lives, even her crown roasts and mince tarts couldn’t disguise the fact that she reeked of cleaning fluid. Mr. Slater married her anyway, and moved them to a country hamlet in the dreary Midlands where Nigel became the only boy in school to study home economics, trying to outsmart his new stepmother the only way he could, by topping her lemon meringue pie. The tension in their rivalry went unabated until his Dad died and Nigel, at 16, got a Saturday job in a country inn where he fell in love with another young chef who inspired him to run away from home and head for the kitchens of London, where he would never have to eat toast again.
The movie shows how it felt for an unloved, neglected child to grow up different in 1960s England, and director S.J. Clarkson and screenwriter Lee Hall get all of the details in Nigel Slater’s memoir right, from the long-handled Hoover vacuums to the wretched home furnishings (ah, that ghastly British wallpaper!). The acting is first-rate, by pasty Oscar Kennedy as young Nigel, and later, by the dazzling Freddie Highmore (memorable as the kid Johnny Depp wrote Peter Pan for in Finding Neverland). He’s now a dashing 19-year-old with range and maturity who matches feisty, garrulous Helena Bonham Carter scene for scene. Toast broke all records in the U.K. as the most watched single holiday special in the history of British television. It might not achieve the same success here, where the subject is less famous, but I found it poignant, amusing and endearing. No need for marmalade. Just butter, and enjoy.
Running Time 96 minutes
Written by Lee Hall
Directed by S.J. Clarkson
Starring Helena Bonham Carter, Freddie Highmore, Victoria Hamilton and Colin Prockter