If the words ‘Fray Bentos’ strike fear in your heart, I have just the film for you. (On the other hand, if they send a shiver of anticipation down your spine, I recommend you seek professional help immediately.) Should those two little words simply mean nothing to you, however, you may still derive considerable pleasure from Toast, director S. J. Clarkson’s recreation of the early life of British super foodie Nigel Slater, opening this weekend at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas.
Not being a gourmand, the name ‘Nigel Slater’ meant nothing to me prior to seeing Toast. This being the Bay Area, however, I suspect many Berkeleyside readers will be familiar with Slater, who parlayed his obsession with lemon meringue pie into an impressive cookery career stretching from an apprenticeship at London’s Savoy Hotel to primetime programs on the BBC.
A food enthusiast from an early age, Slater (portrayed in the film by both 11-year old Oscar Kennedy and teen Freddie Highmore) grew up in a Midlands household where meals generally came out of a tin. Young Nige’s mum (tenderly played here by Victoria Hamilton) wasn’t up to the task of preparing anything more complicated than toast, while dad (the magnificent Ken Stott, soon to be seen in Peter Jackson’s forthcoming Hobbit films) simply wanted something warm on his plate when he got home from the factory.
The film explores Slater’s quest for decent grub—a quest that took on newfound urgency with the arrival in the household of cooking-mad cleaning lady Mrs. Potter (Helena Bonham Carter, superb in one of her patented grotesqueries).
Toast is being marketed as a film about food, but it’s as much coming-of-age comedy drama as gustatory porn. That said there’s some wonderful looking food here, including several iterations of the infamous meringue, some luscious looking roasts, and one of those pineapples with chunks of cheese stuck into it. (Sorry, I have no idea what that thing is called.) Oh, and lots of hot buttered toast, of course.
On a more personal note, if like me you spent the 1960s in an English primary school, Toast’s scenes of mandatory milk drinking will bring back memories—in my case, as in Nigel’s, unhappy ones. Like Slater, I was allergic to milk, and most teachers were not sympathetic to my plight. I well remember the endless pressure to drink that horrible sickly sweet stuff—stuff that hasn’t crossed my lips since I left primary school in 1970. (Of course, the next generation missed out on the milk entirely thanks to ‘Margaret Thatcher, Milk Snatcher’. It’s probably the only time the Iron Lady and I ever saw eye to eye on something.)
Filled with marvelous period detail (the opening credits alone are worth the price of admission) and accompanied by a soundtrack of half a dozen classic tunes by the incomparable Dusty Springfield, Toast is better than a dish full of Angel Delight. Now excuse me—the Fray Bentos Steak and Kidney Pie I put in the oven is just about done.
It’s October, which means it’s time for Docfest, the San Francisco Documentary Film Festival. Now in its tenth year, the festival is once again splitting its program between the Roxie in San Francisco and the Shattuck. Among this weekend’s Berkeley highlights are Peep Culture, a Morgan Spurlock-style examination of the current vogue for online self-exposure (12:30 pm on Friday October 14th); Beaverbrook, a nostalgic look at a Northern California summer camp (7:15 pm on the 14th); and, best of all, the Bay Area premiere of Julien Temple’s Dr. Feelgood rock doc Oil City Confidential (9:30 pm on the 14th). I’ll have more about Docfest in next week’s column.
John Seal writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.
To find out what is going on in Berkeley and nearby, be sure to check out Berkeleyside’s recently launched Events Calendar. We also encourage you to submit your own events.