by director S. J. Clarkson
Toast came to me completely out of the blue; the development team at Ruby Films called me initially to discuss notes on a feature we were developing (which true to the world of features remains in development!) and mentioned at the end that Lee Hall's adaptation of Nigel Slater’s memoir Toast was up for grabs and would I like to take a look?
Ruby Films: tick. Lee Hall: tick. Nigel Slater: tick.
The trouble was, I was in the midst of juggling flying to and from L.A. trying to secure a directing career in Hollywood alongside reading scripts, which I have to confess I am horribly slow at. It's not that I don't want to read—in fact I rather enjoy the process and anticipation of a script waiting for a director—it's more I find myself easily distracted. However, as I glanced over the first page, it's safe to say Lee Hall had me at hello!
I knew immediately that I wanted to make this film and instinctively knew how to do it. I was sure that this was, at its core, a magical fairy tale; a story told from the foreshortened and often selfish perspective of a young boy simply hungry for love and good food. Despite my schedule reservations, by Monday morning I was attached pending approval from BBC Films who thankfully didn't put up much of a fight—I’m sure it was my first attempt at baking jam tarts that swung it!
From the get go I was convinced that Helena Bonham Carter was the only person who could play Mrs. Potter—Nigel’s arch nemesis, the working class cleaner from Wolverhampton who wore crimplene dresses, chain smoked and stole his father’s heart. To me she was perfect and I was sure after The King's Speech, Helena might fancy shaking off that posh Queen Mum accent for the more down-to-earth dulcet tones of the Midlands.
It was fairytale casting and for me in some ways making Toast was in its entirety rather like a fairy tale. It was a script I was totally in love with and a cast I felt equally as passionate about. Nigel's story of a hungry childhood crammed with raw emotion and unbearable sadness yet full of wit and unabashed humour was a recipe I couldn't resist.
Making a film where food plays a key role does have its drawbacks, not simply due to the temptation to gorge on giant slices of lemon meringue pie and luminous pink trifles which I can assure you instigated a constant battle between indulgence and self-control, but also and more importantly—how do you bring food to life? To find a way to show its character and make it into the magical escape this lonely little boy yearns for? Thankfully recipe books from the ‘60s and ‘70s, certainly in Britain, offered up a whole variety of inspiration from pineapple hedgehogs (a pineapple punctured by 30 or so cocktail sticks sporting orange cheese and bright red cherries) to luminous trifles oozing layers of blancmange and dream topping (a fake sugary cream-like substance) not to mention the bright pink prawn cocktail vol-au-vents. Thankfully we’re a far cry from that now and the proof is in the elegance of the real Nigel's numerous recipe books.
However, as a young boy the enticing primary colours and gaudy platters provided a beacon of light in a colourless, emotionally repressed world. For me Nigel's coming of age encompasses the universal themes of loss, survival, hope and ultimately finding the courage to follow ones passion, teaching us to live, love and eat that little bit better.