Features Q&A and Interviews Published 10 November 2015

Matt Berry: “There’s always another idea round the corner.”

Tim Bano talks to actor, writer and musician, Matt Berry, about the ethics of voiceover work, the London Dungeons and Stephen Toast.
Tim Bano
l-r: Ray Purchase (Harry Peacock), Jane Plough (Doon Mackichan), Ed Howzer-Black (Roberth Bathurst and Steven Toast (Matt Berry).

l-r: Ray Purchase (Harry Peacock), Jane Plough (Doon Mackichan), Ed Howzer-Black (Roberth Bathurst and Steven Toast (Matt Berry).

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Yeah, yeah we’ve heard it all before: melting butter, velvet, yoghurty smooth, fronted with comic pomposity. But ‘the Matt Berry voice’ is disconcerting to hear up close. Most of the time it’s subsumed beneath normal speech, but every few words it breaks out and here in front of me is an amalgam of Todd Sanchez/Dixon Bainbridge/Douglas Reynholm/Steven Toast. Most of the time it’s just normal, and then suddenly, with a word, it feels like an advert for Money Supermarket. 

There’s something intensely jealous-making about Matt Berry. He lives in a London penthouse, the sort that you see towering over the Thames from tube trains, and when he isn’t voicing adverts he spends his time making uncategorisable music. It’s mystic and rustic, folky and slightly supernatural. Series 3 of Toast is about to air, and he has a run of live gigs coming up. He paints too. There’s an extraordinary amount of energy there, and energy devoted only to things Berry really wants to do. 

I’m kind of lucky to have the opportunity so while I’ve got it and while I’m youngish and everything works it’s best to take advantage of that. There’s always another idea round the corner that I want to do. So while I can it’s important to do them, because there will come a time when I can’t.

For Berry, relaxation or leisure is the stuff he does anyway. Most people binge on Netflix, or watch Toast or House of Fools or Mighty Boosh or Darkplace or one of the many things Berry’s been in, or hear his voice every few minutes during an ad break. 

I watch hardly any telly really. I don’t hear any of it.

Berry has some live gigs coming up, but – despite Steven Toast’s profession, drawn from seeing lots of frustrated actors doing voiceover work – he’s never done any stage work himself. 

I haven’t had the time, and it would have to be something that I was really interested in, because I get bored really easily. And I can’t think of anything worse than to be stuck in something that I’ve already lost interest in. I don’t want to put that on anyone.

And yet Berry worked at the London Dungeons for a while. That isn’t just repeating lines eight times a week, that’s repeating them eight times an hour. 

Completely, but the difference there is I treated that as a way of getting timing down, getting jokes right and seeing what works. You would do, say, 20 shows in the morning, but you would make it interesting yourself by putting something a bit different in and seeing whether they’d laugh at that, or do something else and see whether that would make them scared. I got to use their platform, be paid – paid fucking nothing – but use their platform to get jokes and timing right.

Having been there recently, there’s a really tangible sense of utter boredom from some of the performers who are just half-heartedly, quarter-heartedly dribbling their lines until the next bored family comes along.

Well that’s their fault. It’s up to you to make it interesting, and if you are interested in performing, making people laugh, making people scared then you shouldn’t be bored. There’s a bunch of different things that you can always try out, and you can make it interesting for yourself by doing that. You can turn something on its head, fuck with it that way. If you’re bored and you look bored, that’s your fault.

There’s also the sense that the performers there are quite tightly scripted. 

I don’t know, but even so there’s no one there watching you so if you want to go off piste, go off piste. Fuck ‘em. When I was there it wasn’t strict at all. You just got through the bare essential facts and it was up to you to make it as entertaining or as scary as you could. I think it’s a lot more PC now, where they probably just give you a script and say ‘don’t veer from it’ because you might upset someone. But it certainly wasn’t like that when I worked there in 2000 and 2001.

During his stint in the Dungeon, Berry’s friends Matthew Holness and Richard Ayoade asked him to  be in a show they were writing, called Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace (which also starred the extraordinary Kim Noble). He was 29, it was his first acting role, and a brilliant one at that. He played Todd Rivers, who played Dr Lucien Sanchez, and work came his way ever since. 

It was a ridiculous character, I suppose people picked up on the voice for that. Then I was doing some adverts quite quickly afterwards, but it was never an idea of mine or a plan. One minute I was doing Darkplace, a few weeks later the agent phones up and says ‘can you go and do this voiceover’. I didn’t really know what voiceovers were at that point, but I just did it and it was easy.

It all just sounds so effortless: getting the work, doing the work.

I give it my best. But it’s not hard work. You don’t have to learn anything, you’re just reading something out.

He doesn’t even train his voice. I had a mental picture of him sucking on lozenges all the time, or gargling honey every night. 

I don’t. I don’t do anything.

It’s a dream job essentially. Barely any effort required, barely veiled contempt for the work, a hefty remuneration and, in the end, material for a sitcom that parodies that very source of income. Sounds like good work.

Well, it might not be.

Of course, that voice is recognisable – an upstaging presence – in whatever Berry’s in, even though he didn’t recognise what a money spinner it could be. 

No, I didn’t. I used to do it at college and art school just to fuck around, and it was annoying. I never thought about it as being anything…everyone’s got a mate who does impersonations or stupid voices. It’s just another one of your mates that did that, that’s how I saw it.

Toast is essentially a send up of the whole voiceover business: failing, flailing actors being asked to say basic phrases in a hundred different ways by some dickhead in lensless glasses. Clem Fandango is fast becoming a byword. But you can’t just take the piss out of the business that pays you, and expect no repercussions. Hasn’t anyone in Berry’s voiceover work been upset by Toast?

Maybe. Not that I know of. What most people do in those situations is think that it’s someone else that you’re mimicking. No one thinks it’s them. Those creatives who do that just laugh at it and say ‘It’s not us, it’s definitely those two because they’re massive pricks.’

The voice creeps in a bit at the words ‘massive pricks’. In one episode of the new Adam Buxton podcast, Buxton talks to Rob Brydon about the ethics of voiceovers, and where they draw the line. Neither would advertise loan companies or alcohol. Berry has limits, too.

I wouldn’t do fast food, or guns…

Though you don’t see many ads for guns these days.

anything that would make kids unhappy. That’s my main rule. Anything that was kind of mean. Or just shit.

A matter of taste, surely. Alright, those Natural Confectionery ads were fine (‘bring on the trumpets’). And the one for Chedds made me laugh. Ok, to be fair Berry has a knack for making whatever he’s voicing far less awful than it could have been.

Not that I pay huge attention for the things I am doing but if it’s innocuous, like yoghurt or water, then it’s fine. Or tyres.

So with a third series of Toast under his belt, a live music tour about to kick off, more ads in the pipeline, Berry’s ubiquity is pretty much absolute. What’s next? Hit up Hollywood, break America?

I’ve done stuff over there, I’ve done most of the cult shows now. But for me it’s about the work. If it isn’t funny but it’s in America, I wouldn’t do it. It’s got to be funny first, or interesting first. I’ve never had a plan for any of this, there was never a plan for ‘right I must get on the TV’, ‘right, I must have my own show’, ‘right, I must be a movie star’. I don’t think like that. I haven’t ever had that sort of interest. I just want to do stuff I like at that time.

It’s hard to believe that even now, when Berry has the clout to be able to turn things down, make things happen, there still isn’t any kind of plan.

Well no because if it was something that I was stuck and tied into, it would mean I couldn’t do any music. And that wouldn’t make me happy.

Just imagine that. Imagine being able to live like that, only doing things that make you happy. Imagine doing those things not just adequately, but with huge success. To cap it all, where did Berry write the latest series of Toast.

A lot of it was written in bed with the iPad. Just laziness.

‘Toast On Toast: Cautionary Tales And Candid Advice’ is out now. Matt Berry and the Maypoles ‘Live’ releases on 20th November with a nationwide tour in December.

Toast Of London returns to Channel 4 in November

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Tim Bano

Tim is a freelance arts writer and theatre critic. He writes regularly for Time Out, The Stage and other publications. He is co-creator of Pursued By A Bear, Exeunt Magazine's theatre podcast.

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