How Matt Berry not so quietly became everyone's favourite comedy actor

By The Newsroom
Friday, 8th June 2018, 9:29 am
Updated Sunday, 10th June 2018, 4:38 am

Armed with a voice somewhere between Brigadier General, operatic tenor and London jazz club owner from the 1940s, actor Matt Berry probably has the most distinctive vocal chords in the British comedy business.

Fittingly perhaps for a man whose timbre seems to hail from another era, it has just been announced that Berry will star in a new Channel 4 comedy called Year of the Rabbit, set in Victorian London.

It sounds like his kind of role too.

As Detective Inspector Rabbit, he's a "hardened booze-hound who's seen it all", teaming up with a "hapless" partner and the police chief's daughter to fight crime "while rubbing shoulders with street gangs, crooked politicians, Bulgarian princes, spiritualists, music hall stars and the Elephant Man".

Suitably understated then.

Entering the Darkplace

The BAFTA-winner's self-parodying charisma and distinctive diction have seen him become a familiar face in some of the most acclaimed and original sitcoms of the last 15 years.

Many will have first encountered Berry as unflappable action sidekick Dr Lucien Sanchez in beloved cult spoof series Garth Marenghi's Darkplace.

He was absolutely perfect for the role.

Those rich, over-the-top tones perfectly matched the cheesy, awkwardly-edited low budget horror feel they were going for.

It was startling the first time you realised it wasn't a dubbed actor: that really is Berry's own vocal performance. He's like a ventriloquist who's learned to project the voice of a very suave God.

And then, of course, there was that 80s music video.

Ever since, Berry has become something of a trump card for comedy series in need of an eccentric, outrageous presence.

Replacing Chris Morris on The IT Crowd was always going to be tricky. But what better way to do it than with Berry crashing into a church booming "speak priest!" - and bellowing "fatheeerrrrrr!" at the top of his lungs?

The surreal cad specialist

Douglas Reynholm in Graham Linehan's off-the-wall sitcom is almost a template for the kind of brash, larger-than-life roles Berry has become renowned for. An arrogant cad, vain, egotistical and utterly (over)confident, who is as sexually immature as he is sexually forward (even having to use electric shocks to curtail his 'urges').

There's a neat dual-aspect to the way Berry plays that self-aggrandising trope too - channeling energetic certainty one moment, and deadpan bemusement at other people's horrified reactions the next. The collision of earnestness and ridiculousness is inspired.

His persona has typically been at home in surreal and offbeat shows. From pompous, adventuring zoo owner Dixon Bainbridge in The Mighty Boosh ("the wolf attacked me, but fortunately I had a pistol hidden in my moustache"), to swaggering, flamboyant braggart 'Beef' in Reeves and Mortimer's anarchic House of Fools - via a bizarrely brilliant series of 'Matt Berry Does...' comedy shorts for the BBC iPlayer.

Those catchy entrance songs quickly became a hallmark of House of Fools. Anyone who can go toe-to-toe with those two comics in the absurdist stakes and frequently make them corpse has to be doing something right.

After years of playing supporting comic characters of the outrageous variety, however, Berry finally got to take centre-stage with his very own series Toast of London in 2012.

From struggling actor to Netflix hit

Perhaps more understated than his previous work (although that wouldn't be difficult), Toast is a brilliantly observed portrait of the struggling actor as a middle-aged man.

Written with Linehan's Father Ted co-conspirator Arthur Mathews, the Channel 4 show is the definition of a sleeper hit, improving its ratings from one series to the next despite its late night slots, until its addition to Netflix saw it win a global fanbase - much like The End of the F***ing World.

Matt Berry as Steven Toast, the fruity voiced thespian hero of 'Toast of London' (Photo: Ash Archive)

Like much of Berry's CV, there's a wilfully archaic, farcical-yet-charming quality to the humour, harking back to the glory days of the sitcom.

The character of Steven Toast is glorious in his own right, but with regular cast members like Doon Mackichan and Robert Bathurst, and guest stars like Brian Blessed, Paul Whitehouse and Jon Hamm, fans haven't lost hope for one more curtain call for the much-loved thesp, even if it has been three years since the last series.

A 'site-specific extrovert'

In real life, of course, Berry is quite different from his extravagant, grandiose lothario characters. He studied contemporary art at Nottingham University and was working at the London Dungeon before Darkplace came calling.

Speaking to the i last year, he described himself as a "private person" who is a "site-specific extrovert".

He also rarely watches comedy himself, instead preferring to indulge his love of music; which probably explains how frequently that voice of his is put to good singing use in many of his TV appearances.

Matt Berry with Richard Ayoade, Matthew Holness and Alice Lowe in Garth Marenghi's Darkplace (Photo: Channel 4)

Even when simply speaking, that voice is his trademark. But Berry's infectious energy, straight-faced approach to the surreal and underratedly expressive eyebrows also play their part.

From the sounds of it, Year of the Rabbit could be another ideal platform for his talents.

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[Main image: BBC]