Helena Bonham Carter is wonderfully frank when asked why she wanted to play cook Nigel Slater’s stepmother in the adaptation of his memoir, Toast. “I haven’t played a cleaner before!” Which is extraordinary when you consider that she has appeared in no fewer than 40 films.
The actress, who also played Enid Blyton in another recent BBC biopic, all but steals the drama from the other performers.
This is not to say that the remaining cast, of Freddie Highmore (Slater), Ken Stott (Slater’s father) and Victoria Hamilton (Slater’s mother) don’t turn in solid performances, too, but Bonham Carter’s Mrs Potter is the drama equivalent of watching Nigella Lawson in full domestic goddess mode.
Bonham Carter is quick to defend the woman she is portraying. She says: “The father wanted this butch boy, you know, who could play football but Nigel just wasn’t interested. I think he always felt that he let down his dad.
“Mrs Potter, meanwhile, had no trouble with him liking the domestic side except when it came to cooking, which I always found was hilarious. She is as much a child as he is and she’s so insecure that she doesn’t want to be upstaged by this little boy.”
The daughter of a psychotherapist, Bonham Carter says the project is the next best thing to therapy for Slater. “Well, Nigel’s put his childhood to bed! You know, I think it has been therapeutic for him… all down to me!
“It’s all these different gradations and then as soon as you write something which is dramatic you are going to change people and you serve the story.
“You don’t serve the reality but Nigel seems happy and at least I might have helped him get over a few childhood traumas. If I have, then, you know, then at least I’ve done something good.”
She is one of the most sought-after actors of our generation but her priorities have now changed slightly: “Yes, completely. As soon as you have children criteria change. If the writing’s not good you’re not going to want to do it. I’ve always been intrigued by Nigel and I love his cookbooks.
“When you read Toast it’s a great way of just getting catapulted back to your own childhood. Also getting inside a boy’s mind… it was helpful for me to get in touch, in a way, with my own son and how much a child is so particular about food.
“But then there’s the logistical thing. I can’t go away, you know, during school term time. It was a three-week shoot. It was in the summer holidays. It meant that I could do a five-day week. They could accommodate that. I could be back for weekends.”
Bonham Carter talked to Slater about her character. “We started a textual relationship,” she laughs. “He would just text me telling me about my character: ‘What magazine did she read?’ ‘She magazine’. All the information that he remembered, real precise details: ‘Cigarettes?’ ‘Woodbines Number 8’. I think Nigel did revise his opinion of her during the whole process.”
How was she convinced that this was a part she wanted to play? “I met the director and she talked about her ‘Amélie-esque’ vision and I really loved Jean Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie. So we just got on. As she had such a clear vision, I thought, ‘She’s not going to let me down here’.”
The actress spent many of her scenes opposite Ken Stott who plays Nigel’s father. Stott, alongside Bonham Carter, has starred himself in a library of major motion pictures, including Charlie Wilson’s War, Shallow Grave and ITV’s Rebus. He is effortless, she says.
“He does nothing and yet he’s just brilliant. Barely read the book. I don’t think he even read the book. He just piles in, learns his lines at the last minute and then suddenly he’s brilliant… but then that’s Ken Stott for you!”
“My mum, who is really bright, said: ‘Mrs Potter’s not the problem,’ when she read the script. ‘It’s the father’. I think Ken brought that out. He’s a man who just did not know how to cope with the death of his wife and was knocked for six. He didn’t know how to be a father, really.”
Bonham Carter is happy with the ending even though Mrs Potter is left alone. “For Nigel: absolute paradise,” she says. “He survived. He got out and thankfully he has done so well.”