The Orson Welles frozen peas tantrum that inspired Steven Toast

Actor, writer and producer Orson Welles - NBC Universal
Actor, writer and producer Orson Welles - NBC Universal

After an absence of several years, Matt Berry’s cult sitcom Toast of London has returned for an extremely welcome new series. Co-written, as before, with Father Ted co-creator Arthur Mathews, the latest instalment now airs on BBC2, rather than Channel 4, and is entitled Toast of Tinseltown.

The latest twist is that Berry’s egocentric and largely unsuccessful actor Steven Toast has relocated to Hollywood, lured with the apparent promise of a major role in a Star Wars film, but swiftly discovers that fame and stardom are little more than a mirage. Appropriately enough, the new series did not decamp to Los Angeles for its filming, but to the rather less glamorous environs of Harlesden, in north-west London.

In one episode there is a guest appearance by the impressionist Lewis Macleod, playing none other than the legendary actor and director Orson Welles. For the purposes of the show, it is immaterial that Welles died in 1985. Instead, in Berry and Mathews’ surreal imagination, he is still alive, well and the proprietor of a wine shop, offering Toast a glass of 2017 Patient Cottat Sancerre Anciennes Vignes Sancerre, as well as suitably sage advice.

But the presence of Macleod-as-Welles in the scene is not a mere piece of tomfoolery. Instead, it was the great man’s participation in, of all things, a commercial for Findus frozen peas that at least partially inspired the character of Toast, a once-great (at least, in his own estimation) actor reduced to the status of a bum, wasting his impeccable diction on voiceover work.

By the late Sixties, Welles was dividing his attention and energies between increasingly quixotic directorial projects, such as his Shakespeare adaptation Chimes at Midnight, and well-paid cameos in projects ranging from the successful (the Oscar-winning A Man For All Seasons, in which he played Cardinal Wolsey) to the disastrous (the all-star Bond spoof adaptation of Casino Royale).

Matt Berry stars in Toast of Tinseltown - Objective Media Group
Matt Berry stars in Toast of Tinseltown - Objective Media Group

Yet his chaotic and extravagant personal and professional existence, which saw him living in Rome with his third wife Paola Mori as he attempted to complete projects such as his adaptation of Don Quixote, meant that he was perpetually in need of funds. It soon became known in the industry that Welles would do virtually anything for a cheque, no matter how demeaning it might have seemed. What he did not have to do was to approve of what he was asked to do, even as he called his activities “the most innocent form of whoring I know.”

According to Welles’ friend, director Jonathan Lynn, he was approached by the Scandinavian food company Findus in 1969, and was appalled by their effrontery. He therefore decided that he would make them jump through as many hoops as he could. In Lynn’s retelling of the story, Welles said: “An ad agency called and asked me to do a voice over. I said I would. Then they said would I please come in and audition. ‘Audition?’ I said. ‘Surely to God there’s someone in your little agency who knows what my voice sounds like?’ Well, they said they knew my voice but it was for the client. So I went in. I wanted the money... I auditioned and they offered me the part!”

Unfortunately, this was not the end of it. Welles demanded payment in advance before heading to “some little basement studio in Wardour Street” to record the voiceover – very Steven Toast – but then, as punishment for their effrontery, made Findus follow him around the finest hotels in Europe, from the Georges Cinq in Paris to the Gritti Palace in Venice. Welles took delight in telling Lynn that “I made them chase me all around Europe with their s_____ little tape recorder for 10 days. They were sorry they made me audition.”

Welles was not the first name star who the company had recruited for their advertisements – the actor Warren Mitchell had performed in character as his famous creation Alf Garnett in 1967 – but he was both the grandest and highest-profile figure that they had recruited. Nonetheless, once he had been tracked down, he recorded a series of voiceovers amicably and professionally enough throughout the year for products including fish fingers, braised beef and peas. He was therefore asked to return in mid-January 1970 to record a voiceover for Findus frozen peas.

Previously, he had worked with the director Dmitri Dimka, who he had known slightly beforehand, but he was now asked to collaborate with the young and untested Maurice Stevens and his production company Film Fair. Welles, already exhausted from his attempts to film his Swinging London section of his documentary Orson’s Bag, was in no mood to suffer anywhere he perceived as a fool gladly, and so the unfortunate Stevens found himself the recipient of a tired and angry performer’s vitriol.

Audio footage exists of Welles attempting to record his voiceover. It begins innocuously enough, with the actor reading some boilerplate text about how “nothing is more important than the simple act of people getting together”, but Welles soon begins to object to aspects of the script, as he is asked to describe a remote farm in Lincolnshire where the peas grow.

As Stevens asks him to stress certain words (“in July”), Welles angrily responds: “That doesn’t make any sense… there’s no known way of saying an English sentence in which one begins a sentence with ‘in’ and emphasise it.” He soon warms to his theme of abusing the unfortunate Stevens. “Get me a jury and show me how you can say ‘in July’ and I’ll go down on you… that’s just idiotic, if you’ll forgive me for saying so.” As Welles denounces his script as “impossible” and “meaningless”, Stevens comes up with a desperate compromise – “every July”, only for Welles to complain “there is too much directing around here.”

Lewis Macleod plays a fictionalised version of Welles - Objective Media Group
Lewis Macleod plays a fictionalised version of Welles - Objective Media Group

Another take is asked for, much to Welles’ chagrin. “Why? I just did it right!” He then turns on the sound engineer, himself clearly a distant cousin of Toast of London’s infamous Clem Fandango. “I’m not used to having more than one person in there. One more word out of you and you go! Is that clear? I take directions from one person, under protest, but from now I don’t sit still. Who the hell are you, anyway?”

When the engineer introduces himself and says fearfully there was a “slight gonk” on the footage, an outraged Welles shouts “Jesus! What is a ‘gonk’?” It is impossible not to listen to the recording and not imagine Berry and Mathews carefully taking notes – on the slim chance they were not convulsed with laughter.

As the recording continues, Welles’ obvious despair at his predicament seeps out (“I have no more time…you don’t know what I’m up against…this is a very wearying [script], it’s unpleasant to read”) as he reserves particular disdain for the phrase “crumb crisp coating.”

By the time that he is declaring the virtues of beefburgers “under protest”, he breaks off to denounce the script as “a lot of s___”, and refuses to emphasise the word “beef”. Eventually, his frustration overwhelms him, and he shouts “C’mon fellows, I wouldn’t direct any living actor like this in Shakespeare…the right reading for this is the one I’m giving you…I spent 20 times more for you people than any other commercial I’ve ever made. You are such pests! Now what is it you want, in the depths of your ignorance? Whatever it is, I can’t deliver it.” He storms out, muttering “this isn’t worth it, no money is worth it.”

He did not work with Findus again, but this was far from his last rodeo in the voiceover world. Later in the Seventies, he signed a lucrative deal to be the voice of the mass-market wine company Paul Masson, complete with the slogan “We will sell no wine before its time.” It was no easier a collaboration – he said of the advertising agency that “I have never seen more seedier, about-to-be-fired sad sacks than were responsible for those Paul Masson ads. The agency hated me because I kept trying to improve their copy” – but he at least enjoyed himself on the wine, notoriously recording an advertisement for their ‘French’ sparkling variety in 1980 while under its influence.

His association with the company soon ended, however, when he announced publicly the following year that he no longer drank wine for the sake of his health. Instead, Welles took work from the eclectic likes of Domecq sherry, Nikka whisky and the Dark Tower role-playing games company. His deep, resonant baritone voice, which also saw him recruited to the role of Unicron in the animated film of Transformers, gave credibility and gravitas to even the least likely of advertisements, and ensured a welcome regular income towards the end of his life.

Now, over four decades after his Findus contretemps, Welles remains a legendary figure in Hollywood. Despite the amusement that the leaked recording offers, nobody could argue that his reputation has seriously been damaged by his involvement with the voiceover industry.

At a time when Toast’s credibility seems endangered by his run-ins with Clem Fandango and his colleague Danny Bear et al, he should look at the example of Welles and take heart. Whatever stupid and demeaning thing he is asked to do in the recording booth, someone else has already done it before.