A favorite of British comedy connoisseurs has his long overdue American moment
At 45, Matt Berry, the British comic actor and (mostly) serious musician, is having a bit of an American moment. He stars as Laszlo in the American TV remake of Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi’s vampire comedy film, “What We Do in the Shadows”; provides the voice of Prince Merkimer (in human and pig form) in Matt Groening’s Netflix cartoon show “Disenchantment”; and is the star and creator of two series airing on IFC: “Toast of London,” a comedy about low-level rivalrous actors, and, beginning Wednesday, “Year of the Rabbit,” a rude, insanely profane and sometimes brutal Victorian police comedy, in which he plays a Cockney cop in London’s East End in the 1880s.
“I wanted to do a 1970s cop show,” Berry said recently by phone from London, mentioning the series “The Sweeney” as an inspiration. “But I didn’t want to do it in the 1970s.”
Among followers of British comedy, for whom titles like “Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace” or “Snuff Box” or “AD/BC: A Rock Opera” bring an appreciative nod instead of a clueless shrug, Berry has long been a known commodity. His career has proceeded not exactly by accident but, he says, “I never had any kind of plan. There was no route to midnight.”
Music was his first love, and he studied painting at college. He still paints — his latest work is “a portrait of the Elephant Man,” perhaps not incidentally a character in “Rabbit” — and has released several albums of attractive progressive folk rock. (Though his most recent album, 2018’s “TV Themes,” is just that — a collection of covers of ’60s and ’70s British TV themes.)
Although in conversation Berry is soft-spoken and modest, his characters tend to be big and loud. He can open up a deep, resonant well vocally, and there is something extra-performative about the characters he plays. They take up space; they can’t keep from putting on a show.
Wearing an impressive set of muttonchops but missing his right eyebrow (“His dog bit it off or something at Christmastime”), Berry’s Detective Inspector Eli Rabbit is a typically grand creation, in a new key: earthy, foul, drunk, brutal. As one character describes him, “He punches first and then forgets what the question is. He’s a high-functioning fried breakfast, he’s afraid of the countryside and can’t spell the word Wednesday.” But he’s a hero, right enough, and moral in his way.
Berry created the character and the show with producer Ben Farrell; writers Andy Riley and Kevin Cecil were enlisted “to do the murder mystery part that I was less interested in.” (Berry takes only an “additional material” credit, “because I didn’t want to be everywhere on it —you’re starring in something, you don’t want to be putting yourself on too thickly.”)
Compared to the nutty turns of Berry’s earlier work, “Rabbit” is relatively naturalistic, filmed and played like the period drama it plausibly claims to be, with a cast not drawn from the world of comedy. The recaps at the beginning of each episode emphasize the drama; the suspense is real.
“I wanted to play it mostly straight but have the situations to be kind of preposterous and the comedy come from there for a change,” says Berry, “instead of a gargoyle of a character that’s larger than life, ’cause I’d done that.”
His costars here include Alun Armstrong as the demanding but supportive Superintendent Hugh Wisbech; Freddie Fox as his naive, eager, Cambridge-educated new partner, DC Wilbur Strauss; and Susan Wokoma as Mabel, Wisbech’s adopted daughter, who wants to join the police and sees no good reason why the Victorian era should stand in her way: “If a woman can be a nurse or a novelist, then why can’t she find the stolen jewels or drown a nonce because a trial’s too good for him? … The only opportunity for a young woman in this field is Strangled Girl in Fog. I’m aiming higher.” (Though Berry has described his intent with “Rabbit” as “pure escapism,” a feminist theme runs through the first season.)
Rounding out the cast are Paul Kaye as Rabbit’s self-dramatizing rival, DI Tanner; Keeley Hawes as a mysterious female Moriarty; and David Dawson as a grandly theatrical John “The Elephant Man” Merrick (“I’ve traveled the world … Five stars in the New York Times!”).
“Victorian or Edwardian pieces on TV are usually quite earnest and straight,” says Berry. “I was keen to put that element into something familiar, where you think you’re watching another Dickens adaptation but then something disgusting happens and all bets are off. Obviously the swearing puts people off, but [swears].”
Berry grew up in Bedford, a rural small town outside of London. “There were only two record shops, but you got to know everything that was inside them both. It’s like two small libraries — you would get to know all the books and you would try to read all the books.”
His life was changed by two gifts from his parents: an electric organ and a copy of Mike Oldfield’s 1973 album “Tubular Bells,” released the year before he was born, and of little interest to his friends. He was taken by Oldfield’s age, 19, when it was recorded (“I knew that if I wanted to do something like that, then I had to get on with it”), and by the fact that Oldfield played most everything himself. “Not many people at school were interested in playing music,” Berry says. “So as a result, and because I like to control things, I suppose, I wanted to learn keyboards and guitar and the drums so I wouldn’t have to glom on anyone. I could just do it all myself.”
His 20s, he says, “were quite sort of desperate,” immediately adding, “They weren’t.” He took temp jobs “to lessen the chances of getting a full-time job. I had to work harder at what I did want to do.” For a while he worked as a costumed guide at the London Dungeon, “a historical tourist attraction that has re-creations of sort of dark things in British history — Jack the Ripper, the plague, fun stuff like that.” It was his first acting job “as such,” the place where “he got a bit of a taste for it.”
Meanwhile, “I was doing acoustic songs live and I started to do some comedy venues before the comedy and I was conscious that it would jar, so I made some of the songs funny — I mean, I thought they were,” Berry remembers. “I would do sort of confessional singer-songwriting but as a serial killer, stuff like that. It was just experimental.”
Matthew Holness, who was putting together the ’80s horror pastiche “Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace” with Richard Ayoade — with whom Berry would later costar in “The IT Crowd” — saw him perform and asked him to join the cast. “It was a huge gamble for him, ’cause I hadn’t done any TV. I hadn’t done anything.” (Holness appears in “Rabbit” as Prince Hector of Bulgaria.)
The year 2004 was a watershed for Berry. Besides “Garth Marenghi,” there was a recurring role in the bizarro cult comedy “The Mighty Boosh,” as well as “AD/BC: A Rock Opera,” a perfect pastiche of “Jesus Christ Superstar” that Berry cowrote with Ayoade. Like “Rabbit” and the “TV Themes” album, it looks back to the 1970s.
“That’s what I grew up surrounded by and that’s what affected me and frightened me and inspired me,” Berry says. “I suppose it’s because I wasn’t alive properly then. I mean, I was, but I didn’t know what was going on, so it seemed sort of magical. And that sort of thing stays with you. You find it in all your art, whether it’s in your painting or your music or your comedy. ”
“The imagery would have frightened me. Things like ‘Doctor Who’ would have been frightening. [Fourth Doctor] Tom Baker was very frightening when I was young. Most things on the TV were very frightening back then, especially in this country; the health and safety adverts were terrifying. It was a very startling time to be a little kid, the ’70s.”
Prog, too, was a product of the ’70s that sometimes frightened him. Like a Berry character, the music can come across as majestic and hilarious at the same time.
“With prog there was a sense of you could do whatever you wanted within the art form,” he says. “It put a lot of people off because you had to be fairly good at your instrument, but what I like about it is that there can be as many different styles mixed as you want.”
Berry’s life has been an exercise in mixing and matching, and not giving up. Back when he was studying painting in college in Nottingham, “One of the lecturers pointed to four different paintings on a slide, and said, ‘Guess which is the odd one out.’ Of course we hadn’t got a clue. He pointed at one and said, ‘I painted that when I was at college and it was the last painting I ever did.’ That has stayed with me for the rest of my life. It was a case of ‘I won’t do what you done, I won’t stop.’ It hit like a hammer.
“I don’t want to ever stop doing this stuff,” says Berry. “It’s what keeps me going.”
‘Year of the Rabbit’
When: 10:30 p.m. Wednesday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
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