True, Nigel doesn’t get along with his dad (Ken Stott).
“I think he thinks there’s something wrong with me,” he confides to a friend.
But his father, “not a sweet man,” would find some reason to pick on him no matter what. Nigel blames the man’s disposition on a “lack of nutrients” because his mum (Victoria Hamilton) is “averse to fresh produce.”
Indeed, we’re led to believe it’s Mum’s lack of cooking skills that leads Nigel to develop his own. The film’s title comes from the family’s default meal when Mum burns everything else — even food in unopened cans!
Mum’s not perfect but Nigel loves her. She also has lung problems that take her life before the movie’s too far along. As a fair trade for everyone but Nigel, her place in the kitchen (and eventually Dad’s bed) is assumed by Mrs. Joan Potter (Helena Bonham Carter), a cleaning woman who knows how to remove stains and make a lemon meringue pie, among other things.
Soon Joan and Nigel are competing for Dad’s affection by cooking for him, and Joan cheats. Years pass (roughly 1967-74, going by Slater’s biography) and the war continues. Nigel (now Freddie Highmore) is still quietly gay, whether he or anyone else, except maybe the girl in class who calls him a “pouf,” knows it. He’s the only boy who signs up for home economics lessons, because he wants to take his cooking to the next level.
Things are so unpleasant at home that Nigel takes a Saturday job at a restaurant to get out of the house. That’s where he meets a slightly older man who teaches him a positive lesson about being himself in a lovely scene.
With things being so unpleasant at home it’s not clear why Nigel’s father doesn’t send him to boarding school to relieve the tension. It’s disconcerting, though a refreshing change from the norm, that our hero is far from perfect. His conflict with Joan is as much his fault as hers.
The excellent period recreation is reinforced by songs by bisexual songstress Dusty Springfield.
Now that Kate Winslet has done Joan Crawford in “Mildred Pierce” and Helena Bonham Carter gets more like Bette Davis with every cigarette-puffing role like this one, can another remake of “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” be far off?
Top photo: In ‘Toast,’ based on the childhood memoir of gay chef Nigel Slater, a boy learns to cook to compete for his father’s affection. (Publicity photo)