The Making of Matt

Imagine you are a novelist. You want to create an instantly credible picture of middle-class life at some time in the past couple of decades — a suburb, a village, a pub. Easy: one chap passes another and asks, “Seen Matt today?”

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Imagine you are a novelist. You want to create an instantly credible picture of middle-class life at some time in the past couple of decades — a suburb, a village, a pub. Easy: one chap passes another and asks, “Seen Matt today?”

Granted, they would have to be readers of the Daily Telegraph, for that is where Matt Pritchett’s front-page cartoons have appeared for 12 years now. But he has dug himself into the consciousness of millions as few of his angrier, more flamboyant rivals have done. In getting his inky crosshairs on the English Character, he compares to Pont or Giles. His wry, mordant, put-upon couple are to the middle classes what Andy Capp was to the working classes.

Matt is the grandson of the great short story writer V. S. Pritchett and the son of the Telegraph columnist Oliver Pritchett — but his rise owes nothing to nepotism and everything to ruthless Darwinian competition.

At St Martin’s School of Art in London he wanted to be a graphic designer, then an illustrator, then thought about being a film cameraman, until he realised he liked the companionable lunches more than the filming. “I really had no idea what I was going to do until I was about 24,” he says. Working as a pizza waiter in London, he then had “one of those moments.”

“I had been told you got £60 for a joke in Punch and I thought, if I can think of just one joke in a week, then I can pay my rent and eat a bit; and if I can think of two jokes I can live like a king.” For weeks and weeks he sent off his drawings and heard nothing. When at last the New Statesman published one, he was hooked. In those days, the ­Telegraph Peterborough column carried a daily topical cartoon and Matt became one of the huddle of hopefuls who would drop by in the mid-afternoon with three or four drawings.

The first of his cartoons published by Peterborough was accepted when its editor, Peter Birkett, was on a day off. Next morning Birkett returned to the office, furious. He expanded Matt’s drawing to A3 and hung it from the ceiling with the caption, “This is the worst cartoon that has ever appeared in any publication.” Matt dryly notes that Birkett was later inclined to remind him how much he owed to Birkett for giving him his first break.

His transition to front-page cartoonist began with another howler. The paper printed the wrong date below its masthead. Disaster! Rarely has Tunbridge Wells been in a state of such foaming outrage. The then editor, Max Hastings, penned a grovelling front-page apology. It was decided the pill might be sweeter if a cartoon was attached: Matt’s “I hope I have a better Thursday than I did yesterday” amused both Hastings and the readers. When the great Mark Boxer died in 1988, Matt had become a shoo-in to replace him.

If he got there through vigorous competition, like an old variety comedian who has to make them laugh to pay the bills, then his continuing reputation depends on a high output and wastage rate — about six jokes a day go to the paper’s night editor, of which two or three are then sent to the editor. More than four-fifths of his work ends up in the bin.

This would send many people into despair. Matt says, “I am always so thrilled that one has got through that I forget all the ones which have fallen by the wayside.” How does he get the ideas? By deciding on a broad subject and then thinking of, say, 10 jokes on petrol prices. The “rubbish” is shaken off in the process. “It’s very rare that the first one gets through. It’s often the very last one. I think of it as being a bit like colonic irrigation.”

The drawing depicts just enough to convey what needs to be said and no more, as with Mel Calman of the old Times or Matt’s personal hero, the French cartoon genius Sempé. But like them Matt has to get inside the skin of an ideal reader and subject, to come up with “people the readers will sympathise with”. So does that classic Matt couple actually exist — the pair poised somewhere between Meldrew and Hancock, peering out at a batty, inexplicable world? Oh yes, he says, they do. But they don’t know that they’re his inspiration, appearing daily on the front of the Telegraph.

So there you go: inspiration, but perspiration first. And the lineage? Matt points out that his grandfather wrote short stories, his father writes columns, and he makes a living on eight or nine words a day. “My children will be mime artists.” See? Not even a drawing with that one.