Joe Nawaz meets the cartoonist with The Daily Telegraph
Matt Pritchett has been making the front page of The Daily Telegraph every day for years now without ever breaking a story or pointing a camera. As the paper’s resident cartoonist for over two decades, his success can be attributed to his subtle sarcasm and gossamer-light touch with a topical gag.
Pritchett's gift is to consistently produce satirical vignettes laced with equal shots of playful subversion and disarming charm. This subtle infusion means he gets away with visual gags on subjects like gay adoption with a minimum of fuss from the largely conservative (big and small ‘c’), Telegraph readership. When he once took the piss out of the Queen, she asked for a copy of the cartoon.
Pritchett makes a rare visit to Belfast as a guest speaker at the excellent Ulster Festival of Art and Design (June 8-20) at the University of Ulster. For somebody whose work demands long hours of isolated contemplation of affairs current, he’s extremely enjoyable company with a fabulous line in off-the-cuff anecdotes. He’s the human embodiment of his own work: a sweet, gently funny, self-deprecating man in possession of a hugely compelling nerdish enthusiasm.
Pritchett seems totally unaffected or perhaps even unimpressed by his own considerable reputation. It’s easy to forget that this extremely personable and chatty bloke is in possession of a glut of plaudits ranging the gamut from the impressive (an MBE) to the very impressive (The Observer listed him as one of the 50 funniest people in the UK).
It might have been different for the graphics graduate who initially wanted to work in film. In spite of his journalistic pedigree (father Oliver and grandfather VS Pritchett both forged heavyweight reputations as writers and critics) Pritchett admits that political cartoons were something he 'stumbled into'.
'After I graduated, I couldn’t decide what to do,' he recalls. 'I loved film but couldn’t see a job for myself; at least not one where they were prepared to pay me for my services. I started drawing. I always loved it, but I didn’t want to sit around and wait for people to commission me. I thought that if you make what you do funny, then you can send it off uninvited and they can’t stop you! I did this for weeks and months probably, just these scruffy little drawings.'
This tenacity was eventually rewarded, when after months of fruitless soliciting, The New Statesman optioned one of his cartoons. 'Bless them,' he jokes, reminiscing abut his first published cartoon. 'I honestly wasn’t sure that I was doing the right thing until the first one went into The New Statesman. It was a total revelation to me - what a great way to make a living. Stay at home, dream up jokes and then send them on.'
Pritchett quickly developed a unique visual style - instantly, recognisably ‘Matt’. Not long after, in 1988, he was snapped up by former Telegraph editor Max Hastings. Pritchett has thrived in a sort of splendid isolation ever since, enjoying 'the discipline and pressure of the news room' whilst being left to his own extremely productive devices.
'People often ask me if the folks at The Telegraph ever tell me off for not being right wing enough. But the only thing they’ve ever said to me is ‘we think that cartoon is funnier than this cartoon’. That’s the bottom line in the end - it has to be funny.
'I often find working in an un-Telegraph way is a good method. For instance, I once did a cartoon about gay couples adopting children where this schoolkid is unpacking a candelabra for his lunch and another kid is saying ‘I wish I had gay parents’. I was proud of that because it was funny and quite pro-gay adoption. I think the readers know when you’re trying to be offensive or when you’re just quietly tickling their tummies.'
Pritchett’s seemingly innocuous style of lampoonism can’t mask the vitality of his wit. His ‘walk on water’ cartoon about Barack Obama a few years back hit the mark dead-on whilst maintaining a warm affection for its subject - a near impossible feat in any comic field, let alone a field measured in just centimetres.
Pritchett’s daily routine in the office involves trawling through ideas to come up with six potential cartoons for the following day’s paper. It’s a process he likens to creative colonic irrigation: 'Just put down any ideas that come into your head to begin with and then hopefully you’ll flush out all the crap and be left with the good stuff!'
'Topical jokes have a very limited shelf life and it’s amazing how quickly they go stale in the news, sometimes even overnight. It’s also extraordinary how many stories repeat themselves in cycles: greedy bankers, housing crash, housing boom...'
In such a highly pressurised environment, the cartoonist's profession is certainly a competitive one. Naming no names, of course, Pritchett faux-reluctantly admits to admiring some of his peers. 'I have a lot of friends and admire a lot of cartoonists, but I hope it’s not too terrible to say I look at The New Yorker. If I see a great cartoon in another British newspaper it doesn’t give me a great deal of pleasure. That’s not to say there aren’t beautiful cartoons in the UK, I just hate to admit it!'
Rivalry amongst the various topical doodlers is indeed in rude health and, as Pritchett reveals, there’s a general fear of everybody picking up on the same angle or detail from a story. 'I often get to the middle of the day and start to panic that everybody else is working on the same stuff as me. Luckily it happens rarely.'
'Although, there was that Christmas - just around the time of the shoe-bomber, I think - and air authorities were going to introduce air marshalls on to planes. Everybody, and I mean everybody had a cartoon of Santa’s Sleigh with an air marshall on board. On one particular paper, both the cartoonists had done it. More often though, I’ll see a cartoon elsewhere that has nailed something that if I go back to my pad I can see I almost got to.'
Of his own personal favourites over the years, Pritchett singles out one particular pocket gem. 'Remember when they were auctioning some of Hitler’s watercolours and, shockingly, they turned out to be quite good? I had a man looking over his wife’s shoulder at her painting saying: ‘Well, it’s pretty good, but you’re no Hitler’. I really enjoyed that. How often in a career do you ever get to make a joke about Hitler and get away without causing huge offence?'
On the subject of potential offence, has the artist ever had occasion to point his ink pen in a more northerly direction? Pritchett pauses for a moment, for the first time in the interview. 'I have, but the thing with Northern Ireland is that it’s often tricky. There’s either complex processes going on that are hard to distil into something funny, or terrorism, which of course isn’t very funny either.'
He does have one last fittingly regional anecdote however: 'I do remember doing a cartoon about a republican jail break some years ago, and in it they were tunnelling out dressed as a snake. I can’t remember why. But anyway, The Telegraph’s legal team is famously ferocious about copyright. They usually let nothing drop. But when they got wind that the cartoon had been reprinted without permission in An Phoblacht, they thought, 'actually, we’ll let this one go on this occasion'.'
One may wonder what the outcome of such a legal action might have been, but it’s a disconcertingly edifying notion that royalty and republicans alike can find common ground in the gentle barbs of this master satirist.