Matt Pritchett: The Telegraph cartoonist gets top honour

Having missed one of the biggest newspaper scoops in recent years, the 'Telegraph' cartoonist Matt Pritchett is embarrassed to be among 40 people honoured for their impact on modern journalism. Ian Burrell reports
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The Independent Online

Matt Pritchett is, by his own admission, "slightly embarrassed" at being included among the new Hall of Fame set up to honour the 40 people who have done most to shape the modern era of British journalism.

It is not only that the Daily Telegraph cartoonist is flattered by the esteemed company he will be keeping in a gallery of stars to be unveiled by the directors of the journalists' trade magazine Press Gazette. He also has an admission to make: he missed the scoop of his life.

"I think I can claim the prize for missing the biggest story in the last couple of years," confesses the man known to thousands of Telegraph readers simply as "Matt".

The missed scoop occurred earlier this year when Pritchett received a telephone call from Kimberly Quinn, publisher of the Spectator and then the secret lover of the Home Secretary, David Blunkett. "She said she had been reading the papers to David Blunkett that morning and he had loved a cartoon I had done on ID cards," remembers the cartoonist.

"It didn't occur to me [to think] 'What was Kimberly Quinn doing reading the morning newspapers to David Blunkett?' When the affair was announced I said to the news desk 'I probably should have mentioned this.'"

How did the Telegraph news desk respond? "They said 'Yes, probably I should have mentioned it,'" says Pritchett.

"That was showing my unerring knack for spotting a news story. Quinn was saying, 'David and I were roaring with laughter, could I give him the original.' It was morning and they were obviously lying in bed together reading the papers like a married couple. Saying it now, you'd think it would be obvious to someone in a newspaper."

The cartoon featured two dogs, with one handing an ID card to the other. The line ran: "This is so much better than sniffing each other's bottoms."

It's good, but not Matt's favourite. That would be the first one he had published on the Telegraph's front page in 1988, shortly after then editor Max Hastings appointed him as the newspaper's cartoonist at the age of 24, following the death of Mark 'Marc' Boxer.

It was an unusual brief. The Telegraph had printed the wrong date on the previous day's paper. Readers had complained that they had headed off to the airport by mistake or been harangued for forgetting a birthday, Pritchett recalls. Hastings was obliged to run an apology and a Matt cartoon was to accompany it. "I did a cartoon of two people and the line 'I hope I have a better Thursday than I did yesterday', which sort of went with the general mood of crisis of the readers."

Matt, whose father, Oliver Pritchett, is a Sunday Telegraph columnist ("he is my absolute hero and the funniest person I know"), likes to work amid the energy of a newsroom. "I'm terrible on my own. I'm very undisciplined and I need to be in an office surrounded by people and with the panic of having to get something done," he says. "Like all journalists the subjects are given to you - it's the news. It's more stressful but it's exciting."

He says that the Telegraph gives him a long rein and that "as long as it's funny and vaguely topical they don't really care".

He is conscious of the need for the cartoon to "work" even if the reader has not read the story to which it is linked. Some readers turn to Matt before anything else. On occasions, the front-page story selection will have been changed and the cartoon will have to stand alone. "You don't want people to have to read the news story before they get the joke," he says.

The system is not infallible. There are times when a cartoon that seemed viable early in the afternoon appears in bad taste or unsuitable when it is about to be put on the page. A gag about the wings falling off Concorde was published the morning before a Concorde crash.

He still enjoys the challenge of finding new variations on "traditional cartoon settings", the desert islands and the man coming home to a wife with a rolling pin. But his approach is not to pressure himself into thinking for hours in search of a single killer joke for a cartoon but to do lots. "No matter how crap they are I think of 20 [jokes]. Your first few are rubbish but the only thing to do is be more creative. So I have a scattergun approach," he says.

Pritchett, a former student of St Martin's School of Art in London, had nurtured an ambition to be a film-cameraman but gave it up as a dead loss. "I naively assumed everyone would be interested in your views on how a set should be lit or shot," he says. "When I arrived I realised the director had a video link to see how the shot was framed and the cameraman was there to carry the camera from one place to another."

Stuck for something to do and living in a bedsit, Pritchett, the grandson of the writer VS Pritchett, heard that it was possible to earn £75 a time submitting cartoons for publication. "I thought 'Well I can draw and I must be able to think of one joke a week and if I can think of two I will be living like a millionaire,'" he remembers.

His first published joke was a variation on that old favourite of cartoonists, the desert island gag. So, two men on an island, one has a box of chocolates. "Who's been eating from the bottom layer?" he asks his companion. The New Statesman bought and published it.

After a time freelancing, Pritchett approached the Telegraph and was told that if he produced a cartoon on a daily basis they would "consider" him. For six weeks he produced six cartoons a week, until finally one was printed. For the past 17 years his work has appeared on the Telegraph's front page.

According to Pritchett's esteemed colleague, the political cartoonist Nicholas Garland, Matt is such a perfectionist that he once spent 50 drawings getting the right expression on a corgi's face. "He has an almost uncanny ability to tap into the daily news and to link it with the perplexing difficulties of the human situation.

"Although his work is in tune with modern life, he reaches back into some older British tradition of humour - understated, rueful, good natured, and only occasionally sarcastic," says Garland of his friend.

"He is fluent in the language of cartoons - he can draw the awful thing that is about to happen as well as the calamity that just occurred. His characters are familiar, their situations timeless - they struggle in the battle of the sexes, they clash across the generations, they fail, they despair, they get up and start again. He is amused by our hypocrisy and fibs and pretentions. Yet he never seems to judge. Although frequently you recognise your frailties neatly skewered, instead of feeling humiliated you feel reassured. He seems in his quiet way to be saying we're all like this - me too."

According to Charles Wilson, chair of the Press Gazette panel: "The judges felt that what made Matt shine through as a Hall of Fame cartoonist was that coupled with his talent he has massive consistency that has won him awards year after year."

Pritchett, who at 41 is the youngest inductee into the Hall of Fame, feels "sheepish" about it all. "I'm amazed," he says. "I have to think of something that doesn't sound like a footballer such as 'I'm over the moon' or 'It hasn't sunk in yet'.

"But no, I'm incredibly honoured and terrified about the company I'm in."

The Press Gazette Hall of Fame will be unveiled tomorrow at the National Portrait Gallery, London.