Media families; 13. The Pritchetts

Victor Sawdon (VS) Pritchett (author, critic) begat Oliver (columnist), who begat Matt (cartoonist) and Georgia (comedy scriptwriter)
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The Independent Online
VS Pritchett's first foray into print, according to a recent obituary, was a two-sentence joke published in a newspaper - a debut that seems appropriate to his descendents, professional humourists as they are.

VSP, as he was known, was a great short-story writer and a distinguished literary critic, biographer and novelist, whose sensibilities were characterised by an interest in "ordinary" people. His stories are informed by his belief that: "No one can be called a type; everyone can be at least three people."

Born above a toyshop in Ipswich to a family accustomed to fleeing creditors by night, VSP was removed from school at 15 and sent to work in a tannery in London. He defied the family, though, and moved to Paris aged 19, intent on becoming a writer.

He was hired by the Christian Science Monitor (his father was a keen member of the church) to cover Ireland and Spain, but failed miserably as a foreign correspondent, having little interest in news. The stint, however, sparked his love affair with Spain and led to his first book, Marching Spain. Three years later, in 1930, his first collection of short stories, The Spanish Virgin, was published.

Although he was a generous and popular reviewer at the New Statesman, biographer of Balzac, Turgenev and Chekhov, and popular novelist, his reputation rests on the short stories. This talent may well have come from his mother, an illiterate Cockney story-teller.

"My father always said she was the comical member of the family - his father was rather pompous," says his son Oliver, twinkly and charming, who writes amusing columns in the Daily and Sunday Telegraphs. "I do remember going to see her and she was tremendously funny, full of stories of disasters in family life."

The work of the Pritchetts, all three generations, seems to be linked first by observation and then by comedy. VSP's characters include commercial travellers and shop-keepers (both jobs his father held), their situations, desires and fears the stuff of social black comedy.

Oliver creates his own social comedy as a Telegraph columnist - as another practitioner said, "Oliver takes one idea for a walk and does something funny with it." Recent examples include ideas for new radio vehicles for Nick Ross following his retirement from his Radio 4 phone-in show - a 30-minute programme called I'm Sorry, Nick Ross Is In A Meeting. The idea, Oliver explains, "is that viewers who have strong views on current issues phone in and try to get past a secretary to express these views to Nick Ross himself. You have all the tension and drama of the caller trying to outwit the secretary while at the same time almost exploding with opinion. You also get the very strong feeling of the presence of Nick Ross, in the background, rolling his eyes, shaking his head and making "don't-make- me-speak-to-them" gestures."

The column came about, he says, because Peregrine Worsthorne, then editor of the Sunday Telegraph, didn't like a notebook piece Oliver had written. "I didn't have much time so, rather desperate, I wrote a fantasy, and he said, 'Carry on like that.' "

Oliver now works with his son Matt, the Daily Telegraph's pocket cartoonist (he draws the small cartoon on the front page): "We laugh a lot," Oliver says.

Matt (known as Matthew to his family) won his big break from Max Hastings through sheer persistence, according to his father. A graphics student at St Martin's School of Art, Matthew "kept on getting turned down and kept on going in again ... he just would not give up."

He has been rewarded since by winning the title Cartoonist of the Year at the 1996 British Press Awards and the Cartoon Art Trust's award for the most consistently funny jokes in 1995 and 1996. Matt's line last Friday was a cabbie talking: "I had that Tory party in the back of my cab yesterday." It is the kind of thing his sister Georgia might come up with in her role as sketch-writer on Spitting Image, Weekending and Alas Smith and Jones.

"I'm very like my brother - people say I look like him in a Cher wig," she observes. They once shared a house and would offer each other enthusiastic suggestions that rarely worked - the visual and verbal media somehow don't connect, Georgia says. Her work is also observational - she writes Ronnie Corbett's monologues - and her granny says she is very like VSP, "which is the nicest thing anyone could say".

Georgia believes in the genetic link for comedy (though she also credits her mother, "the funniest of us all"). "It's nice that Grandpa, Dad, Matthew and me do very different things," she says. "We don't step on each other's comedy toes"n