“I Was ‘Named and Shamed’ in the News of the World”

TJ Worthington interviews Arthur Mathews

First published November 2005

A couple of months back, writer Arthur Mathews visited OTT and got in touch to express his appreciation for the site’s article on his sitcom Hippies. While we had his attention, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to run a couple of questions past him …

OTT: You started out as a journalist. How did you first get into writing comedy for television?

ARTHUR MATHEWS: Accidentally. I met Graham Linehan at Hot Press magazine, and we decided to give writing a go while I was staying with him in London where he had gone to write for Select. We sent scripts to Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones and they ended up using them in their 1992 series. We worked on a few sketch shows around this time and were more heavily involved with some than others. With Harry Enfield, we just met him once or twice and sent in sketches. With Alexei Sayle and Mel and Griff we had a much more personal relationship. I was a huge fan of On The Hour, but we weren’t really involved that much with The Day Today. We only really wrote one sketch. But it did feature a tiger.

OTT: Given how much more ridiculous television news has become in the intervening years, do you think that The Day Today still holds up well?

ARTHUR MATHEWS: Oh, yes. It’s much more relevant now. The current BBC six o’clock news is a joke. It seems to be aimed at children – lots of jolly reporters explaining things with garish graphics. Even Newsnight sweetens a lot of its reports with needless music and gimmicks. “Dumbing down” is a much overused phrase, and usually meant as a meaningless term of abuse, but it certainly applies to news more than any other area.

OTT: Your first sitcom Paris was not as successful as it deserved to be. Do you think it was possibly too sophisticated and esoteric for the timeslot it was placed in?

ARTHUR MATHEWS: Hard to know. I couldn’t honestly say it was too sophisticated. Regarding the timeslot, I remember it was right up against Harry Enfield’s show on the BBC. The thing I liked most about Paris was James Dreyfuss, and a superlative guest appearance by Windsor Davies. There were great people in that show: John Bird, Eleanor Bron, John Baron, Rebecca Front, Ian McNeice, Patrick Marber … incidentally, I don’t think Neil Morrissey was that well known at the time. Men Behaving Badly hadn’t quite taken off at that stage.

OTT: Paris gave Neil Morrissey a rare chance to play against his usual character type, and he rose to the challenge admirably. Would you consider him to be an underrated performer?

ARTHUR MATHEWS: Do people underrate him? I wouldn’t have thought so. He does a certain “thing” … very energetic … likeable … confident and consistent. He fitted in very well in Men Behaving Badly“. He’s also one of those people who’s very popular on set.

OTT: Do you think that there would have been scope for Paris go to a second series?

ARTHUR MATHEWS: We probably could have got another series out of it. Not a third, though.

OTT: In his autobiography, Michael Grade mentions he wasn’t keen on the pilot for Father Ted, but was sufficiently convinced by his colleagues’ enthusiasm for it to consider it worth taking a risk on. Did you get much of a sense of this at the time?

ARTHUR MATHEWS: I can understand that a programme about three Irish priests living on an island might not appeal to Michael Grade. We certainly never met him. There wouldn’t be much communication between writers and the higher echelons of the TV establishment.

OTT: Were you confident that the second series of Father Ted would provide the breakthrough that it did?

ARTHUR MATHEWS: I’m never confident nor unconfident, really. I hoped that the second series would make an impact, and it did.

OTT: A lot of the best moments in Father Ted – the teenagers on the Priest Chatline, the Dancing Priest, “Brick Enlivens Dull Floor” and so on – are well assimilated into the main storyline but have the air of ideas that were thought up in isolation. Did you always have a clear idea of what would happen in episodes from the outset?

ARTHUR MATHEWS: It was surprisingly easy to crowbar jokes or ideas like these into plots. If we really liked an idea we could usually force it in. The rule was always to think of funny situations, and then come up with the plots later. The Father Stone plot, where a really boring priest comes to stay with them and won’t leave, is completely based on what happened to friends of mine.

OTT: There was some talk between series two and series three of an episode involving Ted meeting his previously-unknown son. Why was this eventually abandoned?

ARTHUR MATHEWS: It was one of lots of ideas. It never really got onto the page. I also remember a plot about Ted finding out he was unable to have children, and becoming hugely obsessed and frustrated about this – despite the fact that he was a priest, and wasn’t allowed to have children anyway. Also, I was quite keen that Jack’s twin brother would turn up. He would have been very sophisticated and articulate – the polar opposite of Jack. It would have been great for Frank Kelly to play him.

OTT: If circumstances had been different, would Father Ted have continued in any form, or was the finale of the third series always envisaged as the end?

ARTHUR MATHEWS: We decided that three was enough. When a show isn’t really set in the real world, it’s more difficult. For what it’s worth, I think The Office quit too early. They could have got another series out of it.

OTT: Was it obvious from the outset that Brass Eye was going to be a remarkable piece of work?


OTT: How did you feel when it was pulled from broadcast late in 1996?

ARTHUR MATHEWS: I’d completely forgotten about that. I probably thought at the time, “Good publicity for the show, and it’ll be on in a few months anyway”.

OTT: The first series of Big Train was radically different in style and content from most other comedy shows at the time, and certainly set the template for much that has followed since. Was there a conscious intention to do something “new” and different with the show?

ARTHUR MATHEWS: To be honest, it was just bringing the “new comedy” of naturalism which Chris and Armando had pioneered in The Day Today to a sketch show – the idea of playing something utterly mad in a realistic way. Smack the Pony was similar … but with girls. Most of the sketches weren’t written with performers in mind. We just whacked out ideas as fast as we could. Although Kevin Eldon (who’s a huge Beatles fan) does a fantastic George Martin impression, so we wrote a George Martin sketch for him. Also, in the second series, because I remembered Simon Pegg doing a very funny Russell Crowe impersonation, I wrote something where he could do his “Russell Crowe in Gladiator“.

OTT: Where did the idea for Hippies come from? Had you seen the 1991 BBC adaptation of The Trials of Oz?

ARTHUR MATHEWS: Yes! The Trials of Oz was a huge influence. Hippies as a “species” were just funny. Incredible naive idealism and blind enthusiasm mixed with sexism and drug taking. I’d read Richard Neville’s book as well, and just thought how awful all those people were. And they looked terrible. I saw the Cream concert from 1968 on BBC4 recently. Absolutely dire. And I always disliked Bob Dylan …. so it all added up. You can see where I’m coming from here.

OTT: Many of those who enjoyed Hippies say they feel it did not start on the strongest episode, and in fact the fourth transmitted edition (‘Hippy Dippy Hippies’) has a more conventional “start of series” feel to it. Was this originally intended to go out first?

ARTHUR MATHEWS: “Hippy Dippy Hippies” was the original pilot, although we re-shot it for the series. I can’t quite remember what the reason was for putting the first one out. I’m sure it just felt the funniest. I wasn’t unhappy about it at the time. Actually, there was an “American super hippy” character in that first episode which I remember Bill Bailey auditioning for, but the part went to someone else. Big mistake!

OTT: Why do you feel the show was so poorly recieved?

ARTHUR MATHEWS: I dunno … high expectations after Father Ted … putting actors in wigs is always risky (for some reason) … The fact that TV reviewers are all 55-year-old ex hippies … mocking an era which is quite precious to a lot of people … conventional, studio based sitcoms, with audience laughter etc. feeling a bit old fashioned at the time. The Guide to Comedy says the show didn’t “feel” like the ’60s, which I think is a fair comment. Maybe the scripts weren’t good enough (I must take some responsibility!).

OTT: Judging from the positive response to the OTT article, there are a fair number of fans of the show out there – not just those who enjoyed the original broadcasts, but those who discovered it through the Paramount Comedy repeats as well. Are you as pleasantly surprised by this as we were?

ARTHUR MATHEWS: Yes. People generally say nice things about Father Ted, but if they say they liked Hippies it means a lot more.

OTT: If it had been granted a second series, what would have lain ahead for Ray, Jill, Alex and Hugo?

ARTHUR MATHEWS: I actually wrote a lot of the second series. Alex was going to enter a competition for Britain’s most laid back person. Ray was convinced that he was going to be featured on this This is Your Life. Jill joined a suicide cult. There was no shortage of ideas. I would have brought back Peter Serafinowicz, who played a very frightening character called Robin. He was very funny in the first series.

OTT: Chris Morris’ avant-garde sketch show jam didn’t entirely come off but was at the very least a worthwhile experiment, and many who felt underwhelmed by it on first viewing claim to have enjoyed it much more subsequently. What are your own views on this?

ARTHUR MATHEWS: Chris likes “pushing the envelope”. It worked best if you weren’t expecting it to be comedy. I remember he wanted the original radio series (Blue Jam) to be on about 3am where people might hear it when they were half asleep. Incidentally, I was just thinking the other day, how great it was that you could see this stuff on “terrestial” TV. There’s probably no other country in the world where that could happen, so “well done British TV bosses!”.

OTT: Did you ever feel uncomfortable with any of the material in the programme?

ARTHUR MATHEWS: Not in the slightest. I find it much less offensive than the BBC six o’clock news … or My Family.

OTT: One of your more controversial engagements was on the notorious Brass Eye special in 2001. How do you now view the furore that sourrounded its broadcast? Were you at all prepared for the sheer volume of the audience response?

ARTHUR MATHEWS: There wasn’t much happening in the world that week. It wouldn’t have overshadowed September 11. It was a bit uncomfortable for Chris because he got doorstepped by the tabloids and all that nonsense, but when it all died down, he must have felt very pleased. Phil Clarke, the producer, had to deal with a lot of unpleasantness afterwards. I was “named and shamed” in the News of the World, which was a bit of a thrill. It made me realise how powerful the press are, though. They basically run the country, which is a very scary thought..

OTT: Many have commented that, the amount of controversy it provoked aside, the Brass Eye special did not entirely succeed in hitting its intended targets, and was full of good ideas poorly realised. What were your own feelings about the finished show?

ARTHUR MATHEWS: I saw it again recently, and thought it was great. The subject wasn’t paedophelia itself, but rather the hysterical press reaction to it, so yes, it tackled that subject very well. Interestingly, Chris Morris interviewed a real paedophile at the end of the show, but everybody thought it was just an actor.

OTT: Of your work that has so far yet to appear on DVD, what would you like to see dusted down for release, and what extras would you like to accompany them?

ARTHUR MATHEWS: Hippies with a commentary by the Oz editors!

OTT: What are you working on at the moment?

ARTHUR MATHEWS: A musical about Roy Keane’s “experience” at the last World Cup. It’s been on for a while in Dublin, and there’s a possibility of a TV version. Also, a pilot sitcom for five, a couple of film ideas, and I’m going to script edit a series for Rich Fulcher and Matt Berry, later in the summer. Armando Iannucci has asked me to do some writing for a show he’s developing. His The Thick of It is incredible. He’s raised the bar again.