- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
We have all needed to respect social-distancing guidelines this year, but when it came to joking about the coronavirus, Matt Pritchett, the Telegraph’s front-page cartoonist, imposed his own rule.
‘You have to stay a good two metres away from the subject of people actually getting ill,’ he says with a grin. ‘But any story is sensitive and complicated. Before this it was the Irish backstop. The key is just to get as close to shocking as you can without ever upsetting anyone.’
Over the past 32 years, Matt has managed to give us laughs from the unlikeliest source material: terrorist attacks, natural disasters, celebrity deaths… If there’s a story, he can generally find a joke in it. But a pandemic? That was a new one.
‘I suppose we had SARS, but I don’t remember that being [such] a big deal, so there was nothing to compare Covid-19 to. And this was dramatic. “Stay at home”, “Only go out to buy food…” But although it was a very serious subject and people were getting very ill, I suppose there was enough on the periphery I could make jokes out of.’
There certainly was. Where would we have been, over the past seven months, without Matt? At home, I expect, but lockdown would have been infinitely more miserable. Whether it was questionable haircuts, homeschooling, staycations, rapidly changing rules, even the economic forecast, Matt’s daily drawing found the absurd in the gloomy. In fact, most aspects of the crisis got a poking from him – from Dominic Cummings’ eye test in Barnard Castle to stockpiling toilet roll.
Seeing these Covid cartoons together, as you can by flicking through his new book, The Best of Matt 2020, is to realise just how much of a public service he provided – and continues to provide.
The question he is always asked is, ‘How do you do it?’ And since bashfully magnanimous is Matt’s primary mode, he is a lot more comfortable answering the latter.
For the past three decades, the answer was the same: Matt, 56, would come into the Telegraph’s London offices at around 8am, settle in his quiet corner, and begin leafing through the papers, listening to the radio and watching breakfast news. After that he would chat to reporters about the big stories of the day and jot down lists of ideas on his pad. He’d work through three or four black coffees from a decrepit vending machine, lope around the newsroom, thinking, thinking, and eventually he’d whittle those ideas down to a few that would be drawn. Later, the editor would choose his favourite, and that’s the one you see the next day.
But lockdown has changed all that. 'I kept coming in right up to the moment it was the law that I had to go home. So I very quickly got a laptop, got the technology up and running, worked out how I could do this from home, and left.’
Matt lives near Diss in Suffolk, in a house that sounds as if it is as busy as a newsroom. ‘All four of my children were there, some of their boyfriends, a nephew… We were all working in separate rooms, but it felt, very quickly, like it was normal,’ he says. ‘We had lots of good cooks, and one of the boyfriends got into sourdough. He’d always be nursing some grotesque thing in our pantry, but he was brilliant at it.’
Matt descends from a line of creatives – his grandfather was VS Pritchett, the writer and literary critic, his father Oliver was a journalist for The Sunday Telegraph – and he is still surrounded by them. His wife, Pascale Smets, runs an interiors shop. Their two eldest children, Edith, 26, and Mary, 24, are a cartoonist and a jeweller, respectively.
Even at home, he thought of his ideas by pottering around on foot. ‘If the weather’s nice I can go for a thoughtful walk around the garden, but my problem is that my dog, Reg, follows me everywhere and thinks he’s going for a walk.’
He stayed healthy, and has cultivated a raffish beard that ‘took pretty much the whole of lockdown to grow’. (He’s kept it; it now acts as the distinguished half of a double act with his familiar Tintin quiff.)
Out of ‘a kind of nervousness that I wouldn’t think of anything from home’, he began starting work earlier, nearer 6.30am. He and Edith would talk about the big topics of the day, but it wasn’t difficult to guess what would dominate the news. Every day. For months. And still going.
‘For any normal person my job would be extremely repetitive, in that it’s the same every day, but this was even the same story.’
His two-metre rule – treading the fine line between wit and sensitivity – was tested early on, when he drew a cartoon featuring a woman saying she was hoping to get Covid-19 because her husband was cooking and she was aware that a loss of taste and smell are among the symptoms…
‘I heard that some people thought that was getting towards the sensitive side.’
He adds: ‘I did a joke about Prince Charles having it, because I knew he didn’t have it too badly, but I waited until Boris Johnson was out of intensive care before doing a joke about him. You’re always aware things could quickly turn much darker.’
The critic Clive James, late of the Telegraph, once referred to writing as ‘turn[ing] a phrase until it catches the light.’ It isn’t far off Matt’s method of doodling until some sort of genius sprouts. Even with the pandemic dominating almost every day in 2020, the method never failed, the genius never stopped.
And Telegraph readers have never stopped wanting Matt to make them laugh. You need only see the piles of letters he receives to know it.
‘I do think that laughing at something makes it less frightening, less ominous,’ he says. ‘We all know this is very serious, but you have to laugh.’
He goes deadpan for a moment. ‘You know, I bet I’ll catch it. Then I’ll take it much more seriously and won’t think it’s a subject to be joking about at all.’
He’s joking, of course. And thank goodness for that.
Matt picks his 15 favourite cartoons of 2020
The very first cartoon I drew involving Covid-19. It feels strange to look at now. For so long the coronavirus was a foreign story, which we never really thought would come here. You can tell this was early in the year because the virus is being used almost as the secondary topic, giving me a punchline for what is really a joke about HS2. When I drew it, I certainly didn’t think Covid would be the subject I’d return to on an almost daily basis for the rest of 2020.
This was the last cartoon I drew from the Telegraph offices before I went home for lockdown. Inadvertently it’s a kind of farewell to city life. We were swapping the freedom of this massive metropolis for our homes – and about to get to know those living spaces intimately.
My dog Reg just wants to socialise with other dogs. I never thought humans would feel like that, but in lockdown, we all longed for contact. It became an obvious role-reversal: the dogs would have to hold us back from jumping all over one another.
It’s about the changing guidelines, but it’s a reminder that it was still spring. I sometimes wonder if I come up with different jokes when I’m at home in the countryside, rather than in my office looking out over Buckingham Palace Road and Victoria Coach Station.
I drew this in the week when Johnson and Hancock both had coronavirus. At the same time, people were volunteering to help the elderly. So I thought, well, if people are keen to volunteer and we don’t currently have a PM or Health Secretary…
Doesn’t the loo-roll fiasco seem a long time ago? The lengths people were going to in getting hold of some was an example of how this crisis was so serious in essence, but the small domestic dramas were perfect for jokes.
Early lockdown coincided with glorious weather, but lying in the park – even alone – meant breaking the rules. It was such a strange law, this idea that people were moved on for doing nothing. The overreach of the authorities, enforcing odd rules, is always good for a gag.
A simple joke. If this was a game of Monopoly, we wouldn’t be able to do anything: move, buy things, travel… Plus, Monopoly was probably something we all endured during those long evenings in lockdown. It was the closest we could get to an adventure.
A joke about masks, but really it’s about the impossible job the Chancellor Rishi Sunak has at the moment. It won’t be the last cartoon I do about the economy in the coming months.
This was published at the height of ‘Clap for carers’, so I thought it might be nice to turn that around a little. I steered clear of joking too much about the clapping, as it was something people tended to take seriously, but this seemed gentle enough.
I remember all this excitement about lockdown easing, how it would be celebratory. But when it came, it all felt rather disappointing. The idea of a couple being freed from their home only to be stopped at the end of their garden wasn’t far from the truth.
Of course, Dominic Cummings. When everyone is making jokes, it becomes difficult to find one. But I thought about Barnard Castle, and how now the most famous thing about it isn’t the ruins any more, it’s probably the fact that Dominic Cummings went there.
For a few days I was teasing ideas of how to get contact tracing into a cartoon, and then it suddenly struck me. For all the apps, clever technology and debates about privacy… a ball of string would do the job just as well.
For some people, lockdown was rather nice. You don’t commute, don’t have to get dressed, no one is watching you… an awful lot of people were enjoying the time at home as if it was an extended holiday. I decided to mock them, amid all the serious things.
I love this joke. My children have learnt my credit card number, and occasionally I’ll get a text from my bank saying, ‘Are you really in an Uber in Edinburgh, and buying Chinese food on the other side of the country, and buying trainers online at the same time?’ The magic money tree the Treasury found reminded me of that; how the Bank of England might be alarmed at all that irregular spending…
The Best of Matt 2020 is out on Thursday (Seven Dials, £7.99); books.telegraph.co.uk