Father Ted and Toast of London co-writer Arthur Mathews has a new satirical political sitcom on Radio 4, Men about the House, set in a world in which women are the dominant sex in Parliament and society as a whole. Radiotimes.com took the opportunity to ask him some questions about politics, the battle of the sexes and Father Ted, naturally.
I’ll ask the trite question first: What prompted you to write this? Was there one particular kernel of inspiration?
Not really, the ‘war between men and women’, it features a lot. Being a sort of outsider from Ireland I can see that the British obsession seems to be, well, I think it’s a race and gender type of debate that goes on continually. Like on Front Row recently there was a woman saying there’s a lack of directors in TV and film and Kirsty Wark did a programme about misogyny and then on Newsnight there was another debate about how women should be allowed to fight in combat in the army so it’s a constant debate that’s raging.
Men about the House is rather flippant about everything, but there’s obvious satirical things like the whole Page 3 thing, like if men we were on Page 3 of a newspaper in a slightly undressed way.
Well, there used to be the Page 7 hunks (in the Sun).
Really? I never knew that. I presume they did that to offset the charges of sexism, to redress the balance, but it seems a silly notion. It just seems anachronistic now, the whole Page 3 thing in the Sun. Stop Page 3 seems a very reasonable attitude to have.
Also, you could argue from the newspapers’ point of view, who’s really turning to Page 3 for their titillation nowadays? There’s so much out there…
True, though I’m old enough to remember when tabloids first arrived in Ireland in the late 70s, that was hugely exciting, but that was because it was a sex-starved country, so anything at all would be greeted with jubilation. Though even then it didn’t seem quite right.
I suppose for quite a lot of young boys, it was their first introduction to sex.
It was, it was. I admit it, it was. Anyway, it’s a bit anachronistic in the modern world.
I was wondering whether the idea was to explore that argument you hear touted a lot, that there’d be no wars if women ran the world?
Yeah, there’d probably be less wars. I don’t think that’s unreasonable. I have the feeling that testosterone fuels a lot of conflict. It probably would be a better place. I’ve got a twin sister and a daughter and I would have been closer to my mother than my father so I see myself within the feminist camp. However you can sometimes get the impression that men and women – say if you came from another planet and read the Guardian and listened to Radio 4, like I do – they are constantly at war and the idea that they would live together and raise families would almost be unbelievable.
If you read the comments below the line on the Guardian website it definitely seems like all out war between the sexes.
I kind of think it would be really funny to really stretch that. I did another radio show, a spoof phone-in sort of magazine show, and I was thinking of ideas like women-only airlines, where only women would be allowed to travel on their planes, and an idea for this – if there are any more episodes of Men about the House – is men-only lanes for traffic. Just pushing it to the extreme.
A bit like the solution to the Scottish referendum offered in Men about the House [Scottish men are given the option of going their own way over the referendum]?
Yes, there is a bit of a bizarre logic to it. In a way it’s a bit like Northern Ireland because in Northern Ireland you can have an Irish passport or a British passport, so you can almost choose where you want to be. So in a way, even though it’s a perverse argument, there is some kind of logic to it.
And obviously stretching the flaws in democracy to their limits.
Yes, exactly, to the ultimate degree.
But do you see anything inherently funny in all politics?
In all politics? Well there is a lot of political comedy. It’s funny the way they have to prostitute themselves to the electorate all the time and just keep pleasing the electorate and keep making noises to that degree. All political careers end in failure, so I suppose failure being an intrinsic part of comedy where you always have people aspiring beyond their capabilities and always failing, so that’s the basic political thing isn’t it. But also why anyone would want to be Prime Minister, or President of the United States, with the overwhelming responsibilities and anxieties, I don’t quite understand.
The ones who want to do it are probably the ones with the overwhelming egos to think they can change it.
Yes, you have to have a massive ego to want to do that. But I imagine you don’t have any time to think about anything, you’re surrounded by people all the time. And I hate it when politicians say that, “My family’s the most important job”. I think if you’re going to be PM you should probably just get divorced and just leave your family and dedicate yourself to just running the country. If anyone said I’m going to leave my family and devote myself to running the country, I’d definitely vote for them.
Prime Minister Eve seems so modelled on David Cameron, with throwaway lines about box sets and the whole “Calm down dear” comments.
Yeah, all that kind of stuff, it’s just trying to appeal to as many people as possible, by just dumbing yourself down and not saying anything that isn’t a cliché. All that energy politicians have. The more energy politicians have, the less I like them. If they were slumbering and appeared half-drunk all the time, I’d be much more willing to vote for them. It’s the energy I dislike most about politicians, and the hand-waving, and the flawless appearance without a hair out of place. I don’t think you’ll ever see a bald prime minister ever again. Those days are gone. They all look like Sky TV news presenters.
We have a new, blander, X Factor-liking – or so they claim – the common touch, they’re always looking to relate to ordinary people.
I suppose it’s difficult for them, even if they’re honest, they get lambasted for their musical choices, whatever they say is going to be wrong…
But I’m always interested in people’s Desert Island Discs choices and you can tell that 90% of them have no interest in music at all. Gordon Ramsay’s one is brilliant actually, it’s fantastically bland beyond bland. Greg Dyke I remember is another one, who obviously has about three CDs in his collection. I’m picking My Way as the ultimate Desert Island Disc, if I had to pick one.
Well, I suppose it has to be the Sinatra version really.
If you were a politician you would have gone for Sid Vicious, just to show that you know.
Yeah, Sid being a heroic type figure, a role model.
The main characters in Men about the House are women. Do you find it easy writing for women?
Well, you know it shouldn’t be that difficult. Pauline McLynn in Father Ted told me ages ago, just write men’s characters and then change the names. Obviously you have to tweak a few things.
So was it easier writing Men about the House as you were writing female characters with male traits?
I didn’t. They’re just politicians, that’s all they are. So you just write politicians, then change the names.
In this day and age, it should really be a problem, it’s not really something I think about. So I’m doing Toast of London with Matt Berry so a lot of time you think, we’ve got a producer or a director in it, might as well make it a women as a man, because it’s the modern world.
One of the things I think you got on the nail about maleness, was about the socks.
Yes, exactly! I’m glad you noticed that, because the idea about fun socks, it’s a bit of extreme triviality that men seem more interested in than women. My aunt used to buy me socks every Christmas and they’d be all themed. Sometimes they’d just have the day of the week on them.
I have quite a few of those, but I’m often chastised for not wearing the right day of the week.
Yeah, you want to be a stickler for detail to stick to that routine, obsessive-compulsive almost, to get that right.
What sort of socks do you favour yourself?
Well, the only real interest in socks I have is that I link them with a safety pin so that when they’re thrown in the wash they stay together, via the safety pin. It’s horrendous for socks to come apart in the wash; that’s unacceptable.
Other than that, I favour a light sock in summer and a heavier mesh in the winter months. But at this time of year, it’s hard to tell, so I’m between the heavy sock and the light sock, I do have some medium socks.
Men about the Housegoes out on day of European Parliament elections. Will you be voting?
Oh yes, I always vote. There are so many posters up in Dublin, there must be 300 candidates. I was over in London recently and I didn’t see that much sign of it. But it’s never been popular in Britain, the whole European experiment.
Is it still popular in Ireland after the recession?
We don’t have that Euro-phobia there is in Britain to such a degree, even though with the Euro we nearly went bankrupt. I don’t think anyone really understands the economic issues and there isn’t that Ukip thing of a huge anti-European feeling.
We have the Proportional Representation thing in Ireland, so you vote in order of preference, up to about 50 candidates. I always vote backwards, the candidate I dislike most would get my number 50 and that’s the most important thing for me, and then work backwards by a process of elimination.
Almost a Holmesian style of deduction: once you’ve eliminated the impossible you’re left with the possible.
Exactly, that’s exactly what I’m left with. Someone out of 50 candidates I still don’t probably like at number one. I’m not fully convinced, but they’re 49 other candidates I dislike more.
The perfect political process.
Exactly. Democracy in action.
A lot of the candidates look about 12 years old, really young. There is one of the more left-wing parties, one of them looks like a Goth; she looks like a 15-year-old Goth, so I might put her in mid-range, around 25. She might get my 25th preference.
Just for the effort of looking a Goth?
Yeah, I like that look. I’d like to claim that she had her face caked in black eye-liner but she just has a natural Goth look without doing anything to herself at all.
She’s just naturally gloomy?
Well, for the purpose of being elected she has to crack a smile, but it’s unconvincing.
But they’re all very young; the old guard has gone. Bertie Aherne – a taxi man dressed up in politician’s clothes – has gone, he’s been disgraced, he took the full blame for Ireland’s economic collapse.
That’s the problem with the EU, if someone takes your decision and decides not to let you change it…
Yes, that would be Ukip’s nightmare wouldn’t it? I don’t think we’ve had a Ukip resignation for a few days have we, no-one’s been exposed, none of the members have made an indelicate remark. They’re like the clown’s car, exploding continuously.
Because a fair number of your projects have been in writing partnerships or teams, do you find it easy writing on your own?
Er, yeah, I do.
It’s swings and roundabouts. When Graham and I were starting off, it was good because we were good friends – we still are good friends – but because we weren’t sure exactly what we should be doing, so we’d encourage each other and laugh at each other’s jokes. As time goes by you get more confident in yourself and Graham became a bit of an auteur really in that he now directs, like with the IT Crowd he’s fully in control of that, so he’s done really well. But I’ve never had a problem writing, I’ve never had writer’s block or anything. I’ve always thought, get to the end of a first draft and even if it’s not any good, you’ve achieved something and you’ve got something you can throw out a lot of it.
I’ve never been like Douglas Adams, famously sitting in a bath hearing sounds of deadlines rushing by.
As you’ve mentioned the early days with Graham, can I just ask you how much the character Graham in The Walshes is similar to how the younger Graham Linehan was?
[little giggle] Er, I don’t know. No, I wouldn’t really say so. I’ll tell you about The Walshes. The father, basically every Irish man between the ages of 35 and 65 is exactly like him. Every one of them, they’re exactly like that. It’s a brilliant observation of an eejit, as we’d say in Ireland.
So basically, you’re saying a couple of generations of Irish men are eejits?
Oh, when you put it like that, I might get in trouble. But having said that, yes I agree. Maybe not 100%, maybe 90%. Obviously I don’t include myself in that. I watch from afar with an aloof air at this eejitry.
Recently Graham definitely ruled out ever reviving Father Ted, I’m presuming you agree with that? You don’t want to reclaim Ted, given that you were the first to play him?
I should say I violently disagree with that… but in fact I don’t, I can’t really see it coming back.
I must admit, I didn’t really know it was a question on anyone’s lips.
No, I don’t think it is. It would be a desperate act. Unless something drastic happens. Perhaps something drastic will happen, but I’m unable to see any circumstance that would cause us to bring it back. I agree with Graham. People still remember it, that’s enough really. It’s still on television. There’s a Father Ted fest that takes place.
Do you go along to that?
We went along to the first one, and I met a bloke who was due in court in Preston that day but he’d decided to go to a Father Ted festival instead. He was up for something to do with his divorce I think.
Custody of his children?
Yes, something minor like that. But he’d prioritised Father Ted fest. And there was a Japanese woman called Yoko, strangely enough, or not strangely enough perhaps, who’s come from Japan. So it’s good; it lives on.
Are they still going on?
Oh yes, I think there’s one in Australia now. I remember vaguely reading that they ran into trouble because for some reason there was no alcohol available that weekend, so the whole thing was a travesty.
A big stumbling block to a Father Ted revival is that Dermot is no longer alive, and he was that character.
Yes, he was always our favourite character, as well. He was very funny, he had that thing you need more than anything else when you’re writing comedy, someone really funny as your main character. Like Matt’s got that thing, big time, just really really funny. It’s very important, I always say I think you’re better off with not a great script and a brilliant person to perform it, rather than a great script and someone performing it who isn’t that great.
I was going to say you’ve done very well with who you’ve had performing your scripts, but realised that sounds like you’ve not written great things.
That’s the general rule. I’m degrading myself. I didn’t have anything to do with the show, I just like to see a show performed brilliantly.
What I’m trying to say is, the best thing you can have in a sitcom is someone who performs it brilliantly. I really like the cast in Men about the House, they’re very good.
Not necessarily household names, but they are very good.
Yes, very professional, too. They just turned up and some of them didn’t know it was going to be in front of a live audience and they weren’t put out at all, they just did it. I was very very impressed. Do you know Selina Cadell who was in it, she was the older woman, she was just great. Carl the producer suggested her and she’s just terrific.
She played the Hilary character?
Yes, Hilary Crench. She’s very much the Alan Clark character type.
Finally, I have a Big Train question: Do you know what’s happened to Ken Morse?
Ha ha ha. The thing about Ken Morse is, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, his name was at the end of every documentary, but I subsequently discovered that was a company, it wasn’t just him. He had a company and that was called Ken Morse, instead of what we used, the image of an elderly man. So when you see the name Ken Morse, do you not see it any more, I’ve not noticed?
No, what I have noticed is a lot of times presenters have an iPad with a picture on there and they use that, instead of having a rostrum picture.
He’s probably been overtaken by technology then.
I had to ask, because that sketch gave such delight to myself and my wife because we thought we were the only people who noticed his name in the credits for every documentary.
That was one of the things, that when someone mentions the name to you, you’ve never had the discussion with anyone, but everyone knows who he is.
But that’s the inside information on Ken Morse: as well as being a man, he’s a company too. But I don’t know what’s happened to him. It’d be nice to think he involved with the Morse Code or his grandfather had.
I feel it’s all been worthwhile now I’ve discovered that.
It’s a nice name. I like snappy names like that, one syllable in each name. I favour that.
You could always be Art.
Yeah, yeah. I always like a good short name. Ed Byrne, that’s a good short name. Although I think aesthetically I think it sounds better with a one syllable first name and a two syllable surname.
There you go, Art Mathews.
Yeah, maybe, I might go for that. From this day on.
OK, in the article I shall refer to you as Art Mathews.
Yes, and then people will say “Oh, he got your name wrong” and I’ll have to say “No, no, no, no, we just decided to change it as we were speaking.”
Is there anything else you’d like to change, while we’re here?
Many, many things. You know how these people say “I wouldn’t change a thing”, like Charles Manson probably: “You know I wouldn’t change it, it’s made me the person I am today.” Whereas I would change practically everything, but that’s another story.
Men about the House starts at 11pm on Thursday 22 May on Radio 4