THERE'S humble and then there’s Arthur Mathews humble.
The man best known for co-creating the most significant Irish sit-com has accumulated a body of work that is comprised of some of the funniest creations in television history.
And yet he’s in no great hurry to talk about it. So much so that it hadn’t occurred to me to talk to him on the Irishman Abroad podcast. Not because I didn’t respect him as one of our greatest emigrants, but mainly because I’d never heard him speak.
It wasn’t until I heard him tell a story of bringing a donkey into Dublin’s Baggot Inn as part of the U2 parody group he had created that it occurred to me how rare and entertaining a long conversation with him would be. My friend Shane put me in touch but it wasn’t going to be easy.
You see Arthur Mathews speaks in the same way you might expect a person who has come back from a round-the-world hiking trip. Someone who doesn’t want to make a big deal out of it for fear others will think that they’re bragging.
Just as with the returning traveller reluctant to tell his tales, the more you speak to Arthur Mathews the more it dawns on you the distance travelled and the heights he has climbed in the world of entertainment.
Researching for our chat was difficult to say the least. The details of his childhood are sketchy, but like many comedy writers he grew up on the outside looking in.
While attending Castleknock College he felt invisible as he “never fitted in. I never fitted in anywhere”.
Like most of the fee-paying private schools in Dublin, an obsession with rugby was foisted upon the students. To some extent this was what would give birth to his feelings that all establishments were silly by their existence. The strangeness of never-ending group rehearsals of songs to sing on the terrace — instead of actual classes — wasn’t lost on him. “Even when I was 12 or 13 I thought that this was an absurd scenario.”
His version of events is that it wasn’t until he met Graham Linehan some 10 years later at Hot Press magazine that his creative life really took off.
“I wasted a lot of years during the 1980s” — taking courses in screen printing, mural painting and anything that was going. “People had no jobs so everyone did courses or they did nothing.” Yet when you scratch the surface at all the truth of his achievements even, during this bleak period in Ireland’s history, they are significant.
His illustrations were being published in a national newspaper in Ireland and throughout Britain in the legendary Viz magazine. He was creating a reputation for himself as a poster artist within the music industry. So much so that he was appointed art director at Hot Press.
He explains this achievement away by describing the role as “basically sticking bits of paper onto other bits of paper” and the interview as a laughable experience. “They asked me if I’d ever worked hard before. I said no and they gave me the job.”
It’s hard sometimes to get to the truth of a high-achieving Irish person when they so doggedly refuse to see themselves that way. Quizzing Arthur on the details of how he and Graham sent their sketch ideas for their smash hit show to Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones is a waste of time. His version of the events is a downplayed vision of something quite incredible.
Two nobodies, from another country, with no experience, sent their writing to the number one British comedy duo of the day and within six months they were sitting in production meetings and helping make the final product.
It’s still riveting to hear how liberating that experience was, having come from the bleakness that they had known. “In England it was a meritocracy. In Ireland you had to know someone. So the idea that you could come from nowhere to having things on television — in Ireland it just wouldn’t have happened. People were just very welcoming to us.”
This level of humility unsettles some people but feels perfectly fine in this part of the world. To me it adds to the charm of a man with Arthur’s awards and accolades that he would not mention them. It’s something a lot of us could learn from. The whole conversation is available to download free as part of my award-winning Irishman Abroad podcast.
Listen to Jarlath Regan’s An Irishman Abroad podcast available for free on iTunes