The road to comic success for Arthur Mathews started with a Catholic magazine called Majority Ethos, and included a stint as the drummer for a U2 tribute band. Colin Murphy meets the writer of Father Ted and I, Keano
It was early 1990s Ireland, a time before the economic boom, but when Catholic Ireland was already under attack from the forces of liberalism and permissive consumerism. A record shop was selling condoms, and students were giving out information on abortion. Some people had stopped going to Mass. A crisis was looming. And then, from within the ranks of the church came a voice of protest. Its slogan, a beacon of moral and verbal clarity, ‘Marriage, not Sex. Jobs, not condoms. Faith, not sodomy'. Its logo: a map of Ireland with a fist – clutching a crucifix – bursting through the centre and smashing a hammer and sickle. Its name: the Coordination Committee for Christianity and Politics (CCCP). And its magazine: Majority Ethos, denouncing the “secular and socialist” parties of the mainstream and proudly publishing the editors' correspondence with various bishops and eminent Catholics in public life, such as Rory O'Hanlon and Sean Doherty. The first issue was distributed in churches, in the Oireachtas, and was sent to the bishops. Alas, there was never a second issue. In Dublin broke the story that the whole thing was a hoax (in part a satire on the actually-existing Christian Principles Party – their slogan, ‘Jobs we want, not condoms'). It'd be 10 years before the editors of Majority Ethos, Arthur Mathews and Mick Nugent, would work together again – on the comic musical, I, Keano.
In the interim, Arthur would move to London and write Father Ted with Graham Linehan, Mick would do a variety of serious and spoof projects, and the third collaborator on I, Keano, Paul Woodful, would create the character of drunken republican ballad singer, Ding Dong Denny O'Reilly. Mick sees all their work as connected by “a sense of the absurdity of the Ireland in which we grew up”.“It was a very conservative, corrupt, Catholic-influenced state, with all of the contradictions and absurdities that that entailed. The way that Ireland was run in those days – it [was] such a mad country that satire [was] the only way you [could] challenge the madness.”Neither Mick nor Arthur was doing comedy for a living at the time, but shortly afterwards, Arthur decided to give it a go in London. He'd been working as a designer at Hot Press, where he'd met Graham Linehan, and Graham had moved to London to be a music journalist. Graham encouraged Arthur to join him, to try their hand at writing comedy for British TV. Arthur went over “tentatively” – “I thought I'd just go for a few months and I'd probably come back and get a job in advertising. But that never happened.”The pair overdosed on TV comedy and, watching a Smith and Jones show one night, they noticed there were a lot of writers credited. It occurred to them that Smith and Jones must use freelance contributors. So they sent in a few sketches – and soon were contributing regularly, and sitting around the table for editorial meetings with Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones themselves.
“I thought Britain was absolutely brilliant in that way,” says Arthur. “It's a complete meritocracy. We went over there, and didn't know anyone, and just sent in scripts and they liked them. Over here, it wasn't a meritocracy. It was completely based on who you knew.“[In the UK[ if they perceived you as having ability then the doors weren't closed to you.“I still think it's that simple. There's no mystery about writing comedy for television.”
Arthur and Graham started contributing to other shows – whoever would have them – and writing their own scripts. One of their early ideas was for a mock documentary. The film would follow a priest returning to the seminary where he studied, and meeting up again with his mentor after many years. The priest? Father Ted Crilly. And his mentor: Father Jack Hackett. In the documentary, Father Jack would have just died and Father Ted would visit him without realising. The production company told them to turn it into a sitcom – “so they'd get more mileage out of it” – and Father Ted was born. Does Arthur get sick being asked about Father Ted? “Not at all. I'm very fond of him.” He is bemused, but flattered, by the cult attention it has received, though it goes over his head sometimes. A fellow called Patrick Gibson won Mastermind 2005 by correctly answering 17 out of 18 questions on Father Ted, his specialist subject. “I knew about four of the answers,” says Arthur.(And the one Gibson got wrong? “In the episode ‘Hell', Mrs Doyle said she had put cocaine in the cake but then realised she meant what?” Cinnamon, he answered. The correct answer was raisins. “Tedheads” can test themselves on the complete list of questions and answers at http://nhw.livejournal.com/554524.html.)
Arthur and Graham shared a series of flats in London where they lived and worked, and then eventually got an office when things started taking off. Initially, they had just one word processor, and would take turns on it.“We'd think of ideas, very basic plot lines, and agree on that. Then I'd sit down and write a bit, and Graham would poodle away in the corner. Then he'd read what I'd written, and write a bit himself.”They'd try and start at 11am. Then they'd stop at five “and play computer golf on the Playstation”. Arthur, eight years older, was the more disciplined one – a characteristic he developed because “so much of my 20s was just wasted”. (He spent most of them doing adult-education screen-printing courses, he says.) They became friendly with Griff Rhys Jones, who let them one of his flats, in Kilburn at a token rent, got to know Chris Morris quite well, and were befriended by John Peel, who sent them a postcard saying he liked Father Ted. Were they ever regarded as blow-ins? “Not at all. People were very generous to us.”Arthur remembers his first night at the Groucho Club, a “perfect Groucho moment”: “Oliver Reed was lying on the floor, completely out of it, being lifted up by all these beautiful models.”The Keane-McCarthy Saipan saga brought Arthur back together with his earlier collaborators, Mick Nugent and Paul Woodfull. (Paul and Arthur had formed a popular U2 tribute band, The Joshua Trio, at one point. The band's high point was arriving at the Baggot Inn on a donkey.) Of Saipan: “It was quite funny that the whole country got obsessed to the extent that it did, that it divided the country in that way. It was a classic Shakespearian tragedy, had all those elements – a man's pride sinking the whole ship.” They had the idea for a skit on the Keane-McCarthy saga, set in Ancient Rome, and so I, Keano was born.
Roy Keane went to see the show in Cork, and dropped in to chat to the actors afterwards. He was “very gracious about it”, says Arthur. “Thankfully, McCarthy was nowhere within 100 miles of the Olympia when it was on there.”Does McCarthy come out of it worse, so?“I'd like to think no one comes out of it very well.” He laughs. “It's very silly.”I, Keano is back for another run at the Olympia theatre, Dublin. But isn't Saipan an old joke now? “No. It just keeps on getting funnier. This absurd twist that Roy Keane is now Niall Quinn's employee at Sunderland... It's just too much. You need another act. It keeps changing all the time.”Both Arthur and Mick agree that they never quite got the ending write.“Because we were following a story that happened in real life, it didn't have a satisfactory climax, dramatically”, says Mick.So they looked afresh at the play, as if it was simply a fictional drama – and “the obvious thing that was missing was a climatic confrontation between McCarthy and Keane”. The latest version of I, Keano culminates in a “People's Forum” where the characters of Keano and Macartacus have their great rhetorical showdown.Next up for Arthur Mathews is a film, a comedy set on the border. Ardal O'Hanlon, Dylan Moran and Pat Shortt are lined up to star, but it all depends on the money. And a return to his roots, of sorts: he's doing the illustrations for a book on “aul' ones” that Declan Lynch is writing.“It still seems odd that I would refer to myself as a writer rather than as an illustrator.“I probably should have done Fine Arts in college. Probably should have been a graphic designer.”Perhaps that's the secret of his success, so. “I never had to worry about failure because I never really set out to do it.”