Cult Q & A: Matthew Sweet

This week, Matthew Sweet on eating macaroons with Olivia de Havilland and being insulted by Tom Baker.

Matthew Sweet is author of Inventing the Victorians, Shepperton Babylon and The West End Front. He is a columnist for Art Quarterly and Newsweek and presents Free Thinking and Sound of Cinema on BBC Radio 3 and The Philosopher’s Arms on Radio 4. He was series consultant on the Showtime drama Penny Dreadful and played a moth from the planet Vortis in An Adventure in Space and Time.

Title card from ‘Shepperton Babylon’ (BBC, 2005) based on the book by Matthew Sweet.

What were you like at school?

Mainly annoying, I suspect.

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

First I wanted to be Charles Darwin. But I would have settled for anything that involved discovering new species of beetles.

What advice would you give to your teenage self?

I would reassure him that he will not be obliged to live on radioactive rat-meat foraged in the rubble of Stockport.

What are your best and worst qualities?

Best: I am very good at domestic chores. Nobody who lives with me ever goes hungry. Worst: Planning for the future. I expect to die in genteel poverty. Or maybe just poverty.

What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?

I’ve had loads of terrible jobs. I was a cleaner at Stockport College, where the students would put their fags out in the remains of their meat and potato pies. I worked in the sour milk department of Kidlington dairy, where I had to split plastic milk bottles and pour the half-solidified gunge into a big machine. £70 a week, that was, after the agency took its cut. And I worked on a plant nursery run by a family of alcoholic Plymouth Brethren. When the boss was away they would get pissed and drive the tractor around. They had guns, too. I remember a particularly out-of-control day when one of them shot and killed duck.

Who were your pop culture heroes growing up?

Doctor Who, Basil Rathbone, Clive James, David Attenborough, Kenny Everett, Richard Briers in The Good Life.

What do you consider to be the single greatest piece of television ever?

Probably the Morecambe and Wise sketch with Andre Previn. Three great performers at the height of their powers.

Monty Python: Is it funny?

Of course. I also enjoy the long silences between the jokes.

What was the last film that you watched?

It’s Only the End of the World.

What film could you watch every day?

The great critic Dilys Powell said “a day without a film is a day wasted” – but she meant a different film. I try to follow this rule, and it’s a great help to have two children who can never agree on anything, as I get the casting vote. So in the last week we’ve managed Hidden Figures at the pictures, and at home, two Hammers – The Abominable Snowman and the first DraculaCarry On Screaming and the Alistair Sim version of An Inspector Calls. And last night me and Mrs Sweet watched Notes on Blindness – a beautiful film.

What’s your favourite film soundtrack?

At the moment, I’m listening a lot to Mica Levi’s Jackie and Johan Johansson’s Arrival.

Which four actors would you like to see in a film together and which genre?

I would like to see Roy Hudd and Ken Dodd do Waiting for Godot. Or any film that drew on the talents of Eve Best, Stockard Channing, Una Stubbs and David Warner.

Which film, book or album last disappointed you the most?

This is hard to answer. I think I forget disappointment. Allied was pretty dreadful, but not dreadful enough to be entertaining.

Which album would you recommend and lend to a friend?

Anything by Edgar Lustgarten.

Which record or book wouldn’t you let out of your sight?


Which book would you save if your house was on fire?

A 1672 edition of Sir Thomas Browne’s book Pseudodoxia Epidemica. It translates as Popular Errors. It’s book of essays that bust – or support – some of the weirder myths of his age. He’s a man who asked questions like – did Adam and Eve have belly buttons? Can the ostrich eat iron? Do snails have eyes? Does the beaver bite off its testicles? Can the chameleon live solely on air? Do storks live only in republics? Do elephants have bones? In 1990 I saw it in the window of a bookshop on Turl Street in Oxford. It was £80, but the owner let me give him 8 post-dated cheques for £10 each, and after eight months it was mine. It’s good reading in the age of Pizzagate and the Bowling Green Massacre.

What’s your definition of what makes something cult?

I have been studying actual cults for the last few years. Last summer I went to the basement of a hotel in New York to attend a meeting of an organisation that thinks the British Empire still secretly runs the world. It was a lot less like a late ’80s Panopticon than you’d imagine.

What are you reading at present?

My job on Radio 3’s Free Thinking means that I always have a pile of books for homework. This week it’s George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo and Philip Coupland’s Farming, Fascism and Ecology: A Life of Jorian Jenks.

Can you tell us a little about how Shepperton Babylon came about?

I had the idea after doing an interview with Constance Cummings, who started her acting career in 1930s Hollywood. She lived in a house in Chelsea that she and her husband had commissioned from the architect Walter Gropius and filled with 60s pop art. I brought round a VHS of a film she had made with Harold Lloyd and she gave an amazing interview. So I began seeking out her contemporaries, and those older than her. I went to Paris and spent an afternoon sitting on a chaise longue with Olivia de Havilland, eating macaroons. I had tea with Joan Morgan, who told me about the day in 1921 that Thomas Hardy came the set of her father’s adaptation of The Mayor of Casterbridge. And that also gave me my lifelong interest in chatting with people who are old enough to know what they really think, and unafraid to say it.

How did you come to write your first Big Finish audio Year of the Pig?

I sent it in and it was picked out of the slush pile. The writer Simon Guerrier, who was working in the Big Finish office at the time, noticed it because he had read a book of mine called Inventing the Victorians. We didn’t know each other then but he is now one of my best friends.

Which other writers have inspired you over the years?

The first was Beatrix Potter. Still think that my favourite sentence is “The sparrows implored him to exert himself.”

What’s the best bit of advice anyone has given you?

Talk to the oldest person in the room.

Who has had the biggest influence on your career, and how has that person changed your work/life?

Those editors who took a chance on me when I came to open the post at the Independent on Sunday. The first who ever commissioned me was Isabel Lloyd, who I’ve followed from the Indy to Intelligent Life and now to Newsweek. But my work is mainly about talking to people, and those are the conversations that have really shaped me.

What accomplishment are you most proud of?

Pride is a sin, you know.

Do you think it’s true that you should never meet your heroes?

The first time I met Tom Baker his opening gambit was: I SUPPOSE YOU’VE JUST COME DOWN FROM CAMBRIDGE WITH A LOWER SECOND AND THAT YOU’RE UTTERLY COMMONPLACE. But being insulted by your heroes carries a charge of its own.

What would you like to be your epitaph?

The sparrows implored him to exert himself.

We are at a bar, what are you drinking?

Whatever you’re having.

What are your three favourite cities?

New York, Stockholm, Hull.

You’re the host of Sound of Cinema. What do you most enjoy about it?

It’s a very free musical space. We can play big orchestral works, like Jerry Goldsmith’s Star Trek the Motion Picture, which is like a lost Mahler symphony, or we can play the serialist discord written by Elizabeth Lutyens for The Skull or The Terrornauts. But I also like doing things such as revealing the striking similarity between John Addison’s A Bridge Too Far march and the middle eight of the Cagney and Lacey theme tune.

Tell us a little about your other gig as presenter of Free Thinking.

The brief is arts and ideas – so that really covers everything. Recently we’ve done programmes about Proust, Jamaican farce, the human hand, Georgia O’Keeffe, Ken Dodd, and how to use Voltaire to understand Brexit. We’ve been making these shows for over a decade, so there’s a huge archive, and if you’re inclined to cult subjects you will find programmes on The Avengers, Tarkovsky’s Stalker, Blade Runner, Jaws, Abel Gance’s Napoleon.

Do you have any upcoming projects? How can our readers discover more about you and you work?

My next book is called Operation Chaos and how to Survive It. It’ll be published by Henry Holt in the US and Picador in the UK. I’ve spent a lot of the last four years travelling around Sweden and the States to talk to the protagonists of the story – former CIA officers, Vietnam deserters, radicals who came to believe that the Manchurian Candidate was actually happening to them. Otherwise I’m on the wireless or on the inside back page of Newsweek. And if you’re in Gateshead on the 19th to 21st March, we are doing three days of Free Thinking at the Sage. So come along and give us your thoughts. In the normal, talking-in-a-room way, no Mind Probes involved.

❉ On 19 March 2017, Matthew Sweet presents From Heaven to Hell at the Movies: BBC Concert Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall.

❉ BBC Radio 3 Free Thinking festival returns to Sage Gateshead, 17 – 19 March 2017.

Become a patron at Patreon!