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13 July 2017

The Rise & Fall of Geoffrey Matthews is a magnificent tale of an extraordinary man

Morgan Matthews impresses with his BBC4 documentary This Was My Dad.

By Rachel Cooke

In 2005, the award-winning documentary maker Morgan Matthews got back in touch with his father, Geoffrey, after an estrangement that had lasted a year. He did this for the right reasons: his dad, whom he loved, was a complicated and difficult man, and he knew that it would be up to him to make the first move.

But when he travelled to rural Warwickshire to visit him, he brought along his camera, too: it would, Morgan told himself, act as a kind of go-between, a means of making it easier to talk. Did he know that he would end up filming his father for the next 10 years? My hunch is that he did. A documentary as magnificent as This Was My Dad: The Rise & Fall of Geoffrey Matthews (BBC4, 10 July, 10pm) has nothing to do with happenstance.

Geoffrey Matthews, who died of bone cancer in 2015, was an extraordinary man. Adopted by rural labourers as a baby, he studied at the Royal College of Art and went on to become one of Britain’s most successful car designers (he takes the blame, among other things, for the Renault Espace). But he was also flawed. His first two marriages failed, and his relationships with his six children were distant, not to say threadbare.

By the time we picked up his story, his business had gone bust, the debts were mounting, and he and his third wife, Anna, were in danger of losing their home – a house that had been in her family for generations. He was also drinking too much. In an early scene, a bottle of vodka disappeared. “I think you’ll find it upstairs,” said Morgan, off-camera, to his stepmother. “Yes, you’re probably right,” she replied. Her manner, like that of her husband, was skittish and droll: a delightful mask for shame and all its consequences.

Anna, well-bred and unused to doing anything for herself, is an eccentric straight out of Central Casting, and Morgan duly followed her about, knowing that she would not only answer his questions, but that she would do so with aplomb (and, possibly, with the help of her tarot cards and dowsing pendulum). Beside her, Geoffrey was more of a shadow: it was impossible to fathom how their relationship had grown so symbiotic, what unlikely needs they fulfilled in each other. But he, too, had his qualities, not least his acceptance of his own uselessness. Having roundly messed up, now he only wanted to make sure that he could provide Anna and their menagerie of cats, dogs and birds with a new home.

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In the end, they found a place in Wales, just about affordable with whatever was let over from the sale of her house. It was shabby and cold. In an outhouse, their boxes remained unpacked, sinking down into the damp earth. And so, the couple began to sink, too, their cheeks hollowing, their bodies giving up. In 2015, when Geoffrey finally died, Morgan and his camera were there. It was as sad a sight as any I have seen in a documentary. It wasn’t only that, by now, I felt I knew him. He was also, in my eyes, a particularly noble representative of the class of bloke who screws everything up, but who remains dearly beloved nevertheless: always forgiven, if not always entirely understood. Whatever the therapists say, this kind of man’s children, more sagacious than their elders, realise that for them having a Bad Dad is, in spite of everything, better than having a Boring Dad. I know this because I once had a Bad Dad myself.

Matthews had a busy week. First, an out-and-out masterpiece. Then, Granddad, Dementia & Me (BBC1, 11 July, 10.45pm), a film for which he was executive producer, and which made for a charming pendant to his own. In 2014, Tom Sivyer was diagnosed with vascular dementia, an illness that cursed him with a Lear-like rage, and which his grandson Dominic decided to chart on camera. I loved the vivid characters, notably Sivyer’s long-suffering grandma Pam, with her red talons and Mini Cooper, and I was relieved that it had a semi-happy ending. Yes, the Sivyers are rich; in the world of dementia, money talks. But it was love, not the cheque book, that conquered all. Even when Tom could no longer remember yesterday, he still knew Pam for his salvation. 

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This article appears in the 12 Jul 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Maybot malfunctions