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The Rise & Fall of Geoffrey Matthews review: ‘I wish I’d done this with my dad’

Dear boys, sorry I was a bit grumpy at bedtime last night, love Daddy. (PS. If, down the line, either or both of you want to make a film about the final 10 years of my life, then you should.)

That’s what Morgan Matthews did; made a Storyville documentary This Was My Dad: The Rise & Fall of Geoffrey Matthews (BBC4). And it’s brilliant – intimate, honest, touching, original, brave. It’s about an interesting man who was adopted as a baby and went on to become a hotshot car designer, but who wouldn’t kowtow to the establishment and whose life became dominated by financial crises, ill health and vodka.

The film gave Morgan and Geoffrey, son and father, a form of family therapy; it gave them a means and a reason to maintain a relationship. It’s why I’m suggesting it for my boys, when they get a bit older and father/son issues, communication perhaps, properly kick in. It may make them come to see me; and what would have been sad, embarrassing and depressing for them would suddenly be good material for their film. I suppose it is possible they won’t become film-makers, in which case we’re buggered.

Morgan’s film starts at the end, almost. His father is lying in a hospital bed, masked, tubed and beeping, gasping his final breaths before emphysema wins. “We’re here, me and Miranda,” Morgan says to him, gently. (Miranda is his sister; siblings are very important at times like these.) I’m immediately taken to another hospital ward, 10 years ago, when my own father was dying, very much like this. It’s impossible to watch this without thinking of your own family.

Morgan also then goes back 10 years; he is visiting Geoffrey at the house his father shares with his eccentric wife, Anna (not Morgan’s mother), various dogs, a flightless dove and a couple of alpacas. They’re trying to sell the house before it’s repossessed; we’re already very much into the “fall” part of the Geoffrey Matthews story, and the rest of the film follows that path. It’s not all downhill, though: there are even moments of light and humour along the way, often involving the dogs doing things (poo, sex) in the wrong places.

It’s sad, of course, because it’s about someone’s death, but the feel of the film is not one of despair and hopelessness. It’s love and the importance of families, in spite of all the difficulties and complexities that come with them. Now I’m regretting not filming my dad, as well as hoping my sons might one day do me. In many ways, he was quite similar to Geoffrey – some success, then less, contempt of conformity, financial disaster, breathing difficulties.

Geoffrey’s story goes beyond the end, in order to fill in some of the gaps at the beginning. Morgan and Miranda (have they been brought closer through the dying of their father?) travel to Canada to meet their grandfather – the father Geoffrey never knew and who outlived him. He was a soldier, stationed in Britain during the war, met Geoffrey’s mum at a dance, didn’t hang about afterwards and now wonders whether he should have. She felt she had to give her baby up. Now it has gone a bit Who Do You Think You Are, Geoffrey Matthews? (Or rather, Who Do You Think You Were?)

Finally, the family scatters Geoffrey among the bluebells, with the alpacas looking on. Yes, that takes me straight back, too. We had no alpacas, or bluebells, but a favourite quince tree and apple trees, because it’s amazing how much ash there is, even from a man who was so much smaller than he had been.

On any other day, Catching a Killer: The Wind in the Willows Murder(Channel 4) would be the main event. You’ll remember the case from the news: art dealer and writer found horribly murdered, in Oxford, and a rare first edition missing. It was, as one of the investigating officers here says, just like an episode of Morse. He goes on to say: “But the fact is it’s someone’s loved one, and is it not right that we should try and do everything we can to find out what’s actually happened?”

At which point it gets less Morse, more the reality of police work – CCTV, phone records, number plate recognition etc (although there is also an old-fashioned, bloodied blade). They do what they set out to, find out what happened, that Adrian Greenwood was killed by Michael Danaher, for his most valuable possession.

It’s a gruesome story, with a moment of light from an unexpected source, Danaher’s remarkably mature 14-year-old son, Ryan. Not sympathy, understanding or excuses for his father the murderer, but love. “I’ll always love my dad, no matter what,” he says. It’s all about fathers and sons today – a tricky relationship, but a tough one to break.

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