It's all down to Matthews family values

Martin Whittaker meets two brothers, two sisters, a mum and a dad who m ake million-dollar movies from their Gloucestershire home `To manage this kind of money, you need people you can trust' `One day I'd be making films, the next, shovelling concrete '
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At a terraced house in the village of Witcombe, near Gloucester, a nice elderly lady answers the front door. "Is this Peakviewing Transatlantic film company?" I ask. She smiles and points. "Just follow the path around the side to the back door."

Inside is a small, bright office with film posters on the walls. Peakviewing's chief executive, Liz Matthews, steps forward. She introduces her younger brothers, scriptwriter/producer Paul, post-production manager Peter, and sister Veronica, who manages the company's finances. Their father, George, walks in and is introduced as Peakviewing's chairman. And the lady at the front door? "That's Mum," says Liz cheerfully.

The Matthews family launched Peakviewing Transatlantic three-and-a-half years ago. Since then they have made four feature films, whose stars have included Edward Woodward, Martin Sheen and James Coburn. They have built sets, shot westerns out in South Africa, juggled budgets of millions of pounds. And it's all run from the family home.

George, 70, and his wife, Audrey, 65, have spent all their married life here. Before retiring five years ago, George was a union convenor at ICI. What made George get involved in making films? "I had nothing else to do," he says, to gales of filial laughter.

The movie-making began with Liz and Paul. Liz, a 39-year-old former solicitor, had moved to Los Angeles and worked for an entertainment company making TV films. Paul, 37, had stayed closer to home, but nurtured yearnings to be a scriptwriter.

"I was a concrete moulder," he says. "Twelve years shovelling concrete every day, day in, day out. When we were trying to get the first film going I was having the odd day off here and there. One day I'd be shovelling concrete, the next I'd go abroad to meet film production people. The day after I'd be back shovelling concrete again."

Shovelling concrete became history the day Paul came up with an idea for a script, with which big sister Liz then approached S4C in Wales. S4C loved the proposal - a family film about a girl breeding Welsh cobs - and two writers were hired, but their scripts weren't deemed suitable. So Paul wrote one himself. It was accepted, so he stopped shovelling concrete and the Matthews embarked on their film production debut.

Called The Christmas Stallion, it cost £1m and was shot twice, in English and Welsh. The American actor Daniel J Travanti, of Hill Street Blues fame, had to cope with Welsh written out phonetically on cue boards, which was then dubbed by a Welsh speaker.The English version was shown on Channel 4 in December 1993.

The next two films were westerns - Trigger Fast and Guns of Honour, both starring Martin Sheen - both shot in South Africa and released on video. Liz explains: "We shot them back to back, but they were designed as two separate movies. It was fun. We got to build a whole western town in South Africa.

"We don't have $20m dollars to spend on a movie, we have $2m or $3m. But we want it to look as if we've had at least $10m. We have to get the best value for money." So how do you afford people like Martin Sheen? "We go to South Africa, to keep costs down," she replies.

"With a movie you spend months and months getting it all set up. Suddenly it's all go. Over a very short period of time you hire upwards of 100 people. You spend millions of dollars and it all goes through your fingers very quickly. To manage this kind of money you really do need to have people you can trust absolutely."

So they called on the rest of the family. Younger brother Peter, a 29-year-old freelance film editor, was put in charge of post-production editing. And sister Veronica Russell, 35, who ran her own book-keeping company, took charge of the budgets.

"Before, I used to deal with quite small companies where the turnover per year would be less than the turnover for a movie in three months," she says. "It's quite frightening one day having £1m in your bank account, and three months later it's gone. I keep reining back on things, saying you can't do this or that because the money's running out."

While Paul is away with the filming, and Liz and Peter are out in Los Angeles, their father and Veronica are at home holding it all together. All the creative packaging and development, financial controls and internal management are done from there.

Aren't there stresses with a big family working together? "There are bound to be arguments because it's a creative business," says George. "Paul sees it in one direction, Liz sees it in another, Peter in yet another. So there has to be a lot of compromise. Because we're a family the arguments are all over by dinnertime."

Other members of the Matthews clan occasionally help out. Peter's twin, Janet, sister Patsy, 32 and Audrey all chip in from time to time. The only one not involved is 36-year-old Philip, who prefers to stick with a more straightforward 9 to 5 job. "He's got his feet a bit more on the ground," says Liz.

"We're quite a traditional family," she adds. "We're all very close. Sunday lunchtimes can be a real melee by the time you've got all seven children together.So if there is a disagreement we've got to patch it up.

"As long as this core of people are running the company, it won't change from being a friendly, family business. The working relationships are pre-set by the family."

They all pay themselves a salary and claim business is thriving. They've had good reviews, even earning praise from Barry Norman for The Christmas Stallion. Their latest film, A Christmas Reunion, shown on BSkyB on Christmas Eve last year, has been nominated for best Welsh drama in the Bafta awards.

"If you count the two we shot twice, we've done six movies and even though I say it myself that's unusual - an average of two a year," says Liz.

"This year if things go the way they're supposed to, we could do as many as four movies. Our turnover last year was $7m. If we do the four movies this year, it will be around $12m."

One of the new projects is The Proposition, another collaboration with S4C. This time it's a sort of Welsh western, telling the story of drovers bringing their cattle into England. A horror movie and another western shot in South Africa are also in the pipeline.

The Matthews' westerns are stocked by the local video store in nearby Brockworth, but the family doesn't mix business with pleasure. "It's very difficult to go and have a drink with your friends and say `Martin Sheen and I had a cup of tea on the set today', says Veronica. "It doesn't seem real, does it?"

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