Illustrator and author Raymond Briggs’ best known works have forever been associated with December – those of course, being ‘The Snowman’ and ‘Father Christmas’, the animated film adaptations of which have been shown every festive season on Channel 4 since 1982 and 1991 respectively.
Now though, one of his more recent creations has made the leap to the small screen. Originally published in 1998, “Ethel and Ernest” tells the story of Briggs’ parents, from their first meeting in 1928, right up until their sad passings within a few months between each other in 1971.
With his parents voiced melifluously by Brenda Blethyn and Jim Broadbent, it starts in off quite humble beginnings, with the early courtship of Ernest, a cheeky, happy go lucky milkman, and Ethel a prim and very proper chambermaid – a role she eventually leaves to wed Ernest and move in with him into a terraced house in Wimbledon Park.
There’s a cosy, wholesome bygone feel running throughout this. It’s over half an hour longer than “The Snowman” was, but then there is more story to work with and as a format it holds up beautifully well. There’s a very British humour in the instances where say, Ernest is taking out their old Aga and singing the Cockney song “Any Old Iron”, or when they’re watching “Dixon of Dock Green” on one of the first televisions, and debating over good and bad actors.
However, as is so often the case with Briggs’ work, there is a touching undercut of melancholia that is delivered with such poignancy and respect, particularly in the scenes that focus in on the outbreak of World War II in London, where the young Raymond is evacuated to relatives in the Dorset countryside, all the while with Ernest serving as a fireman whilst bombs descend on the capital, which has a profound psychiatric effect on him.
But it is also the sadness and devestation I felt with the later years of Ethel and Ernest’s lives that were shown, as health began to fail them both with dementia and stomach cancer respectively. Here we see a bit of Raymond’s own regret seep through – having haughtily pursued an art school apprenticeship which eventually led to the career he now has today, it touches on the idea that whilst we all have moments where we believe we’re above our own station, family and the love this brings is what matters most of all, and that we should never take this for granted.
If you see in the New Year with one film this year, then make it “Ethel and Ernest”. Even make it a weekly viewing. So life affirming in its outlook, it can’t fail to warm the heart.