WHAT THE MAID AND THE MILK­MAN SAW

The earth-shat­ter­ing events of the last cen­tury – from war to men on the Moon – are seen through the eyes of Raymond Briggs’s beloved par­ents in a touch­ing new film

Daily Mail Weekend Magazine - - PLANET EARTH JUNGLES - Mau­reen Pa­ton

Pre­pare to be trans­ported back to an al­most van­ished world. Ethel & Ernest, The Snow­man au­thor Raymond Briggs’s ten­der il­lus­trated book about his par­ents’ modest lives over 43 hard­work­ing years, first pub­lished in 1998, has been turned into a beautifully an­i­mated fea­ture f i lm. It’s just started a short run in cin­e­mas be­fore be­ing shown on the BBC this Christ­mas.

Raymond has long en­thralled fam­i­lies with his books and the films that have fol­lowed, from Christ­mas peren­nial The Snow­man to Fun­gus The Bo­gey­man, a hit on Sky with Ti­mothy Spall last year, and nu­clear dis­as­ter tale When The Wind Blows. Yet the lat­est to make that leap is his most heart­felt work ever. It tells the story of his par­ents – lady’s maid Ethel and milk­man Ernest, voiced by Brenda Blethyn and Jim Broad­bent – from their meet­ing in 1928 un­til their deaths in 1971, set against the back­drop of the mo­men­tous events of those four decades.

The film cov­ers ev­ery­thing from the Great De­pres­sion and the birth of Ethel and Ernest’s beloved only son Raymond in 1934, to the Blitz, VE Day and the Moon land­ing, as seen through sub­ur­ban Ethel and Ernest’s eyes. And at their side through­out is Raymond, voiced by Luke Tread­away who played Henry VII in The Hol­low Crown ear­lier this year, qui­etly ob­serv­ing his par­ents’ lives.

Raymond, now 82, says he felt al­most as if the real Ethel and Ernest had re­turned to him when they were mak­ing the film. ‘I’ve put my par­ents into my sto­ries be­fore,’ he ex­plains, ‘but this is the project clos­est to my heart. I was sit­ting in a small stu­dio au­di­ence while the ac­tors were in a cu­bi­cle do­ing the record­ings, and I spent the whole time in tears be­cause it was as if my par­ents were ac­tu­ally there.

‘Jim and Brenda sounded ex­actly right. Their ac­cents were spot-on – south Lon­don work­ing-class with­out be­ing Cock­ney.’ Raymond’s a stick­ler for such things. He him­self passed his 11-plus and went to Wim­ble­don’s Rut­lish Gram­mar School, where he was forced to speak ‘posh’, but he de­fi­antly in­sists, ‘I’m still as com­mon as I ever was’.

As an only child, he says he ‘cher­ished’ his par­ents. ‘Peo­ple have said I was ob­sessed with them, which is true: they loomed larger in my life than if I’d had broth­ers and sis­ters. They were hon­est, lov­ing peo­ple whose prospects were lim­ited by class. I could tran­scend class but they were trapped in it; my dad had passed the ex­ams for sec­ondary school but had to start Above and left: scenes from

Ethel & Ernest. Main pic­ture: Raymond at home in Sus­sex work­ing at 14 be­cause his while Carl Davis wrote the score. ‘I fam­ily needed the money.’ was knocked out by the fact McCartStill as unas­sum­ing as his par­ents ney was go­ing to do the song for the were, de­spite his global suc­cess, Ray­film,’ says Raymond. ‘I met him and mond ad­mits to be­ing amazed that two he was a very nice chap, very nor­mal.’ mu­si­cal greats – Sir Paul Mc­Cart­ney Co­in­ci­den­tally, Ernest and Macca’s and renowned com­poser Carl Davis – fa­ther Jim were both fire­men in the war, agreed to work on the film. McCar­tand the film de­picts the dan­gers of the ney has writ­ten and per­formed an job in spec­tac­u­lar scenes show­ing burno­rig­i­nal song, In The Blink Of An Eye, ing build­ings col­laps­ing in the Blitz, with Ernest be­ing dug out of the rub­ble then sob­bing at the death of a baby.

The film also chill­ingly de­picts Raymond’s nar­row es­cape with his fa­ther when a doo­dle­bug fly­ing bomb passed over them so low that Raymond could see ‘all the riv­ets un­der­neath it’. An­other of his most vivid mem­o­ries was hear­ing about the Cuban Mis­sile Cri­sis in 1962 when the Cold War be­tween Amer­ica and Rus­sia threat­ened to es­ca­late into a nu­clear war. ‘That was fright­en­ing,’ he re­calls. ‘ I re­mem­ber look­ing over Wim­ble­don Com­mon to­wards cen­tral Lon­don and think­ing, “By Mon­day all that could be gone.”’

The film is laced with sub­tle hu­mour too, though, such as Ethel and Ernest’s con­ster­na­tion when Raymond be­comes a long-haired art stu­dent in the early 1950s. And when he mar­ries Jean Clark, whom he’d met at art school, her miniskirts atop long pretty legs cause a mi­nor up­roar with Ethel after Ernest in­no­cently ad­mires them. Ethel, ex­plains Raymond, was fiercely pro­tec­tive of her only child. ‘She didn’t like the idea of me hav­ing a girl­friend at all,’ he con­fides. ‘In fact, she wanted to keep me with her all my life.’

Ethel’s over-pro­tec­tive­ness had a lot to do with Raymond’s dif­fi­cult birth; as the film shows, back in 1934 the med­i­cal pro­fes­sion con­sid­ered 38, her age at the time, to be danger­ously late to have a baby. After a home de­liv­ery, the doc­tor tells Ernest it was ‘touch and go’ for the ex­hausted Ethel and that his wife had bet­ter not have any more chil­dren. His par­ents both died in 1971, a dou­ble whammy that left him dev­as­tated. ‘They both had can­cer,’ he says. ‘My dad was ab­so­lutely lost when she died.’

Of the changes Raymond’s seen over his life­time, he feels ‘they’re gen­er­ally for the bet­ter’, though he ad­mits to be­ing driven mad by new tech­nol­ogy. Yet he feels his par­ents were hap­pier than many peo­ple to­day. ‘Life was less com­pli­cated and less ma­te­ri­al­is­tic for most peo­ple then, so it was eas­ier to achieve con­tent­ment,’ he ob­serves.

Fur­ther tragedy be­fell Raymond when, two years after his par­ents’ deaths, his wife Jean died of leukaemia. They hadn’t been able to have chil­dren. Raymond went on to fall in love again, but his part­ner Liz died a year ago after suf­fer­ing from Parkin­son’s. Yet he takes com­fort from the fact he’s close to both Liz’s chil­dren, Tom, 49, and Claire, 51. ‘We’ll all be spend­ing Christ­mas to­gether with the grand­chil­dren,’ he says.

No doubt they’ll make a date on the sofa for Ethel & Ernest, just like mil­lions of other chil­dren – and grown-ups – around the coun­try.

Ethel & Ernest is in cin­e­mas now and will air at Christ­mas on the BBC.

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