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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
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.