One of the happiest days of my career thus far was when I went down a leafy, windy lane in Sussex, and entered into a ramshackle and chaotic old house overlooking the South Downs. There, I spent a happy hour interviewing the charming Raymond Briggs, writer of classic illustrated books including The Snowman, Fungus the Bogeyman, Father Christmas, When the Wind Blows, and countless more. But for me, his best work is Ethel and Ernest, the gentle and beautifully illustrated story of his parents’ life together.
This Christmas, BBC One is showing a feature-length, animated adaptation of the book, and it is a thing of wondrous beauty. It begins in London in 1928, when milkman Ernest (voiced by Jim Broadbent) and lady’s maid Ethel (Brenda Blethyn), two working class East Enders, spy each other through a window. What ensues is the story of their 41-year marriage, told against the backdrop of epochal events, from the great depression, through World War II, to the moon landings and beyond.
Progress, though, is measured not just in historical terms, but in the more mundane. An indoor privy. An electric fridge. A telephone. A TV (thank goodness). A car. This is both a love story and a social history of the mid-20th century, an age that seems immediately so familiar and yet so long ago. Try buying a house in London for £825 now. That’ll barely get you a coffee in fashionable neighbourhoods.
This is more than just a nostalgic wallow, although it undoubtedly is that. Every aspect of the production is beautifully realised, from the marvellous voice work of Blethyn and Broadbent, to the perfectly-judged sound-effects. But it is the animation that steals the show – Briggs’ pared-down, unfussy drawings are brought to life with care and respect, and the results are perfect.
The film is introduced by Briggs himself, in the self-same room where I interviewed him in Sussex several years ago. Back then, he was surrounded by a houseful of lovingly-accumulated clutter, although in his introduction, none of it is visible. You suspect Ethel, houseproud to the last, would want it that way.
Ethel and Ernest, premiere broadcast is on Wednesday 28th December, 7:30pm, BBC One.
It will be repeated on BBC2, Tue 3 Jan 2017 at 00:45. This is in the BBC’s Sign Zone slot which is where to find BSL sign-interpreted versions of mainstream BBC programmes.