Raymond Briggs: ‘There could be another world war. Terrifying, isn’t it?’


The creator of childrens classic The Snowman cried during recordings for a new festive film about his parents. Now he fears the dark times they lived through are coming back

Raymond Briggs would have good grounds for feeling every bit as grouchy as he likes to appear. Late last year, his partner of 40 years died of Parkinsons disease; she had been ill for years, many more than he had realised. You look back and think: God, that was odd, the things Liz did. I came home one day years ago and saw this lovely carpet out on the grass. Extraordinary. Why throw it away? I couldnt understand it. I mean, God almighty, it was very exasperating. But at the time, we didnt know she was ill. It was this creeping, awful disease thing. He inhales briskly. Never mind. Bit of a bugger, but there we are, such is life. Never mind.

This is the second time the illustrator has been widowed. In 1963 he married a painter he met at art school. I wasnt a madly keen marrying type or burning with love or anything. I mean, I loved her, but I dont particularly approve of marriage as such. Or disapprove. It just seems pointless to tie up your emotional relationship with the law. Always seems awful to me. But she had schizophrenia, and we got married mainly because I thought it would help her mental state give her a feeling of stability. So although Briggs was the normal sort of young arty type, he saw little of the 1960s.

I had a house and a mortgage and all that, and didnt feel part of the 60s movement thing at all. I remember saying to friends, Im sick to death of hearing about these fucking Beatles. Im not the least bit interested. His wife died in 1973, of schizophrenia combined with leukaemia. Under his breath, he mutters, God, that was a jolly one-man-band.

As Briggs talks, he shuffles around his cluttered cottage making coffee. Papers are stacked all over the place; he is currently making his will. Terrible bloody business. They say: Who is your next of kin? Well, I dont have a next of kin. I asked [Lizs daughter] Claire, Would you mind being my next of kin? But shes not my daughter, nor even a stepdaughter. Now touching 50, Claire and her brother were at primary school when Briggs and their mother became a couple, but he never felt paternal towards them.

No, I kept out of the paternal role. I made it a rule not to buy them anything for Christmas that cost more than a fiver, because I didnt want to be saying, Oh, look at me, Im better-off than your father. I didnt want to intrude in that way. He pauses glumly. Yes, its a funny old business, all this stuff. People idealise family life, dont they? Its not necessarily all that easy. For that matter, Ive never been particularly interested in children at all, as such. Dont particularly dislike them. But Im not, and his tone turns crisply disdainful, a child lover.

The 1982 film of Raymond Briggs story The Snowman. Photograph: Moviestore/Rex/Shutterstock

The bestselling childrens author was appalled to be considered a potential childrens laureate some years ago. I didnt see the point of that. It sounded awful. You go all over the country. Imagine it! The hotels and bed-and-breakfasts and taxis and trains, and really you just think: for Gods sake, what for? I suppose if you like that kind of public appearance, its alright, but Id hate it. He isnt keen on lifetime achievement awards, either. Ive had one or two of those, and its a rather funny title, because come on, my lifetime hasnt ended yet. But if you say youve got a lifetime achievement award, its like well come on, get dead, man! And he famously, of course, hates Christmas.

Im not convinced Briggs is anything like the miserabilist he affects to be. For one thing, he follows every grumpy pronouncement with a light little laugh, as if in on his own joke. For another, he volunteers a touchingly tender memory of meeting me on holiday in Scotland more than 30 years ago. I was only a child, so I dont think he can find kids an unmitigated bore. Tentatively solicitous, he offers up a plate of chocolate brownies with a gentle air of inexpert hospitality, and his bah-humbug misanthropy is difficult to square with his kitchen walls, which are plastered with handmade cards and childrens drawings. In a childs handwriting, one card reads: Raymond, you are really funny, lots of love, Matilda. Another shows a childs drawing of him. Hideous caricature, you know. Doesnt look anything like me at all. But in spite of himself, he is grinning fondly, and points out a photo of a girl holding a copy of his book The Bear, which features a character called Tilly.

This little girl fell in love with Tilly and the bear, so she made her parents call her Tilly, and was so insistent that in the end they changed her name legally. Best compliment I ever had. He allows a bashful chuckle, plainly delighted. All over the rest of the wall are Christmas cards from the year before last. Couldnt be bothered to take them down, is the mumbled and rather unconvincing explanation.

On another wall are posters of his two classic Christmas works, Father Christmas and The Snowman, making me wonder if he really does hate Christmas. Oh, I do, he insists, but the reason he offers is not one that would belong to an actual misanthrope. Its the anxiety. Have I spent enough, too much, how do I get it there, did I give her this before, has she already got this? To me, he sounds like someone who cares very much about making others happy, but has never quite been sure how to get it right, and so learned long ago to disguise social awkwardness as gruff impatience. An anecdote he tells about receiving a second invitation to appear on Desert Island Discs only confirms my hunch that his big fear is not public acclaim, but making a public faux pas. I was so relieved when towards the end of the second time the presenter said: Weve had you on before. I thought: Oh, thank God, I didnt think you knew, yes you have.

What he cannot conceal is his delight at the reception his latest film has received. Ive been to three or four screenings, and the audience has applauded at the end every time. Amazing! Amazing. Peering at me, he enquires casually: They dont applaud at the end of a film in the cinema very often these days, do they? Happy to confirm they do not, Im nonetheless not remotely surprised to hear that they did for Ethel & Ernest.

The film is an adaptation of his 1998 book of the same name, and tells the simple story of his parents unremarkable lives. Briggs father was a milkman, who spotted a pretty housemaid shaking a duster from the window of a grand Belgravia house one day in 1928; he knocked at the back door, they courted briefly, got married, bought a house in Wimbledon, and doted on their only son, Raymond. Ernest was an irrepressibly happy-go-lucky working-class lad, Ethel a little less worldly but more aspirational. They remained happily married right up until their deaths in 1971, Ethel from dementia, and Ernest just months later from cancer.

Ethel & Ernest trailer on YouTube

The film will be screened on Wednesday 28 December on BBC1, and on paper sounds so slight that I was quite unprepared for its impact poignant and subtle, yet powerful enough to haunt me for weeks afterwards. Through Ethel and Ernests ordinary, uneducated, innocent eyes we see the 20th century unfold, from the Great Depression and the rise of Hitler to the second world war and the welfare state; new-fangled mysteries such as television and telephones to the marvel of a family motor car, and the unfathomable sensations of the 60s all the short-skirted women and long-haired men. Voiced by Jim Broadbent and Brenda Blethyn, Mr and Mrs Briggs are evoked so perfectly that their son spent most of the recording sessions in tears. It was as if my parents were right there in the room. Uncanny. I dont know how they did it so well.

Im equally at a loss to explain why I was moved to tears by a historiographically mundane recap of events we all know inside out. I had been floored once before by a Briggs film, but anyone could see why When the Wind Blows, his film about nuclear war, would have traumatised a teenager in 1986. Its been years since that chilling dread of global Armageddon left me, so I ask Briggs why he thinks Ethel & Ernest feels so ominously resonant now.

Ah, because now that dreads coming back. He reels off a few current trigger points China and Taiwan, eastern Ukraine, Russian warships cruising the English channel and you think, my God, it could all be seen as utterly trivial or it could be seen as something immensely serious. You just dont know whats going to happen, with a lunatic like Trump. And when we left that Europe thing, that Brexit nonsense, I was just so horrified. Crazy. When Nato and the UN were created, we thought it meant there could never be another world war. Well, there bloody well could be. Terrifying, isnt it? Cant believe it.

Had Briggs made a film about his own life (Good God, no!), I wonder which world events we would have seen through his eyes? Oh, blimey. Thats a big question. He pauses to think. Well, the worst thing was the Cuban missile crisis, wasnt it? I remember feeling actual physical fear while that was going on. I remember looking out of the window of my bedsit in Wimbledon, and thinking: my God, by Monday all this Im looking at could be a smoking ruin.

He isnt sure that he would still call himself a pacifist I dont know, quite. Depends on the circumstances but is definitely no longer solidly Labour. I used to be solid all the way through. But now I wouldnt know who to vote for. I certainly wouldnt vote Labour any more. He despairs of his once-loved party under Jeremy Corbyn. The whole things just rubbish, isnt it? Falling apart.

When the Wind Blows, Briggss nuclear war film from 1986. Photograph: Ronald Grant Archive

No matter how politically bleak the worlds prospects, I had assumed Briggs could always console himself with his wealth, but when I say so, he looks astounded. No, no, oh no. Im not rich. But The Snowman alone has sold more than 8m copies! Has it? Oh, I expect the publishers just say that. Im fairly sure book sales are rigorously audited. Oh. Really? He looks genuinely surprised, but still insists he isnt rich. I dont take any interest in it, he adds. As long as theres enough to pay the bills, I couldnt tell you how much I earn. He hasnt bought a house since the 70s, drives a second-hand Honda Jazz, and likes to shop in charity stores, so unless he has the worlds worst literary agent, I would guess hes a lot richer than he either needs or cares to know.

Im far from the first to notice Briggs temperamental resemblance to his crotchety fictional Father Christmas. But for all of his faux gloom, by the time I leave, only two of his grievances ring wholly true. He says he hates being old because everything hurts, hes TATT tired all the time, and random words keep eluding him. I believe him because they are written out in black marker pen as an aide memoire on his kitchen wall: probate, secular, prostate, migraine, narcissistic, sociopath, water chestnuts, merlot, post-script, Jim Broadbent, Brenda Blethyn, Katie Price Jordan, ciabatta, diabetes, ragwort, Velcro and many more. The list would keep a Through the Keyhole audience guessing for ever, but Briggs has had quite enough by now of TV camera crews poking around and moving bits of furniture. You dont know whether theyre pinching things at the same time!

Nor do I doubt the sincerity of his indignation about the Guardians review of Ethel & Ernest. It said the film mentions my wifes schizophrenia, but that its barely touched on. Well, what do you fucking expect? You cant just embark upon schizophrenia when youre writing about something else! Its a huge subject. If you knew anything about it, youd know youd need half a dozen books to write about it.

As for the rest of it, my guess is that however much Briggs, like his fictional Father Christmas, loves to grumble, he likes making us happy even more.

Ethel & Ernest is on BBC1 at 7.30pm on Wednesday 28 December

Read more: www.theguardian.com


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