Ethel & Ernest

The titular couple are the parents of illustrator Raymond Briggs, whose affectionate book in their honour is now adapted by director Roger Mainwood into this animated oddity.

It starts with the elderly Briggs himself, in a brief moment of live action, scratching away in his old-fashioned cottage, drinking his tea out of a Snowman mug – indeed, the shot of his rickety old kitchen reveals it’s stuffed full of Snowman merchandise.

“There was nothing extraordinary about my parents,” he says, “and they’d probably tell you it didn’t happen like this, but there you go, this is their story and I’m telling it.”

And we flash back to a jolly old London town, where cheerful working class chaps waved each other off to work and a winked at lady’s maids as they beat the dust out of carpets in gentrified London squares.

That’s how Ernest (Jim Broadbent on sunny vocal form) catches the eye of Ethel (voiced by Brenda Blethyn in a pairing which obviously recalls Mike Leigh, though without the satirical bite or poignancy).

Off they go to the picture house and soon they’re buying a house in Wimbledon with £825 and a mortgage. “By 1955, it’ll be ours,” marvels Ernest. No first time couple would be getting that place now, we all think,

And that’s the subtle marvel of this film. It’s cynicism-free, utterly devoid of arch comment, which is an odd feeling in this post-ironic times. It has only affection coursing through its veins, even as Ethel pooh-poohs Mr Hitler, the Labour government and the welfare state. Ernest, meanwhile, his face always in the newspaper, cheers on Atlee and tuts about Hitler being on the warpath, informing us of events without ever getting much involved in them, except when he becomes a fireman during the Blitz.

I must say the Blitz is probably the film’s strongest section – little Raymond is evacuated and you get a real feeling of what life was like for very ordinary Londoners. Even when Raymond comes back from the countryside, the Doodlebugs aren’t done.

Then there’s the march of progress. A telephone, a television – Ethel oohs and coos in a Blethynish way (“my soft coverings are all dusty: what do we need that for? etc) while Ernest cheerfully chivvies her along like he does everyday in his milk float.

There’s one amazing thumbnail, where some put-upon husband invites Ernie the milkman in to help satisfy his wife, but Ernie refuses of course. What an odd moment that is, very Carry On – although the main template here is probably Noel Coward’s chipper London suburbs classic This Happy Breed, and the film version directed by David Lean.

Raymond himself is in the story, going to grammar school (‘I hope he won’t get too posh for us,” remarks Ernest) and then art school, his parents never moving from that house, a place where it is perpetually 1955, and that’s a good thing, the sort of Brexit ideal.

It does get sad in the closing stages, very moving indeed, like the opening bits of Pixar’s Up, when Ethel gets what is clearly Alzheimer’s but nobody seems to understand. Ernest soldiers on, of course, but not for long.

So, as Briggs says at that beginning, there’s nothing extraordinary here at all – except for practically the entire history of 20th century London as well as the highs and lows of a long life lived in a little house.

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