Audrey Kupferberg: Ethel & Ernest

Jul 24, 2018

ETHEL & ERNEST is an adult-oriented animated feature by renowned illustrator, author, and graphic artist Raymond Briggs.  Based on Briggs’ award-winning graphic novel of 1999, ETHEL & ERNEST tells the story of Briggs’ parents from the time they began dating in 1928 until their deaths in 1971.

While ETHEL & ERNEST hasn’t made much of a splash in the United States, where it was recently released to home viewing markets, the release across the pond in Britain and in other foreign markets has been more noticeable.  It was produced in 2016, had its premiere at the London Film Festival, and then was shown Christmas week to British audiences on the BBC. 

Briggs, who is now 84-years-old and best-known for his classic cartoon THE SNOWMAN, explains that there is nothing special about his parents.  This isn’t exactly a selling point for potential audiences; however, believe me when I say that ETHEL & ERNEST is a striking portrait of the many challenges and changes which occurred to families during the Twentieth Century.

Ernest and Ethel, Mom and Dad, are voiced by two Academy Award winners, Brenda Blethyn (whom many will know as VERA) and Jim Broadbent.  Mom was a house maid before marriage, and Dad a milkman.  Mom is a bit of a snob, but not so much that she is off-putting, and she is a very conventional woman.  Dad is an avid Labor Party enthusiast.  The loving couple has one son, and they love him dearly.  When he is sent to his aunts in the countryside to avoid the dangers of the London blitz during World War II, they are devastated but they cope. They have just enough money to enjoy the innovations of post-war, including a telephone, an automobile which takes them out to the newly-constructed highways, and a television set. 

Life into the 1950s has a smooth edge to it.  Then come the surprises.  First of all, Raymond chooses art school over a grammar school education which will lead to an Oxford or Cambridge degree and a good job in an office.  What kind of job will he ever have by going to art school, they whine and wonder!   And what’s up with Raymond’s long shaggy hairdo?  Further anguish comes when Raymond falls in love and marries.  Nothing that happens is like Ethel and Ernest imagined for him.

Meanwhile, time goes by and Ethel and Ernest are aging.  It is a disturbing and woeful process.  If nothing is special about these two, then why was I crying as I viewed life through their eyes? 

The musical score is particularly impressive.  Carl Davis wrote an original score, and there are many tunes that span the century.  It all culminates in Paul McCartney’s song “In the Blink of an Eye,” which he wrote especially for the film.

ETHEL & ERNEST should be a better-known film here in the United States.  Even if Briggs insists that the two title characters are not special, the film certainly is!

Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former Director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and has co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

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