Ethel & Ernest
by director Roger Mainwood
In 1982 I had the good fortune to animate on the Oscar nominated short film The Snowman. It was an adaptation of a picture book by the British author and illustrator Raymond Briggs. Other film adaptations of Raymond’s work followed. These included Father Christmas, The Bear, and the feature film When the Wind Blows. I animated on them all but never imagined that one day I would be adapting and directing his most personal work as my debut feature film.
In many of Raymond’s books oblique references are made to his parents, but in his award winning 1998 graphic novel Ethel & Ernest they are placed centre stage. Many critics consider it to be his masterpiece with one saying it was “the book Briggs was always trying to write.”
I was honoured to be invited by Lupus Films to direct Ethel & Ernest but I also felt the weight of responsibility. How could we be trusted with such an intimate and personal story? My long association with his work meant that we quickly established a bond of understanding, and we worked closely together on the script and storyboard. I knew that authenticity would be the key to the success of the film, and if we got the detail and emotional tone right for Raymond then I was sure it would make a connection with audiences.
On one level the story gives us a 40-year social history of Britain from when Ethel and Ernest first meet in 1928 up until the early 1970s. But at its heart is their love story. The film eschews a traditional narrative arc but instead relies on a series of domestic vignettes, wonderful and touching moments that build into something greater than their individual parts.
The choice of Oscar winner Jim Broadbent and Oscar nominee Brenda Blethyn to play the lead roles was an easy one to make. They were friends in real life, had played husband and wife before on the stage, and their chemistry and comic timing were perfect for the roles. When Raymond Briggs sat in on the voice recordings he said it was just like having his mother and father with him again.
The production had top talent in all departments and it was a privilege to be working alongside such a committed crew. World-renowned composer and conductor Carl Davis wrote us a magnificent original score and we were thrilled when Sir Paul McCartney agreed to write and perform a new song for the film.
Although Raymond Briggs’ story is set within a very British context, its themes are universal and have connected with audiences from all over the world, with recognition at festivals as far afield as Hong Kong, Brazil and Morocco. At the Palm Springs Film Festival in January 2017 it was voted a festival favourite, so we are delighted that Landmark Theatres are offering the beguiling charms of this gentle couple to a much wider U.S. audience. The real Ethel and Ernest would have been astonished at the attention they are now getting!