Page 45 Review by Stephen
"Do you have to dig a hole, like the old Andersons in the war?"
"Oh no, dear. That's all old-fashioned. With modern scientific methods you just use doors with cushions and books on top."
Jim and Hilda have just heard the Prime Minister warn of an imminent nuclear attack on the radio. Fortunately Jim's found some leaflets from the Council on how to make ready. There'll be perfectly safe, then - it'll be just like The Blitz.
Did you ever watch The War Game by Peter Watkins? Originally scheduled to be screened on BBC1 in 1965 on the anniversary of Hiroshima, the chilling pseudo-documentary depicted the derisible domestic preparations for - then the horrific repercussions of - a nuclear strike on Britain. It was brutal, and I don't just mean people at the epicentre being vaporised or the slower necrosis of those further out: I mean socially. It was banned for 20 years. Self-censorship, press pressure or a government which knew it would cause a countrywide mental meltdown?
I saw it in 1985, two decades on from the Cuban Missile Crisis, and I still wet myself.
All of which means that this graphic novel, published in 1982, hit the public first.
A scathing diatribe on "govern-mental" advice on how to prepare for a nuclear attack disguised as a tender comedy, this was the first time that the British Mainstream Press had been confronted by a comic they weren't sure was for kids. Okay, which they were pretty damned sure wasn't for kids. MAUS wouldn't be collected and then hit some headlines for many years to come and in any case, you could simply ignore that if you fancied. But the British Press could not ignore this because Raymond Briggs was a household name and I defy you to think of another British comicbook creator to whom that applies. Not even Alan Moore or Neil Gaiman are household names, nor Posy Simmonds. To make things more problematic for them Raymond Briggs was a childhood favourite (FUNGUS THE BOGEYMAN, THE SNOWMAN, GENTLEMAN JIM) and it would be many years before he released something so obviously adult-orientated as the biography of his parents, ETHEL & ERNEST.
Surprisingly, perhaps, the British Press reacted spectacularly well from the Guardian and Sunday Telegraph right now to the Daily Mail. And I'll bet you being a childhood - and so sacrosanct - favourite made all the difference.
It begins with a relatively large landscape panel with elderly Jim being dropped off on a quiet country lane in the heart of the British Countryside with rolling, green-grass hills and big fluffy cumulus clouds. The sun is out, the sky is blue, nature is in full, colourful bloom. Colours are very important here.
He's greeted by his wife Hilda in a clean white apron and headscarf tied in a knot.
"You do seem a bit down, dear."
"Yes, well - been reading the papers in the Public Library all the morning."
"Oh those things! Full of rubbish. I never look at them. Except The Stars."
Now, I want to make one thing clear before we go any further: what is not being poked fun at is Jim and Hilda's class; it is their age and their particular generation, increasingly bewildered by the world shifting so fast around them. You'll see exactly the same thing throughout Briggs' ETHEL & ERNEST. As you'll discover they simply don't get the scale of an atomic detonation. Nor is it that Hilda's a woman; because Jim for all his reading hasn't quite understood what he's read and what he has understood he's got the wrong words for. Here he is building his bomb shelter in the living room:
"It says here "The-Inner-Core-or-Refuge-should-be-place-at-an-angle-of-60º-for-maximum-strength."
"I should place it up against the wall if I were you, dear."
"Yes, but which are the degrees? We haven't got any angles... unless it means in the corner... I think we did it at school... with degrees in... only I can't remember properly... I'll ring our Ron. He'll know."
He rings their son.
"Yes, Ron says I need a protactor. He says I can get one at Willis's. He was killing himself laughing. I can't understand it. I think it's nerves. He's gone a bit hysteriacal."
To me it reads like Alan Bennett.
Jim's optimism - his complete and unfaltering faith no matter what in Doing The Correct Thing as directed by The Powers That Be in order to achieve The Best Results - is as touching as it is painful. And I do love the A.A. Milne use of Capital Letters. Jim goes through lists and lists of emergency items they're supposed to stock up on but nobody has any and so they make do. They improvise. If any exchange demonstrates the conspicuously wretched inadequacy of the UK government's official instructions released purely to placate - to fool the populace from comprehending the futility of it all - it's when Jim starts painting the glass in the windows white:
"It's for the Radiation, I think. Like you do greenhouses to keep out the sun. It's the correct thing."
"It won't be that hot, surely?"
"Well, I don't know - they say the one at Hiroshima was equal to one thousands suns. So it is quite hot..."
As Jim busies himself being the motivator and practical man-about-house, Hilda is all about propriety and the paintwork. We don't want that getting scratched in all the kerfuffle of an atomic bomb!
The panels are dense with dialogue and the pages are dense with panels: seven tiers of them with up to four panels per tier. And yes, there is the sense of them being boxed in and unable to escape what's coming, but also Jim and Hilda are just little people going about their insignificant little lives in their tiny little panels and doing so ineffectually. Then every few pages there are, in the starkest of contrasts, giant double-page spreads in bleakest blue and murkiest brown:
"Meanwhile, on a distant plain...."
"Meanwhile, in the distant sky...."
"Meanwhile, in a distant ocean...."
And then, unexpectedly, halfway down a page as Jim and Hilda discuss which shirts would be best to wear ("You're not going to wear that nice new one I gave you for Christmas! I don't want that spoiled. You can wear your old clothes for The Bomb and save your best for afterwards.") the consistently, reliably, small and orderly, densely packed panels cease being so orderly or densely packed.
As I read this again for the first time in thirty years I was as sure as I was confident the first time round that half the humour was going to be how unnecessary Jim's preparations had been. That he had made his missus go through the rigmarole of it all only for it to be yet another false alarm! A closer shave than most, to be sure, but kind old Uncle Briggs would not make you care for such a loving if dotty couple then actually put them through a nuclear strike, would he?
Remember what I said about colour.