'Tis the season to be jolly - if you're Raymond Briggs

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The Independent Online
HE WILL be under the tree, in the book and video bestseller lists and on our screens. This year will be the Briggs Christmas.

Unassuming, grumpy and yet well-meaning, the author and artist Raymond Briggs, creator of The Snowman, Fungus the Bogeyman and a petulant Father Christmas of his own devising, has become the embodiment of the British attitude to the festivities. And never will he have dominated the season of goodwill as this year.

For a start, Briggs' new book Ethel & Ernest: A True Story is set to be one of the gifts most frequently unwrapped under the tree on 25 December. An illustrated biography, it tells the story of Briggs's parents, Ernest, a left-wing milkman and Ethel, a former lady's maid with Tory proclivities. It is a moving, but entirely straight narrative, spanning 41 years, and after an initial period in the bestseller lists when it came out in September, the book has suddenly stormed back into contention.

Last week the publishers, Jonathan Cape, received a phenomenal increase in requests for copies from bookshops and wholesalers. On Monday they were asked for 3,277 copies, on Tuesday 1,065 and on Wednesday 3,476. "We have sold 54,000 copies," said a spokeswoman for Cape. "And we know we are on the crest of a big Christmas surge."

Whitaker Booktrack placed Ethel & Ernest at number nine in the hardback non-fiction charts for the week ending on 21 November. Last Thursday, the book appeared at number five in the list, which is compiled by the industry's journal, The Bookseller.

Recent publicity surrounding the 20th anniversary of the publication of The Snowman has served only to compound interest in the new book and Briggs has admitted he is looking favourably at an offer to turn the cartoon-strip book into a West End play. He is also known to have received an early offer for the film rights.

As usual at Christmas, the popular 30-minute animation of The Snowman will be shown on television after the Queen's Speech - but this time there will be a companion piece. A new Channel 4 film version of Briggs' more recent children's story, The Bear, has been put together by some of the original Snowman animators. It will have a score written by Howard Blake, composer of "Walking in the Air".

Written in 1994, The Bear is about a little girl who is befriended by a polar bear. Like the little boy in the first Briggs hit, she is taken on a fantastical journey through the sparkling night sky, this time actually reaching the Ursa Major (Great Bear) constellation.

In spite of all this heartwarming childhood whimsy, Briggs's books always have a practical and commonsense core. The same down-to-earth tone dominates Ethel & Ernest, a book which was primarily designed for an adult audience. At moments, its vision of humanity is as stark as it was in Briggs's bleak anti-nuclear polemic, When the Wind Blows.

At 64, the man himself seems more akin to the grumpy persona of his Father Christmas, predisposed as he is to cursing and grumbling. "I'm fed up with this lark," he recently told his public, explaining how he was looking forward to giving up work and relying on a pension.

It seems much more likely that, as with his eponymous Father Christmas, the world will never let Briggs retire. "Another bloomin' Christmas," as both of them might say.

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