Ethel and Ernest: Brenda Blethyn draws on poor background for animation role
"I like ordinary people," says Brenda Blethyn. "I think they're as fascinating as extraordinary people – and probably harder to play, actually."
Blethyn has built a career making ordinary characters feel extraordinarily alive, from suburban housewife Cynthia in Mike Leigh's Secrets and Lies to crotchety, unglamorous Vera in the eponymous ITV detective drama. She's still most recognised, though, she says, for playing long-suffering lovebird Alison in 1980s sitcom Chance in a Million.
Now she's lending her voice to the female lead in Ethel and Ernest, a feature-length animation of Raymond Briggs's 1999 book. It traces the lives of his parents from their first encounter in 1928 – Ethel was a lady's maid, Ernest was a milkman – to their deaths in 1971, while also taking in the 20th century's defining events. It's a deeply affecting portrait of a relationship, and over the course of it, we see their only child, Raymond, grow up, too.
Briggs was at the recording as Blethyn and Jim Broadbent voiced his mother and father.
"When Jim and I came out from the studio, he was in tears," Blethyn says. "He remembers his parents saying those things. He said it was just like having his parents in the room.
"What's lovely about him is he's not soppy, he's honest," she says. "It's 'this is how I remember it, even if Mum and Dad say otherwise', and I think everyone gets that."
Briggs has been known to play the curmudgeon. He professes not to like Christmas and has described the animation of his most famous book, The Snowman, as "corny", yet Blethyn is in no doubt as to why people have such a strong emotional response to his work. "He sees the beauty in the mundane, he sees beauty in the ordinariness of those people, and he's not just talking about his own parents, he's talking about people generally."
Blethyn, who grew up in poverty in Ramsgate as the youngest of nine children, found it easy to identify with Ethel. Her own mother, Louisa, had been a maid.
"They had a similar background, Mum was one of 14, Ethel was one of 11, and grew up in service. To get to be a lady's maid was a pretty high-level achievement. My mum started downstairs and got to be a lady's maid, too. It was a big deal."
In the film, Ethel is ridiculed by her employer for leaving to marry Ernest at the age of 30. "Most women would have been married much younger than that," says Blethyn, "but when she was 20, it was just at the end of the First World War – eligible men would have been few and far between. I could hear them telling Raymond the story of how they got together. I could feel his fondness for them, and regret. You can't help but feel regret for the things that you could have done.
"Why couldn't Ethel and Ernest have seen that art was a way forward for Raymond? Well, how could they possibly? I didn't tell my mum and dad when I was thinking of becoming an actor until I knew for certain. But you just wish that you could have achieved more in their lifetime so that they could have benefited from it, too.
"It's sad that Raymond's parents died before his universally acclaimed books were written. Honestly what would Ethel be like now if she was here? All this fame, she'd be tweeting away, (she slips into Ethel's voice): 'Have you heard of The Snowman? That's my Raymond.' She'd be so proud."
It's hard to convey just how funny Blethyn is in person. Now 71, with short hair, and spectacles that magnify her eyes as she turns her inquiring gaze on you, she's an owlish presence. But whenever she slips into a perfectly executed vocal mannerism, which she does often, it's hard not to laugh out loud. When I ask her how the acclaim for her performance in the 1996 film Secrets and Lies affected her career – she won the Bafta, Golden Globe and Best Actress award at Cannes, as well as receiving an Oscar nomination – she admits that it opened doors for her internationally.
"People had never heard of me. Then it was [she affects an American movie-producer's accent]: 'What about that little Beryl Boothright? Let's take a look at that little English girl'."
That little English girl, born Brenda Bottle, just over nine months after V-E Day, has come a long way from her humble beginnings: she grew up in a tiny two-up, two-down rented house with no hot water, before marrying Alan Blethyn, a British Rail worker, at 19. By her mid-20s, she was working as a secretary for British Rail, when she was asked as a last resort to step in for a friend in an amateur-dramatic competition. She had one line, which she has never forgotten, and delivers it for me now, in a rich Welsh accent – "It's a real dirty old night, Evans the post says the mist is right down to the pass, quite thick he said it was."
At 26, she won a place at the Guildford School of Acting. By 30, she was playing in a production of Troilus and Cressida at the Young Vic, where she'd once had a part-time job stuffing envelopes. A year later, she won her first major role with the National Theatre in Odon von Horvath's Tales from the Vienna Woods. She originally had a small part in the production, but the Canadian actress Kate Nelligan dropped out, and the staff director Ken Mackintosh talked Peter Brook into letting the little English girl do it, making her the first actor in the company to make the leap all the way from supporting player to lead.
Since her television debut in Mike Leigh's Grown-Ups in 1980, Blethyn has continued to mix stage and screen work. She was in the hit first London run of Nell Dunn's play Steaming, in 1981, and her award-winning New York stage debut in Alan Ayckbourn's Absent Friends in 1991 brought her to the attention of Robert Redford, who cast her in his film A River Runs Through It the following year. Since then, she has played the brassy, domineering mother in the film of Little Voice (1998), and a hilariously vulgar Mrs Bennet in the 2005 film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. All this despite being something of a shrinking violet. "Mostly I'm a scaredy cat," she says. "I should be on a gurney before stepping on a stage, I'm so frightened."
Does she think it's still possible these days to go from clerical worker to film star via am-dram? "Yeah, why not," she says. "If I can do it, anyone can do it. Well, I hope it's possible, don't you think it is?"
It seems less possible, I say. "Maybe I was lucky," she admits. "Today, it's even difficult for young people to get into drama school because of the fees involved. I got a grant."
I suggest that now there are also a lot of well-connected schools who give actors a bit of a head start. "It's 'cause they're posh, innit?" she says. "That's what you're getting at."
How hard does that make it for those less privileged to catch up? Do actors now need to be trained like footballers from a young age? "I don't think you can teach acting, can you? Not really," she says. "You've either got it or you haven't. The skills can be honed but the actual teaching of it? It's something you can intuitively do or you can't."
She believes there are many outstanding am-dram actors who never turn professional, including her brother Terry. Before becoming a sales executive, he was "the best pantomime dame I've ever seen", she says. But actors from the leading schools only get on if they're any good, she says, citing Eddie Redmayne (Eton) and Benedict Cumberbatch (Harrow) as examples. "I'd complain if they weren't any good, but they are."
She does take issue, though, with the way roles are often apportioned according to background. "The profession is called acting. If you're from the other side of the tracks, you should still be able to play somebody upstairs. Look at Phyllis Logan (who played housekeeper Mrs Hughes in Downton Abbey and Lady Jane Felsham in Lovejoy), she can play anything."
Blethyn says that nothing prepares you for a career in acting like experience of the real world. "Real experience is better than reading about it, isn't it?".
Her off-screen life has certainly provided the occasional moment of startling drama. In her memoir, she recounts how, after the break-up of her first marriage, when her husband fell in love with a neighbour, she plastered the walls of their home with topless photographs of herself before departing. "I don't know why I did that, it was a moment of madness," she says. "However, when I last spoke to my ex-husband he didn't remember it – which is deeply insulting."
There is a scene in Ethel and Ernest in which Ethel despairs that she is already 35 and hasn't had a baby. Blethyn has been with her second husband, the National Theatre's former art director Michael Mayhew, since the mid-Seventies, but they've never had children. Has she experienced similar feelings? "No, not really, it might have crossed my mind once or twice, but I've never been that maternal, hankering after a child. For a while, I thought of it as a vanity, that if you wanted a child there are plenty there already that need a home, but it's never been something that I dwelt on. I certainly empathise with Ethel because in those days that was very late to be having a child."
Briggs was an only child and, it's clear from Ethel and Ernest, rather pampered. Blethyn, as one of nine, was the opposite. She was sometimes packed off to stay with her big sister Pam when her mother was struggling to cope.
"They were difficult times for Mum," Blethyn says. "I suppose it would have a name nowadays and you'd get a little bit of help, but then she didn't and I just wish that things hadn't been so difficult for her. Sometimes she'd hit the Guinness, but she'd manage to cope in the end. She was a strong lady with a wonderful sense of humour. It wasn't always a laugh a minute in our house, but it was certainly in equal measure to anything more difficult."
One thing, she says, definitely applies to her world and Briggs's.
"The values then were different. It was so much simpler in many ways than life today – you just knew that Ethel and Ernest were going to stay together no matter what happened, and that's not the norm so much now."
Ethel and Ernest is screening as part of the New Zealand International Film Festival. For more information and screening times, see nziff.co.nz
- The Telegraph, London