Raymond Briggs Part Four
When the Wind Blows
by Eric Hoffman
In the 1980s, a decade which saw the resurgence of extremist right-wing reactionary political ideologies in the United States (Reaganism) and the United Kingdom (Thatcherism), nuclear war between the West and the Soviet Union became a pressing issue. Nuclear stockpiles accumulated. The increasingly anti-Soviet agenda of Reagan and Thatcher exacerbated an already tenuous relationship between global superpowers. As a result of this increasing belief of an imminent threat, and due to the partial nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979, anti-nuclear activism and consciousness of the dangers of nuclear power increased. Raymond Briggs was among many artists who tapped into the anti-nuclear zeitgeist of the late 1970s/early 1980s; other examples included the underground All-Atomic Comics (1976), 1978’s Nuclear Power for Beginners by Stephen Croall and Kaianders Sempler, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s 1985/86 Watchmen, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (1986), and countless examples of futuristic comics which utilized a post-nuclear holocaust landscape as setting, including most notably Judge Dredd (1976-1999) and Akira (1982-1990).
As in Gentleman Jim (1980), with its critique of officialdom and authority, Briggs’s work had already taken a turn toward adult-oriented satire. Yet, as Richard Kilborn observes, where in Gentleman Jim “the socio-political dimension” already apparent in Father Christmas (1973) and Fungus the Bogeyman (1977), “becomes far more dominant,” Briggs’s next work, the chilling nuclear-age fable When the Wind Blows, “gave the clearest possible indication that Briggs, having served out his apprenticeship as children’s book illustrator, author, and cartoonist, now felt able to produce work, if not entirely as the spirit moved him, then certainly on subjects which he regarded as important” (36). Indeed, with its central narrative involving a critique of government pamphlets, When the Wind Blows, like Gentleman Jim before it, is decidedly satire. Unlike his previous work, however, When the Wind Blows (hereafter cited as WTWB), was marketed toward adults.
As with his other works, WTWB is peppered with autobiographical details, again featuring his parental stand-ins (more his mother than father, however ) Jim and Hilda Bloggs, first portrayed in Gentleman Jim. This time out, the couple are pensioners, confined to their retirement cottage in the English countryside, awaiting certain death as a nuclear stand-off takes place, with the Soviets readying a nuclear attack against the United Kingdom. Again, as in Gentleman Jim, Jim and Hilda are “victims of officialdom and authority” (Jones, 213), armed with only a government pamphlet providing useless recommendations on how to survive a nuclear holocaust, essentially a guide for turning one’s home into a glorified World War II-era Anderson shelter. Jim and Hilda are receptive to such meritless suggestions; this deception compliments their only context for war, allowing them to normalize an unimaginable event, and to view nuclear holocaust as in some way comparable to the type of devastation encountered in London during the Blitzkrieg. To Briggs biographer Nicolette Jones, the Bloggses “represent a [manifestation] of the incredible condescension the government holds toward the populace in the composition of their guidelines” (223). Indeed, Briggs viewed his work as “corrective,” representing a more honest recognition of the “terrible failure of the imagination” to confront the consequences of nuclear warfare (Kilborn, 37). “Really, I was interested in the human side of it,” explains Briggs. “What does the ordinary chap do when the balloon goes up? It’s all about wanting people to know what’s involved – then they can make up their own minds about disarmament or whatever. I mean, this Government optimism that they put out on the surface – and then the other, truer picture they present in these secret documents which go out to official people like local councils and so on. Which have been leaked, but we’re not told about” (ibid.) To Briggs, propaganda is a form of trickery, playing down the seriousness of nuclear war through misinformation and disinformation.
The nuclear superpowers’ wartime measures are visually contrasted with the Bloggs’s preparations; as if to underline the enormity of the event, the group of bombers taking to the sky and the nuclear submarines lurking in the darkness of the deep ocean are rendered in large, two-page splash pages, whereas Jim and Hilda are shown making their preparations in small, tiny panels, sometimes dozens to a page. This contrast suggests the insignificance of the Bloggs’s actions, and their complete helplessness in the face of the awesome events taking place, physically and metaphysically, beyond their reach.
WTWB was initially inspired by Briggs’s viewing an episode of the BBC current affairs program Panorama on nuclear contingency planning and reading a government-printed leaflet entitled Protect and Survive (pictured below), yet Briggs was already intending to produce a work dealing with nuclear war. Initially, he put together a collection of nursery rhymes “illustrated as if they applied to nuclear confrontation,” entitled How Many Days Has My Baby to Play? yet instead decided against the admittedly grim project, opting instead to reuse his Bloggses and their reaction to nuclear war. Initially entitled Mr. and Mrs. Bloggs and the Big Bang, Briggs instead continued with the nursery rhyme theme and re-titled the book using a line from the nursery rhyme, “Rock-a-Bye-Baby.” It was an inspired choice, particularly its evocation of the lines “the cradle will rock” and “when the bough breaks / the cradle will fall,” suggesting both the figurative death of innocence and the literal death of innocents. Moreover, the title suggests that the government pamphlet to which Jim clings is intended to lull one to sleep, and to remain ignorant of the dreadful reality and utter hopelessness of nuclear war, which totally transcends human experience. Briggs’s title also means to evoke the tenuousness of survival in a nuclear age, and that the cradle of civilization will invariably fall now that the bough of innocence has been broken. Only nuclear war can wake us from our complacent sleep, from the dream of civilization to the nightmare of barbarity upon which civilization rests and which is always threatening to be unleashed.
Seen in the context of what transpires in WTWB after the bomb is dropped, this interpretation is more than a bit ironic, as, even after the holocaust occurs, Jim and Hilda Bloggs remain trapped in their inherent ignorance. Jim, for example, says “innumerate” when he means “innumerable,” he says “commuters” when he means “computers”; he believes the “Big Bang theory” of nuclear physics pertains to nuclear warfare, and he thinks the Darwinian theory of survival of the fittest has something to do with exercise. Hilda is – if it is possible – even more ignorant than her husband. She thinks the bomb will change nothing. At the 3 minute warning, she brings in the laundry. After the bomb drops, she is seen putting curlers in her hair, hair that will, because of the fallout, sooner than later fall out. When their son Ron and his family, who live in London – Ground Zero – acknowledges the certainty of their death over the phone (he and his family are singing songs in a tragic attempt to enjoy the last remaining moments of their lives), it does not register with her. The Bloggses, writes Nicolette Jones, “do what they can in the face of a threat they do not understand, and their efforts are misguided and ridiculous, but touching. Jim and Hilda … underestimate [the danger]” (212).
When nuclear devastation occurs, portrayed in a single, silent, two-page spread of pinkish white light, followed by a red page which descends back into the routine of the paneled comic book page suggesting the event’s utter disruption of normalcy, Briggs painfully charts the bomb’s aftermath, including the immediate destruction. The Bloggs’s slow death by radiation poisoning is rendered with the same attention to detail as was given to the moments before the bomb dropped. The artwork, which prior to the blast is dominated by rich greens, oranges, and browns, suggesting fertility and nature, after the blast is made up largely of grays, blues, and purples, becoming more sickly, pale, and ugly, complementing the ongoing physical decline of its protagonists.
Certainly, the Bloggses are as much victims of their own ignorance as they are to the apathy and cynicism of their elected leaders, who exploit their childlike, unquestioning trust in authority. The bough has broken, the cradle has been rocked and fallen, and the Bloggs are left to sift through the destruction of their already tenuous grasp of reality. The tragedy that befalls them – and here is where the irony of the book’s title comes in – is that, even after a nuclear blast, Jim and Hilda are unable – or unwilling – to awaken from their dream of unreality, a dream they prefer to maintain, even in the face of its utter destruction, to the last moments of their painful, drawn-out deaths. “Large scale events have enormous impacts on individual lives… tragedy can happen even to those who cannot comprehend it,” writes Jones (212).
Surprisingly, given its decidedly grim subject matter, when Briggs handed over the completed manuscript of WTWB to his editors, no alterations were made. The seriousness of the subject matter deflected any attempts at censorship it seems, as though the publisher, Hamish Hamilton, understood that to do so would amount to engaging in just the sort of deceptiveness Briggs critiques in this work. Fungus, a lightweight children’s book by comparison, received far more alteration, yet WTWB was from the start perceived as a work for adults, and was marketed as such. Hamish Hamilton sent copies to parliament and Lord Elwyn-Jones of the Labour Party spoke of the work on the floor of the House of Lords, saying that WTWB “raised the gravest of questions of our time.” Margaret Thatcher, not surprisingly, remained silent on the subject (Jones, 224).
Briggs acknowledged that WTWB was from the start fully intended for adults, and written and drawn as such. “Often you get to the end [of a project] before you know whether it is a children’s book or not,” he told interviewer Barbara Baker. “You don’t think who the book is for while you are doing it, you just have an idea and get on with it.” Despite Briggs never intending to limit his audience, he does note the difference between an adult and adolescent audience however. “Once the child can read fluently at the age of seven or eight, if they are bright they can read practically anything.” Yet the audience is naturally determined by its readers’ interests. “It is only the subject matter [children] are not interested in,” continues Briggs, for example “sex or high finance, or crime.” Briggs admits that the format for the book – an oversized graphic novel/picture book – perhaps unintentionally introduces this difficult subject matter to a younger audience. “One of the great things about a strip-cartoon is that it does invite the reluctant reader in … when they pick up something that looks like a comic, they get interested, and don’t realize they are reading quite long, difficult words” (Baker 31-32).
In addition to a shift in its intended audience, WTWB was, aside from the occasional attempt to adapt his work to animation or television, the first Briggs work to involve more than just the printed page. As part of its intention to reach an older audience, WTWB was also meant to reach a much wider audience, necessitating its incarnation in other media, iterations which occurred simultaneous with the creation of the book. WTWB eventually saw four different versions in four separate mediums: book, radio play, stage play, and film.
Thanks to Richard Kilborn’s unique social media study, Multimedia Melting Pot: Marketing When the Wind Blows (1987), we know a great deal about the creation, distribution, and reception of WTWB. In his brief introduction to this book, Briggs voices his preference for the printed page, as it gives the original author the most control. The radio play is second, because of the limits of cost and preferential in some ways due to the immediacy of the actor’s voice (notably, producers had to overdub Hilda’s humming during the broadcast, which featured actual BBC announcer Brian Perkins announcing breakout of nuclear war, for fear it would spark a War of the Worlds-style panic). Film, aside from the length of time (which threatens its relevance) and amount of money and effort it requires, is to Briggs next best, and theater he found the worst, largely due to the cost, logistics and “cumbersome means” of production.
With the motion picture adaptation, the length of time it took to produce (roughly four years from its inception to release date), relevancy certainly did become threatened, primarily because of the number of nuclear war-themed films released during its production, including the workmanlike US-produced mini-series The Day After (1983), Peter Watkins’ unflinchingly harrowing BBC drama-documentary The War Game (broadcast in 1985 though filmed in 1965; the film was repressed because it was, notably given Briggs’s critique, deemed by the BBC as “too upsetting”), and the chilling Threads (1984, also UK produced). By the time the filmed version of WTWB was released, audiences were exhausted by the subject matter; as a result, it fared poorly at the box office, despite receiving near-unanimous praise by critics having warmly received. Featuring a haunting progressive rock soundtrack by Roger Waters and David Bowie, the WTWB film is loyal to a fault to Briggs’ work, with excellent vocal performances by established English actors John Mills and Peggy Ashcroft. Moreover, the filmmaker’s imaginative mixture of cel animation with miniature sets lends the film a distinctive look, further grounding the unimaginable in the everyday. Not an easy film to watch, yet memorable and powerful, WTWB (the film) remains a pertinent reminder – particularly in this post-Cold War era of nuclear proliferation – of the terrible consequences of helpless complacency in the face of imminent disaster.
WTWB is not easy reading. It is not particularly enjoyable. The book, observes Richard Kilborn, “calls into question the assumption that those in power will exercise good judgment and restraint, that they are responsible, dispassionate, and act in the interests of humanity” (39). If anything, history has proven the opposite. Jim and Hilda Bloggs cannot comprehend the enormity of nuclear warfare and, in the face of it they display a truly heroic level of willful self-deception. They are only able to come to terms with the future threat by equating it with the past – in their case, cozy memories of the Second World War. Yet the nuclear threat surpasses all prior experience. It is not conceivable precisely because it is unthinkable.
One can appreciate the artifice of WTWB, its mastery of presentation, and perhaps find some morbid fascination with the sheer ignorance and stupidity of its protagonists, marveling that, even in the face of Briggs’s critique of the Bloggses, Briggs’s sympathy lies with them, even if it is sympathy colored by frustration and disappointment. Though for all its discomfort, there is a hopefulness at the heart of the book that, for all the their lack of imagination, there is an utter humanity at the heart of their inherent simplicity that illustrates there is more commonplace sincerity and goodness (for lack of a better word) in that small English cottage than in all the palaces, boardrooms, and halls of power, and these absences present us with a very hopeless situation, indeed.