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The Crack Magazine

Raymond Briggs © David Sandison.jpg

Everybody Loves Raymond

If you’re looking to give yourself a real treat this festive season, then I’d advise a trip to the wonderful Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle where they’re staging a retrospective of one of the UK’s most beloved illustrators: Raymond Briggs.

Raymond Briggs’ Father Christmas looks like Father Christmas. He’s got the red suit, the snowy white beard, and the kind of figure that makes you think he should seriously consider salads. But Raymond Briggs’ Father Christmas doesn’t act like Father Christmas. Briggs’ Father Christmas is a down-to-earth type who lives in a normal house – the kind of house that anyone might live. He also exudes a rather grumpy, dissatisfied countenance, which is about as far removed from “jolly” as you can get. And yet, when Raymond Briggs’ picture book ‘Father Christmas’ was first published in 1973, children, and the wider general public, fell in love with his take on Santa. (Not everyone, it has to be noted, was totally enamoured. Briggs revealed – in a 2018 BBC Documentary – that he’d received a letter of complaint from a reader in America who was shocked at seeing Father Christmas sitting on the toilet.)

‘Father Christmas’ went on to win The Kate Greenaway Medal – a literary award that recognises “distinguished illustration in a book for children” – and a sequel swiftly followed: ‘Father Christmas Goes on Holiday’. But Briggs proved he was no one trick pony with his next two books, ‘Fungus the Bogyman’ and ‘The Snowman’. Fungus is your common or garden, working class Bogeyman, who is given to mild existential crises over his seemingly pointless job: scaring humans. ‘The Snowman’, meanwhile, needs little introduction. The wordless tale of a friendship between a boy and a snowman was animated in 1982 and it would go on to become a fixture of Christmas television viewing.

Briggs was never one to shy away from life’s harsher elements (“I don’t have happy endings”) and that was fully illustrated – quite literally – in his 1982 graphic novel ‘When the Wind Blows’. This tells the story of a Soviet nuclear attack on the UK from the viewpoint of Jim and Hilda Bloggs – a retired couple. A harrowing, bleak story (how could it be anything else?) it was made into an animated film in 1986 with John Mills and Peggy Ashcroft taking the leads.Briggs’ most personal graphic novel, meanwhile, is ‘Ethel & Ernest’, which was published in 1998. This tells the story of Briggs’ parents, from their first meeting in 1928 through to their deaths in 1971. A beautiful and poignant work, it won the ‘Best Illustrated Book’ award at the 1999 British Book Awards.

This exhibition – ‘Raymond Briggs: A Retrospective’ – includes work from the aforementioned pioneering titles, as well as from some of his lesser-known books. It also includes his drawings, hand-lettered typography and page designs from his earliest commissions right through to his 2004 book ‘The Puddleman’.Briggs sadly died earlier this year, but he left us with a body of work that will enthral readers for years to come. This show is a fine testament to his quite singular talents. RM

Raymond Briggs: A Retrospective, until 26 February 2023, Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle. thebowesmuseum.org.uk