There’ll Always Be An England? ‘When The Wind Blows’

❉ We look back on the touching, terrifying and heartbreaking When The Wind Blows.

Released on January 30 1987, the animated movie When The Wind Blows was based upon Raymond Briggs’ 1982 book of the same name, and featured the voices of Sir John Mills and Dame Peggy Ashcroft as Jim and Hilda Bloggs, an elderly married couple living in rural Sussex, with the plot centring on their efforts to ‘keep calm and carry on’ as a nuclear strike tears through the country, leaving the couple to depend on their wits, the advice of ‘the powers that be’, and their recollections of life during wartime.

In bringing the anxieties of the prospect of nuclear annihilation to the big screen, as seen through the eyes of two average members of the public, the film’s release was timely, capturing something of the mood of the decade: Just nine months before the film’s release, the Chernobyl disaster shook the world, and a year prior to that, the BBC had aired Peter Watkins’ previously un-broadcast psuedo-documentary The War Game (1965) alongside a repeat of the infamous drama Threads (1984) to mark the fortieth anniversary of Hiroshima.

The spectre of nuclear Armageddon – and humanity’s prospects living in a post-apocalyptic world – was a tangible concern of the times that seems almost obsessive when viewed through the lens of ‘80s popular culture, recurring in everything from speculative sci-fi (Riddley Walker) and children’s drama (Z For Zachariah) through to deceptively upbeat chart hits from the likes of Captain Sensible (Glad It’s All Over), Nena (99 Red Balloons), Strawberry Switchblade (Since Yesterday) and Prince (1999). In ‘80s comedy, it seems not a week would go by without a reference to mutually assured destruction and ‘the balloon going up’, from the provocative comedy of Not The Nine O’Clock News, Whoops Apocalypse and The Young Ones, to mainstream sitcom fare such as Only Fools & Horses, Brush Strokes and Minder.

In 1964, Marshall McLuhan famously declared, “the medium is the message” and When The Wind Blows, in both its book and film incarnations, hit harder than most and caused instant controversy not only because it made the political personal, dealing with the plight of a elderly couple, unable to comprehend the unprecedented destructive force of a nuclear strike, but also because it was realised in two media then casually associated with harmless children’s entertainment – the strip cartoon and animated film.

Following Briggs’ 1978 wordless picture book The Snowman, When The Wind Blows’ innovative status as one of the first mainstream ‘graphic novels’ was by accident rather than design, as Briggs recalled:

“I normally had a 32-page picture book and I wanted to do a lot more than 32 pictures so I ended up with what turned out to be a strip cartoon. Strip cartoons are looked down on in England as a culturally inferior artform but I think that ‘When The Wind Blows’ at least showed that strip cartoons can deal with a serious sub­ject. It doesn’t have to be about violence or comic cuts. It’s just as good a medium as a film really if it’s used properly.”

(To put this in context, when the film When The Wind Blows was released, Alan Moore’s Watchmen had only just been published as a collected edition and the term ‘graphic novel’ was yet to gain widespread currency.)

The combination of topic and medium made When The Wind Blows more subversive and arguably more wide-reaching in its influence than the unremittingly bleak, post-watershed documentary realism of Threads. After all, the book’s creator, Briggs and the movie’s producer, Jimmy Murakami – were best known as the gentlemen behind The Snowman, an award-winning picture book in 1978 that became an instant Christmas classic as a family film when first broadcast on the brand-new Channel 4 in 1982, the year of When The Wind Blows’ publication.

Who knows how many warm young hands plucked this slim book from their Christmas stocking in the ‘80s, after an undiscerning parent or relative found it on the shelf in their local bookstore on recognition of Briggs’ name alone?  One thing this writer recalls is that, when he loaned his paperback copy of When The Wind Blows to a fellow pre-teen schoolchum, said chum’s mum swiftly returned the book to my own mother, scolding her, “I’m not having my son read PROPAGANDA!” (Ironically, the offended parent in question seemed quite happy to let her son watch and re-watch ‘Rambo II: First Blood’ on VHS – true story!)

When the book was first published, Briggs professed to be taken aback by the title’s popularity:

“I was bowled over by how popular it was. I thought that very few people would be interested in it apart from the peace movement. I never dreamt it would be a bestseller and go on the way it has. On the face of it, it’s rather a depressing story obviously. It concerns two rather uninteresting, fairly unattractive people. There’s no sex in it, no young people, yet it seems to be amazingly popular.”

When The Wind Blows’ publishers certainly grasped the immediate relevance of the title, with a promotional campaign that impressed and amused Briggs, as he told The Guardian in 2004:

“The publicity team won an award. It was quite a clever idea to send a copy to every member of the Commons and Lords. We got lots of quotes from, on one side, people like Neil Kinnock and other people like Lady Olga Maitland, who said it was CND propaganda. I wasn’t even in CND at the time although I did join later. People have criticised me for making fun of rather dim working-class people. But it was the government that assumed people were thick enough to follow such ridiculous advice.”

Although you couldn’t get more two strange bedfellows than The Snowman and When The Wind Blows, it was the former’s success that led to the latter getting green-lit as an animated movie, reuniting many of the same key players.

For Jimmy Murakami, whose CV includes Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels, Harry Nilsson’s The Point, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Toxic Avenger and uncredited co-producer of Roger Corman’s Battle Beyond The Stars, When The Wind Blows was much more within the animator’s wheelhouse than the festive fare of The Snowman, telling Animation World: “I’ll be frank, I’m not one for kid’s films”, before going on to explain:

“Channel 4 initially asked me to direct Snowman. It wasn’t my cup of tea so I became supervising director. That was successful, I didn’t realise how successful it would be. Then I was sent the manuscript for When the Wind Blows and said, ‘This is my kind of film!’ It was a much more serious, adult subject.”

Murakami told another source: “I wasn’t ready to do something like the Bugs Bunny ‘rabbit running round’ type of animation, I wanted to do a film that had some sort of message to it.”

Producer John Coates concurred, telling Animator Magazine’s Ken Clark in a 1985 interview:

“Raymond Briggs had been writing this black comedy about the nuclear bomb during the making of The Snowman… Black comedy is director Jimmy Murakami’s forte, so l sent off a copy of the book to him the very next day, and then busied myself trying to raise the remainder of the money. Raising money for an animated feature is pure hell.”

Another draw for the film was the involvement of David Bowie, who had appeared in a prologue for the VHS release of The Snowman, filmed during his commercial peak of 1983, complete with his Serious Moonlight-era Mr Whippy yellow shampoo and set ‘do. Coates: “David Bowie approached us with a request to write the score, you may recall he introduced The Snowman for us.”

Bowie’s plans to score the film came to naught, but he did gift the film with its title song, which Bowie wrote, recorded and performed with the Turkish multi-instrumentalist Erdal Kizilcay.

Kizilcay had been working quietly behind the scenes helping Bowie realise home demos since 1982, but 1986 was the year he first became prominent as an exciting new collaborator, working alongside Bowie on Iggy Pop’s comeback album Blah-Blah-Blah which shares with When The Wind Blows, an urgent, clipped, stridently minimal and metronomic guitar, drum machine and bass sound also heard on the pair’s brilliantly realised 1988 remake/remodel of Look Back In Anger. With When The Wind Blows, the approach is parallel with a sweeping, swooping, orchestral arrangement that has deliberate echoes of Edward Elgar’s Nimrod, from The Enigma Variations.

Bowie sought out Kizilcay as a collaborator for this rock/classical genre-smash based upon one of his previous accomplishments, as Kizilcay told James Gent:

“David heard my compositions as a classical version of documentary of “Daphne & Clohe”, and asked me, if I could do starting Rock but ending a classical orchestration. And which I have done. And was really great!”

Bowie was justly proud of his contribution to this film, telling a press conference at the Diamond Club in Toronto in March, 1987 for his Glass Spider Tour:

“It’s a stunning story about an elderly couple who try to survive the release of a nuclear bomb using the government handbook on how to survive a nuclear fallout… It’s a very tragic, sad little movie but it was a good piece to work on.”

With Bowie out of the picture for the remainder of the film’s score, the soundtrack – coordinated by Virgin Records – was comprised of a number of tracks by Hugh Cornwell, Squeeze, Paul Hardcastle and Genesis alongside a suite of music from Roger Waters. The former Pink Floyd majordomo was a natural fit for this subject area, having mused at length about many of When The Wind Blows’ themes in the Pink Floyd canon, and Waters’ contributions form an organic link between his last Floyd effort, The Final Cut, and his next solo album, Radio KAOS. A former CND youth chair, Waters was an eloquent ambassador for the film in this BBC interview:

In looking at the actual substance of the film, rather than the score, we move from the rock aristocracy of Bowie and Waters to bona fide, English thespian royalty in the form of the two veteran actors who brought Jim and Hilda to life.  Coates: “In the actual film we have John Mills doing the voice of Jim and Peggy Ashcroft voicing the part of Hilda, they are absolutely marvellous.”

Murakami recalled:

“After the recording there was silence. We, the engineer, John Coates, Raymond Brigs and I had to recover, choking back the tears. I went into the studio to thank them for the most moving performance. Peggy, with tears in her eyes, told me, ‘Jimmy, please don’t ask me to do it again. I couldn’t bear it.’”

When The Wind Blows opened in the UK on January 30 1987, with a premiere held simultaneously in three German cities including Zoo Palast in the still-divided Berlin. A UK launch party was held in the underground shelters used by US soldiers during the Second World War. In the week after its release, questions were asked in the House of Lords as to whether or not the film should be shown in schools, a debate that led to The Times headline, ‘Teachers risk being sued over cartoon’. In print, it was sneered at by right-wing critics claiming that it was a “smug film” made for “radical yuppies”.

The film also earned the Gold Hugo Award for Best Animated Feature and the Getz Peace Prize award at the 23rd Chicago International Film Festival in early 1988. More poignantly, there was also a Japanese film premiere, where the film had been re-voiced under the direction of Nagisa Oshima (Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence) – as Iain Harvey notes, “It is hard not to imagine the effect this film had on audiences in the only country to have experienced nuclear warfare.”

More recently, When The Wind Blows has received shade from right-wing contrarians Rod Liddle – writing that it “encapsulates the spirit and mental acuity of the pacifist in the early 1980s: sentimental, absolutist, naive and, above all, entirely missing the point” – and James Delingpole, summarising it as “a downer… our punishment for having enjoyed Fungus (The Bogeyman)”, all of which is endorsement enough. Briggs himself said, in 2004, that “I didn’t write (When The Wind Blows) from a political point of view. I just worked through what would happen.”

This is what makes When The Wind Blows so effective – it documents the potential impact of the outcome of escalating ‘international incidents’ and the mutual death pacts of superpowers through the cosy lives of two typically stoic, resourceful senior citizens reared from cradle to grave to have faith in the ‘powers that be’ (“Ours not to reason why”), through a mixture of satire and sentimentality.

David Bowie’s theme song seems to encapsulate this through its invocation of childhood lullabies and Elgar’s Nimrod against a militarily efficient, sterile guitar riff, while visually the innovative mixture of 360 degree scale-model work and cel animation, combining the photographic realism of the Bloggs’ cottage with the increasingly ghostlike presence of Bloggses themselves as they slowly succumb to radiation  sickness, and the everyday charm of Mills and Ashcroft’s vocal performances takes you further and further into the valley of the shadow of death…

This is a timely re-issue and restoration of a film that has been neglected and under-appreciated for three decades. As Briggs said to The Guardian last December:

“You just don’t know what’s going to happen, with a lunatic like Trump. And when we left that Europe thing, that Brexit nonsense, I was just so horrified. Crazy. When NATO and the UN were created, we thought it meant there could never be another world war. Well, there bloody well could be. Terrifying, isn’t it? Can’t believe it.”

Let’s just hope that the 1980s revival stops short of having to dust off our Protect & Survive booklets, and in the meantime, the BFI’s impeccable restoration of the touching, terrifying and heartbreaking When The Wind Blows, is here for all to admire, accompanied by the now-customary wealth of special features including the eye-opening 1986 TV documentary The Wind and the Bomb and a feature-length documentary about Jimmy Murakami.

Special features

❉ Presented in High Definition and Standard Definition
❉ Audio commentary with first assistant editor Joe Fordham and film historian Nick Redman
❉ Jimmy Murakami: Non-Alien (2010, 77 mins): feature-length documentary about the film’s director
❉ The Wind and the Bomb (1986, 25 mins): the making of When the Wind Blows, featuring interviews with producer John Coates, director Jimmy T Murakami and writer Raymond Briggs
❉ Interview with Raymond Briggs (2005, 14 mins): the author discusses When the Wind Blows and other works
❉ Protect and Survive (1975, 50 mins): public information film designed to be broadcast when a nuclear attack was imminent
❉ Isolated music and effects track
❉ Illustrated booklet with a new introduction by Raymond Briggs, an essay by executive producer Iain Harvey, writing by Jez Stewart, Claire Kitson and Bella Todd, and full film credits

Product details

RRP: £19.99/ Cat. no. BFIB1280/ Cert PG
UK / 1986 / colour / 84 mins / English language, with optional hard-of-hearing subtitles / original aspect ratio 1.37:1 / BD50: 1080p, 24fps, PCM 2.0 stereo audio (48kHz/24-bit) / DVD9: PAL, 25fps, Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo audio (320kbps)

❉ ‘When The Wind Blows’ Dual Format DVD/Blu-Ray is out now from BFI, RRP £14.99. Click here to buy from BFI Shop.

❉ Jay Gent is editor of We Are Cult, a graphic designer and digital marketing & social media freelancer, and theatre critic for Wales Arts Review. Jay has contributed to a number of magazines, websites and books including 1001 TV Series You Must Watch Before You Die and Scarred For Life Volume Two: Television in the 1980s and edited (with Jon Arnold) charity anthology Me and the Starman (now available by Cult Ink on Amazon).

Become a patron at Patreon!