Set in stone

Ug is the latest hero created by Raymond Briggs, a prehistoric boy out to transform the way his family lives. Nick Smurthwaite grunts his approval

The books of Raymond Briggs – The Snowman, Fungus the Bogeyman, Father Christmas, The Bear, The Man, When the Wind Blows – sell in their millions across the world, not to mention the spin-off cartoons on video.

Because they are comic books, Briggs is assumed to be writing for children, but like any self-respecting artist, he writes and draws what he feels compelled to write and draw, without any particular regard to his readership.

‘Once children can read,’ he says, ‘I don’t see this huge gulf between them and grown-ups.’

When you’re as big as Briggs – The Snowman has been translated into 13 different languages – you can pretty much write whatever you want in the sure knowledge that someone will publish it.

His latest creation is Ug – Boy Genius Of The Stone Age, in which the precocious scion of a stone age couple challenges almost every aspect of their cold, miserable, cave-dwelling, comfort-free existence.

Why does he have to wear trousers made of stone? Why does he have to eat uncooked bits of dead animals at every meal? Why is he expected to kick a stone football around, risking injury to his foot? Why hasn’t anyone made the connection between trees and wood?

It is full of the trademark dry humour – instead of a duvet, Ug and his parents sleep underneath big slabs of stone – keen observation and clunking anachronisms, annotated by the author in the form of footnotes.

Also present and correct is the homeliness that characterises almost all of Briggs’s work. The Snowman runs amok with the vacuum cleaner, Father Christmas is seen washing the dishes and emerging pink and round from his bath, while Jim and Hilda from When The Wind Blows are most concerned, in the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust, about where the next cup of tea is coming from.

Ug’s tireless quest for creature comforts – a comfy pair of trousers, something cooked for tea, a softer ball to kick – is constantly at odds with his parents’ unquestioning resignation to the hardships of the age.

While Briggs may not care to target any particular age group, I’m sure that the universal popularity of The Snowman and Father Christmas animations has made him mindful of creating characters that will transfer to the screen in the fullness of time.

It’s not hard to imagine an animated Ug attempting to put his fanciful notions into practice – building a dwelling out of stones, designing trousers made from animal skins, inventing the wheel, and so on – while his parents look on with disapproval. It’s all about childhood curiosity versus adult complacency.

The only problem I can foresee is that the story is a mere 28 pages, scarcely enough to flesh out a full-length animation. In its present form it seems too slight to stand alongside The Snowman or When The Wind Blows.

It strikes me that the Boy Genius of the Stone Age has yet to reach his full potential.

Ug – Boy Genius of the Stone Age is published by Jonathan Cape, priced £10.99

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