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Retro Crimbo 2012: having a snowball ~ animated classic The Snowman hits 30

December 7, 2012

Blizzard wizards: The Snowman and his human friend James have delighted TV viewers for three full decades’ worth of Christmases – but just how did they soar to the seasonal heights they now enjoy?

Half-an-hour isn’t very long – just 30 sixty-second-long capsules packed together. But this Christmas I challenge you to try and fill a whole half-an-hour with a resolutely unabashed, unquestionably perfect activity. Honestly, it’ll be more difficult than you think.

Rip open your presents from under the tree? Let’s be honest, that’s unlikely to take you an entire 30 minutes. Stuff your face with rum truffles and a Terry’s Chocolate Orange? Great idea, until about 30 minutes later when you’ll want to throw up. Overdose on sherry and eggnog and get truly merry? Again top stuff, until the following morning when you’ll – again – want to blow-chunks. One way, though, in which you could spend a full, perfect half-an-hour (with no unpleasant comeback whatsoever) is to watch The Snowman. I promise you, it truly is a perfect 30-minutes of seasonal entertainment delight; one that’s so perfect it’s almost without parallel come the yuletide – or any time of year, in fact.

And, if anything, sampling (or re-sampling) the genius of The Snowman is more perfect this Christmas than maybe any other – if that’s possible – because this season of goodwill will celebrate it’s 30th anniversary. Yes, believe it or not, The Snowman has hit the big ‘three-o’  – its very first broadcast on British terrestrial TV network Channel 4 taking place on Boxing Day (December 26) 1982.

Indeed, to mark this most merry of anniversaries, not only are the charitable bods at Channel 4 re-showing it for us all at Christmas (as they, well, do every year), but they’re also screening a brand-spanking new animation – an ‘equal’ rather than a sequel to the original, it seems – named The Snowman And The Snow Dog. Am I giddy with excitement at the prospect of this Crimbo cartoon double-whammy? Peeps, I’m positively walking in the air like it’s 1982 all over again.

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And yet, the story of The Snowman really began four years before then. For it was in 1978 that illustrator Raymond Briggs saw a comic-strip-like children’s book he’d newly created published in the UK by Hamish Hamilton. Far from being the trailblazer its short film adaptation would be, though, The Snowman was the latest in a line of children books from Briggs. Born in Wimbledon Park, London, in January 1934, he studied at the Wimbledon School of Art from the age of 15 and, following two years of military service, completed his artistic education at London’s Slade School. He then paid his dues in advertising before settling in Sussex and embarking on a career as a children’s book illustrator-cum-author.

His first effort out of the blocks was a collection of illustrated nursery rhymes Ring-A-Ring O’ Roses (1962). Continuing to mine folklore and especially fairy-tales, he followed this with Fee Fi Fo Fum (1964), The Mother Goose Treasury (1966), Jim And The Beanstalk (1970) and The Fairy Tale Treasury (1972). Although the third of those books had already won the prestigious Kate Greenaway Medal for book illustration, it was his next effort with which he genuinely hit the big-time, Father Christmas (1973).

Bringing him his second Kate Greenway Medal, Father Christmas was an instant hit with kids up and down the UK with its irreverent take on the red coat-sporting gift-giver as an old, grumpy, very British bloke who lives in suburban England with his cat, dog and, of course, reindeer in the garage. Really, it’s no surprise it was so popular what with its hero calling everything under the sun ‘bloomin’!’ and struggling to work out how to get inside chimney-less caravans. Stylistically speaking, Father Christmas was a also milestone for Briggs being his first book to deploy a comic-strip narrative style by framing several illustrations on each page and having the characters speak in speech bubbles. The book was so popular it was followed by a sequel, the equally popular and equally entertaining Father Christmas Goes On Holiday (1975).

His next project proved Father Christmas wasn’t a fluke as he pulled off a hit one-two of (somewhat) anti-heroes with Fungus The Bogeyman (1977), an endearing tale about a monster from a grimy, humdrum monster world who wonders whether there’s more to life. A sort of British version of Shrek (2001) or Monsters Inc. (2002) – although, of course, it predates both of these by at least 20 years.

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Raymond and his crayon creation: Briggs looking ponderous at home in his studio (left) and a double-page spread from the 1978 children’s book that would be adapted into the animated classic (right)

And, ironically given its subject matter, Fungus more than any of his previous books influenced Briggs’ next. In an interview with the website of children’s publisher Puffin, Briggs himself explains: “For two years I worked on Fungus, buried amongst muck, slime and words, so I wanted to do something which was clean, pleasant, fresh and wordless and quick”. That something was The Snowman.

Employing the comic strip-style of both Father Christmas and Fungus, but (as the author notes above), without words, The Snowman is a dynamite combination of two things: simplicity and beauty. With its dedication to crayon-only illustration – there’s no ink, pencil or watercolour at all – it offers a pastel-soft and, thus, truly timeless look that perfectly complements its similarly simple tale. A young boy wakes up one morning to a heavy snowfall, leading him delightedly to make a snowman, whom magically comes to life when at night-time when everybody else is asleep and is shown around the boy’s alien (to a snowman, at least) home and, in return, takes the boy on a Superman-esque flight through the night’s sky. Upon waking in the morning, the boy runs out to play with his snowman once more, only to discover much of the snow has thawed and his wintry friend has melted away. It’s a brilliant blend of the ebullient and the tragic.

Like Briggs’ last two efforts, The Snowman was an immediate success. It was a runner-up for 1978’s Kate Greenaway Medal and selected for the US Lewis Carroll Shelf Award in ’79, following its publishing there by Random House. But its critical success was really a reflection of its commercial success – its story, magic and, yes, melancholic ending utterly enchanted its young readers.

Indeed, in a recent interview with Briggs in The Observer newspaper, he claims its popularity was down to ‘a simple thought’. He said: “We all have favourite people we become fond of and then they pass away, it [The Snowman] touches a chord of loss – even for young people, someone dies.”

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However, come 1982 The Snowman’s tale would touch an even bigger chord, of course, thanks to its animated adaptation showcasing that Christmas on the exceedingly new Channel 4. The latter came about after one of the channel’s original big-wigs Paul Madden (whom was in charge of commissioning animated projects) got talking to a chap who’s office was next door to his own, John Coates of TVC. Adapting The Snowman for the small screen was Coates’ idea; actually, more than that, it seems it was something of a passion with him.

Madden explained in the aforementioned Observer interview: “He brought a proposal, it was really a cut-and-paste job of pages of the book, with snowflakes falling over them, that was the special bit. It was by far the best proposal of all of the ones which came in. I said to Jeremy Isaacs [Channel 4’s founding Chief Executive]: ‘This is going to be classic, like Disney. We have to do it.'”

The result was a 26-minute-long film directed by animator Dianne Jackson and crafted by applying pastels and crayons to celluloid. Just like the book, it featured no words – or rather dialogue – but an outstanding orchestral score by composer Howard Blake. And it was a faithful adaptation of Briggs’ original plot, save for one inserted section in which the Snowman and the boy (named James in the film; at least a present under the family tree addressed to ‘James’ makes clear that’s his name) enjoy a destination for their flight through the night. Yes, the North Pole for a midnight party with other snowmen, snow-women and Father Christmas. Indeed, it’s from the latter that James receives, as a gift, the scarf that he withdraws from his dressing gown pocket and holds in the film’s very final shot; his sole physical memory of his time with his magical friend.

Madden, suggesting the moment when they truly knew they were on to a good thing, says that prior to broadcast it was previewed to children at a Channel 4 staff Christmas party – some of the children were so moved they cried at the end. Yet surely neither he nor any of the other bods responsible for it could have dreamed of the phenomenon it would become. A modest success on its first broadcast (after all, Channel 4 had been on the air less than two months), it was nonetheless a success, enough for it to be repeated the next Christmas… and the next one after that… and the next one after that. As the mid-’80s dawned, The Snowman had become something of a permanent fixture in the channel’s seasonal schedule, often going out on Christmas Day and seemingly becoming more popular each year it was broadcast.

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Bloomin’ marvellous, hoofing glorious and soaring skywards (again): Father Christmas was, like The Snowman, adapted into a popular short film (r); the latter became a successful – and often revived – stage show (m) and this Christmas’s Channel 4 follow-up, The Snowman And The Snow Dog (l)

However, the Christmas when it really crossed over into the mainstream was 1985, when – not at all as a tie-in with its broadcast that yuletide – a 14-year-old Welsh choirboy by the name of Aled Jones released a single of Walking In The Air, the song that features in the film and the only ‘words’ to be heard in it, which scaled the dizzy heights of the UK charts all the way up to #5. (Contrary to popular belief, Jones hadn’t sung the song on the film’s soundtrack; that honour had fallen to an uncredited 13-year-old chorister named Peter Auty – see bottom video clip). In any case, this was the catalyst-and-a-half that launched Jones’ two-year pop star-esque chart-topping career (see above video clip) and, in turn, did The Snowman no harm at all. In fact, it proved a huge boost for both the film and the book. A huge boost. That Christmas in particular everybody knew about The Snowman – and it seemed everybody fell in love with it too.

Following this, not only did the film experience a little tinkering (a version originally for US broadcast features a cold opening in which a live-action James ‘as an adult’, played by David Bowie, finds in an attic the scarf he received as a gift), but it was also adapted again – this time for the stage in a hugely popular, family-friendly ballet. First put on by Manchester’s Contact Theatre in 1986, this theatrical version was then revived by the Birmingham Repertory Theatre in ’93 and again by the Sadlers Wells dance company at the Peacock Theatre in London’s West End, where it’s been performed every Christmas from ’97 onwards.

Indeed, TVC (John Coates’ company that produced the original film) didn’t do too badly out of all the success either. For it ensured they could make further successful small-screen animations, among them more acclaimed Raymond Briggs adaptations – the nuclear war-themed When The Wind Blows (1986), The Bear (1999) and, of course,  Father Christmas (1991), the latter now a festive favourite itself, featuring, as it does, Mel Smith’s voice as the ‘bloomin’ marvellous’ title character.

And that brings us to The Snowman And The Snowdog, which although not based on an original Briggs work (he’s said of it: “I’m not grumpy about it, or the introduction of a new character; it’s absolutely super, not sentimental at all”), it promises – not giving too much away – to be very much a follow-up to the original ’82 film; very much set in its universe and very much a 30th celebration of its genius. And what genius The Snowman remains after all these years. It may not have won an Oscar – it was nominated for one, mind – but its popularity today is unquestionable and its place in the festive firmament seemingly assured forever. In the words of Paul Madden: “it’s got that universal appeal, to every age group and every new generation” – and that’s as crisply clear as the perfectly white carpet blanketing his garden that, 30 years ago, enticed James to run outdoors and, well, build a snowman…

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The Snowman is on Sunday 23 December at 6.25pm and The Snowman And The Snowdog on Christmas Eve at 8pm, both on Channel 4

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Further reading:

thesnowman.co.uk

sadlerswells.com/show/The-Snowman-2012

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