The Snowman at 40: How an unknown book became a festive classic

‘The Snowman’ was published 40 years ago this Christmas. Suzanne Harrington charts its rise from unknown book to festive classic.

“I remember that winter because it had brought the heaviest snow I had ever seen. Snow had fallen steadily all night long and in the morning I woke in a room filled with light and silence, the whole world seemed to be held in a dream-like stillness. It was a magical day... and it was on that day I made The Snowman.”

This is Raymond Briggs, the Sussex creator and illustrator, talking about his children’s classic The Snowman. It was published 40 years ago this Christmas, first appearing on December 26, 1978, the wordless magical tale of a boy and the snowman he made coming to life, then flying through the night sky over the Sussex South Downs to Brighton Pier. It is a short, simple story, beautifully illustrated. Initially, it was not a big deal in the publishing world — the first print run sold well, but the second didn’t. The publishers, Hamish Hamilton, were left with 50,000 copies in their basement.

This changed dramatically in 1982, when The Snowman was made into a 26- minute animated film by John Coates, its £2 million production funded by television’s fledgling Channel 4. The film added Christmas into the story, Channel Four aired it, and it was nominated for an Oscar the following year, and won a BAFTA. Channel 4 has featured it every single Christmas since. It has become as much a part of Christmas as chocolate coins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

Unlike the nameless boy in the book, the boy in the film is called James — it was the name of the boyfriend of the storyboard artist who drew the North Pole scene; she put ‘James’ on the gift tag of the present from Santa Claus. Also added was Howard Blake’s musical score, all instrumental apart from Walking In The Air (now a Christmas earworm — albeit considerably less jarring than, say, Slade or Jona Lewie); originally it was performed by choirboy Peter Auty. Aled Jones came later, in a 1985 advert for Toys R Us, because by then Auty’s voice had broken, which is why we forever associate Jones with the song, and not its original performer, who was not credited.

The film goes beyond the Sussex village and flies past Brighton, all the way to Norway, where the boy and the snowman see the Northern Lights, before dropping in on Santa Claus at the North Pole. The boy is given a snowman scarf as a present, then they fly back to the boy’s home, where he goes back to bed and the snowman returns to his place in the garden. In the morning when the boy awakens, the snowman has melted. It is not a Hollywood ending.

Raymond Briggs.
Raymond Briggs.

The idea, says Raymond Briggs, was never about Christmas, the inclusion of which he described as “corny and twee”, although he conceded that it “worked very well”. No, the idea of the Snowman was about loss, and the fleeting nature of all things.

“The idea was clean, nice and silent. I don’t have happy endings,” Briggs said in a BBC interview. 

I create what seems natural and inevitable. The snowman melts, my parents died, animals die, flowers die. Everything does. There’s nothing particularly gloomy about it. It’s a fact of life.

Briggs, born in 1934 to Ethel and Ernest Briggs and an art student at Wimbledon and the Slade, remains gloriously grumpy. It was his own house in a Sussex village which features in The Snowman; he was not, however, keen to cash in on its huge success, which is why its sequel, The Snowman and The Snowdog, did not appear until 2012, when it premiered on Channel 4 to an audience of 10 million people.

Despite the stellar success of his creation, he remained determinedly grounded, still living in rural Sussex, eschewing the potential glitz of material success. (He once attended Roald Dahl’s birthday party only because he knew Dahl to be as curmudgeonly as himself.) Instead, he went to make the far more frightening, poignant When The Wind Blows in 1982, following on from 1977’s Fungus the Bogeyman, and two further books, 1984’s The Tin-Pot Foreign General and the Old Iron Woman, and Ethel & Ernest in 1998.

Before CGI and digital animation, the film of The Snowman consisted of 200,000 individual drawings. One of the original artists who worked on it is Philomena Winstanley, now 70 and living in Bolivia.

“Back then we used rendering to make images jump and it was very time-consuming,” she says. “The date for the camera was always before people had time to finish, so we were always working until four in the morning. It was a lot of fun, I enjoyed it. They were nice people.” 

David Bowie thought so too. At the time the film was being made, the score’s composer, Howard Blake, was also working on the erotic vampire movie The Hunger, in which Bowie starred. This is how he ended up doing the introduction for the film, at the peak of his Let’s Dance global superstardom; Bowie loved Briggs’ work, and gladly made the 90-second introduction, apparently for his son Duncan.

Since the film’s early success and popularity, The Snowman has grown — snowballed, if you will — into a giant white industry which simply refuses to melt. 

The book, which has sold over 5.5 million copies, has been translated into 15 languages (despite not having any words) and there have been theatre productions, ballets, and orchestral performances of the score. For its 40th anniversary, the Royal Mint has issued a special 50p commemorative coin, and in October War Horse author Michael Morpurgo published a novelisation of the story. 

Waterstones bookshops are using it as one of their main Christmas themes, and the museum in Brighton — which the boy and the snowman flew over in the book — will feature an exhibition of the original artwork over the Christmas holidays.

And it will of course be shown on Channel 4, as it has been every Christmas for the past 40 years. It may have been a story about impermanence, but it is now firmly embedded in our consciousness. Probably because it’s so utterly beautiful. It melts us all.

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