In the run-up to the big tinselly bang, our writers check out some celluloid classics. Does Raymond Briggs’ magical tale still melt Abi Bliss’s heart?
What and why: As timeless as… Channel 4, the made-for-TV animation based on Raymond Briggs’ 1978 book about a boy whose snowman magically comes to life one night first hit UK screens on Boxing Day in 1982 and has been a festive fixture ever since.
I say this in the knowledge that you have almost certainly seen it by now. Unless you happen to be my boyfriend’s stepdad, Shaun, who, blissfully unaware of the last few decades of popular culture, laid eyes upon it for the first time last Christmas.
Ah, 2015 – how innocent we all were. On settling down to watch The Snowman, having not seen it for many years, I was pleased to see that it was my favourite version: not the original introduced by Briggs, but the one opened by a mid-80s David Bowie. Clad in a cosy jumper and looking about as relaxed as Thomas Jerome Newton after crash-landing on the set of A Very Hygge Christmas, the Starman messes with viewers’ minds by talking about the plot as though it actually happened to him: “You see, it was a real snowman.”
“Who’s David Bowie?” asked Shaun. “He’s a pop singer,” I replied as gently as I could.
“With global warming going the way it is, we may well struggle to convince children of the future that this snowy winter wonderland is in fact meant to be southern England.”
Rated or dated: He melts, of course. Not Bowie – that would be too bleak an opening even for Channel 4 in the nuclear-fear 80s, but the snowman. I don’t think that’s a spoiler by now.
My memory is fuzzy, but I think I first watched The Snowman at primary school as a special end of term treat, where, inevitably, that final scene in which the boy runs enthusiastically outside to greet his new friend after their night of adventures, only to find a hat-topped pile of slush in his place, reduced a whole room of kids to crumple-faced wailing messes.
For all their warmth and wonder, Briggs’ stories are steeped in melancholy. From the grumpily stoic title character of Father Christmas who lives alone with his cat – written not long after Briggs had lost his wife, Jean, to leukaemia – to the midlife-crisis philosophising of Fungus the Bogeyman and the lovingly rendered details of his parents’ modest lives in Ethel and Ernest, there’s a core of understated humanity to his work that’s deeply moving yet resolutely unsentimental.
I don’t use ‘national treasure’ lightly but Briggs – and Quentin Blake, and Judith Kerr, while I’m at it – have played a wonderful part in many of our childhoods. And they are all, to put it frankly, getting on a bit, as if you needed any more excuse to clutch their work that little bit closer.
Of course, The Snowman is nowhere near as miserable a viewing experience as Briggs’ When the Wind Blows but that gut-punch ending makes what comes before shine all the brighter. The animation still looks utterly enchanting, its hand-drawn mix of crayons and pastels striking a perfect balance between dazzling and homespun that has aged much better than its flashier contemporaries.
The Walking in the Air sequence in which the snowman and boy fly to the North Pole accompanied by that song (sung by Peter Auty, not Aled Jones’s hit single version – I wonder whether Auty’s as sick as a parrot or feels that he dodged a bullet?) is justly famous. But the following scene in which the pair whirl giddily among a crowd of revelling snowmen and snowwomen is also a delight, as is the sequence where a motorbike is taken for a joyride through snowy woods, the boy clinging on tightly while a succession of beautifully drawn wild animals are sent scurrying and flapping for cover.
“I first watched The Snowman at primary school as a special end of term treat, where, inevitably, that final scene reduced a whole room of kids to crumple-faced wailing messes.”
Although the boy (who we eventually find out is called James, although he’s nameless for much of the film) seems pretty self-reliant and used to amusing himself at home, the snowy setting hints at his underlying loneliness, with scenes zooming out to show his solitary figure among an expanse of whiteness.
He’s the kind of kid who’s used to not making much noise or drawing much attention to himself, and the scenes where he averts a series of loud disasters as the snowman bumbles furtively around his home recall that exquisite childhood mortification of having a friend around who then proceeds to break everything in the house.
That said, he really shouldn’t worry so much. As his parents fail to awaken even after he and the snowman invade their bedroom, ransack their wardrobe and then steal their motorbike, we can safely assume that they might have enjoyed a nightcap or three before retiring that evening.
Although featuring such 1980s staples as chest freezers and boxy TV sets, in other ways the time setting of The Snowman is curiously vague – no Scalextric or Sindy dolls; old-school striped pyjamas for the boy – and so remains fairly future-proof. With global warming going the way it is, we may well struggle to convince children of the future that this snowy winter wonderland is in fact meant to be southern England. But then, where I grew up in Dorset it never once snowed at Christmas anyway, so perhaps that won’t be such a stretch of the imagination.
So The Snowman’s chances of still being shown on TV/beamed into our retinal feeds in 2082 look pretty strong. After all, its message of impermanence is eternal. Everyone you love – your friends, family, David Bowie, even (no!) Raymond Briggs – will one day be gone. All will melt back to their surroundings, leaving only memories and maybe, if you’re lucky, a nice woolly scarf.
But thanks to Channel 4 knowing a true Christmas gem when they see it, that damn kid never learns. Year after year, he keeps on building a new snowman and having fun while it lasts. Is he deluded or as hopeful as the rest of us? Take your pick. RATED.
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Abi is Standard Issue’s sub-editor, which means she revels in pointing out typos. On other people’s websites, of course. *shuffles awkwardly* She threw up in the Houses of Parliament aged 10 and it’s all been downhill from there.