As Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman celebrates its 40th anniversary this year the award-winning artist talks about what inspired him
For the past ten years Raymond’s handdrawn imagery for The Snowman has provided the backdrop for a charity fundraising ball in aid of Chestnut Tree House. It has become the biggest event on the children’s hospice’s fundraising calendar, raising £566,025 last year in its tenth event. The artist, who has lived in Westmeston, near Ditchling, for more than 50 years, was happy to support the charity. “Chestnut Tree House is unique,” he says. “It was a privilege to be asked to help in any way. I am delighted that my Snowman has helped Chestnut Tree House raise so much money over the last ten years to provide care for so many local children and families.” Raymond was born in Wimbledon Park in 1934. Sixty-four years later he was to explore both his early years and his parents’ relationship in the brilliant Ethel and Ernest. The book was turned into a faithful animation which was first broadcast at Christmas in 2016. “I had always been intrigued by the way my parents first met,” he says. “Dad cycling to work through a posh square in Belgravia, Mum a maid servant dusting upstairs – opens the window to shake the duster – Dad’s eye is caught by the flicker of yellow, high up on his left, he looks up, sees a young woman waving. He, being a bit of a lad, waves back… two years later – ME!”
It wasn’t the first time he had featured his parents in his work – in 1973’s hit picture book Father Christmas his milkman dad passes the time of day with the jolly man in red, asking: “Still at it, mate?” His parents can also be found within some of his other books. “I was an only child and so they both played a huge part in my life,” he says. “Consequently the married couple in several of the books are like them, a couple who are not stupid but are simple and not well educated.”
Perhaps their most memorable appearance is as James and ‘Ducks’ in Raymond’s 1982
masterpiece When the Wind Blows. Often cited as one of the first true graphic novels, the story follows an old married couple in the lead-up to and immediate aftermath of a nuclear strike, as James faithfully follows the county council’s instructions listed in The Householder’s Guide to Survival. The beautifully observed story is funny in parts but ultimately utterly heartrending. Following its publication the book was commended in the House of Commons by Labour MP John Garrett as: “A powerful contribution to the growing opposition to nuclear armament” adding that he hoped it would be widely read. Today Raymond puts the reaction down to: “Our brilliant PR lady at the publishers [who] sent a copy of the book to every MP.
“Combining humour with strong political messages is nothing new. It’s what cartoonists have been doing for generations and came naturally.”
Raymond’s own birth and burgeoning artistic career is depicted within Ethel and Ernest. There are snapshots of his first days at school, being evacuated during World War II and being called up for National Service.
“It was odd enough having to draw myself,” he says. “But even more odd to draw myself as an army raw recruit trying to demonstrate drill movements to my Mum. She hated boots and wanted me to be an officer so I could wear nice brown shoes.”
Raymond’s Sussex connections began when he started teaching one day a week at Brighton Art School to supplement his earnings as an illustrator. “We wanted a house but couldn’t afford London prices,” he says, adding he and his new wife Jean were unable to afford anything in Brighton either. “Eventually we found a super brand new house in Burgess Hill. Later on we found ourselves living on the edge of this magnificent countryside. The South Downs were a few minutes’ drive away. We could walk from the house into a country lane, have lunch at a quiet pub and feel you were miles from anywhere. Brighton itself was only a short drive away and through lovely countryside to get there. Years later, when I regularly picked up a colleague in Ditchling, I remember saying as we drove over Ditchling Beacon: ‘Just imagine! We are driving to work through this. People come from everywhere just to look at it.’ That was back in the 1960s and it seems totally unbelievable now that we used to regularly drive into Brighton. There was unrestricted parking all along the Steine, but we even used to drive through that magnificent archway into the Pavilion Grounds, the library and the museum behind us, the theatre over to the right and the Pavilion
“I had never used them or even thought of them. The great thing about them is that you can draw and colour at the same time, instead of drawing in line then filling in the colour. The Snowman was done in pencil crayons. The boy and the Snowman run up my garden here, take off into the air and fly over the Downs, then on over the Pavilion until they land on Palace Pier.”
Raymond had already enjoyed success with his alternative take on Father Christmas, and its follow-up Father Christmas Goes On Holiday – depicting jolly St Nick as a real man who grumbles about his work and sometimes struggles to get down chimneys. The Snowman was published in 1978 to immediate acclaim, earning Raymond his fourth nomination for the Kate Greenaway Medal for illustration. Told solely through pictures it tells the story of a young boy whose snowman comes to life one magical evening – only to lose him to the thaw the next day.
It was animated four years later and has since become a favourite staple of Channel 4’s annual Christmas programming.
“John Coates, the grandfather of the animation industry, fell in love with The Snowman,” says Raymond, who has gone on record saying he never watches the film. “For three years he nagged at me to sell him the film rights. He showed me the film scripts and, of course, the dreaded Father Christmas had been dragged in!”
Contrary to popular belief the original book didn’t have the snowman’s ball at the North Pole, or even a Christmas setting – with the furthest the two friends flew being the end of the Palace Pier to watch the sun come up.
In 2012 there was a sequel film – The Snowman and The Snowdog – which was based on Raymond’s original characters, although it lacked the magic of the original. “The film company did discuss with me their idea for the followup film,” says Raymond. “But the work was entirely theirs.”
A knock-on effect from the film was the 44 giant Snowdog models which invaded Brighton two years ago to raise more than £310,000 for The Martlets.
In 2017 the creator of Fungus the Bogeyman and imaginative caveman Ug was awarded a CBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List and a Booktrust Lifetime Achievement Award. It reflected his own contemplations on getting older, which he explored in a series of hilarious and thought-provoking illustrated columns for The Oldie. They were collected in the 2015 book Notes From the Sofa. As for the future? “I always have ideas for projects,” he says. “But the problem is finding the time and energy to progress them!”