En­chant­ing years

As Ray­mond Briggs’ The Snow­man cel­e­brates its 40th an­niver­sary this year the award-win­ning artist talks about what in­spired him

Sussex Life - - Front Page -

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!”

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