The Snowman author has always looked hard truths and bogeymen in the eye. He talks about his frank new illustrated memoir, Time for Lights Out
Famously, Raymond Briggs hates Christmas; it’s one of the ironies of modern publishing that this self-described “grumpy old man” has become inextricably linked with the juggernaut of the festive season. The animation of his picture book The Snowman, first screened in 1982, is now as traditional as mince pies and family rows. Stage shows, adverts, toys, toilet paper – “it’s a worldwide industry,” he marvels. “China, Japan: a world of Snowmen. The whole blessed world.” Time has done nothing to soften his irritation with the cheerful satsuma-nosed figure. “I was fed up with it years ago. I’m even more fed up with it now it’s been going on for nearly 40 bloody years.”
Of course, there’s not a frond of tinsel to be seen in Briggs’s original, which ends with a mournful heap of melted snow. It was the animation that brought in troops of dancing snowmen around a jolly Santa Claus – and it took many “liquid lunches” before Briggs agreed to sell the film rights to producer John Coates. “Every five minutes he’d raise the topic and I’d say no because I knew he’d commercialise it. Which he did. Done very well, at the same time.” Briggs had already conjured a far more characteristic vision of the festive season in 1973’s Father Christmas, which featured a solitary old curmudgeon toiling through bad weather on his sleigh in oilskins, complaining all the way. “Bloody awful job,” Briggs says. “He’s going to be a bit grumpy.”
The fact that the Snowman book and film have merged in the public imagination is a further source of frustration. “It annoys me that people think the book’s success is based on the film. It’s the other way around, for God’s sake! Not that I care,” he adds rather unconvincingly. The Snowman film is what’s responsible for all the “piles of Snowman tat” he’s been sent over the decades (a neighbour used to sell the overflow on eBay for charity). “Snowmen creep in everywhere!” he says. His reluctant fondness is perhaps indicated by the souvenir mug that crops up in a drawing for his new book, Time for Lights Out.
The English writer and illustrator Raymond Briggs has bequeathed things, famously, to the art of animation – not just the 26 minutes of shivery joy that is Channel 4’s version of The Snowman, but the 1986 feature version of his nuclear parable Where the Wind Blows. The married couple in that, James and Hilda Bloggs, were very clearly inspired by Briggs’ own parents, who survived the bombing of Wimbledon during the war.
The full story of Briggs’ actual mum and dad – from the moment they met, in 1928, until 1971, the year they both died – was first set down by Briggs in his graphic novel Ethel & Ernest, back in 1998. The film, 98% animated, begins with a disarming scene of the real-life Briggs making himself a cup of tea, and explaining how his parents might have felt to have their unexceptional life story jostling for bestseller space with footballers’ autobiographies. Flummoxed, is probably the gist of it. […]