The late, great singer’s filmed introduction to the animated Christmas movie might be one of the least well-known parts of his career. But Bowie was a huge fan of Raymond Briggs, as those involved in the film recall
In summer 1984, Iain Harvey was in London’s Charlotte Mews, behind the offices of the animation company TVC. He was wondering how, in four years, he had gone from being finance director at publisher Hamish Hamilton and being interested in doing something with a remaindered children’s book, to being a film producer about to see David Bowie, his teenage pop hero, in his movie. “When he came, he was so modest and unshowy,” recalls Harvey. “I remember him talking about his Brixton days, quite naturally, when I’d said about seeing him at Brixton in the 70s. He was an absolute gem.”
A man with ice-blond hair walks into an unlit, gloomy attic, snow falling outside, dusty memories in his mind. He kneels down by a rocking-horse and tells us of his childhood, of holidays by the seaside, of winters returning home, of being around the fire, and of making snowmen. “One year, I made a really big snowman,” says Bowie, pulling a blue scarf out of a drawer; it is dotted with snowmen, green-hatted and coal-eyed. “He got me this scarf. You see,” he says tenderly, “he was a real snowman.”
For millions of us, Christmas TV wouldn’t be the same without the animated adaptation of Raymond Briggs’s The Snowman, made in 1982. For those of us who remember Bowie’s introduction, where he frames himself as the boy who made and loved and lost a special friend, this dreamlike detail of the season takes on new poignancy now.
Scour the Bowie books, however, and details of how he got involved prove hard to find. It’s not that he shied away from kids’ projects. He was a father before fame really hit, and he narrated Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf in 1977, saying he did it for his son, Duncan Jones. Nine years later, he introduced a generation of kids to frightwigs and latex in Jim Henson’s Labyrinth. But The Snowman came during an odd period in Bowie’s creative life, when grownup film roles were taking him into darker, stranger places, while his 1983 album, Let’s Dance, and the Serious Moonlight Tour, took him to his international commercial peak.
Several members of The Snowman team remember Bowie well, though. His section was not part of the original film, which began with Briggs introducing his story to viewers. Bowie’s involvement came after the public had already seen and fallen in love with the film.
The story of The Snowman, like Bowie’s, is surprisingly slow-burning. First published in 1978, it sold well initially, but a second print run stalled. “We had a basement of 50,000 books, basically, until the film came out,” says Harvey, then at Hamish Hamilton, before he became executive producer of the film version. Producer John Coates, of TVC, took out an option on the book for a year in 1980, making an animated storyboard of it only when the year was nearly out. In March 1982, new TV network Channel 4 offered to fund the film, which was broadcast on Boxing Day that year, beginning with Briggs walking through a snowy field near his rural Sussex home, the opening that was used for the first two years.
In January 1983, The Snowman was nominated for the Oscar for best animated short film, but it didn’t win. The growing popularity of home video pushed its appeal, though, and US networks became interested. However, they didn’t understand the appeal of Briggs’s introduction. “We didn’t realise that in the US programmes were sponsored, and to be sponsored you needed a big name,” Harvey says. Then along came Bowie.
Bowie first met a Snowman team member during its production in 1982: its soundtrack composer, Howard Blake, was simultaneously musical director of The Hunger, Tony Scott’s erotic vampire thriller, in which Bowie starred. “You couldn’t imagine two different films,” Blake says, laughing. He was having daily lunches with Bowie at the White Elephant in Mayfair, preparing him for his mimed cello scenes in The Hunger, where they “must have talked about the Snowman project”. Bowie was already a fan of Briggs’s nuclear war fable from that year, When the Wind Blows, which TVC also had in development.
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