When film producer John Coates approached composer Howard Blake to write the music for an animated film he was making, he expected it to be shown a couple of times on TV and be forgotten.
That was 32 years ago and The Snowman, based on Raymond Briggs’ children’s book, is still a worldwide Christmas favourite, as is its famous song, Walking in the Air.
A stage version is heading to the Lyceum in Sheffield next week and Howard will be there on the first night to see it.
Howard remembers the first time that he saw the animation in a London animation studio, when he met up with a friend that he’d made an animated film with in the 1970s.
John Coates asked Howard and his friend to look at a scene he’d made for The Snowman as a test.
It was the famous flying scene that Howard wrote Walking in the Air for.
He said: “It had this horrible synthesiser music but I thought it looked wonderful.
“I said to John, ‘I’ve had this tune in my head for years and years. It will work on there like you won’t believe. We could do this whole thing without words so that they don’t talk. You could just do it with music and it’d be fantastic’.”
When Jeremy Isaacs, the head of Channel Four, saw the first pieces of animation with Howard’s music he loved it. He funded the rest of the work for the channel’s Christmas season, where it was an instant hit.
He said: “When I wrote it I was working on a big MGM film at the same time, the vampire film The Hunger with Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie! I can’t imagine anything more different.”
As he was busy with The Hunger during the day, Howard had to write The Snowman at night, using storyboards that the animators drew for him. They then followed the music for the animation.
He says the fact that he wasn’t able to concentrate solely on The Snowman may have made the music better: “If you take a job and they say, ‘this is a really important job’, you tense up and start doing things and very, very often screw it up.”
Howard has been involved in creating a ballet version of The Snowman, as well as the stage show from Birmingham Repertory Company which is touring to Sheffield.
He remembers that Bill Alexander rang him in 1993 and said he wanted him to collaborate on the stage show. Howard wasn’t keen, especially when he realised that Bill had hired a lot of people to work on the show before he’d even agreed to do it.
In the end Howard suggested adapting his ballet score for the show and actually moved into a flat backstage at the theatre, next to the rehearsal room, to write the score and scenario for the show.
“I remember the whole room was festooned with scores and pieces of paper and music! I had a little electric piano to work on. It was a lot of fun.”
Howard added a disco scene and came up with the idea of having a motorbike on stage, something he dreamed up in the pub with a member of the theatre’s backstage staff.
Since then the show has been seen around the world and has had a 15-year run at the Peacock Theatre in London’s West End.
He’s been able to be a little more laid-back on one of his new Christmas projects, an animated version of his song cycle based on the Robert Louis Stevenson children’s poem, The Land of Counterpane.
The impact of The Snowman worldwide has astounded Howard. He said: “I was in Tokyo with the show and it was opening in March. I asked, ‘Why are you opening in March?’ They told me, ‘It’s National Snowman Day on March 2 because that’s when you signed the contract to make it’. Isn’t that amazing?”
The Snowman is at the Lyceum Theatre next Wednesday to Sunday. Box office: at the Crucible Theatre, online at Sheffield Theatres or call 0114 249 6000.