The Snowman was a children's book by author Raymond Briggs, published in 1978. In 1982, this book was turned into a 26-minute animated movie by Dianne Jackson for the fledgling Channel 4. It was first shown on Channel 4 late on Christmas Eve in 1982 and was an immediate success. The film was nominated for the Academy Award for Short film in 1982. It has been shown every year since and has become a part of British and international Christmas popular culture.
The book is wordless, as is the film except for the song "Walking in the Air". The story is told through picture, action and music. The cartoon version was scored by Howard Blake who wrote both music and lyrics of the song and also composed and conducted the complete orchestral score for the film with his own orchestra, the Sinfonia of London. The film's one song, "Walking in the Air," was written specially for it by Blake and performed by a St Paul's Cathedral choirboy, Peter Auty.
In a list of the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes drawn up by the British Film Institute in 2000, voted for by industry professionals, the film was placed 71st. It was voted 4th in UK Gold TV's Greatest TV Christmas Moments.
The Snowman is the tale of a boy who builds a snowman one winter's day. That night, at the stroke of twelve, the snowman comes to life. The first part of the story deals with the snowman's attempts to understand the appliances, toys and other bric-a-brac in the boy's house, all while keeping quiet enough not to wake the boy's parents. The two then venture back outside and go for a ride on a motorcycle, disturbing many animals: pheasants, rabbits, a barn owl, a fox and a brown horse.
In the second part of the story, the boy and the snowman take flight — the song "Walking in the Air" appears at this point. They fly over the boy's town, over houses and large public buildings before flying past the Royal Pavilion in Brighton and Brighton Pier and then out into the ocean. They continue through an arctic landscape and fly past many sights and animals such as penguins. Flying into the aurora they reach their destination.
The two wander hand-in-hand into a snow-covered forest and attend a snowmen's party, at which the boy is the only human. They meet Father Christmas and his reindeer, and the boy is given a scarf with a snowman pattern.
The story ends after the return journey. However, the sun has come out the next morning and the boy wakes up to find the snowman has melted. The boy begins to wonder if the night's events were all a dream, but he discovers that he still has the scarf given to him by Father Christmas. Realising the night's events were real, as the credits play, the boy mourns the loss of the snowman.
The original book has a slightly different plot. While the first half of the story remains the same, the boy and the snowman do not visit Father Christmas. In fact, all of the Christmas elements of the film were not present in the story. Notably, the boy's family does not have a Christmas tree in the house. After the snowman comes to life, they proceed to explore the boy's house. After they see the family car and play with the lights, the boy prepares a feast that the two eat by candlelight. Here the snowman takes the boy outside again, and they begin to fly. Once the boy and the snowman take flight, they only fly as far as the pier seen in the film. They stop there and wait for the sunrise. They hurry back, as the sun is rising, and the boy hurries inside again, like the film. The finale does not show James finding the scarf in his pocket, as they never made the trip to Father Christmas, but he finds the snowman melted in the same fashion.
After the initial showing on Channel 4, and in its initial showings on U.S. television, an alternative introduction was sometimes used. Instead of Raymond Briggs describing how much it had snowed the winter he made The Snowman, while walking through the field that morphed into the animation of the same landscape, David Bowie was shown reciting the same speech after walking into the attic of 'his' childhood home and discovering a scarf in a drawer. This scarf closely resembles the one given to the boy towards the end of the film. The Universal DVD The Snowman & Father Christmas (902 030 - 11), released in the UK in 2000, uses the Bowie opening. (The Bowie intro is actually missing on some Sony DVDs, despite being featured on the packaging.)
To celebrate the film's 20th anniversary, Channel 4 used an alternate opening directed by Roger Mainwood, with Raymond Briggs' interpretation of Father Christmas recounting how he met the boy. Father Christmas is voiced by comedian Mel Smith. Channel 4 have used this opening since 2002. This version is also cropped to 16:9 widescreen.
The song "Walking in the Air" is sung in the film by chorister Peter Auty, who was not credited in the original version, although had a credit added for the 20th anniversary version. The song was covered several years later by Welsh chorister Aled Jones in a single which reached number 5 in the UK charts. Jones is often wrongly assumed to have sung the song in the film (e.g. in a BBC review or the BFI's screenonline website).
Though the boy in the book is unnamed, in the film we discover he is named "James". This is clear on the tag for the present he receives from Father Christmas. As mentioned in the making of documentary that comes on the 20th anniversary DVD this was added by one of the animators who decided to use her then boyfriend, now husband's, name.
In the film, the boy's home seems to be in the South Downs of England, near to Brighton; he and Snowman fly over what appears to be Brighton; the Royal Pavilion and Palace Pier are clearly depicted. Later in the film, the tag on his present confirms this.
The film was produced using traditional animation techniques, consisting of pastels, crayons and other colouring tools drawn on pieces of celluloid, which were traced over hand drawn frames. For continuity purposes, the background artwork was painted using the same tools.
The Snowman has also been made into a stage show. It was first produced by Contact Theatre, Manchester in 1986. The Contact Theatre production was adapted and produced by Anthony Clark. It had a full script and used Howard Blake's music and lyrics. In 1993, Birmingham Repertory Company produced a version, with music and lyrics by Howard Blake, scenario by Blake, with Bill Alexander and choreography by Robert North. Since 1997 Sadler's Wells has presented it every year as the Christmas Show at the Peacock Theatre. As in the book and the film, there are no words, apart from the lyrics of the song "Walking in the Air". The story is told through images and movement. Special effects include the Snowman and boy flying high over the stage (with assistance of wires and harnesses) and ‘snow’ falling in part of the auditorium. The production has had several revisions – the most extensive happening in 2000, when major changes were made to the second act, introducing new characters: The Ice Princess and Jack Frost.