At the end of a long country lane in East Sussex is a scruffy cottage lived in by an idiosyncratic 78-year-old “miserable git” who conceived an enchanting fantasy. Now, after 30 years of refusal, visionary illustrator Raymond Briggs has allowed a sequel to his classic The Snowman to be made by Channel 4 – The Snowman and The Snowdog.
“It would have been cashing in to do it before. Now it won’t do any harm, and it’s not vulgar and American. I’ve never touched a computer, or anything like that. CGI makes everything too perfect, but they’re sticking to the old ways. I’m a notorious grumbler, but I found nothing to grumble about.”
Briggs wrote The Snowman in 1978 as an antidote to his deliberately revolting Fungus the Bogeyman. It’s a wistful account of a boy’s adventures with a snowman, who comes to life and then melts in the morning.
“The idea was clean, nice and silent. I don’t have happy endings. I create what seems natural and inevitable. The snowman melts, my parents died, animals die, flowers die. Everything does. There’s nothing particularly gloomy about it. It’s a fact of life.”
The animated version of The Snowman, four years later, included the irritatingly catchy Walking in the Air, and added a motorcycle ride and a visit to Santa at the North Pole. “I thought, ‘It’s a bit corny and twee, dragging in Christmas’, as The Snowman had nothing to do with that, but it worked extremely well.
“I’m not a fan of Christmas, although I support the principle of a day of feasting and presents, but the anxiety starts in October: how many are coming? Are they bringing grandchildren? How long will they stay?”
His 1973 bestseller, Father Christmas, shows Santa as a crotchety old man, grumbling about delivering presents in the cold. “Adults criticise, but kids love it, especially the fact that I have him sitting on the loo – he’s like a normal person.”
Briggs’s books combine childhood dreams with inevitable disillusion. He trades on being misanthropic, and his bleak endings might reinforce that view, but in fact he’s jovial relaxed, with a gentle, mordant wit.
Born in Wimbledon, the only child of a milkman and a lady’s maid (whose life he illustrated in a 1998 cartoon memoir Ethel & Ernest), he always wanted to be a cartoonist, and he went first to Wimbledon art school where that ambition was frowned upon, then to the Slade Scool of Fine Art before becoming an illustrator.
“It’s a miracle I’ve existed since 1957 self-employed. Terribly lucky never to be a commuter, slogging in an office for an awful glowering boss.”
He found the children’s books he illustrated so badly written that he composed one himself in 1961 – The Strange House – and sent it to a publisher for advice.
“They published it. Some books I did 30 years ago are still earning money. Incredible. Writing is relatively quick, but illustrations take ages.”
Briggs admits that he doesn’t read many children’s books. “You can’t keep up with the damned things. I’ve never read Enid Blyton. I went once to Roald Dahl’s birthday party so must have read something of his. He was fairly curmudgeonly.”
I suggest he must be very wealthy. “Rolling in it,” he laughs. “You can see,” he indicates the cheap furniture.
“Huge amounts of money have been generated by The Snowman. I’m not interested. I read it’s sold three million copies, but publishers bandy about numbers that aren’t usually true. I don’t spend anything. I don’t like going abroad – the Gatwick airport hellhole. I buy clothes from charity shops, although I draw the line at trousers.”
He’s wearing faded mauve corduroys, set off by sandals without socks. “I saw a shirt for £88! Mine cost £3.”
“I never thought about success. The fact it’s published is all I want. Middle-aged people say they had The Snowman as a child and read it to their children – it’s what every author dreams of.”
He bought the house with his wife, Jean, in 1967. She died in 1973, a few months after his parents. He spends most of his time at the nearby home of his partner, Liz, a retired teacher he’s known for 30 years. “I have to be on duty all the time because she’s ill. I haven’t a soul, apart from Liz and her family.
“She has three grandchildren. I think they like me to some extent. Connie, a very clever girl, now 18, was sitting at the dining table when she was three years and six months exactly, looked at me, and said, ‘Raymond is not a normal person.’ Fantastic. I’m having that on my gravestone, up the road. I don’t know if I’d like to be normal. You’re stuck with the way you are.”
The Snowman and The Snowdog will air at 8:00pm on Christmas Eve on Channel 4