Author Raymond Briggs a hit for all ages

Author-illustrator Raymond Briggs tells it like it is and his candour has proved a winning formula, writes Richard Lord

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 07 February, 2017, 10:22am

For a man whose work is so intimately associated in the public mind with the festive season, Raymond Briggs isn't particularly cheerful.

The English writer, cartoonist and illustrator has written two graphic novels with Father Christmas as their protagonist, and is best known for The Snowman, his wordless 1978 picture book about a boy who builds a snowman that comes to life; it was made into a 1982 animated film - with music by composer Howard Blake, including the famous song Walking in the Air - that has been shown on British television every Christmas since.

It's also popular around the world, including Hong Kong: since 2003, the City Chamber Orchestra has been performing the score to The Snowman, along with another animated children's favourite also scored by Blake, The Bear, accompanied by the films. The ensemble will again perform the two next month.

However, you only have to read (or look at) Briggs' books to realise that here we have an unlikely candidate for festive canonisation. Father Christmas is constantly grumpy at the drudgery that his job entails; after the boy and the snowman go on various magical adventures together - including a trip to see Father Christmas that's in the screen adaptation but not the book - the snowman promptly melts.

Nor does the rest of his work make for much chirpier reading. In Gentleman Jim (1980), central character Jim Bloggs is thwarted at every turn in his attempts to change career from toilet cleaner to, variously, pirate, artist, highwayman and cowboy. Jim and his wife Hilda return in the indescribably downbeat and tragic When the Wind Blows (1982), dutifully following useless government advice before the world is annihilated by nuclear armageddon. Even his more light-hearted stories, such as Fungus the Bogeyman (1977), feature a central character whose job of scaring human beings is, like Father Christmas', actually quite dreary.

But Briggs sees his habitual pessimism as just telling it like it is.

"It's just being realistic. Father Christmas is old, fat, has an awful job, has been doing it for a lifetime, it's night work, it's freezing cold, he's alone all night - who wouldn't be grumpy? And the snowman melts, and nuclear war kills people in thousands. Am I pessimistic or realistic? Both. The light at the end of the tunnel is probably an oncoming train," he says.

"And none of my books are about Christmas, except Father Christmas obliquely - but Christmas always soaks up everything."

Born to working-class parents in southwest London in 1934, Briggs wanted to be a cartoonist from an early age. After spending several years at various art colleges, including London's Slade School of Fine Art, he embarked on a career as a professional illustrator and, to his initial horror, was asked to draw for children's books. He soon realised, though, that illustrating and authoring children's books gave him the freedom to pursue his distinctive vision. He pioneered the graphic novel format, where separate words and pictures had previously been the norm, and made the bold decision to go entirely without words for The Snowman.

He also moved from works aimed mainly at children, such as Father Christmas and Fungus, towards books with more grown-up, often extremely dark themes - but without changing his works' simple picture-book form. When the Wind Blows looks like a children's book but is about human powerlessness and horrific slaughter; likewise 1984's The Tin-Pot Foreign General and the Old Iron Woman, a satirical allegory for the Falklands war in which two ridiculous metal monsters wreak havoc fighting over a "sad little island".

But to Briggs, the apparent disconnect between form and content has never been an issue; in fact, his work effortlessly bridges the gap between younger and older audiences precisely because he makes no distinction between them. "You just do what you do the way you want it. I never think about whether a book is for adults or children. Apart from early learning books, 'The cat sat on the mat' and so on. Once a child can read, I can't see the difference."

But then, Briggs says that the audience with which he is most associated remains something of a mystery to him ("I don't know anything much about children: had none myself, never taught in school") - a fairly startling admission from an author whose work is so beloved by so many children.

He has, however, taught young people: for 25 years, from 1961 to 1986, as a part-time tutor of illustration at Brighton School of Art. It's something he misses to this day. "It was good fun. It was inspiring to be among a bunch of young talented people; I learned such a lot. Seeing one of them with rows of colour crayons laid out inspired me to get some myself. This produced The Snowman, all done in crayon."

He says creating a book without words is "much harder" than writing one with them ("every action has to be depicted, not just mentioned"), and that drawing is actually a far more challenging business than writing generally. "Writing is far easier and quicker than drawing. 'John picked up a mug of tea': writer - job done; illustrator - what does a 60-year-old hand look like? What angle are we seeing it from? What is he wearing? Etc, etc. It's much more of an effort. It's sometimes a drag to think when you've been writing for weeks to have to relive it again and draw it all - months of work."

In addition to child-friendly works such as The Man (1992), about a tiny human who mysteriously appears in a boy's bedroom and starts bossing him around, and Ug: Boy Genius of the Stone Age (2001), about a young caveman who comes up with various forward-thinking but unpopular inventions, Briggs' later career has also produced the book that he refers to as his favourite among his own works: 1998's Ethel and Ernest. Also the work about which he says he's had the most correspondence from children, it is the life story of the two people who dominate his works more than any others: his parents. They are also the basis for Jim and Hilda Bloggs in Gentleman Jim and When the Wind Blows, while a milkman based on his father is the only other person in Father Christmas with whom the main character interacts.

His most famous, successful and resonant work, however, continues to be The Snowman, which will be performed again in Hong Kong on December 8 and 9. Briggs says he had "no idea at all" when he was writing it that The Snowman would be so successful. In fact, he admits, he wasn't always such a fan of the animated version. "At first I didn't like the idea - visiting Father Christmas and so on - but the book is 32 pages, as most picture books have to be, with four lots of eight-page sections. Films like that have to be 26 minutes, so more story was needed. I came to like it when I saw it all together."

So he should: it's the work that's installed this least cosy and reassuring of writers as a festive family favourite. You could almost see it as a happy ending - except Briggs doesn't seem to believe in that either.

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The Snowman and The Bear , City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong, Dec 8, 7.30pm, Sha Tin Town Hall, Dec 9, 2.30pm, 5pm, Hong Kong City Hall, HK$150-HK$350 Urbtix. Inquiries: 2734 9009