Creating The Snowman - An Interview with Howard Blake
Birmingham Repertory Theatre’s The Snowman is a huge theatrical success. It’s played to packed audience across the UK, in the Far East and in Scandinavia. It’s just about to celebrate 20 years of Christmas shows at London’s Peacock Theatre and it’s currently on a tour of the UK and Ireland.
But the show, based on the best-selling Raymond Briggs book and the Channel 4 animated film, was seen as a huge gamble when it was first produced in Birmingham in 1993. Composer Howard Blake, who created the score and its famous song, Walking in the Air, would be the first to admit that the team were unsure it would work.
Howard had created the soundtrack to the 1982 film and the then artistic director of Birmingham Rep, Bill Alexander contacted him, with the aim of collaborating on a stage version of The Snowman.
“The film was back in 1982 and was a huge success,” recalls Howard, now aged 79. “Then in 1985 Aled Jones released a single of Walking in the Air and it went to number three in the charts – he was on Top of the Pops. So gradually the story and the song were becoming more and more well known.
“In 1993 a long time had passed since the film came out, 11 years in fact, and the choreographer Robert North said to me that he wanted to do a ballet of it. I extended the music into a 55 minute ballet for Robert.
“Then Bill Alexander rang me and said he wanted to do a full length show of The Snowman that Christmas. I said we could use the ballet music and extend it into a longer ballet and Bill initially said ‘we’re not a ballet company, it’s a stage show’. I said ‘I don’t think that actually matters’ and so we brought together ballet, acting and stage direction.
“It happened so fast and in such a crazy way we had no idea it would be so successful. I remember Bill talking to me in August and saying ‘I’m not talking about next year, I’m talking about this year!’ And I said yes to that! I told him ‘if you give me a flat in the theatre, I will write the rest of the show in the theatre and I’ll be there to rehearse it and get it off the ground’.
“But everybody was terrified that it would be a complete wash-out – including me. We were adding all these things into the plot, lots of completely new ideas, and were trying all these things out with so little time. I was still working on it the first day of the opening night. We literally just got the orchestration into the pit ready to start.
“It was really touch and go. But two days before it was due to open we looked out of the window and there were people queuing right round the square for The Snowman. And I thought ‘maybe we’ve done something right here’. Once we got it up we knew it had the making of a hit show. It went on to sell out for 93 performances. It felt like some sort of miracle.”
The first version of The Snowman attracted huge audiences but it was four years before the theatre decided to revive it.
“Nothing happened for a while and then in 1997 Birmingham Rep said they wanted to put it on again,” recalls Howard. “At this point I asked if I could invite Robert to do the choreography. It’s incredible really that we got a top classical choreographer coming in to do a stage show. He was happy to work with Bill who was a top Shakespearian theatre director and that created a whole new level of magic to the show in 1997.
“That was very successful, so much so that everyone wanted it to come to London but when it came to London it still hadn’t reached its final form. I went to talk to Ian Albery, who was the head of Sadler’s Wells at the time, and he said he thought he was going to take it off because he didn’t think the second act was up to much!
“I said ‘please let me have another go at re-writing the second act’. He let me do that and we did a run of it in the big room at Sadler’s Wells and he said ‘Howard, you’ve cracked it’.
“Then I re-wrote part of it again for 2000 and we added the Jack Frost character and the Ice Princess. That really made the second act not only as good as the first act but it took the story further so that it all became a really great story which really went somewhere.”
Looking back on how the creative trio of Howard, Bill and Robert gradually crafted and improved the show, Howard believes it was their combined inspiration which led to the success of The Snowman we have today.
“It’s one of those wonderful things that happened by synchronicity and by all of the right people happening to converge in the right place at the right time. Things like that – you can’t really make them happen, they just happen.”
Since 2000, the production has not been changed – apart from a small adaptation when The Snowman went to Seoul in South Korea in 2009.
“There is a scene with snowpeople and the idea I always had with the snowpeople and their dance was that if we did it in another country, instead of having a Chinese snowperson we could replace that character with a character local to the country. We did that in Korea and they loved it,” says Howard.
“I remember being in that theatre and there was this tiny South Korean girl who danced the new bit we wrote for her and there was huge applause at the end. The stage manager asked me to go on stage with her and then they said ‘would you dance with her round the stage’ so I danced on the stage of the Opera House in Korea. That was a fantastic night.”
For many people, the song Walking in the Air is closely related to Christmas but the music was actually first composed by the seaside and had no link to The Snowman at all.
“The funny thing about it is that I was very busy in the sixties doing things like television and The Avengers and commercials and I actually couldn’t bear my life any more, writing very commercial stuff,” recalls Howard. “I decided I had to get out of London so I got in my car and thought ‘I will drive the farthest from London that I can go and I’m going to sit on a beach and think about what I’m going to do’.
“So I rented a beach hut in Cornwall and I sat on the beach for two months and I changed my life. I thought ‘I don’t want to keep writing commercials, I want to write a great symphony’. I was walking along the beach every day and I wanted to write this symphony, something to uplift people, so I wanted it to start with a theme which expresses innocence. Then this tune came into my head. I wrote it down and I thought ‘this is the beginning of the symphony’. This was in 1970.
“I came back to London and moved to Sussex where I was going to write the symphony. I never wrote that symphony but I had this tune and I didn’t know what to do with it. I knew it was a wonderful tune and I thought that someday I would know where to place it. It was complete but I hadn’t written words to it.
“Then 11 years later when I walked into the television studio, which was quite by chance, and John Coates showed me this pencil sketch for The Snowman I thought ‘My God, that tune, this is where it goes’. It’s a magical sort of thing that happened so really the whole Snowman story for me doesn’t start in 1982 – it goes back to 1970 when I first thought of this song.
“When Channel 4 agreed to make the film and I’d written the entire score, it was only then at the end that I realised it was crying out for lyrics. So I wrote the lyrics for Walking in the Air and it was recorded and it absolutely made it.
“Such is the power of the song – people are always talking about it. When I hear it, I have so many memories of the song and the film and the show that it’s very special for me. I don’t know how I did it but I’m glad I did.
“You go into a supermarket and you hear Walking in the Air and you think ‘Oh, it’s Christmas,’ and that is a rather extraordinary thing. You’ve got a song which spells out Christmas and what more could you wish for?”
What’s more The Snowman music, and particularly Walking in the Air, has become part of Christmas worldwide.
“The concert version is going on all over the world,” says Howard. “Last year we had 174 different symphony orchestras performing concert versions of it. Last year Aled Jones did a duet version and this year I’ve just done a new arrangement for Katherine Jenkins for her tour.
“All these things join up to keep the interest going. And then there’s the book and the merchandising so The Snowman is a brand which is known all over the world. I think you could take The Snowman anywhere and it would be recognised – except maybe the North Pole!”