Critical essay (1) : Encyclopaedia of Contemporary Composers (1992)

  Howard Blake is that rarity in the contemporary music scene, a genuinely popular composer. If he has a recent parallel, it is probably Leonard Bernstein, though he is an altogether more ‘natural’, less troubled composer than Bernstein even at his gentlest. Blake’s reputation rests very squarely on the success of ‘The Snowman’, adapted from a story by Raymond Briggs and particularly on its haunting theme ‘Walking in the Air’. Since its first performance in 1982 the piece has become a Christmas stand-by in its animated form on British television. It is ironic but also inevitable that the popular and commercial successs of The Snowman, together with Blake’s background as a journeyman composer of television and film music, has tended to compromise his critical reputation. However, its merits and those of its successor Granpa are the classical merits par excellence and are clearly audible in Blake’s concert music. The purity of line and lack of clutter that make ‘Walking in the Air’ so utterly and immediately memorable, is also what animates the Clarinet Concerto and a remarkable overture The Conquest of Space, in which Blake’s use of unusual sonorities (ondes martenot or synthesizer, and a choir) complements his apparent conviction that imaginative composition is still feasible within a constantly renewing harmonic tradition. At the end of the 1970s he retreated to the country to work again at the basic pillars of harmony and counterpoint, slowly refining a technique and language that have little in common with most contemporary academic music. Blake is hostile to avant-gardist gestures, and to serialism. His most obvious (distant) influence is Mozart, but there is also something of his one-time teacher Howard Ferguson's neo-classical idiom and a strong sense of music as a cultural adhesive, rebonding a society fractured by civilisation and its discontents. His major work to date, Benedictus, is a powerful and humane expression of faith in the transcendent power of imagination. Though undoubtedly conservative, Blake is no reactionary. His lyrics are often wryly ironic and his scoring subtly inflected. A background in jazz is evident in his firm, but not mechanical rhythm: the 1984 Concert  Dances, in both its piano concertante and wind-band versions, is an unstuffy set of exercises in popular forms, ragtime, jump, boogie, rock, cha-cha, but if the names unavoidably suggest the ‘rhythm selectors’ attached to cheap electric keyboards, there is nothing mechanical about Blake’s variations on basic signatures and pulses.  Not the least significant aspect of Blake’s recent career has been a recording contract – and personalized ‘HB’ index number! – with CBS Records, a company noted for occasional but imaginative experiments of this sort. Blake is unembarrassed and unhindered by his popularity. It is, as it was with Mozart, simply a response to a spontaneous melodic gift underpinned with considerable technical skill. (Pamela Collins)

Critical essay (2) 'Unfolding a dream - symphonic film' - June 2015
As a 19-year old composition student at the Royal Academy of Music I studied comparative art.  Wagner had disgraced the notion of a gesamtkunstwerk since it had given birth to the flawed utopianism of Hitler. The concept of a philosopher/god capable of personally fusing every available means of expression into an overwhelming musico/theatrical experience traversing four days , ‘The Ring’,  was not to be discussed as an artistic direction, let alone emulated. My first viewing of ‘Battleship Potemkin’ with full orchestral score  persuaded me that were Wagner living he would have pursued the path of film rather than theatre.  In the early days of film around 1900 it appeared obvious to many that moving art (film) would rapidly replace static art (framed pictures).  Attempts were made by UFA in Germany and at the start of sound by such as Dali and Bunuel in Paris and Aleksandrov  and Eisenstein in Moscow, but from the start film, the cinema, was voraciously appropriated by the scriptwriter and actor industries. There were exceptions: Rene Clair in France created a feature film moving between surrealism and operatic fantasy [‘Les Belles de Nuit’], in UK Michael Powell experimented lavishly with out of the body experiences in ‘A Matter of Life and Death’, John Sturges in Hollywood risked an entire feature with stream of consciousness voice-over in the superb 'Old Man and the Sea’. There was animation. Walt Disney conceived music-only film and carried it off brilliantly as early as 1939 in ‘Fantasia’, using existing symphonic classics. He wished to take the idea further but was stymied by his own  staff and went off to build Disney-land and -world.  Dick Williams made a brilliant one-man drawn masterpiece called ‘The Little Island.’ Symphonic Film 1 – ‘A Few Days’ 1963 I looked for a university course but couldn’t find one. The Polytechnic did a photography course and in Brixton there was a film school for people aiming to get into ‘the film industry’, but there seemed to be no study of film aesthetics and my university grant board felt that I should stick to music.  I had to find another way.  On leaving the staid corridors of the RAM I got a job as projectionist at the National Film Theatre and started making a film with members of the staff.  It was called ‘A Few Days’.  I scripted it, directed it and composed and recorded the sound track for it. It was shown in the main theatre at the NFT and bought by the BFI Archive. [1963] The directors of BFI were very complimentary and offered me a film-director scholarship, but I had already learned the basics of film and needed to move on in a more musical direction.  Symphonic Film  2 – ‘Impressions of a City’ 1967 In the NFT I had grown enchanted with the music that emanated from film – jazz, pop, rock, folk, gamelan, Japanese, Brazilian, atonal, concrete, electronic– an  endless panoply of scales and rhythms and sounds, none of them ever presented or considered in the RAM.  I felt determined to learn much more about all forms of music.  Took lessons and began playing jazz in the evenings during my daytime composition  of  an orchestral film symphony called  ‘Movement for orchestra, impressions of a city’ , which was to help me considerably. At the same time contacts I had made as a projectionist began to furnish me with scores for documentary films. One day I played piano on 'Half a Sixpence' shooting at Shepperton. The conductor was Irving Kostal  music director of ‘West Side Story’ whose editor Carroll B. Knudson had published a book of computer calculations:  ‘At any given metronome tempo you can calculate with absolute accuracy on which beat or part of the beat any second or part of a second will fall, given that you are using 35mm film running at 24 frames per second.' I ordered a copy and it put me way ahead in the field of synchronising music to film since everything I wrote fitted instantly and perfectly. In a world where time was expensive, it saved time. I had acquired another facet of my symphonic film-making kit. I employed it in scoring a short film directed by Peter Brook which featured Zero Mostel as an opera singer caught in the rush-hour.  By an  ironic coincidence it allowed me to satirise Wagner’s music with impunity - ‘The Ride of the Valkyrie’ - part  one of a trilogy called ‘Red, White and Zero.’ [1967] I was invited to compose some arrangements for the great Bernard Herrmann and showed him the symphony. He was genuinely impressed by it and on his recommendation I was asked to take over as composer and musical director of the globally-successful ‘Avengers’ series. This coincided with my winning the TV Mail Award for best soundtrack of the year (1969) which meant that I was inundated with offers to write commercials [for ICI , Bounty, Courage, Nescafe, Dunlop etc etc] and also led to my scoring cinema features: ‘An Elephant Called Slowly’, ‘Some Will Some Won’t’ , ‘All the Way Up’. (1969) Symphonic film 3 – ‘Sketches for orchestra’  1971 But this hyper-abundance of commercial media work whilst financially gratifying was putting a huge strain on me and I was heading for a breakdown.  ‘You are speeding Blake!’  said  Dr. Chandra Sharma and  I fled from my London house to sit on a Cornish beach and meditate. A theme came to me which seemed representative of innocence and transcendence and I placed it as the opening theme of an ambitious  ‘symphonic film’ project. Soon after I moved full-time  to a mill-house in the Sussex countryside and set about the project in earnest. Yet although I wrote many sketches both in terms of script and music, I could not pull them together. Music critic Christopher Palmer whose expertise crossed between the film and the classical observed my career move with astonishment: Most composers, like other people, have to earn their own living once their training is completed and, from the 1920's on, many such professionally-trained composers have welcomed the opportunity to write for radio, film, television and other media outlets. One of two things generally happens to these composers: either they give up composing their 'own' music altogether, or - more often- the one career runs parallel  to the other. What is almost unheard of is for a composer deliberately to abandon a flourishing career in media-music, in mid-course, in order to devote himself exclusively to his 'own' or 'real' music. Yet this is what Howard Blake has done. What is even more unusual is that far from disowning his alter ego, the kind of musician he was and the kind of music he produced for the first 10 years of his professional life, he has found in them the mainspring of a remarkable personal renaissance. Much of the  raw material of his most significant  works -the Toccata for Orchestra and the Piano Concerto- derives from this source, but so refined, processed, enhanced, sublimated, as to be scarcely recognisable. Palmer had seen that I was moving in a most unusual direction but had not grasped that I had made my drastic move for a very specific reason – to try and create symphonic film – a new genre of art.   The practicalities of creating such a genre were another matter!  My wonderful theme was there all right and my ability in symphonic writing was increasing by the day.   Yet how to explain the idea to people, to backers, to people who distribute films. This seemed impossible. Symphonic Film 4 – ‘The Up and Down Man’ 1972 A producer called Arthur Solomon rang me. He was making a 13-part children's series for Thames TV called: 'The In-and-Out, Round-About and Up-and-Down-Man'. It was to have no dialogue, just music. He had already made two silent movies, slightly amusing, slightly wan, slightly satirical- a present-day venture into the territory of Chaplin. I said immediately that I wanted to do them using a classical piano trio: violin, cello and piano.  I wanted to write music with expressivity and flexibility, fitting exactly to the frame and yet not using a click-track, music that moves and sings and dances with the mime artist's own pulse and emotion. I wanted to compose the whole thing as chamber music in a simple melodic style. I had a truly marvellous violinist in Jack Rothstein, a great cellist in Peter Willison and I would play the piano. The name was shortened to ‘The Up and Down man’ and the technique I evolved by writing it prepared me for a later assignment – ‘The Snowman’. Symphonic Film 5– ‘Tin-Tack the Cobbler’ 1974  I was introduced to master-animator Richard Williams, famous for his wonderful one-man feature-length masterpiece 'The Little Island', for the sequences in Tony Richardson's 'The Charge of the Light Brigade', for the drawn Oscar-winning B&W Christmas Carol and many years later for 'Who killed Roger Rabbit'. My own recent work on the 13 episodes of the mime series 'The Up and Down Man' had helped give me a slant on how to compose for children because of its 'animated' quality and I warmed to this new medium, so beloved by the very young. I started to score one or two things for him: the credit sequence for 'The Pink Panther Strikes Again' which brought me into contact with Henry Mancini',  'Embassy American' which won a New York Celne award and Samson' which won the Grand Prix du Cinema, Cannes. One evening after working on a commercial I asked why he hadn't gone on to make feature films like Disney. 'It's all downstairs Howard. I've been making the ultimate feature for 12 years. I've got voice tracks of Orson Welles, Vincent Price, Kenneth Williams, all sorts of stars. There are cans and cans of it shot.' 'What's the title?' 'Nasruddin.' 'What's that?' 'Nasruddin is an Arabic folk-hero, a bit like say Till Eulenspiegel, a fool who does everything backwards but it comes out forwards. The stories about him teach a Sufi way of looking at things.' 'Could we see it?' Dick asked his projectionist to stay on overtime. It was astoundingly brilliant hand-drawn animation, reel after reel of it. One amazing sequence drew 'the thief' trapped and hysterically trying to escape from turning wooden cogs and wheels inside a mill. Another had him attempting to pole-vault the dome of a mosque to steal the golden ball atop it. Another was of an army made up of Da Vinci's extraordinary war machines. But what was the story? 'Idries writes the story. Everything has a profound meaning. There is no real story, but it's going to get there eventually.' I said: ‘I can't see this ever fitting together and being released, but I think one could probably take a great deal of the material and turn it into something terrific. But surely you need to create a script.' Somehow I got into Dick's brain, we commandeered a 'script-room' in the basement, pinned up frames of all the sequences around the walls and began to discuss story-lines. We liked the Thief character and we liked the Grand Vizier and the great Mogul but they were all baddies. We needed a hero-figure on the side and the idea of a cobbler came into my head. I asked Dick if I should write something down on those lines. 'Sure, great idea, see what you come up with.’  I came up with ‘Tin-tack the Cobbler - an Eastern Western’. Dick liked the script a lot and started work on a feature-length film almost immediately, but the making of it went out of my hands and my dream to write both script and music slowly faded. I went on composing tracks for Dick from time to time but Tin-Tack wasn't mentioned. I heard that it had been renamed 'The Cobbler and the Thief' and lost touch. In the late nineties Dick rang me after a gap of more than 20 years: 'At last we're making 'The Cobbler and the Thief' for Disney. I've got a studio of 100 animators working on it in Camden Town. Why don't you come over?' A receptionist told me he was in a very important meeting but might find a moment. About an hour later he put his head round the door: 'Would you be interested in doing the music score?' 'I'd be very pleased to talk about it.' I sat in the reception for a hugely long time and eventually went home.  It was not to be. The saga of Dick’s 27-year attempt to make the film was released  in 2012 as a prize-winning documentary called  ‘The Persistence of Vision’ in which I tell this story.  Symphonic Film 6 – ‘Toccata - a celebration of the orchestra’ 1976 Meanwhile back in the mid-seventies the advance I was making in the composition of new works started to gain attention and gain unsuspected new homes. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra  commissioned a ‘Toccata for Orchestra’ for their 30th anniversary and I wrote a virtuosic 20- minute piece on a gigantic numerological/astrological/gematrial formula that could have been turned into a film. It wasn’t of course, it was performed in a concert hall as usual – and thought to be a bit un-usual. In 1989 I conducted its first recording on Sony with the The Philharmonia. Symphonic Film 7 – ‘The Duellists’ 1977 Ridley Scott visited and asked me to write a score for his first movie ‘The Duellists’ .  I found this utterly engrossing – in a sense I had almost arrived at my dream, since the fine-art trained Ridley was creating exquisite masterpiece pictures in every shot and I was adding sound to them. Yet of course this was his vision and the vision of Josef Conrad who wrote the book and the vision of David Puttnam who produced it. Bernard Herrmann had always said to me: ‘film is a mosaic art’  and  I was having this constantly demonstrated. The film won ‘Special Jury Prize’ at Cannes 1977 and the score nominated  for an Ivor Novello Award. The success immediately gave rise to another huge wave of intense work in feature films [‘Stronger than the Sun’ with Stephen Poliakoff, ‘Blood Relative’ for  Claude Chabrol, ‘Agatha’ with Dustin Hoffmann, ‘The Odd Job’ with Graham Chapman, ‘The  Riddle of the Sands’ with Michael York, ‘The Changeling’ with George C. Scott, ‘SOS Titanic’ in Hollywood for CBS , ‘Flash Gordon’ with Queen for MGM, and some orchestration for ‘Victor/Victoria’  to help out  my friend Henry Mancini. Meanwhile the beautiful opening theme and innumerable sketches for the symphonic film remained incomplete on the drawing-board.  Symphonic Film 8– ‘Benedictus – a dramatic oratorio’ 1980 I was finding it difficult, if not impossible, to organise life between the film world and the classical world. The commission of a full-scale dramatic oratorio on Saint Benedict suddenly emerged, commissioned by a choral society operating near me in Sussex.  I was thrilled by the idea of creating such a work and totally committed to the idea of doing it. I remembered the Abbott of Worth's invitation  to stay in the Abbey for a few days. Maybe I would be inspired with an idea. I was given a cell and instructed on how to behave. The monks knew why I had come to stay and one of them showed me to the library: 'You can find any number of books on St. Benedict here.' 'Is there a book that expresses his beliefs?' 'The Rule of Saint Benedict', our guide to living in the community.'  He found a copy for me and I sat and read it. I would write a work describing an ordinary person walking into a monastery, hearing the voice of St. Benedict reading from his rule, conducting dialogues with the monks and with himself, expressing his inner doubts and fears and gradually becoming so strongly affected that ultimately he signs to enter the order as a Novice.   I completed the work in time for the premiere at Worth Abbey in May 1980. The great Welsh tenor Richard Lewis had agreed to sing the tenor role and Sidney Sax had amazingly agreed to bring his National Philharmonic Orchestra down with Frederick Riddle to play the taxing solo viola part. BBC Radio Brighton had agreed to broadcast it.  Out of the blue I got a call from music-film producer Tony Palmer, famous for his filmed documentaries of Shostakovich, Britten, Menuhin, Walton, Malcolm Arnold and many other great composers. He wanted to film the first performance for television. He came over to see me at the mill on the 8th May and we went on up to hear a rehearsal in the Abbey. After the rehearsal he confronted me: 'You have to conduct it yourself.' 'Why?' 'You know why.' A dispute arose and the benighted choral society refused Tony permission to film. Many friends came down to the mill next day, including fellow-composers Carl Davis, Stanley Myers and Chris Gunning. They escorted me to the sold-out concert, with an amazing audience for a new, contemporary, concert-length work - 1,700 people, out in the middle of the countryside.  But the fabulous offer of a filmed television premiere was lost - forever. Symphonic Film 9 – ‘The Snowman’ 1981 In October 1981 I happened to walk into a London film production company, TVC, and was shown a nine-minute filmed pencil sketch (or ‘animatic’) based on Raymond Briggs’ picture-book ‘The Snowman.’ I felt instantly that this was a place where my beloved innocent symphonic film theme could belong and said: ‘I would love to set this whole story to music. It wouldn’t need any words and I have a theme that would work with it like a dream.’ Jeremy Isaacs agreed and the twenty-six-minute animated film was made by Channel 4. While it was being drawn I worked on the lyrics and orchestration, conducting the complete orchestral score in July 1982 with The Sinfonia of London and the superb treble voice of Peter Auty, a treble in St. Paul’s Cathedral Choir. The film was first shown at Christmas 1982, was nominated for an Oscar and won many prizes. The CBS Masterworks album was released the following year with Bernard Cribbins speaking my specially-written narration over the existing film score, and a first concert performance of the work in this form took place at the Barbican that December with the same personnel. The album ‘went platinum’ and concert performances of it sprang up all over the world, and have continued to do so. More than a hundred cover versions of the song have been released over the years, not least Aled Jones’ memorable 1985 chart recording.  Since 1998 there has also been a full-length 82-minute Snowman stage show. The score of this is certainly symphony-sized.  Well, I’d always wanted to write a ‘symphonic film’  but, according to the Editor of Musical Opinion, Robert Matthew Walker, this was a ‘symphonic stage show’!   Symphonic Film 10 – ‘Granpa’ 1986 Clare Kitson head of animation for Channel 4 believed ‘Granpa’ was by far the most interesting of the TVC films and trail-blazing in the use of voices and music The huge success of Snowman prompted Channel 4 to ask TVC to make another music-based animation film by the same team. John Coates showed Diane and I a book called Granpa by John Burningham, but our mutual reaction was that it was a difficult subject and the fact that Granpa dies at the end too sad. We turned it down. However in 1985 my own father was aged 88 and the relationship that he had with my 6-year old daughter Catherine was very similar to that of the book. He and my mother lived in a similar sort of house in Brighton, my father spent much of his time out in the potting shed and he loved telling stories. At Christmas he was in Brighton General Hospital and it happened that on New Year's Eve I took Catherine to visit him. The doctor in charge of him took me aside. He was suffering from kidney failure and would not last the week. 'I'm afraid he's going to die, Catherine.' 'Will he go to Heaven?' 'I hope so.' With the wondrous insouciance of youth she said: 'Can I come and watch?' This somehow touched me far more deeply than tears might have done. I took Catherine back to home in Mortlake and tried to call a taxi. This proved difficult and while I waited I sat at the piano, feeling extremely sad. For no particular reason I played 'Auld Lang Syne' through to myself, a song of both parting and remembrance. I wondered if one could write a counter-melody to it and jotted down the lyric 'Make-Believe'. It seemed to express the poignancy of the grandfather/granddaughter relationship. Catherine would always have memories of her grandfather and those memories would be happy. In that way he would remain in her mind and spirit. Leaves are green and the grass it is growing Flowers bloom and the wind it is blowing Weave worlds of make-believe See to eternity Leaves are gold and the grass it is going Flowers fade and the wind it is blowing Breathe no sigh for the day that is parting Welcome spring and the year that is starting Leave worlds of make-believe See to eternity Leaves are gold and the grass it is going Flowers fade and the wind it is blowing A few days later, having written the song, I felt that I knew how I could set about a symphonic film score of 'Granpa'. I would make it not only symphonic but operatic, with solos, duets, trios, choruses and even a coloratura soprano when the little girl dreams of being one when she grows up. I met with John and Diane and they agreed to go forward with me. 'Who shall we have to play the part of Granpa?' 'Granpa' got under way and Sony (CBS Masterworks)  got very interested in it as a follow-up to Snowman. Joe Dash came over from New York. He wanted CBS to finance the recording and have big stars and started discussing the idea of signing me as a CBS artist. Joe agreed on Peter Ustinov as Granpa and Sarah Brightman to record 'Make-Believe'. On 26/27th September I was invited to the Royal Bath Hotel, Bournemouth for the annual CBS conference. They discussed their other artists like Leonard Bernstein, Pierre Boulez, Barbra Streisand, Julio Iglesias and Julie Andrews and then came to the climax. Snow fell from the ceiling and a sledge flew down from the ceiling with a Snowman on it. The whole conference chanted 'CBS 7116!' (serial number of my album). In the bar I met MD Paul Russell and senior marketing executive Ian Groves. They offered me my own CBS recording label HB, up to 8 albums of my own music with an open budget and ability to renew. Ian Groves was to look after me, but my excellent man within CBS, Alan Street, disappeared from the team. By November I had finished the vocal score of ‘Granpa’. CBS were ready to make arrangements for an album plus a video to be part of the promotion plan. Peter Ustinov and Sarah Brightman were happy to participate, my orchestra 'Sinfonia of London' would record the music and Terry Edwards' London Voices would take part along with The Wroughton Middle School Choir from Norfolk, who had won the BBC choir of the year award. The film won the Prix Jeunesse International award for excellence in children's television programming in 1990. SOME REVIEWS Rotten Tomatoes  called the film "a sensitive and life-affirming animated adaptation". The film is hand-illustrated with coloured pencil in imitation of the style of the original book. It  has rarely been repeated, nor released on DVD, perhaps due to its subject matter.  The "Toonhound" review suggest that the film takes the tone of the ending of The Snowman even further, "exploring an aspect of life rarely approached in animated form."[9]

An expensive film to produce, it won the Prix Jeunesse International award for excellence in children's television programming in 1990.[3]

If all adaptations were conceived with the skill and grace of Granpa, a great slab of moviegoers' current cynicism could be sent packing once and for all. The 30-minute feature, based on the John Burningham children's book, romances audiences with lighter-than-air, sketch-style animation; dreamy, endearing characters; and a serene, story-enhancing score that expertly melds a 40-piece orchestra and a middle school choir. Its loveliness to look at aside, the video's triumph is its loyalty to the tale--Granpa celebrates the relationship between Emily, an eager, young explorer of especially fanciful fantasies, and the affable old man who's never too busy being a grown-up to indulge her. Together, through the power of in-synch imaginations, they're transported to a Victorian-era ball, where they dance the night away. They also go on a picnic in which a parade of stuffed animals come pleasantly and politely to life; they conduct a jungle safari; they go on a high-seas fishing expedition that puts them at the mercy of a speed-demon whale; and they share a sometimes high-flying, sometimes warm and fuzzy panoply of other momentary yet memorable adventures. It's a gentle exploration of a genuinely touching child-adult relationship that erects no age barriers and, to its credit, doesn't duck a difficult subject--Granpa's gradual decline. Sarah Brightman's performance of "Make Believe" further bolsters the film's sky-high charm factor. --Tammy La Gorce Amazon 1/1/2007

Great and overlooked achievement in British animation, 13 03 2006

Granpa, based on the children's book by John Burningham, is the second (and sadly last) animation to be directed by the late Dianne Jackson. She will be forever remembered for the legendary Christmas animation The Snowman, from the book by Raymond Briggs. But she went on to direct Granpa in 1989   She died tragically young in 1992, leaving Granpa as her final work as full director.

Granpa is a beautiful and very British half hour animation about a little girl called Emily and her kindly but ailing old grandfather. Emily's developing personality, imagination and childhood memories are being formed by her days spent listening to Granpa's stories. The stories come to life in animated images brilliantly designed to look like a child's crayoned drawings. Vivid, bright and seemingly inherently childish, the images are actually highly sophisticated animations from director Jackson and her team of artists. Remember that all of these animated frames were created lovingly by hand in 1989, before computer generated imagery came to dominate the business of animation and rendered hand drawn, beautifully detailed cartoon films like Granpa obsolete!

The tone of the film is initially warm and exhilarating, with Emily untroubled by notions of time or mortality. She lives fully within the moment, a child's viewpoint. For Granpa however, things are rather different. Aware that his days with her are numbered, he lovingly preserves her innocence and passes on to her a heritage within stories from his own distant childhood.

As the seasons pass by (symbolically from spring to winter, and then to spring once more), Granpa becomes visibly frailer until finally, during a magical story that has the pair swinging through jungle branches, he concedes that "I just can't reach those branches...the way I used to be able to." In a heartbreaking coda that echoes the famous finale of The Snowman, Emily finds herself (along with the old man's sad, loyal old dog) to be alone; her young life before her and Granpa inevitably consigned to live on only in her memories.

It's an astonishing finish, brave and sad and with an awareness of mortality and the sacredness of memory. In that sense, Granpa has much in common with all the great children's tales (Watership Down, Peter Pan, The Wind in the Willows, The Once and Future King, The Snowman, and many others), and in its so very British way it subtly and with great understatement covers the most serious themes of life, death, time and the rites of passage between old and new. A great piece of work, deserving of so very much more attention than it has received over the years. A neglected masterpiece that hardly ever gets screened, I recommend Granpa unreservedly. If you get the opportunity to watch this beautiful rarity, do so! Duke-verity 13/3/2006

Howard Blake writes: Sony both in UK and USA were extremely enthusiastic to back and promote Granpa, initially injecting £96,000 into the recording of the music track. However John Coates and Iain Harvey,  film producers of Snowman and now its sequel Granpa, suddenly and for no apparent reason broke off all further relations with Sony and did not support any effective launch or promotion of the film. This was a very great disappointment.

Symphonic Film 11 – ‘The Bear’  1998

John Coates contacted me ten years later and I should have known better than to pick up the phone. But perhaps he wanted me to forgive him for the disaster of 'Granpa'?  Raymond Briggs had drawn a new book and Channel 4 were eager to have a new animated film. They insisted I did the score. Would I do it? I looked at the book which was smothered in dialogue, which is not Raymond's forte. The drawings of course were divine and the story of a little girl keeping a polar bear in her bedroom was cute and cranky. I said I'd compose the score providing there were no words in the film, like 'The Snowman'.  Peter Gelb head of Sony Music New York  offered me Placido Domingo and Carreras to sing the role of the two bears, earthly and heavenly.  Everybody seemed agreed and I started work on 'The Bear' spotting it on March 11-15. What I didn't know at that point was that Harvey Weinstein (which also meant Miramax and Disney) were involved and that became one of  the seismic faults in the pyramid. The first piano score was complete by April 17th and a revised version by May 15th. As with Granpa I took a hand in the script and story. I felt strongly that the episode of the little girl skating down a frozen Thames with The Bear and The Star-Bear accompanying her was by far the most magical sequence. It had been dropped for some ludicrous 'health and safety' reason. It was put back at my request and I now felt it would be a great place for a song. However as before John did his best to temper its success - he did NOT want another 'Walking in the Air'. This may seem strange to understand but in his view the film was the thing to watch and the music must not 'steal his thunder'- even though Channel 4 clearly wanted such a thing to happen. I also suggested the scene of a merchant ship cutting its way through the ice and The Bear rescuing Tilly. I had thought of a possible musical skating song but John did not want a song

However, when we got to the point John seemed to have a change of heart. A song might be a good idea after all. He suggested a lyric that said something like 'maybe everybody has a star that shines only for them'. Not the first time it's been thought of but it would suit the film perhaps. I wrote the song and the lyric 'Somewhere a star shines for everyone' and thought about who could sing it for the recording, set for 30th March at Whitfield Street. It was to be sung first as Tilly skates down the frozen Thames accompanied by the Star-Bear from the skies and the Polar-Bear from the North Pole, which was a delightful idea for a setting.

We needed a girl singer to record it and I rang Roxy Bellamy at Sony Classical. She said: 'We've just signed a 12-year old girl called Charlotte Church. We'll send a demo over.' Charlotte recorded it beautifully, at the same time becoming the star of a one-hour documentary on the making of the film made by 'Screen First' and called 'The Bear's Tale', produced and directed by Paul Madden, the commissioning editor for Channel 4, as he had also been on 'The Snowman' and 'Granpa'.

Unfortunately, when it came to dub the song onto the lovely skating scene, John suddenly insisted there should be no words and the film was released at Christmas with la la la, la la la, la la laaa.. Worse was to come because when a marketing executive of Sony enthusiastically rushed round to see us with a similar record deal as the Snowman had enjoyed, the producers, John Coates and Paul Madden refused point-blank. For this reason there has never been an album of 'The Bear' - or a success. I should have known better than to work with them again.




Symphonic Film 12 – ‘The Land of Counterpane’  2015

In 1993 I had been asked repeatedly if I would compose a work for the tercentenary of the Mary Erskine girls school in Edinburgh and had spoken to the head of music, a wonderfully forthright and energetic musician called Helen Mitchell. I had vaguely suggested a Robert Louis Stevenson song-cycle or some songs on classic Scottish poems.  I was busy as usual and not over-enthusiastic about writing for a school. On a visit to Edinburgh I dropped in to make my apologies, saying that I didn't really believe that such an idea would be very interesting.  The headmaster, Patrick Tobin fixed me with an iron gaze and asked why not.  I said I thought RLS was pretty old-fashioned and the girls would think it a bit twee. Tobin said he was not at all interested in what the girls thought - he wanted to hear what I would compose! I said rather nervously that the only way such a piece might work would be to write very simple voice lines and put all the colour in the orchestra. He glared at me suddenly and said: 'Well that didn't put Mahler off!' As he said this I could suddenly hear the whole thing.  I agreed to do it and the school were delighted. Tobin’s  intervention had caused an inspiration!  I called the piece The Land of Counterpane and wrote the vocal/piano score in five days flat (May 9th - 14th.)

The premiere of the song-cycle took place in the Usher Hall on 25th March 1995 and was a great success. We had Scottish actor David Rentoul to read the epilogue as RLS  and the excellent girls’ choir almost 300-strong to sing the melodic lines, accompanied by their own school orchestra. That was that , I thought . But later, turning it over in my mind, I thought – would it make another  'Snowman' - an animated film?  I  wrote a script, turning the song-cycle into a series of images of RLS's sickly childhood and how his Imagination caused him to live and fight for recovery.



First attempt

The first attempt  to make a film was with TV film-maker Chris Hunt  and  Pat Gavin, designer of the South Bank Show who set out on a 500-page storyboard. BBC 2 Music, BBC Enterprises and Scottish Film Fund together proposed to put up more than £1,000,000 to make it.  I was asked to add an overture and  a  demo was made by a London children's  session choir in late 1994.  The film was to be hand-drawn, but time passed and at the very last minute Pat reneged on hand-drawn  and decided to make clay models and animate them by computer technology. The result was less than astounding and Scottish Film Fund pulled out, BBC close behind them.

Second attempt

In 2010  I approached the well-known animation company Hibbert-Ralph in Soho. Gerry Hibbert became very excited about the project and suggested that Hilary Audus, who had directed the Bear,  would be ideal to do it. Meetings were scheduled, phone calls took place but suddenly Hilary had dropped out.  On the day that  ‘The Snowman and the Snowdog’ was released  in 2012  I discovered  why. She had been asked to desert my project and direct ‘the dog’ instead.

Third and final attempt

In late 2013 I was contacted by Taylor Grant who had worked as music editor with me on many different animation projects: The Snowman,  Granpa and The Bear . He was still incensed by what he called 'the dog thing' and we met for lunch to let off steam about it. Suddenly Taylor said:

'What's happened to your Land of Counterpane project?'

I told him how once again I'd been let down by a production company and how I'd more or less given up on the whole idea.

'Well, why don't you direct it yourself?'

'Do you think I could?'

'Well of course you could. When you worked with us (on  ‘Granpa’  for instance) you wrote and laid down the sound-track  first , the music, the songs and the dialogue and then the animators just followed you note by note. I then just put together the timing-charts for you to work from.'

This was a novel angle and I turned it over in my mind.  In the new year  2014 I formed my own  new production company 'Howard Blake Entertainmants Ltd' and took on the graphic artist Mark Reeve and his animator colleague Emmett Elvin. A production of 'The Land of Counterpane' was under way.[HB]


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