As Howard Blake's stage version of Raymond Briggs' The Snowman comes to Brighton, the composer tells EDWIN GILSON how a doctor's doomy diagnosis led to the creation of his masterpiece Walking in the Air
HOWARD Blake knows all too well the pros and cons of being known for one work of art.
But while Raymond Briggs appears to largely resent the success of his 1978 picture book, Blake has found peace in regards to his role in the The Snowman’s enduring legacy. Blake wrote Walking in the Air over a decade before it enchanted the nation in the Channel 4 animation of The Snowman, and it remains by a distance his most famous piece of a long career in music and film.
From his session musician work at Abbey Road to his days scriptwriting The Avengers to scoring Hollywood films, Blake has proven himself to be a man of many talents.
“It’s difficult because Walking in the Air is just one of many, many things I’ve written,” says the 79 year-old, who was awarded an OBE in 1994. “But it doesn’t bother me because it’s happened to a lot of composers. You can complain about not being recognised but I don’t think you can really complain about being recognised.”
If Blake’s musical contribution to The Snowman is one of the factors behind its lasting appeal, another is the stage show that he created more than 20 years ago and that has been running ever since. The production comes to Theatre Royal Brighton next month and Blake is excited about making the journey from his home in London to spend a week in the city he has gleeful memories growing up in (more on that later).
Briggs’ illustrations in his book include the Royal Pavilion and Brighton Palace Pier. In many senses, this is a homecoming for The Snowman. Needless to say, Blake has a less hands-on role with the show than he did two decades ago; director Bill Alexander and choreographer Robert North are responsible for the daily operations.
The show is loosely based on Briggs’ book but, as Blake points out, the original story is rather featherweight to be directly translated to a feature length production. Blake’s additional touches include new characters in the shape of Jack Frost (“a force of evil”) and the Ice Princess and a bizarre scene with a motorcycle. Despite the long-running popularity of the production, Blake says it was “very nearly a washout” when it was first staged in the mid-nineties.
“It went well in Birmingham but the transfer to London was a bit shaky,” he says. “I wasn’t sure if it was going to work at all and there was a rumour going around that the boss of Sadler’s Wells Ian Albery was going to drop it. He said the story needed more of a plot, more tension. He let me rewrite it and when he saw the revised version he said: ‘you’ve cracked it, it’ll run forever’”.
How right Albery was. However, it seems everybody else involved with the story in its various incarnations is surprised about its lifespan – not least Blake.
“It’s been a big part of my life since 1981 when I did the film, and I thought that would be it. But then more than ten years went past and the stage show happened, and here we are.”
The uplifting, ethereal Walking in the Air was born out of a very stressful time in Blake’s life. After his work on The Avengers he was being “bombarded with commercial work” and writing for different projects around the clock.
“I was busy as hell all the time,” says Blake. “I thought, ‘is this what I really want to be doing?’ I noticed my hands were starting to shake. I went to a doctor and he said I was going to be dead in five years and that I should stop now.”
Blake had already realised he needed to slow down. One day he got in a car and drove to Cornwall where he stayed in a beach hut for three months doing lots of yoga and “thinking a lot – although it wasn’t a nervous breakdown, as such”. He wanted to write a symphony that “expressed innocence” as a reaction to all the corporate work he’d been doing, something that reflected his “newfound attitude to life”.
Inspiration soon struck. “I was walking along the beach and the tune of Walking in the Air came into my head, so I wrote it down on a piece of paper. I thought it was marvellous.” Eventually Blake’s agent tracked him down and asked if would consider going back to civilization. He did, but not to London. Instead he found refuge in Sussex – Cuckfield, to be exact – where he had the space to fully flesh out his composition.
However, nothing became of Walking in the Air until Blake was contacted by the creative team behind the fledgling Snowman film in 1981. They were having difficulties with the music for the movie so turned to Blake – only for the composer to convince them that the entire 26 minute film should be dialogue-free and consist only of his own music. The audacious idea worked.
Channel 4 took The Snowman on and, as Blake says, “the rest is history”. Walking in the Air took on a new life three years after the film was broadcast thanks to Aled Jones’ haunting cover (schoolboy Peter Auty sung the movie version).
Blake and Jones have never had any kind of relationship and the composer has nothing to say about Jones being axed from his role on Songs of Praise due to recent allegations. Brighton played a pivotal part in Blake’s interest in music, film and the intersection of the two. His first memory of music is his mother playing piano through the wall of their flat in Preston Road. Blake was born in Enfield, London, but his father moved the family to Brighton at the end of the war. The composer is rhapsodical about the impact the city had on him.
“I just adore Brighton and my life there growing up was fantastic,” he says. “It was a marvellous place, full of theatre, dance and performance. There were so many venues that have now closed down; The Hippodrome, The Grand Theatre and the Paris Cinema to name a few.”