How David Bowie ended up introducing Christmas classic The Snowman

7 December 2021, 10:30

By Mayer Nissim

David Bowie wasn't the first person to introduce Raymond Briggs's wonderful Christmas animation.

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On Boxing Day in 1982, Channel 4 screened The Snowman for the very first time.

The gorgeous animation was directed by Dianne Jackson and based on Raymond Briggs's picture book from four years earlier.

It's remained a family favourite ever since, and is perhaps best known for two things.

The first is that central song (and only actual spoken words in the film), 'Walking in the Air' by Howard Blake, performed by St Paul's Cathedral choirboy Peter Auty* when the Boy and the Snowman take flight (*Aled Jones's top five version actually came three years later).

The second is the tender introduction from pop superstar David Bowie. But some people may not realise that Bowie didn't always introduce the film.

When it was first broadcast, it was actually Raymond Briggs himself who introduced The Snowman.

His intro saw him walking through a field in Sussex talking about his inspiration for the story, which cleverly transitioned into the animated backdrop as the film started.

But when the US networks wanted to show the film a couple of years later, executive producer Iain Harvey said they needed "a big name" to get the sponsors in.

“People such as Laurence Olivier and Julie Andrews were being suggested, but the Americans were going, it must be a rock star,” composer Howard Blake told The Guardian.

Step forward David Bowie, who was working with Blake at the time on Tony Scott's erotic vampire thriller The Hunger.

It didn't hurt that Bowie was already an avowed fan of Briggs who would later go on to record the title song for the 1986 adaptation of his animated nuclear drama When The Wind Blows (that soundtrack was rounded out by Roger Waters, Genesis, Squeeze, Hugh Cornwell and Paul Hardcastle).

And they went with a very different idea from the original Briggs intro. This time there was a touch of fantasy, as David Bowie "found" a scarf in an attic drawer just like the one in the movie, suggesting that David himself is the Boy, all grown up.

David Bowie in The Snowman
David Bowie in The Snowman. Picture: Channel 4/TVC London

"One year, I made a really big snowman," a bleach-blonde Bowie (circa Let's Dance) says. "He got me this scarf. You see, he was a real snowman."

Brian Harding, who produced Bowie's introduction, said years later: "The Scarf was knitted by the lady in the accounts department of TVC, the production company who made the animation.

"She came onto the set and presented it to David. When filming was over David asked very politely if he could keep the scarf to give to his son, Zowie [as Duncan Jones was then known].

Walking In The Air - The Snowman
Walking In The Air - The Snowman. Picture: Channel 4 / TVC London

"This was the only fee he charged for the filming and I believe he offered his services for personal reasons. He was charming throughout and totally professional."

Everyone agrees that Bowie was a complete gent on set. "When he came, he was so modest and unshowy," said Harvey. “He was an absolute gem."

Briggs also called Bowie a "charming man", though in 2017 he also told BBC Newsnight that the filming wasn't all entirely smooth.

"I did an introduction to The Snowman film and the Americans wanted somebody more important than me to do it, quite rightly, and they somehow got David Bowie to do it," he said.

“He got it all wrong, terribly. Hopeless. It didn’t matter, they did it about six times. But it was fun meeting him, wearing his wonderful, glittering pink shoes. I’d never seen pink shoes before on a man.

"And he said, 'I greatly admire your work'. And I said, God, I wish I could say the same'... I muttered it."

Cold!

There was a lovely epilogue to the story of David Bowie and The Snowman.

In 2016, just before the first Christmas since Bowie's death, his son and acclaimed filmmaker David Jones revealed that he still has the scarf that Bowie "found" in the attic.

(Apparently there had actually been two scarves, with Bernard Cribbins who recorded the audiobook getting the other, but he lost his in the back of a cab.)

And four years later, presumably after some moving around, Duncan found the scarf once more. In an attic, just like his dad did.

"Went looking for sock monkeys in the storage boxes and FOUND THE SCARF!!! YAY!" he said.

And as Brian Harding replied: "I am glad that the scarf found its way to the destination he intended: from the dude to another dude."

A sequel The Snowman and the Snowdog was released in 2012 to mark the 30th anniversary of the original, but neither Bowie nor Briggs were involved.

In 2002, a third introduction for the original film was filmed, this time featuring the voice of Mel Smith as Briggs's animated Father Christmas.

He was reprising the role he played in 1991 Channel 4 film of his books Father Christmas and Father Christmas Goes on Holiday.

That was the intro most often used for a decade or so until Smith's sad death in 2013. Since Bowie himself died in 2016, it's usually the Bowie intro on TV come Christmastime.