Illustration by Dan Evans
Culturally, the United Kingdom is a confusing place. It's like America, but with less shouting and more antique shows; like mainland Europe, but with slightly better clothes and worse coffee. Dotted around our lumpen grey rock are an assortment of weird and wonderful celebrities and phenomena – the flag bearers and rituals of our Isles. To foreign eyes they might appear confusing – inexplicable, even – so with that in mind, these seminars intend to elucidate who they are, and why. Welcome to British Studies. Lesson 6: The Snowman.
Let me tell you about a short, mournful piece of work called The Snowman. It is an animated movie, barely half an hour in length, that has been aired on Channel 4 every Christmas since 1982. Based on a 1978 book by English author Raymond Briggs, the Academy Award nominated film is a cornerstone of British Christmas culture – but why? What makes The Snowman better than other Christmas films like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Movie starring Whoopi Goldberg, or Nativity 3: Dude Where's My Donkey?
Well, like a shovel to crisp, midwinter snow, let's dig a little deeper, shall we?
NB: There are a few different introductions to The Snowman, but the one I grew up with featured David Bowie, which I'm sure you can agree immediately makes it the definitive, only version worth discussing.
The action all starts with David Bowie, in an attic, and he's got this sick, Blade Runner bleached hair, as if somehow in the time that's passed since he was a cute little cartoon country-boy building snowmen on his parents farm he's gotten really into krautrock and expensive blow. Bowie is wearing a pair of high-waisted beige trousers and a proper "Grandma died in that" wooly jumper – yet the fucked up thing is, you'd still probably shag him. How did he manage that by the way? How did Bowie manage to look good dressed up like a retired piano teacher?
Anyway, we're digressing: the snowman. So David Bowie tells us that when he was younger he once built a snowman that was a real snowman, and we fade from live action into the murky cartoon world of the film. Young, cartoon David Bowie builds this snowman, and it's really very good: the sort of snowman you had in mind every time you lumped a few chunks of ice and dog shit together and called it Bert. That night, when he goes to bed, he can't stop thinking about the fluffy white bugger. He twists and turns in his bed, and eventually gives into temptation, pelting down the stairs and out into the unfurled blanket of his back garden. It's there that he discovers, much to his surprise, that the mound of ice is now a living, breathing bloke.
The snowman then breaks into the boy's house and pokes around, including a weird bit where he slides into the boy's parents' room and tries on the dad's false teeth. Whose parents have false teeth? Maybe they're not his parents? Maybe they're his grandparents? Maybe his parents are dead? Fuck this film, seriously.
A quick word on the animation of The Snowman: it's beautiful to look at, but also crushingly bleak. Millions of miles from the block colours and googly eyes of brash American animations, it's cold and damp looking. Lines don't appear complete, fabrics look rough and the English countryside appears ominous. The film depicts great whales crashing in black oceans as readily as it does crackling fires and fairy lights. It's a world with pockets of warmth and shelter, among threatening expanses of darkness. Anyway, you came here for jokes about The Snowman maybe being a nonce and stuff, not an undergrad essay on pathetic fallacy, so let's crack on.
Yes, so, they check out the craic inside and then the Snowman – the big, lumbering, nothing-but-mushy-water-for-brains Snowman – takes the little boy back outside, grabs his hand and takes off. They soar through the midnight winter skies over Brexit Britain and the voice of a well-spoken young angel begins to cut through the air, singing the legendary festive banger "We're Walking in the Air". Interesting, fucked up thing about this song: everyone thinks it's sung by Christian mum-crumpet Aled Jones, because he went on to have a number one with the song and then a subsequent 30-year career off the back of said number one. In fact, the version in the film was sung by another chorister called Peter Auty. Bear that in mind this Christmas, that while you're tucking into your turkey, Peter Auty – Ol' Pete Auty, Mad Pete – is probably sitting on a rocking horse in an attic somewhere, muttering incessantly about "precious Aled". screeching the song to himself and setting fire to bits of tinsel.
So the Snowman flies the boy all the way to a party in Lapland, where Father Christmas and a an entire snowman cabal/sect/cult/sex-ring are waiting in the depths of a pine forest. Everyone has a massive knees up, cartoon child-Bowie gets a scarf and then they get an Uber home. The next morning, however, the winds have changed. The child awakes, sprints out of the house to be reunited with his friend in the winter sun, only to discover he is gone. Melted. Nothing but a puddle, a peach, a scarf, a hat and a few bits of coal. At this point the boy kneels, the strings rise, you cry and the credits roll.
The Snowman dies, and it ends. That's it. The Snowman doesn't wink from the puddle or appear in the clouds and whisper, "I'll never forget you." There isn't even a shot of the little kid's mum giving him a hug or a Wagon Wheel or something. It's just death and credits.
Which brings us to our ultimate question. Why is our nation's favourite Christmas film so bleak? What is the meaning of this? What is the true meaning of The Snowman?
Well, here are some plausible options to chose from:
The aforementioned "Snow"-man is nothing but a thinly veiled allegory for a coke-fiend: happy to whisk you off to the next party, but by the next morning Mister Saturday Night is nowhere to be seen. The sesh has ended in tears and you're left dealing with nothing but the mess he has left in his wake. His nose also falls off.
ONE NIGHT STANDS
The Snowman is everyone you ever shagged. Everyone who ever told you they've "never found it this easy to talk to someone". Everyone who ever took your number instead of giving you theirs, which was actually a pretty obvious sign now you think about it. Every stolen kiss who ran out the door and melted away before you woke up, leaving nothing but a condom in the waste-paper basket and a scarf in your dressing gown pocket.
DAVID BOWIE DYING
Perhaps this deathly fairy tale was Bowie's way of preparing us for the night he melted. His way of gently warning us that one day – after decades of innovation – we'd wake up to a puddle and a Mercury nominated album.
ACTUALLY, JUST ALL DEATH
Really and truly, though, it's not just Bowie; The Snowman is simply about death, a remorseless reminder that goodness, love and companionship end – and that they end without warning, in the middle of the silent night. Briggs himself put it better, when he said of the book: "The snowman melts, my parents died, animals die, flowers die. Everything dies."
Whichever option it is, it says much about this miserable, muddy place that the best we could do when it came to a festive film was harp on about good things turning into slushy puddles. Even the Bible – a book in which the main character is nailed to a slab of wood in front of his mum – has a more upbeat Christmas story than this.
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