John Coates: Film producer best known for 'The Snowman' and 'Yellow Submarine'

While he liked to remain faithful to the source material, he also gave his directors creative freedom

Although he had no artistic skills himself, John Coates had an eye for literary works that lent themselves to animation. His greatest achievement was producing The Snowman, the cherished short film based on the author and illustrator Raymond Briggs' wordless children's book. The story of a boy dreaming of adventures with a snowman that comes to life was screened during Channel Four's first Christmas, in 1982, and has become a permanent fixture in the festive schedules ever since.

The Snowman was an example of how Coates ensured that his productions were faithful in style to the original works but gave directors – in this case, Dianne Jackson – the freedom to experiment and embellish. She and her animators recreated the pencil-crayon look of Briggs' book but added a sequence in which James and the Snowman visit Father Christmas, flying over city lights, cruise ships and snow-filled landscapes on their way to the North Pole.

This became the film's centrepiece, accompanied by the St Paul's Cathedral chorister Peter Auty's performance of "Walking in the Air" – later a hit single for Aled Jones – from the mesmerising score by Howard Blake that was an equally triumphant component of the 26-minute production. The film's enduring appeal has resulted in a 30th-anniversary sequel, The Snowman and the Snowdog, which will be broadcast on Channel Four this Christmas, dedicated to Coates, who co-produced it.

Born in Surrey in 1927, Coates was a nephew of the film mogul J Arthur Rank and attended Stowe School, Buckingham. He served as an officer in the 11th Hussars cavalry regiment after the Second World War before joining the Rank Organisation in 1948 as a trainee, studying exhibition, production and distribution. Switching to its international distribution arm, he worked in the Far East and Spain.

In 1955, Coates became assistant to the controller of programmes at Associated-Rediffusion, which launched commercial television in Britain as the ITV London weekday franchise holder. Two years later he teamed up with the Canadian animator George Dunning, who was looking for a business director to run his newly established TV Cartoons. By 1961, when it became known as TVC London, the company was producing 100 commercials a year. It brought to screens household brands such as Sunblest, Maxwell House, Frosties and Mr Sheen.

TVC's big break came with the chance to create the cartoon opening title sequence for the second Pink Panther film, A Shot in the Dark (1964). Then it produced The Beatles cartoon series (1965-69), at the height of the Fab Four's fame, and the feature film Yellow Submarine (1968).

Surreal and visually stunning, the fantasy film – conceived to fill the contracted requirement for a third Beatles film following A Hard Day's Night and Help! – was directed by Dunning, with Coates as production supervisor. The psychedelic style, including cut-outs of colourised photographs, influenced other animators, notably Terry Gilliam, in both Do Not Adjust Your Set and Monty Python's Flying Circus.

Despite the picture being a worldwide hit, TVC lost money after being paid a fixed fee for producing it and going over budget. Commercials and sponsored films for the Coal Board and other organisations remained the company's bread-and-butter business. Following Dunning's death in 1979 Coates became managing director and was able to expand its roster of film and television production, running it as a boutique-style animation studio.

The launch of Channel Four in 1982 provided a major new outlet for independent production companies. Seizing the opportunity, Coates persuaded it to commission The Snowman, with a £100,000 budget. When costs soared to £500,000, TVC met the shortfall and Coates even remortgaged his house. The Snowman won a Bafta Award as Best Children's Programme and was nominated for the Best Animated Short Film Oscar. TVC retained 30 per cent of associated rights and finally saw significant profits.

For 20 years, when it earned £9m annually at its height, Coates presided over a studio that won great respect for its lovingly made screen adaptations for television – of John Burningham's Granpa (1989), Raymond Briggs' Father Christmas (1991) and The Bear (1998), The World of Peter Rabbit and Friends (from Beatrix Potter stories, 1992-95), Posy Simmonds' Famous Fred (1996, nominated for an Oscar) and Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows (1995) and The Willows in Winter (1996).

There was also a 1986 feature film of the Briggs book When the Wind Blows, the timely story of a retired couple's naïve support for "the authorities" following a nuclear attack on Britain, after the real-life nuclear debate had been being reignited.

When TVC ceased production in 1997, Coates – who was remembered by many for conducting business over long, enjoyable lunches – considered it an achievement to have survived the recession of the early 1990s, in one year covering costs only with its royalties from The Snowman. He was subsequently executive producer of Ivor the Invisible (2001), based on another Briggs book, The Tale of Jack Frost (2004) and Pumpkin Moon (2005).

His sister, Anne, is a film editor who worked on pictures such as Lawrence of Arabia. Coates' first wife was Bettina Berg, whom he met in Madrid while working for the Rank Organisation. He is survived by their two children, Nicola and Julietta, and his second wife, Christine, an artist who worked on TVC productions such as Yellow Submarine (on which they met), When the Wind Blows and Father Christmas.

John Piesse Coates, film producer: born Reigate, Surrey 7 November 1927; married Bettina Berg (died 1989; two daughters), 2004 Christine Morgan; died Longfield, Kent 16 September 2012.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
Mock the tweet: Ukip leader Nigel Farage and comedian Frankie Boyle
peopleIt was a polite exchange of words, as you can imagine
Life and Style
fashion
Life and Style
Britons buy more than 30 million handsets each year, keeping them for an average of 18 months
tech
Arts and Entertainment
TV Presenters Ant McPartlin and Dec Donnelly. Winners of the 'Entertainment Programme' award for 'Ant and Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway'
musicAnt and Dec confirmed as hosts of next year's Brit Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Orson Welles made Citizen Kane at 25, and battled with Hollywood film studios thereafter
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Humanities and Economics Teacher - January 2015 - Malaysia

£18000 - £20400 per annum + Accommodation, Flights, Medical Cover: Randstad Ed...

SEN Teaching Assistant needed for long term assignment

£45 - £55 per day: Randstad Education Preston: We are looking for an experienc...

Primary Teachers Required in King's Lynn

Negotiable: Randstad Education Cambridge: Primary Teachers needed in King's Ly...

Primary Teachers needed in Ely

Negotiable: Randstad Education Cambridge: Primary Teacher needed in the Ely ar...

Day In a Page

Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

Fall of the Berlin Wall

History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

Turn your mobile phone into easy money

There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes
Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs:

Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs

"I have never regarded anything I have done in "the media" as a proper job"
Lyricist Richard Thomas shares his 11-step recipe for creating a hit West End musical

11-step recipe for creating a West End hit

Richard Thomas, the lyricist behind the Jerry Springer and Anna Nicole Smith operas, explains how Bob Dylan, 'Breaking Bad' and even Noam Chomsky inspired his songbook for the new musical 'Made in Dagenham'
Tonke Dragt's The Letter for the King has finally been translated into English ... 50 years on

Buried treasure: The Letter for the King

The coming-of-age tale about a boy and his mission to save a mythical kingdom has sold a million copies since it was written by an eccentric Dutchwoman in 1962. Yet until last year, no one had read it in English
Can instilling a sense of entrepreneurship in pupils have a positive effect on their learning?

The school that means business

Richard Garner heads to Lancashire, where developing the 'dragons' of the future is also helping one community academy to achieve its educational goals
10 best tablets

The world in your pocket: 10 best tablets

They’re thin, they’re light, you can use them for work on the move or keeping entertained
Lutz Pfannenstiel: The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents

Lutz Pfannenstiel interview

The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents
Pete Jenson: Popular Jürgen Klopp can reignite Borussia Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern Munich

Pete Jenson's a Different League

Popular Klopp can reignite Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern
John Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

The use of the British hostage demonstrates once again the militants' skill and originality in conducting a propaganda war, says Patrick Cockburn
The killer instinct: The man who helps students spot potential murderers

The killer instinct

Phil Chalmers travels the US warning students how to spot possible future murderers, but can his contentious methods really stop the bloodshed?
Clothing the gap: A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd

Clothing the gap

A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd
Fall of the Berlin Wall: Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain

The Fall of the Berlin Wall

Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain