How We Met: Raymond Briggs & John Coates

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The Independent Online

John Coates, 80, founded the TVC Animation Studio in 1957. It produced films including the psychedelic Beatles movie 'The Yellow Submarine' and the Oscar-nominated and Bafta-winning animation for 'The Snowman'

We met 26 years ago, because The Snowman is 25 years old this year, though I think he will remember better than me. We didn't actually come face to face until we had already made an eight-minute film interpreting the storyline of The Snowman. Raymond came to see what we had done in a little viewing theatre on Charlotte Street. The director and I were full of fear and trembling because we knew we had tampered quite a lot with his book. We thought he would probably hate everything, but fortunately for us he loved it. He was wonderfully friendly and he kept saying, "I wish I had that in the book." We have been friends ever since.

We have gone on to make several other films together Father Christmas and The Bear. We also lunch regularly and now I consider him to be a jolly good friend. He's lovely, Raymond, although he does love to grump. He sent a grumpy letter to The Times just the other day; he really enjoys the grumpy old man image.

Raymond likes the simple life; he lives in quite a small house and has done so for years and years on the north side of the South Downs. He hates coming to London. There's a nice pub near where he lives called The Jolly Sportsman. It serves unusually good food; it is quite hard to get into, but as he is well known we don't seem to have a problem. We love to sit and talk about projects we are working on and politics; we see eye-to-eye fairly broadly on a political front.

I recently got the rights to do [Briggs' book] Ethel and Earnest. He didn't want to do it, as it was too sensitive for him it's his parents' story but he's given in to us over the past month or two. I think this time he's going to be more involved with the words and less bothered about the illustrations. I am seeing him next week with a former commissioning editor of Channel 4 and his wife we're all friends and are doing a Christmas lunch.

Raymond has mellowed as he's got older; he's like the rest of us now. He was rather shy when I first knew him rather shy and rather withdrawn but over the years he's become more outgoing. I started life being rather shy but as I got older, I stopped caring so much. If they don't like you, you don't care and if they do, you get on.

Raymond Briggs, 73, is a British children's author and illustrator. Much of his work has been successfully adapted to television, including 'Father Christmas' (1973) and 'The Snowman' (1978). Other books he has written and illustrated include 1977's 'Fungus the Bogeyman' and 'The Bear' (1994)

I think one of my first dealings with John was when he phoned me up and said, "We're thinking of having the Snowman characters fly to Brighton Pier, then to the North Pole to meet Father Christmas." I said, "Oh, must you really? It's so corny." But it turned out he was right; it worked well. The problem was that children's books are a set number of pages and this film had to be 26 minutes, so they had to extend it and think up things such as the Snowman's party scene and the scene featuring Father Christmas. It's no good the author saying that it's no good, it's not in the book it's got to be good, as they need to extend it. And I have to say they did so extremely well. You can't imagine the amount of work involved, with all these people scratching away for weeks.

One my other earliest memories of John and The Snowman was going into the studio at TVC in a great room and it was lined from edge to edge and floor to ceiling with the storyboard. Every scene was hand-drawn Snowman turns, Snowman raises hat, and so on. Three seconds raising his left foot, all timed to the second. I was so impressed by the enormity of the task, and that was just clocking the storyboard; there were a million frames in between each of those pictures. What was good was that they kept the technique I used in the book, which was crayon very laborious. I've never done it but I think they had to turn over the cell and scribble on the back. You can't just paint it in as Disney might. That was amazing.

John is a great lunching man. Not just with me, but with everybody under the sun. He comes down to see me and we go to this restaurant often where they don't like to let him go before 4pm because he's spending money, I suppose.

He's the most genial man I have ever met; I'm always grumpy and miserable by nature but he is happy and positive that's why he looks so good at 80. He has a tremendously laid-back, happy, easy-going approach it amazes me how someone with that temperament can run such a brilliant business. You think all these people are hard-nosed businessmen, but he's not remotely like that. He can have a three- or four-hour lunch and that is supposed to be a business meeting. He doesn't hassle people or push them around, and he gets the best out of them.

'The Snowman' is celebrating its 25th anniversary with a commemorative CD, DVD and book. A limited-edition 'Snowman' scarf is available from green-eyed-monster.co.uk

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