Crabby cartoonist turns gloom into an art form

Andy Beckett finds the `Father Christmas' author Raymond Briggs more fun than his image
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IF YOU sit on Raymond Briggs's sofa and look out of the french windows onto the winter-green dampness of his East Sussex garden, the view may strike you as familiar. Note the bird-table, the straggly bushes, the kitchen extension with its little window. You are looking at the first double-page scene in Briggs's cartoon perennial, Father Christmas.

Tonight, as on the past five Christmas Eves, this scene will be on television. Millions of excited children, and thousands of parents, will watch Briggs's dumpy, grumpy Santa crawl out of the fireplace of this modest modern house, his presents delivered upstairs, to discover that his reward is, as usual, a mere glass of red wine.

This winning combination of the twee and the testy has kept Briggs's books and their adaptations on Christmas lists for more than 20 years. Father Christmas has been a bestseller since 1973; The Snowman has been scheduled by Channel 4 for every Christmas Day, except 1984 but including tomorrow, since the channel began.

Along the way, Briggs himself has acquired a certain reputation. Not just as an innovative illustrator - washing one page with vast impressionistic clouds of colour, dividing the next into tiny narrative frames - or as an equally iconoclastic cartoon writer - showing children Santa sitting on the loo - but as someone who is also a bit, well, grumpy. Briggs gives gloomy interviews; humanity's flaws and loneliness are crucial ingredients in his books; is it too much to suggest that the sour old cartoon Father Christmas and his creator are one and the same?

Briggs is certainly wearing Santa red when he comes to the door. And he does start by complaining of sackings at his publishers, decreasing sales to libraries and schools, and the rise of CD-ROMs ("I'm too old to get interested in that thing"). Then there is the difficulty of drawing cartoons: "It's like doing a film, except you do the whole blessed lot ... I try to avoid drawing vans and cars because they're a nightmare to draw - I can't bear doing cars...." And the price of fame: "I was in the chemist yesterday, and this woman I'd never seen before handed me my medicine and said, `Here you are, Mr Snowman'. Oh Christ ... It's a bit painful."

But this is not the whole picture. Briggs, who is not quite 62, wears only the affectations of disgruntled old age. Behind the moans, he is welcoming and spry. The red comes from a young man's polo neck; his jaw is as firm and lean as a cartoon hero's.

His house has the pleasantly cluttered tidiness of the busy but organised. And outside, on all sides, rise the landscapes of his books: the South Downs mist-topped beyond his back garden, the undulations and bare trees of fields surrounding the cottages of his hamlet. "You can only work out of your own experience," he says, contentedly. "Draw the things you know, write about the things you remember."

The South London flatness in his voice suggests what he remembers. Briggs was born in Wimbledon in 1934, and lived the first 25 years of his life with his parents, a milkman and a maid, in a small grey terrace of "old cracked tiles and brass taps and home-made wooden draining boards". This would later become Father Christmas's house. He began drawing at secondary school. From the start, he wanted to sell his work. At 15 he applied to the local art school: "I wanted to learn to draw in order to become a cartoonist. The chap interviewing me - the principal - said, `My god, boy, is that all you want to do?"

He was accepted anyway. "We were taught to do this very realistic style with loads of figure-drawing, old-fashioned still life, and composition ... all the other schools were doing modern art." It formed his style: "I'm wedded to realistic settings ... I like all the homely details: cups of tea and buns and all that." Fortunately, when he moved on to the professional cartoon artist's world, this seemed not conservative but radical, and sellable. Instead of the usual spaceships and supermen, he conjured up traditional children's fantasy figures - Santa, talking bears and snowmen - and set them unexpectedly in grimy reality.

This created endless story-telling possibilities: his readers could see on the page figures they might have imagined themselves, enlivening familar, boring situations. Children could savour the thought of, for example, a huge bear appearing in their bedroom and annoying their parents. Mum and Dad could be impressed by Briggs's subtle shadings - he used none of the cartoonist's usual hard lines and violent colours - and lack of sentimentality - his bears had weight and teeth.

Briggs's decades of success have not been entirely smooth, however. In 1982 the then "raving socialist" produced When The Wind Blows, about an ordinary couple - based on his parents - with a nuclear war happening around them. Following government leaflets, they build a shelter - and die slowly, graphically, of radiation sickness. The book was discussed in the House of Commons.

Briggs's next work, The Tin-Pot Foreign General and The Old Iron Woman, attacked the Falklands War. "They were obvious political things to get annoyed about." It did less well, and its follow-up, a story about a spotty young man called Unlucky Wally, did worse. Briggs learnt that really dirty realism - the book had filthy boarding houses, earwigs, and a tone of relentless misanthropy - would scare his readers.

Since then he has dropped the "belching" and outright polemic from his repertoire. Foreign settings - he once sent Father Christmas on holiday to France, Scotland and Las Vegas - are out too: "I don't like abroad much." Instead, he has returned to his past. A cartoon biography of his parents - "I haven't any brothers or sisters, so I suppose parents are the big thing in my life" - is pinned up in pencil sketches in his top- floor workroom.

It is as tempting to see melancholy in Briggs as grumpiness. Most of his books have sad endings. His parents died in 1971, his wife two years later. Everyone's favourite children's writer does not have children, and has lived in the same house since 1965. He feels old, and works "all the time".

But Briggs cannot convince you of his unhappiness. He is thrilled to show off his workroom, which is stuffed, like the rest of the house, with models of his characters (Fungus the Bogeyman leers in the shower). His work continues to give pleasure and sell. He has his "lady" in the next village, and his drives over the Downs to Brighton to listen to jazz or see his friend Steve Bell, the Guardian cartoonist. "Twenty minutes later you're coming over a hill and hearing owls hooting," he says fondly. And Briggs can laugh at himself. Pinned up in his workroom is an envelope with a sketch of a flying snowman on it, propelling himself by farting.