In full culture-vulture mode, the Knackered Family went to two live musical concerts this weekend. Both events featured largely acoustic instrumentalists, accompanied by a narrator. And both served to remind us that live performance offers an extra, magical dimension that recorded music can’t. But one event also provided perfect grist for the Knackered mill — insight into the intermeshing of serendipity and creativity, and also how failure and success are mingled for the creative artist; one can be (and so often is) snatched from the jaws of the other, and in unexpected ways.

Yesterday we went to a seasonal extravaganza to get us in wistful Christmas mood. Bath Philharmonia, under the leadership of Jason Thornton, performed a double-bill: the musical scores for Raymond Briggs‘ animated stories of The Bear and The Snowman, both composed by Howard Blake. Actress Stephanie Cole narrated the two stories, and a 15-year-old soprano, Verity Wingate took the vocals (beautifully) for the two signature songs (Walking in the Air and Somewhere a Star Shines for Everyone — here’s a recording of the latter from Howard’s site with, I think, a young Charlotte Church).

As it happened, Howard Blake was also in attendance yesterday, and he stayed on at the end of the matinĂ©e performance for a Q&A session led by Thornton. Most of the audience had toddlers in tow and had to be off home for tea, so it was a pleasant surprise to be left in a very small residual group, clustered in the stalls of Bath’s Theatre Royal, for this last portion of the afternoon.

Howard Blake explained how his hit music for The Snowman might never have materialized but for his disenchantment with Hollywood, and specifically the officiousness of a certain security guard who would not let him into a studio lot.

I don’t really like Hollywood. In 1979 I was invited to go and write a two-hour epic about the Titanic. I did that. Then everybody was after me offering me jobs. But I did not know what to do about it. All I did know is that I wanted to go home — to England. And on this particular day they said ‘Universal want to sign you up to do the Coal Miner’s Daughter, a country and western film’. But then I said that the one music I don’t particularly like is country and western.”

When Blake presented himself at the gates of Universal Studios for the signing, the 8-foot security guard wearing an officious hat sneered:-

If you don’t have a pass, you don’t come in.”

This was the last straw for Blake, and he told the guard to pass on the message to the producer that he was taking the next plane home to England. This firmly marked the end of his Hollywood career. But he said that he’d never regretted it. On his return, the first job he got (and on a chance encounter too) was the commission to provide the music for the classic animation based on Briggs’ book. His expectation was that the animation would be shown twice, and that would be an end of it. He also revealed that he had already written the famous Walking in the Air tune some years before. It had been lying laying in a draw for 9 years, having been originally written for The Happy Prince - a job he thought he’d secured but had finally lost to another composer. It fitted into The Snowman so perfectly that he was relieved (retrospectively) that The Happy Prince hadn’t nabbed it.

Following on from Friday’s post about William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade, Blake revealed himself to be completely self-deprecating, despite his success, and the epitome of Goldman’s perspective that “nobody knows anything” when it comes to judging what will and what will not take off. Specifically, Blake highlighted how he thought commercial greed could get in the way of success, as it seems to have done with The Bear. When asked by Thornton why he thought The Bear — which Thornton believes merits just as much prominence as The Snowman, if not more — never really became as popular, Blake suggested that the wrangles over rights issues between some of the commercial sponsors of the project may have held it up. Based on the success of The Snowman, by 1998 (when The Bear was released as a follow-up) there was every reason to believe it would be just as big a hit, but:-

Everyone was trying to cash in on it before I’d written it, and I found it increasingly difficult to work. It never got a proper release and a coordinated campaign. This happens in the media. The bigger it gets the worse it gets, in my opinion”

Blake confirmed that he has now acquired the musical rights to The Bear, so it may now get the airing that it deserves.

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