Medium 9780861966820

John Coates: The Man Who Built the Snowman

Views: 1243
Ratings: (0)

John Coates is best known as the producer of The Snowman, When the Wind Blows, Wind in the Willows, Willows in Winter, and Famous Fred, and as the man behind the Beatles film Yellow Submarine. This intimate biography takes the reader on a journey through Coates’s early life, his years as an army officer in the 11th Hussars in World War II, and his postwar life as a distributor for Rank films throughout Asia, before returning to England and eventually taking over TV Cartoons. With a foreword by Raymond Briggs and an epilogue by Coates himself, this abundantly illustrated work also includes a DVD of selections from Coates’s work.

List price: $23.99

Your Price: $19.19

You Save: 20%

Remix
Remove

32 Chapters

Format Buy Remix

Early Years

ePub

 

John Piesse Coates was born on 7 November 1927, between the wars. A good year for champagne! It was also a seminal year for communication, and heralded some big changes in media and technology. It was the year of the first ever Oscar, the first transatlantic phone call – New York City to London – and the year of the Jazz Singer, widely regarded as the first talking picture, which opened to rave reviews. That movie effectively killed the silent movie era; ironic considering that the wordless ‘Snowman’ was to make John more famous than any of his other films. How he made the transition from schoolboy to eventual celebrated producer has been a fabulous odyssey and the subject of this book.

John was fortunate enough to be born into wealth. His mother was the money because she was a Rank, the family that made its initial fortune from flour milling and later, Rank Films. As a young boy, John admired his entrepreneurial Uncle Jimmy, by all accounts an illustrious character. He was a millionaire even back then and John remembers him fondly as a man who enjoyed racing, had plenty of girlfriends and liked a drink. The impassioned Uncle Jimmy was a fun influence on his young nephew, who has forever kept a love of horses, pretty women and the odd tipple, and not necessarily in that order. John’s Uncle Arthur, on the other hand, was a strict Methodist and teetotal, a way of life that proved an anathema to John.

 

Army Years

ePub

 

John left the hallowed walls of Stowe in 1945; the war with Germany was over, but England and Japan were locked into a bloody and protracted battle, predicted to last as long as the German War had, at least four or five years. Before war interrupted, he was all set for Cambridge, but faced with the option of getting his degree or joining-up, John decided on the latter and signed up for three years in the armed-forces.

He coveted a place in the 11th Hussars elite cavalry regiment, once part of the brave Charge of the Light Brigade, but its commissioned ranks were limited to career soldiers not ‘part-timers’ like him. Usually, he would have been refused entry into the squad, but ‘Pussy’ came to the rescue: she knew the colonel, who pulled some strings for her son. John joined the 11th Hussars.

The army proved a life-changing experience for the young Coates, used to mingling in affluent society rather than with ‘ordinary’ folk. Army life started with six weeks basic training at Winchester Barracks. Like other new recruits, John, with brand-new kitbag, was nervous that first day and night. Next morning, he was kitted-out with standard issue battle dress and a rifle, without ammunition – that was allocated on the rifle range.

 

Early Days at Rank, Far East and Asia

ePub

 

Rank

John was straight out of the army when a media career beckoned. He could have stayed on in the services, but in truth had never entertained the idea and as soon as he finished his three-year stint was ready for out. It was 1948 and he had not long demobbed when a Times newspaper ad caught his eye; for people interested in the film industry to join a year-long training scheme with the new J Arthur Rank Organisation. He applied under his family name of Coates, so no favouritism, and following an interview was offered a job.

The film industry was predominantly American at this time, and Rank wanted to change all that by creating an English rival to the big Hollywood set ups. The training scheme gave John a crash course in every aspect of the film business, including a period at Pinewood, the biggest of the Rank studios. “It wasn’t about knowing how to edit or shoot, but to learn what putting together a film was about, what it was like to go on the set and see things being shot”, he says. “In the end, Rank did achieve what they had set out to do. They did manage to build something comparable to the big American companies like MGM or UA, and Pinewood movies such as Oliver Twist and The Red Shoes have stood the test of time and mark out a wonderful period in the British film history.”

 

Madrid – “We Read Hemingway and Lived Hemingway”

ePub

 

John took up his Madrid post for Rank in autumn, 1952, age 25. He calls it “the most fun time of my life” which culminated in his marriage to the lovely Bettina.

On arrival in Madrid, John rented the previous manager’s apartment in the Gaylord Hotel, mentioned in Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls. It was quite a centre during the ’60s and John had a nice place near The Ritz and The Prado. Two elderly ladies, American expats, befriended him and spoilt him with presents, and enjoyed the occasional glass of sherry on his spacious terrace. Hotel life didn’t really suit John, even if there was an excellent restaurant in situ, probably less of a bonus in Madrid where every corner revealed some new culinary temptation. He took an apartment off the Plaza Principeza, somewhere quite central but very different to where he had been living; the plus was a car parking space in the basement and a daily breakfast, sent up to his flat. Madrid was a vibrant intoxicating place. Life didn’t come much better for a young man and John made the most of it; not yet tethered by the responsibility of marriage and family, he did what any other red-blooded male would do and partied. Rank paid a monthly salary of £100.00, drawn in pesetas from the bank. As saving at that age wasn’t on, he would blow whatever was left over each time on a party, just so he could go back and get the next lot of pesetas. “I got quite popular, not surprisingly.”

 

How It All Began – Rediffusion and ATV

ePub

 

John and Bettina straggled back to London and rented a little flat in Nottingham Street, off Marylebone High Street. It was a tiny place, but laid out well enough so that it didn’t feel cramped. Rather ingeniously, a bath under the kitchen table saved a lot of space. Settling into London life, Bettina got quite a well-paid job using her languages immediately, while John decided the film industry was finished and the future was TV. The week he arrived back in London two of the new ITV channels were running ads in The Times for people to join them so he applied for a job.

At the start up of Commercial Television everything was London; there was no network and only two companies. Associated Rediffusion (AR) ran programming from Monday to Friday, and ATV, which programmed the weekends. John had interviews with both ATV and AR. First with Lou Grade, boss of ATV weekend Television, famous for his large cigars and large personality, and next with the Controller and the Assistant Controller of Programmes of Associated Rediffusion. The controller was Bill Gillette, a former VP of programming for CBS who had just arrived from New York with his glamorous American wife. The assistant controller, Lloyd Williams, had come from the BBC. During the interview, one looked at the other and said, “well we have to start hiring some young people some time, we might as well start with him”. John got hired on £10.00 a week: “when it got going I earned quite a lot, but at the start it was small because they weren’t going to be on air for almost another year”.

 

From Film to Television and the Start of TVC

ePub

 

TVC and George Dunning

TV Cartoons had a better start than most new companies because it could piggyback off the old UPA (United Productions of America), the Disney breakaway group that made numerous programmes, including the famous myopic, Mr Magoo. The London studio had been set up to take advantage of the new commercial TV, but closed probably due to financial problems of its American parent. Nonetheless the English studio was successful and had all the key elements already in situ to continue, plus the energy and determination of its former studio director George Dunning to carry on. George was a Canadian so he didn’t need a work permit, and was happy to have found a business manager to keep the new venture afloat. Another Canadian, Richard Williams (Roger Rabbit) was also in house.

The company found the backers needed to continue mainly as before, but now with John Coates. A live action commercial company, TV Advertising, TVA, bought 30 per cent, with 70 per cent held by three private individuals, one being a partner in the insurance company, Sedgewick Collins. The other was a city gent, and the third was John’s former Rediffusion colleague, Eric Major.

 

TVC and The Beatles

ePub

 

P rior to The Beatles, TVC had no particular fame outside of industry circles. George Dunning’s film The Flying Man won the prestigious Grand Prix at the Annecy Animation Festival in 1962, which had garnered creative acclaim, but not the kind of reputation that would of swung The Beatles series contract their way. Nevertheless, some years later, media frenzy ensued when news leaked out that TVC were to animate The Beatles. That thrust the studio into the spotlight; Beatles mania was in full swing, and England swung with it. The year was 1964 and Harold Wilson was at the helm of Labour Government after over 13 years of Conservative administrations.

It was curious that such a quintessentially English band, four working class Liverpool lads, came to be animated by a UK company paid for with American money. At the time, King Features Syndicate, a division of Hearst Newspapers, handled many famous strip cartoons and animated lots of their well-loved characters. The animation division went through the producer Al Brodax, who had been so wowed with the Fab Four’s Shea Stadium performance he had come to England to get the rights to animate them. The Beatles were hesitant about this, but agreed to a TV series on manager Brian Epstein’s say so. Brodax was keen to make the show in England because it would be cheaper than using an American studio and he thought a British studio would give it the right flavour. He approached various outfits before settling on TVC, which made the series for three years.

 

The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine

ePub

 

Yellow Submarine epitomized the 60s flower power, free love and hippie ideals. Heinz Edelmann’s designs woven into the psychedelic tale of good versus bad lightened the collective psyche and contributed to the zeitgeist of the time. A society straitjacketed since the war and the ’50s was liberalised with ‘the pill’ and sexual freedom that went with it. A freeing of attitude that filtered through every aspect of society but particularly manifest in clothing and music. John Coates got swept along with the tide: “girls’ mini skirts were so short, they were like belts”, he says. Yellow Submarine may have bought him kudos from his peers, but on a personal level, it led to the breakdown of his marriage to Bettina, and, professionally, saw TVC nosedive perilously close to bankruptcy. Yet for all that, he has no regrets being involved in something with such a ready-made buzz. It didn’t come much cooler than this!

The success of The Beatles’ series had inspired Al Brodax to make a feature film, but his vision stopped at an extended version of the TV show, which George and John wouldn’t countenance. If they were going to make a film at all, it had to be something far superior, as they explained to him in no uncertain terms.

 

Endings and Beginnings …

ePub

 

With Yellow Submarine wrapped up and delivered and the worst of the financial problems solved, John was falling more in love with Chris, spending increasing amounts of time with her, finding excuses to get home late, and fulfilling all the marriage break-up clichés … .

The affair had started when John was working insane hours on the film as well as deal with the stress of TVC’s near bankruptcy. All this took a toll and the normal calm and unflappable John had resorted to taking sleeping pills for the first time in his life. Yellow Submarine was nearly at the end of production and most of the main team was located at TVC’s new premises in Soho square. Chris, together with another girl, Annie, had painted on Lucy in the sky with diamonds and were two of the few people left at TVC’s old offices … John would go up on Sundays to talk to the crew, with the ulterior motive of chatting up Chris who he was already falling for. One Sunday, Annie was unwell so Chris was on her own … John kissed her … It was April 1968.

 

Post George – A New Era …

ePub

 

John closed his office door when George died. Something was on his mind. “Only if I was firing somebody was the door closed so the whole studio couldn’t hear. I wondered if ‘business’ would phone again because I’d always thought George was the standard bearer. Fortunately, life went on, agencies phoned …”.

This was a period where the company was in balance. George’s wife Faye inherited George’s 51 per cent, but the week before George died she told John she had terminal cancer. She died in August. Chris and John looked after her, because she refused to go into hospital and would not be treated. There was a long and complicated procedure about John acquiring the shares, which he did, but that was a period where he didn’t know if TVC would survive. Everybody was waiting to find out if the company would live on and if it did whom John would pick to be the creative head of the studio. Jimmy Murakami and Jack Stokes and other directors were all hoping, waiting for the nod, but it never came. John had other ideas. At the time, TVC wasn’t very flush and the complications of getting the shares and making the company into something secure, gave him the confidence that he didn’t have to replace George; he could just hire a director for the job in the same way that producers of live action did. He needed an art director but not a whole crew of people.

 

The Snowman: The First Snow

ePub

 

Undoubtedly, it was The Snowman that confirmed John as a producer of note, establishing him as one of the most respected names in animation. For a half hour film, wordless except for the song ‘Walking in the Air’, The Snowman has done staggeringly well and continues as a global best seller, enthralling new generations of children and families year on year. Still screened every Christmas on the UK’s Channel 4, it continues to charm audiences off screen with its stage show, with plans for The Snowman on Ice and rumours of a full-length CGI feature.

The film tells the story of James, a young boy who builds a snowman that comes to life, marking the start of a fantastical adventure. James shows his new friend his house and takes him on a motorbike ride, and in exchange, the snowman takes him to a Snowman Ball and to meet Santa Claus. This unique camaraderie cannot last, though, and inevitably the snowman melts, leaving James with just a scarf as a memento of their very special day.

 

Post Snowman

ePub

 

With the success of The Snowman, Channel 4 clamoured for a sequel, and John and Raymond were adamant that was not going to happen, as Raymond said, “he melted!”. John’s view hasn’t changed since then: “You can’t repeat The Snowman and do it better and if you try, you will fall flat on your face.” Though he did give an answer to Channel 4’s demands for a sequel to The Snowman, namely The Bear.

The success of The Snowman had taken everyone by surprise, John especially. The big change for him as a consequence was after years of producing for other people suddenly he owned the rights, or at least a good share of them. “It’s made me richer and able to relax because there’s always a steady income”, he admits. On a more general level, he had proved that the half hour special could be commercially successful, and that producers didn’t always need to make series. They could indeed make a one off piece.

There were other Snowman spin-offs for John. Suddenly, after the rave reviews and general acknowledgement within the industry, everyone wanted him to produce their shows, but John had waited so long to make his own films, he wasn’t about to change tack now; the BBC/EBU Animals of Farthing Wood was just one of many job offers he turned down.

 

When the Wind Blows

ePub

 

The same year The Snowman was released, 1982, England went to war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands. John didn’t make a film as a comment on that war, but he did later get the opportunity to comment on nuclear war with a film based on Raymond Briggs’ book, When the Wind Blows. He had been anti-nuclear war since his army days and the devastating attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, so the film was a chance to show something of the horror of nuclear war, vividly depicting its consequences for ordinary folk.

John and Raymond had forged a strong bond during production of The Snowman, so it was not surprising the two collaborated again when there was opportunity. When the Wind Blows is an altogether darker film depicting what happens to people following government guidelines in the event of nuclear war. Written in the cold war era, when there was talk aplenty of the US and the red button, it is the darkest and most sombre of Raymond’s books. At first glance, the film might seem an unusual choice for a company who had just started to make its reputation in ‘family films’. Yet TVC had previously gone to the edge with the psychedelic odyssey Yellow Submarine, and had refused to opt for a safe ending with The Snowman – he was always going to melt!

 

Life Matters, Becoming a Grandpa and Holidaying in Kenya

ePub

 

The year When the Wind Blows won its coveted awards, the wind blew literally, the famous hurricane of 1987, and also metaphorically when there was a massive stock market crash: Black Monday, where the values of stocks plummeted. Despite its growing success, TVC was privately owned and didn’t suffer any fall out from this financial disaster, though Black Monday’s effects were to ricochet through the UK economy, eventually bringing recession.

For the time being, though, John was in a good position after the success of his first two films. He could have played it safe after The Snowman and picked a second film as gentle as his first, but When the Wind Blows as a follow through paid dividends for him and TVC. Having avoided typecasting with the latter, he was rapidly earning an industry reputation as a producer who delivered the goods and was not afraid to take risks. After so long wanting to make his own films and being unable to, now on a roll, he was keen to get on with the next one; but he could afford to be picky and rather than do the first thing offered to him, chose to wait a while. At the same time, he was in demand to speak about The Snowman and attended various festivals and events. With producers and broadcasters vying for him to produce their projects, he had a full diary and was lauded wherever he went.

 

Granpa

ePub

 

S ome time later, John was sitting at his desk in the TVC offices in Charlotte Street when the phone rang. It was Tom Maschler, then the boss at Jonathan Cape, asking him to come view a book he was sure had the makings of an amazing film. He asked John if he could come over straight away, and as it was a nice sunny morning and the publisher was in Bedford Square, just ten minutes away, John said he would. When he got there, Tom Maschler had all the original artwork (by John Burningham) laid out on the carpet so John got on his knees to look at it closely. He liked what he saw but as he got near the end of looking at the pictures said, “I can see something awful is going to happen …” (meaning that Granpa is going to die). That didn’t put him off; the snowman had melted, after all. In fact, the meeting went better than well and a deal was agreed there and then. John Burningham was happy that publisher and producer made a deal so easily – unlikely to happen today, he says, with everything run by committee.

 

The Seychelles …

ePub

 

As ever, with another film in the can, John took a bit of time out to travel, except this time it was necessity as well as pleasure. Professionally, things were going well for him; they could have hardly been going better – The Snowman was still going strong and every film John had made since further added to his reputation as producer of excellence. If he didn’t have the Midas touch, he was darn close: the money was coming in, everything was going swimmingly … and then Chris got sick.

She was diagnosed with ME, back then hardly heard of, and started to deteriorate pretty quick, soon becoming too weak to ride her horse. Worried sick, John sent her to The Priory for consultation and hopefully a cure. She had some treatment, which John thought fairly feeble, but she seemed to steady up after it. Afterwards, the doctor prescribed a lovely long holiday, a minimum of three weeks. Luckily, money wasn’t an issue, so he followed a friend’s advice to try the Seychelles, via a posh travel company that recommended a wonderful hotel with a room right by the seashore. John booked it for a week.

 

Father Christmas – 1991

ePub

 

England was just heading into recession when John started on his next film, Father Christmas, but TVC wouldn’t suffer from the downturn just yet, even though a lot of manufacturing based industries were really suffering. Many in the financial services sector were also fearful of losing their jobs and probably many in the media industry, but John had another film to make and could, at least for the time being, ride the wave.

After the sadness in The Snowman and Granpa, and the gloom of When the Wind Blows, Father Christmas was altogether a lighter project, especially welcome with all the dark recession talk at the time. The film was based on combining two of Raymond’s books: Father Christmas (1973) and Father Christmas Goes on Holiday (1975), and there was much joy when John’s daughter had a production of her own – John became a grandfather for the second time when Nicola gave birth to her daughter Clio in the summer of 1991.

 

Recession

ePub

 

By the end of filming Father Christmas, the country had plunged into recession. It was the early 1990s and the situation was dire for TVC as it was for other small production companies. There would be no exotic holiday this time, far from it. Fortunately, even in the grip of a downturn, the reliable income from The Snowman meant that TVC fared better than most Indies; many had to combine forces to survive the tough times. John saw the importance, especially at this time, in not giving into stress and sought freedom from executive pressure by indulging his love of riding on the grounds near where he lived. The recession limped on for some time and John’s somewhat Zen approach to life, having been through hard times before, notably with the Yellow Submarine, meant he was able to keep everything together.

Eventually, things took a turn for the better: TVC landed a commission for Peter Rabbit and Friends, six x ½ hours, and then the Wind in Willows 75 minute feature, more than enough to keep it afloat.

 

Load more


Details

Print Book
E-Books
Chapters

Format name
ePub
Encrypted
No
Sku
B000000035976
Isbn
9780861969036
File size
8.55 MB
Printing
Allowed
Copying
Allowed
Read aloud
Allowed
Format name
ePub
Encrypted
No
Printing
Allowed
Copying
Allowed
Read aloud
Allowed
Sku
In metadata
Isbn
In metadata
File size
In metadata