5-minute interview with Rachel Whibley, Carrot Productions: Bringing The Snowman to life

The Snowman at Chester Cathedral

The Snowman at Chester Cathedral - Credit: Archant

This year sees the 40th anniversary of the publication of Raymond Briggs’ original picture book The Snowman. With three performances of the animated film – with live orchestra – coming to Gloucester Cathedral next month, we thought we’d catch up with Rachel Whibley, managing director of Carrot Productions (and occasional snowman), to find out more...

What do you think is the enduring appeal of The Snowman, Rachel?

In the 40 years since The Snowman was first shown, a generation has grown up watching the film together as a family, cherishing the powerful feelings of joy, fun, happiness and friendship it evokes at such an emotional time of year. The tradition has then endured for many as they have had their own children, as they seek to recreate the same feelings and memories.

Can you remember how you felt the first time you saw the animation?

I certainly can! I was a young child watching it with my parents on Christmas Eve, full of excitement and anticipation. I remember being struck by how immersed we all were in the animation, and an awareness of how the story was implicit – despite the lack of dialogue - thanks to the stunning music and drawings.

What was the inspiration behind staging the live shows with a full orchestra?

As a professional musician, I performed it live to film whilst living and working in Dublin many years ago. I vowed to one day stage it in Glossop, Derbyshire, my adopted town since 1999. Drawing on friends from local orchestras, we performed in a local church and school, to such great acclaim and outpouring of emotion, it was soon evident that we had to replicate it for people elsewhere. So here we are, 146 performances later, playing to over 33,000 people each December, including in some of the most stunning cathedrals in the UK.

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How do you select musicians for the orchestra...as well as that all-important vocal soloist role?

We’re in such a fortunate position for choosing the musicians, as we have access to some of the best players in the UK, handpicked from orchestras including the Hallé, BBC Philharmonic, BBC Concert, BBC Symphony and BBC Scottish. Our musicians, for whom virtuosity is a given, are also chosen for the way in which they interact and bring the joy of classical music to a whole new audience.

Uniquely, we audition children local to each area we are performing in to sing the evocative Walking in the Air solo alongside the orchestra. This is often a seminal event for them, as they are immersed within the orchestra family for the day, resulting in many vowing afterwards to become professional musicians. I am at every single performance, and must admit to shedding a tear as each child starts to sing, as I realise what an important moment it is for them. A quick look around the audience also shows me that I’m joined by hundreds of others doing exactly the same.

Can you tell me more about the supporting film, The Bear and the Piano?

Alongside the showing of The Snowman every programme also includes a toe-tapping overture, a light-hearted Festive Guide to the Orchestra and a visit from our very own conducting Snowman. Additionally, each year we commission new works to perform alongside The Snowman, forging collaborations between artists. We have commissioned an animated film to accompany The Nutcracker Suite, a brand new adaptation of Cinderella for orchestra, narrator and soloist, and most recently an entirely original work, A Donkey’s Tale. Last year’s commission - and the one featured in the Gloucester Cathedral performances - was an animation of the award-winning book, The Bear and the Piano, by David Litchfield. With an enchanting 15-minute score to accompany, and the narration recorded by Joanna Lumley, it was an instant hit with all ages. In fact, you could even say that it’s absolutely fabulous!

I understand you’ve been known to dress up as a snowman for the odd performance...

Ha ha – it’s certainly over 100 times now! A very special moment in the performance for all ages is when the orchestra plays The Snowman Waltz and the Snowman himself comes out into the audience to dance down the aisles and conduct the orchestra. It’s such fun! Although nobody can see my face, I can guarantee that I’m beaming from ear to ear; it’s impossible not to. Perhaps my favourite moment in this role was when we’ve performed at Blackpool Tower Ballroom, and I waltzed in the same spot as the stars of Strictly. Heaven!

What’s next for Carrot Productions?

Not content with just bringing the The Snowman live to families, we are launching an exciting and exclusive new venture with Aardman Productions to stage the first ever live orchestral performances of Wallace and Gromit’s The Wrong Trousers next spring. Families can join everyone’s favourite dynamic duo as Wallace prepares to perform his musical masterpiece My Concerto in Ee Lad with help from his faithful canine companion Gromit... what could possibly go wrong?! This interactive experience will feature specially created animations as well as live orchestral accompaniment and escapades from the orchestra and presenter Matthew Sharp. Followed by a screening of the Academy Award winning ‘The Wrong Trousers’ with the soundtrack performed by the orchestra live on stage, it’s set to be a grand day out for the whole family.

There are three performances of The Snowman at Gloucester Cathedral on Friday, December 14: 1pm, 3pm & 7pm. Tickets are available from the box office on 0344 8000 410 or via carrotproductions.com/the-snowman.