You wait decades for a new Terry Pratchett screen adaptation and then you get two in the same year. But while BBC America’s The Watch was, to put it generously, rather flawed and compromised, Christmas will bring us a far more faithful and completely charming distillation of Pratchett’s vision.
Terry Pratchett’s The Abominable Snow Baby is the latest in a long line of prestige Christmas Day animations commissioned by Channel 4, following last year’s lovely Quentin Blake’s The Clown and going right back to 1982 and The Snowman. It’s a gorgeous piece of work, delightfully silly, satisfyingly British and beautifully animated, the tone of the humour and the visual style, like a classic Beano comic strip come to life.
Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of the source material. Snow Baby adapts a short story written, not by the award-winning Professor Sir Terry Pratchett, OBE, at one time the best-selling living author in the English language, and the creator of the (flat) world-conquering Discworld series … but by a twenty-year-old trainee journalist working on a local paper.
In 1965, aged just seventeen, Pratchett dropped out of school to begin an apprenticeship at the Bucks Free Press, the local weekly which served his particular corner of south Buckinghamshire. Almost immediately he was given one of the least popular jobs on the paper – writing the ‘Children’s Circle’ column, under the pseudonym ‘Uncle Jim’. The column consisted of a list of readers’ birthdays and a short bedtime story, serialised over several weeks. Prior to Pratchett’s time the stories had focussed on the fairly insipid sub-Beatrix Potter adventures of characters called things like ‘Boo Boo Bunny’, ‘Frances Frog’ and ‘Peter Piper the Stoat’. The young Pratchett was having none of that. He already had aspirations to be an author and had two published short stories under his belt, printed in the prestigious sci-fi magazines Science Fantasy and New Worlds.
On November 8, 1965 ‘Boo Boo Bunny’ was set aside and the new ‘Uncle Jim’ began his first serial, an idea Terry had been working on since he was fifteen – a fantasy tale about microscopic tribes who lived in the dust and hairs of a carpet, called ‘Tales of the Carpet People’. It was immediately darker and more imaginative than anything the paper had previously offered its younger readers. Terry would go on to write dozens of stories for the paper between 1965 and 1973, when he finally moved on. The stories quickly developed an irreverent and enjoyably silly tone, full of ridiculous imagery and daft wordplay influenced by Spike Milligan and The Goons, Punch Magazine and his own fizzing imagination. There’s shades of Roald Dahl in there too, whom Terry interviewed for the paper in 1968. Many of the ideas, names and phrases that would appear in later Pratchett novels have their origins in the ‘Children’s Circle’ tales, and two stories, ‘Tales of the Carpet People’ and ‘Rincemangle, the Gnome of Even Moor’ would eventually be expanded into full novels, The Carpet People and Truckers.
“They were written by the same Terry but a different Terry because he was he was still learning,” says Rob Wilkins, Pratchett’s one-time PA and now one of the owner-operators of his estate (“Terry Pratchett’s representative on Earth” is how Neil Gaiman puts it), “the voice in them is slightly different; it’s not quite the Terry that we know. He was trying things out on the page. It’s easier now – we can be walking to the bus and banging out a few hundred words on our phones, but in those days it was sitting down, winding the paper into the typewriter … ‘right ,let’s see if this one flys’. You’ve seen the recent footage of Paul McCartney sitting there with the guitar in front of George and Ringo and composing ‘Get Back’? I think it’s exactly the same.”
Snow Baby is based on a story printed across four weeks starting in December 1968, and is a textbook example, full of silly turns of phrase, puns and bold, quickly sketched but memorable characters like Granny, voiced here – rather perfectly – by Julie Walters. You can read the original story online for free.
The ‘Children’s Circle’ stories were all-but forgotten about as Pratchett concentrated on his career as a novelist (he wrote surprisingly few short stories once his career got going, saying often that they ‘cost me blood’), languishing in unread back-issues of a local paper, hidden under a pseudonym. Newspaper content, by its very nature, is completely ephemeral – Terry’s early stories had become tomorrow’s fish and chip wrappers. It was Pratchett’s agent Colin Smythe, who had met Terry in ’68 and remembered them well, that dug them out again in the early 2010s. Pratchett’s failing health meant he was able to write less and less – he had been diagnosed with early-onset Altzheimer’s in 2008, and would eventually succumb to it in 2015 – devastating for a man used to publishing at least two novels a year. In 1990 he had published five. It was Smythe who suggested a collection of those early stories could plug the gap. Pratchett was surprised at how well they’d stood up.
“I sat on the stairs reading a few of them out to him” says Wilkins, “and he said ‘these are actually bloody good … he wasn’t that bad, was he?’, talking about his younger self”. The stories were given the “lightest of polishes” by their author and collected in a series of anthologies, Dragons At Crumbling Castle, The Witches Vacuum Cleaner, Father Christmas’s Fake Beard and The Time-Travelling Caveman, published between 2014 and 2020, illustrated in a scrappy Quentin Blake style by artist Mark Beech and credited to ‘The Fantastically Funny Terry Pratchett’. Though they don’t quite carry the weight and sophistication of his later writing, the stories stand up genuinely well – delightful little pearls that work just as much for the children of 2021 as they did for those of the late sixties.
Still, those stories have always been – appropriately enough given Pratchett’s writing style – a footnote in his career. Millions of dollars have been thrown around over the years as the rights to Terry’s major works are optioned for the big and small screens. A second season of Amazon’s Good Omens, Pratchett’s collaboration with Neil Gaiman, is currently filming, an animated feature based on 2001’s The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents with a starry cast headed by Hugh Laurie and Emelia Clarke is headed to cinemas in 2022, while a huge deal to faithfully adapt the Discworld series was announced by Narrativia, the Pratchett estate’s production company, last year, and of course BBC America’s The Watch finally emerged in 2021 having been in the works for nearly a decade. Disney once nearly adapted Mort, while Danny Boyle was going to do Truckers with Dreamworks. Those humble short stories haven’t even been a part of the conversation. Until now.
“The last home I expected them to ever find would be on Christmas Day” says Wilkins, “I mean that in a good way, it’s just it was completely unexpected. Terry always wanted the Doctor Who slot on the telly. That’s the one thing that he wanted – seven-thirty on a Saturday night, sitting down with your mum and dad having fish and chips and angel delight for pudding, and I think we’ve given him better than that. Christmas Day, seven-thirty Channel 4; yes please.”
Once you think about it, of course, Pratchett at Christmas makes sense. ‘Abominable Snow Baby’ and other ‘Children’s Circle’ stories are perfect for Christmas Day – short, accessible, light of heart and gently funny, with the added bonus of one of the country’s most popular ever novelists’ names attached to help sell the whole thing. It’s amazing it hasn’t been done before.
Which does, of course, raise an obvious and tantalizing possibility. There are dozens and dozens of Pratchett children’s stories, and Christmas comes around every year. For over twenty years a new Pratchett novel would appear in shops every Autumn, ready to be wrapped and placed under the trees of fans across the world. Could the Terry-at-Christmas tradition move from the page to the screen?
“Let’s absolutely establish there is no there is no grand plan” laughs Wilkins, “But yes please! Absolutely, yes please! We’re using Terry as our point of reference, you know – he wrote one book and it went rather well, so he wrote another one, and then, ‘yeah better do another one after that’ and and on it goes. It’s very much like that here. If that could happen, I would love it, but there is no ginormous plan going ahead where Channel 4 have commissioned one for the next fifty-seven years … which I think they should. The stories in Father Christmas’s Fake Beard alone could keep it going for years.”
Short stories aside, Narrativa, of course, does have a ‘grand plan’ for Pratchett on screen, and maybe Terry will one day get his much-desired Doctor Who slot, complete with fish and chips and angel delight. In the meantime, he’ll have to make do with the spot traditionally given to The Snowman, a cheese board and left-over turkey. One would imagine he’d be pretty happy with that.
The Abominable Snowbaby is on Channel 4, at 7.30pm on Christmas Day.
Marc Burrows is the author of The Magic of Terry Pratchett, the first full biography of the late author.
Buy it directly from him here https://www.askmeaboutterrypratchett.com/