Peter Auty remembers singing Walking In The Air, 40 years on

Four decades might have passed since Peter Auty was invited to audition to record a song for a short animated film then in the works for the fledgling Channel 4, but he remembers it well.

Then 13 years old, Auty was one of four choirboys from St Paul’s Cathedral asked to sing Walking In The Air, written by the composer Howard Blake for a television adaptation of the Raymond Briggs children’s story The Snowman.

“I was in the common room and the choirmaster came in and pointed at a few boys – ‘You, you, you and you come down to the hall and sing a song for this guy’,” recalls the now 53-year-old. “That guy happened to be Howard Blake, the composer. He was with a soprano friend of his.

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“He actually only told me about five years ago how they had agreed on a signal, having heard all four, that they would put up how many fingers to represent which boy had sung best. I happened to have sung first and he put one finger up and so did the soprano so that’s how I got the job.”

Both the song and the film from which it sprang would subsequently imprint themselves in the national psyche, yet at the time, in 1982, it seemed a modest project for a TV channel that was in its infancy.

Auty, who was born in Richmond, North Yorkshire and has gone to a successful career as an operatic tenor, admits Briggs’s tale had not even “crossed (his) radar” in the four years since it had been published, in 1978. “In fact I think we were all sketchy about what the song was going to be for, it was some sort of cartoon,” he remembers. “We didn’t know how big this thing was going to be. It was a good thing, really. It probably made me sing better at the audition.”

Blake recorded the music beforehand with the Sinfonia of London at CTS Studios in London, with Auty adding his vocal separately. “Howard was in the engineer’s room, they were listening through there; I was just on my own in the studio watching the cartoon which wasn’t fully coloured at the time as I remember,” he says. “I didn’t actually watch all of it, I might have watched some of the motorcycle ride and then the Snowman goes into the freezer because his legs are melting then he sees a packet of peas with a representation of the Arctic on so he has the idea of flying off there. That was as much as I saw at the time.

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“But I did do it twice...I went back the next week to do it again because they said they’d rubbed it off. I’m not sure about that, maybe they just weren’t happy with the recording and didn’t want to make me feel bad; I can’t imagine a professional recording studio rubs off a whole session.”

Peter Auty sang Walking In The Air in the film The Snowman. Picture: Snowman Enterprises Ltd.Peter Auty sang Walking In The Air in the film The Snowman. Picture: Snowman Enterprises Ltd.
Peter Auty sang Walking In The Air in the film The Snowman. Picture: Snowman Enterprises Ltd.

By that point Auty was no novice recording artist, so he says he had a few nerves. Prior to that he had sung on church recordings with the St Paul Cathedral Choir School as well as in the ‘This is the age of the train’ commercial for a British Rail. “We’d already done The Frog Chorus with Paul McCartney,” he adds, “and I covered a song by The Police called Walking On The Moon, which was a hit in the late 70s, for an album called Arrested, but that never came to anything.”

Shortly after the film came out, Auty met Briggs at a concert at the Barbican in London, which Blake conducted. “Raymond Briggs came to that, and Bernard Cribbins was narrating,” he recalls, adding: “We were signing autographs together, so I’ve got a signed version of the song with Raymond Briggs’s autograph and Bernard Cribbins’s autograph, and Howard’s and mine, of course.”

Unfortunately it took 20 years for Auty to be properly credited for his vocal in the film. In the meantime, Blake re-recorded Walking In The Air with Aled Jones for a Toys R Us advert which went on to be a top five hit and remains the better-known version in popular consciousness. Auty puts the fact that he missed out on the re-recording as “some sort of miscommunication” and bears no grudge over the original omission of a credit. “I don’t know why, it just seemed to be water off a duck’s back,” he says. “It never got to me as much as other people, as much as my family, for instance.”

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While The Snowman has gone to become essential festive viewing in many households, he says that is “not particularly” the case in his. “I don’t watch it religiously every year, if I happen to turn the television on and it happens to be on, I’ll watch it nostalgically,” he says. “I know the film so well now so I must have seen it a few times and I know the music so well, having performed it quite a few times. I don’t mind watching again, but you know, you can only watch It’s a Wonderful Life so many times.”

Hailing from a musical family stood Auty in good stead for a career in music. He says: “My mum was a soprano, she sang sing solos at school, my dad could hold a tune as well, his aunts and uncles all sang in concerts at Thornhill church in Dewsbury, my great uncle was quite a well-known crooner tenor in the region in the 30s. My sister played the cello to a reasonable degree, my brother could hold a tune and still can.”

Educated at grammar school in Reading after St Paul’s, he “refound” his love of singing while a student in Bristol. “I sang services at Bristol Cathedral, then I went on to York Minster to sing as a songman,” he says. After training at the Royal Scottish Academy and the National Opera Studio, he sang at Covent Garden for three years as a house principal – “It was listening to the best singers, I was covering Roberto Alagna,” he recalls – before going to on forge a successful career of his own with companies such as Opera North, English National Opera and Scottish National Opera. He says his favourite roles have been in “the double bill” of Cavallera Rusticana and y Pagliaci. “Nowadays more y Pagliaci because Callera Rusticana is a young man whereas the clown in y Pagliaci is slightly older, he’s forties or fifties, he’s married to a younger woman, that sort of suits nowadays more, I love singing y Pagliaci, it’s such a wonderful role and such a great aria.”

One of his career highlights came at the BBC Proms in 2011. “It was the largest piece with so many forces involved,” he says. “It was the Gothic Symphony by Havergal Brian, also known as The Symphony for 1,000 Voices and literally there are 1,000 voices, six different choirs each with their own brass section and the main orchestra as well, and you start singing and you sound like a minnow. After all the cacophony of everybody singing when you sing your solo you just sound so small within those 1,000 voices. It was very frightening, actually, because musically it’s quite difficult.”

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Currently performing in opera in the German city of Bonn, Auty’s next project will be with Scottish Opera. “We’re doing a couple of concerts in Edinburgh and Glasgow, doing the Verdi collection, bits and bobs from Verdi operas that I’m singing​​​​​​​ for them,” he says.

The documentary The Snowman: The Film That Changed Christmas is available to watch now on All4.

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