Mike O'Donnell

Mike O'Donnell

Christopher Signore's interview with

Mike O'Donnell

 

During the course of my Music Petition to release Mike O’Donnell and Junior Campbell’s classic themes to CD, I was hoping to get in touch with the pair to help give it a proper boost. Up until now, both of them were very scarce to find until Troublesome Truck lent an extremely helpful hand in getting in touch with Mike O’Donnell, where TT was able to get some friendly feedback on his time with Thomas.

 

Replied on 5th July, 2007

 

We got involved with Thomas through a mutual friend who knew the series was about to be made and gave us Britt Allcroft's number, she briefed us on the type of theme she was looking for and we submitted a couple of ideas. One became the Thomas theme and the other was later used as Toby's theme. There was some pretty stiff competition to get the series music but thankfully Britt and the director David Mitton chose us, and that was the beginning of a long and happy working relationship.

 

Obviously the music is one of the last things in the creative chain, and consequently there was always a strict deadline to meet and although we treated each episode like an individual entity and spent as much time as possible creating the soundtrack it was always an intensive workload to get the series finished on time - hard work but very enjoyable, and ultimately very satisfying.

 

You obviously picked up on the fact that we wrote different themes for each engine and characters, we liked the idea of giving all the "stars" of the show their own musical identity. Junior and I believed it didn't matter how old the audience was they would always appreciate good music, and we tried our very best to deliver that.   

As Thomas became more successful the need for more episodes became necessary and during the twenty years we were involved with Thomas we composed the music for seven series and wrote and produced thirty one songs. There appears to be a lot of interest for Thomas on you tube and my space - it's great fun to see what people are doing on these sites with the original Thomas theme.

 

Around 1988 David Mitton and his partner Bob Cardonna devised a new series called TUGS. As we had been working with David on Thomas he asked us to compose the music for TUGS. Unfortunately only one series was made.

 

Full of confidence and excitement, I was able to follow up on a reply, giving him a brief interview with further questions.

Replied on 20th July, 2007.


When writing the music for Thomas, what were your inspirations for the incidental music and/or character themes? Plenty of Thomas fans I know say that Oliver’s Series 3 Theme is very reminiscent of "The Great Escape"!

We just took inspiration from the films, in fact all the characters themes had a number of different versions. In the episode you mentioned the film did remind us of "The Great Escape" so we adapted Oliver's theme to reflect this, I remember we were particularly fond of that sequence.

Which type of synthesisers did you use for both Thomas and TUGS? I’m interested as you update them for every new Thomas Series, which make the music sound better than the last

Series 1 and 2 were done using a Roland Jupiter 6 synth. We then added a Prophet 2000 sampler as well. After this we used an EMU Proteus 2 orchestral and a Proteus Ultra and then eventually added a Proteus 2000 to the line up. Each module had its good sounds and bad ones but between them we managed to get the sounds we wanted.

What was your favourite Series to compose? Many fans have favoured Series 2 whilst others, including myself, are quite drawn to the dramatic and exciting themes throughout Series 5. Also, do you or Junior Campbell have any themes that you personally enjoyed making?

We enjoyed making all of them but as the films and stories got more dramatic, and the music technology got more advanced, it gave us more scope to develop the music so each new series sounded bigger and better than the previous.

What were your thoughts on creating the music for TUGS? Their music was clearly far different from Thomas’ but it still gave a huge depth to all 13 episodes that were made. Was that any better or just as enjoyable as composing for Thomas?

TUGS was a completely different feel for us, it was just as enjoyable as Thomas but with a totally different musical approach, the episodes were longer so it gave us the chance to develop the score. Bob and David wanted a big theme to reflect the ocean and the big harbour which I think worked really well, shame there wasn't another series.

Where did the idea of writing the Thomas Songs come from? They’ve no doubt been extremely popular to fans old and new, especially as most of them have made use of the character/incidental themes. Which has been your favourite also?

Britt Allcroft thought of the song idea, and she gave us the initial brief for how she wanted the songs to be. We always liked the idea of the characters having their own themes and tying the songs in with this, seemed to be the right approach. No real favourites - they each have their own identity and I think they all stand up in their own right, we are both very proud of them.

Did you and Junior also make the music for the Thomas PC Games (The Great Festival, Trouble On the Tracks, etc)?
We weren't involved in the production of any of the pc games although the company had the rights to use our music if they wanted to. We never scored themes specifically for the pc games. I presume these were all done "in house" at the video game company.  

Between Series 1 - 3, the engines' whistles/horns were played by music notes. How did you and Junior do it, and with what?
We did "create" some of the whistles for the engines at the very beginning on the Jupiter 6 using a kind of flute sound. The sfx team tried real whistle sounds but they were too big so we devised some. At that time the budgets were very tight and we were just happy to help out in any way we could. It was in everyone's interest to get the show sounding right.
The Jupiter 6 went years ago, I still have the Proteus 2xr which most of the work was done on.
 
Were there any character/incidental themes that you and Junior wanted to make but didn't get to, or were there any themes that have been made but not used?
All our themes were used right up to series 7, although I believe HIT decided to re-score series 6 & 7 to fit the new format, which effectively wiped out the themes we wrote for those episodes. The company have all the archive tapes containing all our compositions.

If you had the chance to continue composing songs for Thomas, are there any specific themes you and Junior would like to have made into an actual song?
I would have liked to have written songs round all the original themes - there was lots of scope for developing a huge song catalogue, a missed opportunity I fear.

Regarding as such, did you or Junior ever name the various music cues / ambience themes you created, if you can remember any? The wondrous intro music to “Better Late than Never” has simply been known as the “Repairs” theme by fans.
The opening theme from Better Late Than Never was labelled "The Viaduct Theme", and if I remember was used in a few episodes. I don't think it would have made a good song though, purely incidental. We did have names for some of the incidental pieces but I don't recall what they all were - one I do remember was the "Busy station Theme" - not very originally titled but we knew what we  meant, it's quite a while ago now and there were so many pieces of music. 

Remembering the songs you created for Thomas, there were quite a few that caught many a listener’s ear. Where most of your library consisted of child choirs, there are a few that also made use of adult vocals, too (Boo Boo, Choo Choo, Gone Fishing, There Once Was An Engine Who Ran Away, Salty)...
All the songs that featured male vocals were sung by Junior. I and some friends joined in on the male choir parts if required - all great fun. 

Who was responsible for the high-pitched singing of the trucks in "Pop Goes the Diesel" and "Toad Stands By"? Rumour has it that Ringo Starr may have been involved, but I think otherwise...
Ah ! the famous trucks. You're right it wasn't Ringo, in fact it was us and, if I recall mainly Junior.  We also did the giggling - it was treated as part of the music score. The slowed down version does sound spooky, that's because the track was made up by recording the laughing at normal speed then overdubbing slightly slower then slightly faster, this gave us a wide range of voice pitches, and then this was all mixed together at a much higher speed to give the "Pinky and Perky" effect. 

The end of the TUGS episode "Bigg Freeze" was sung out by an unknown female singer. Do you remember who was involved for that? And going by the lyrics included, was there more to accompany it - perhaps an unheard, extended version of the TUGS theme?
I haven’t seen that episode since we worked on it. When you said there was a female vocal, I thought you had cracked up but when I heard it, it all came back to me.  At the time there was some talk about maybe releasing a single of the theme music so we got a singer in named Sue from Sue and Sunny fame ( great backing vocalists from the ‘60’s remember Joe Cocker – “with a little help from my friends” – that was Sue and Sunny -
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sue_and_Sunny ) to sing a version of the main theme. Unfortunately as the series never really took off all the plans for spin offs faded into oblivion. I have no idea if the track still exists or even if there was a finished 3 minute version – probably not as it was never taken to a master stage, we just thought that version fitted well given the storyline.

How did you and Junior come up with the main theme for TUGS - sax and all? Did you use the same keyboard used for Thomas?
The Tugs theme was derived from an idea Junior had – we played around with it in the studio and there it was. It was all very eighties and the sax was a must. That was played by a good friend of ours, Pete Zorn (not Zorran), a great session player of the time.  There were no new instruments, as I recall it was the same kit we used for Thomas.

Do you remember if you ever composed music for the "Down The Mine" pilot episode? Possibly with the theme tune that would late become Toby's signature theme?
What became Toby’s theme was included in the original tape of demos we submitted to Britt as a possible Thomas main theme but after it was decided to use the one we all know rather than waste the music we adapted it slightly and used it for Toby. I can’t remember if Toby featured in Down the Mine but if he did we would have used that piece of music for him.

Did you have further inspirations that made you want to become a musician? Popular Bands, Movies or even Animation at the time to speak of?
I was brought up on Tom & Jerry and the Flintstones but I also liked Harman & Ising. The music in all these productions played such a huge part which is what we tried to do with Thomas though we couldn’t quite stretch the budget to use a real orchestra.  I like animation to have a retro feel about it whilst somehow seeming realistic, even if you have talking boats and lighthouses, I believe young kids like this sort of stuff, because they don’t know its retro, it’s just a character.

On behalf of Sodor Island Fan site, we’d like to wish Mike huge thanks for replying and good health for him and Junior.

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Related Links

Playtime Productions
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Since leaving Thomas, Mike has returned to working on children's productions, and has launched his own company to showcase his own characters and brands as well as to create more wonderful musical themes and songs for television.  Check out his latest creations at Playtime Productions.