A conversation with Shining Time
During the evening of
Thursday, 17 January, I spent the better part of an hour by phone speaking to Rick Siggelkow, Executive Producer
and Vice President, Children's Division, for BBC Worldwide Americas. We had a fascinating discussion about his work on the
critically-acclaimed Shining-Time Station television series that Rick co-created and produced with Britt Allcroft
between 1989 and 1995. Fans will see that even after the passage of a dozen plus years, Rick still keeps a special place in
his heart for Shining Time Station.
J. Gratton, 21 January, 2008
let’s go back to the beginning. How did you meet Britt and come up with the idea for Shining Time Station?
Jay Islin, who was the head of Channel Thirteen
(the NY PBS station) had brought a tape of “Thomas The Tank Engine” back from England
and gave it to me, asking if there was anything we could do with it.No one thought
that it would work or catch on in the US, but I showed the
tape to some children and saw how much they liked it. So I called Britt in London
to work out ideas on how to introduce Thomas to America by
expanding it into a ½ hour show. Britt came over to New York and we spent the
next few months developing a new series that eventually became “Shining Time Station.”By that time Ringo Starr was on board and we went on PBS a year later.
*J.G.’s notes: Sunday, 29 January, 1989 to
be precise ;-)
you tell us a bit about how the Shining Time Station theme song came to be?
I knew the great composer Joe Roposo, who
had composed music for children’s shows like Sesame Street. I gave
Joe a call and Britt and I arranged to meet with him. He composed and recorded several music videos for us, and they were
so good that we hired him to write the theme song for Shining Time Station.
We were also familiar with talented singer
and musician Kevin Roth, who was independently producing CDs for kids. Kevin was hired to work on some music videos for us
and it seemed like the perfect match to have Kevin perform the theme song.I
think he nailed it on the first the second take.It’s still a beautiful
Where, and what time of year in Toronto was Shining Time Station filmed?
The show was mostly shot at Studio Oasis.The Mr. Conductor scenes were also shot there.We went to Toronto five times: first for the Holiday Special, then season
two, season three, and two more times for the prime-time specials.
The shoots happened in just about every season
of the year.The longest shoot was for the third season, and that went through
the winter, and lasted for 8 or 9 months, I had actually moved my family to Toronto
Back to Ringo and George, I get the impression that they were really into playing their roles and
having a lot of fun. Did they ever share these feelings with you?
Yes, we all had fun. I like to say that if
you’re not having fun producing a kids show, you’re doing something wrong. They both had a lot of ideas they liked
to try out with the character and I think they each liked the magical powers Mr. Conductor had.It sounds trite to say they were reliving some aspects of their own childhoods, but I think there was an
element of that at work. The Mr. Conductor shoots with Ringo and George were always exciting because of who they were and
also because we were pushing the matte technology into places no other show had gone.
Given George Carlin’s mature comedy background, can you tell us how he became the next Mr.
Conductor and storyteller for the series?
When Ringo left the show we were faced with a problem.
The parents from that generation of children grew up with the Beatles and their music and held Ringo in high regard. Who else
was out there that held that same appeal? Mick Jagger? (laughs). We were looking for someone from that same period that had
a connection with the parents. That is how Britt and I chose George Carlin.
We sent him a few Thomas episodes and a script for
a test reading, and when we heard his lines it all made sense to have him become the new Mr. Conductor and storyteller.
George is renowned for his off-color humor in his
comedy acts, but there’s a whole other side of him that people don’t realize. In addition to having a great voice,
he’s very smart and is a brilliant storyteller.
I’d like to ask you to make a few comments about your work with
the following cast members.
She is one of
the nicest people in the world – her sweetness is genuine. Of the entire cast, she was the most experienced actor. She
was very good with the kids and was the perfect gentle mother figure that we wanted for the show. Didi was great at improvising
scenes with Brian O’Connor.She’s currently developing and producing
a pilot for a kids show of her own, called “Didi Lightful.”
Brian O’Connor (Schemer):
in touch with Brian. A brilliant comic. He worked incredibly hard on the show. He would take the script and come back later
with suggestions for his scenes which we almost always accepted. Schemer’s obsession with nickels and his curl were
his inventions. He was really into physical humor and didn’t shrink away from pratfalls. After Shining Time Station,
Brian returned to school and became a guidance counselor and helping teens professionally which is great, and he’s still
developing ideas for kids shows.
Tom Jackson (Billy Twofeathers):
A super guy.
Tom brought a quiet dignity to the showalong with introducing some Native myths
and music. He played the straight man to balance the antics between Schemer and Stacy. We also thought that he was a good
role model for boys, who really don’t see that many grounded men on television. So many men on kids TV are buffoons
or bad guys, although I think that’s changing.He was a solid guy and his
character was an important part of the show.
The kids: Jason Woliner (Matt Jones), Ari Madger (Dan Jones), Erica Luttrell
(Kara Cupper), Nicole Leach (Tanya Cupper), Danielle Marcot (Becky), Jonathan Shapiro (Schemee):
to say that I’ve not kept up contact with the kids as I’ve done with the adult cast members. Many child actors
get out of acting when they get older. I understand that Jason is a performer-director in New York.
It would be great if I could get back in touch with all of them.
The Jukebox Band (Flexitoon Puppets):
talented group of people who brought the puppets to life and as a result the puppet band assumed a larger role in the series
than we’d first thought they would. In the beginning we would shoot the puppets with three cameras like a concert, but
then Craig introduced the concept of shooting pieces of the song separately. There would be costume and scenery changes, so
the songs became more like little stories or music videos. All wonderful characters.
Child developmental psychologist Dr. Ron Slaby is credited as the Series
Advisor for Shining Time Station. Can you tell us about some of his recommendations for the storylines?
When the Thomas
episodes were brought over from England to the States, there
were language issues with the terminology used between our two countries. For example, what we call ‘freight cars’
over here are called ‘trucks’ in England, so Ron helped us out finding equivalent words that would be
easily understood by American children.He also thought that “Fat Controller”
should be changed to 'Sir Topham Hatt', because he thought, and I agreed, that it was a less prerogative name.
was that the episodes adapted from the Rev. Awdry’s stories sometimes felt heavy handed in terms of the punishment given
to the engines. Ron felt the engines needed a way to redeem themselves.
changed and become more liberal since the stories were written. Ron would suggest a few word changes in the Thomas episodes
to make the harsher words sound softer – more like the way an American parent would address their child.
Ron also read
our episode scripts and provided us with notes suggesting dialogue clarifications such as ‘this is not a word that a
child might use’.
Ron helped us
out with addressing a few of the big issues that we centered the episodes around (bullying, racism). I remember (laughs) one
story where we were planning to have ‘Elvis’ visit Shining Time Station. Of course the real Elvis Presley was
dead, and we were going to use an Elvis impersonator. We ran our concern past Ron. Ron just laughed and said that it wasn’t
preschool show should have an advisor like Dr. Slaby on board.
Why didn’t Shining Time Station go on to produce a 4th Series?
At that point we’d produced 65 episodes and the feeling
from the investors was that we’d done enough. In the industry, if you have 65 shows a series can go into syndication
and still provide a return on investment. Britt had also subsidized as much as she could and PBS didn’t have any extra
money to put into the show.
Had it continued, the series would have eventually wound
down. I’ll always have fond memories of co-producing Shining Time Station - even after I moved on to the BBC
in 1995. I loved working on the show.
'How the Station got its Name' was the last episode in Series 3. Was the episode intended to be a series send-off?
Yes, How the Station
got its Name was considered to be a nice way to wrap up the series. There was never an official end to the series or wrap
party. At that point the cast and crew were hoping that the specials were going to be produced, so it was kind of left open
ended.You always hope for more.
Did you enjoy producing the specials?
Producing the specials was great. We were able to use a
whole new set of stories where Shining Time Station wasn’t limited to being a sitcom on the set. The specials really
opened up the show as we were able to expand the action outdoors.
Where were the outdoor scenes for the specials
filmed? Were they all shot in the Toronto area? I've learned that 'Once Upon a Time' filmed sequences on the South Simcoe
Railway in Tottemham.
That’s correct on both
You had a few famous names guest-starring in the specials, namely Lloyd
Bridges (Mr. Nicholas)
in 'T’is a Gift' in
1990, and Jack Klugman (as Max Okowsky) in ‘Second Chances’ in 1995. Were they great to work with? I couldn’t help but notice that Jack’s
voice was extremely coarse in 'Second Chances'.
They were all wonderful to work with and immediately
fit right in with the regular cast and the spirit of the show.Jack had just
had major surgery on his throat, which is why his voice sounded coarse.
Many fans were and still are touched by the sentimental music video in ‘T’is
a Gift’, with the child and the hobo that lived on his train set. It drove home how lonely people can be during what
should be the happiest time of year. What was your reaction to it?
At the time we loved the song but worried it might
be too heavy for a kids Christmas show.But we went with it for the reasons you
mentioned and I remember after the show had aired the minister at my church made a point of referring it into his holiday
sermon, so I knew it had touched people and that we’d made the right decision.
Do you have a favorite episode or Special?
time I think of one that might be a favorite, I think of another episode or special that I like just as much for different
A bit of the behind the scenes magic, can
you tell us how the effect of trains arriving and departing at Shining Time Station was done?
mean the lights in the window at the rear of the station set. Visualize a circular piece of plywood. A strip of cardboard
with vertical slits cut into it was connected to the plywood’s outside edge. The plywood disc would rotate as a bright
light shone through the slits which would then be projected onto the station’s frosted windows.
a stage hand that became such an expert with timing stops that you’ll notice the train reversing a few inches upon arriving
at the station; just as you’d experience on a real train.
Did you ever have the opportunity to visit
Thomas and Friends at Shepperton Studios?
I went out there a couple of times. David Mitton had built an extraordinary set and it was a pleasure to watch him work.
Shining Time Station received many accolades for its content, and
for teaching life’s lessons and morals (responsibility, humility, honesty, friendship) in a non-patronizing way. Many
fans would like to see Shining Time’s return to television, though many say that the feel and content would be next
to impossible to recreate today. I’m interested to hear your take on this and was there ever talk of bringing the series
It was a great
show for its time. Mind you this was before things like school shootings and internet predators became such a concern. Parents
today feel more besieged by these events and are more concerned about protecting their kids from the outside world.I don’t know how they would feel about having their kids hanging out at a train station interacting
with adults, even though it’s obviously a fantasy situation.
of producers felt that kids’ television may not change the world, but it can help make the world a better place. I don’t
see as much of that in today’s kids TV.It’s become more of a big
business and more about demographic share and making money.Shining Time was
one of those rare shows where a really talented group of people came together at the same time from a variety of different
areas – puppets, musicians, live actors, model builders, etc. Some of how the show developed was directed and planned
by me and Britt, but of it was also timing and luck that brought us all together and make it work. As a producer, that is
something very special.
Britt and I took
a collaborative approach for producing the show. We found that if you listen to people, you’ll find that they have great
ideas and have more enthusiasm if you make them part of the process.
I sometimes think
of trying to find a way to bring it back. I’ve even talked to Britt about it.Maybe as a reunion special for a PBS fundraising event? I would love to see that, as would most of the original cast.
HiT Entertainment now owns the rights to Shining Time Station. Any talk of bringing
it back is only a fantasy at this point – but from a creative standpoint I’m sure it could be done and I think
people would flock to see it.
Were you involved in the early movie discussions before you moved on to the BBC?
I was involved in the movie discussions before moving
on to the BBC.The earlier film treatment had a circus train coming to
Shining Time and an evil Ringmaster kidnapped Mr. Conductor.As I remember it,
Thomas and the other trains had to come to his rescue.Over the course of the
story a circus girl became friends with the Shining Time kids and overcame her fear of horses to become a circus stunt rider,
and in one memorable scene Schemer was shot from cannon.
Can you tell us about some of your other work since leaving Shining Time, in particularly
about your latest endeavor – Dinosapien?
I went on to produce the “Noddy and Friends”
half-hour series for PBS and the science fiction “tween”: series Ace Lightning
that was syndicated in the US and aired on BBC in the UK, and CBC in Canada. In 2006, I shot Dinosapien in Drumheller, Alberta. The concept for the show was to explore what would’ve it been like if certain species of dinosaurs
survived to this day and had evolved into intelligent beings in North America.
In addition to the paleontological science and research that you put into producing
the show, I understand that you’ve included elements of old American Indian legends in the show. Can you elaborate on
I’m part Native American which helped inspire
the character of Billy Twofeathers in Shining Time Station.I like to make the
connection between these legends and science, and in Dinosapien there is a native character named Ten Bears who is a medicine
man. Some of the series concept was built upon American Indian legends that were their way of explaining the large dinosaur
bones they came across in the badlands. These bones were all given different names such as ‘unktechi’ as once
belonging to large creatures. The final episode of Dinosapien, ‘TheThunderbird’ is based on one of these legends.
Since Dinosapien is filmed in western Canada, did you ever entertain the
idea of inviting Tom Jackson to guest-star in an episode?
At the time we were filming
in Drumheller, Tom was busy with other commitments and was unavailable.
Where/when can fans catch episodes ofDinosapien?
Is there an official website that they can visit?
Google “Dinosapien” they’ll find a few web sites, including the web
site run by Discovery Kids, who air the show in the US.As of now, it runs seven days a week in the US,
and airs in the UK and
Australia, and has been sold into about 20 other countries.
Lastly, what message would you like to send to both the old and new fans of Shining
It’s very gratifying to
know that the series has touched so many lives and that it’s still playing for all the fans, old and new, who have kept
it alive on the Internet.I just want to sincerely thank everyone out there who
visits Shining Time Station.
---- ---- ---- ---- ----
behalf of SiF, I'd like to sincerely thank Mr. Siggelkow for sharing his personal time and insight with us. We wish Rick
all the best and many happy returns with his current and upcoming projects.
to Rick's series on the Discovery Kids website: Dinosapien
thanks also to the BBC's Georgie Hollett for getting me in touch with Rick.