The TV Series - A History

The TV Series - A History

This is a History of the Railway Series and Thomas's rise to TV fame from 1953 to present, chronicling the attributions of each new Series.

Edward shunts the trucks

Contrary to common belief by most people, the Thomas television series never originiated completely in 1984 with the launch of Britt Allcroft's highly acclaimed Thomas The Tank Engine and Friends series.  In actual fact, it had more humble beginnings dating back to the 1950s, and to the BBC, as opposed to current broadcaster ITV.  The series was shot in using normal model trains to portray the characters and in the style of the time, being broadcast live on television on a Sunday evening.  With the perils of live television, there is always something that is bound to go wrong, which is what happened.  The locomotive portraying Henry came off the rails, and subsequently, a hand came down and placed him back on again!  A short, mildly amusing poem was written about the incident by Stuart Davies of the Thomas Forum:

Henry bricked up in the Balahoo Tunnel

"Once an engine attached to a train,
Was afraid of a few drops of rain.
He came off the track; the rails were too slack!
A hand put him back on again!"
 
Needless to say, the programme was shortly after pulled after the objection of the author himself who took objection to their lack of professionalism in production.

Thomas shunts coaches at Knapford

Although televising the Railway Series had proved slightly less than feasible in 1953, this did not deter Andrew Lloyd Webber from trying himself to bring the stories to life in the form of a Musical Television Series.  However, publishers Kaye and Ward were apprehensive as the outlined plans would have given Lloyd Webber's company the rights to almost everything to do with the Railway Series.  He would have had control of the books, characters and anything that was yet to be written or published.  The argument for this was for the attraction of money from American investors needed to pay for the animation and film making.  Wilbert rightly stood his ground and refused, he was quoted as having said, "Once the Americans get hold of it the whole series would be vulgarised and ruined!"

Gordon rests his eyes in a siding

Despite signing of a contract and the cost of 10,000 from both Andrew Lloyd Webber and Granada trying to advance the project, there was no sign of interest coming from the American market, which was paramount in the plans for "economic viablity to the production".  And so the Lloyd Webber project seemed to die out in 1977.  He did however go on to create a Railway based stage musical, which proved a major hit in the form of Starlight Express, as well as drawing inspiration for his company name from the books and stories he loved, creating "The Really Useful Theatre Company".  However, as we all know that's not where the story ends...

James and the Express

Two years later on, a British television producer by the name of Britt Allcroft entered the ring.  She had only chosen to read some of the books as reserach for meeting Mr Awdry, who was attending the filming of a five minute Railway based documentry she was making at the time.  She found herself becoming interested in the characters and situations, and thought they should be brought to life on the small screen.  She then pitched the idea to Mr Awdry who warned her that many had tried before her and failed, but this wasn't enough to inhibit the interest of the canny businesswoman who began to pursue the idea and bought the Television rights for 50,000 from the publishers.  She later went looking for investors to help finance the Series, but each were very interested in power over the series, and so Allcroft had to settle for funding by her local bank, and by 1981, had sufficient funds to put the series into production.

Percy in the Workshop

The animation used was suggested by Director, David Mitton, as a form of live animation where the characters were controlled by remote control and filmed as they moved, it was an idea that proved successful and viable in the long run.  This technique was known as "Live Action Animation", and was put to work on another of Mitton and his business partner Robert Cardona's following venture - TUGS.  Mitton obviously had experience of this type of animation, having worked with Gerry Anderson previously in his career, where he is said to have gained his early experience working in television.  With his own and Robert Cardona's company, Clearwater Features, they were known to have produced several television commercials and have work featured in a number of feature films.  The partnership disolved in the early 1990s when Mitton became part of the Britt Allcroft Company and Robert Cardona went to live in Canada.

Toby arriving on Sodor with Henrietta

Allcroft's choice of first narrator also proved inspired, and came in the form of Beatles drummer, Ringo Starr.  Although unkeen to contribute at first, Starr soon came around to the idea and lended his vocals to the Series.  On occasion of meeting the Author himself, he admitted to not having read the books in his childhood, but was impressed by what he was seeing.  Awdry commented, "You were deprived!"  That meeting in particular went rather well, with Ringo being mesmirised by Awdry's branch line layout in his house.  His wife however, was in a state of immense boredom by the time they left however!  But on the whole, the working relationship between the two sides did not seem at all strained in the slightest, but clouds do appear when they're least expected...

Bertie the Bus at the Bus Garage

Allcroft's original series was broadcast in 1984 using primarily the stories from the first eight books of the Railway Series.  They introduced what was due to be the core of the character base, Thomas, Edward, Henry, Gordon, James, Percy and Toby and stuck very true to the author's original writings.  The series proved a great success and was applauded by critics and built a new fanbase, introducing the Railway Series characters to a broader audience.

Devious Diesel...

The second series, which followed in 1986, used some works by Christopher Awdry, who had been asked especially by Allcroft to write some new material for the new Series.  It was a contractual agreement in those days that any new broadcast stories had to be in print form first.  Among fans of the series, the second was proclaimed to be the best, with greater diversity in the stories and characters such as that of the dramatic Duck and Diesel trilogy to name but one group.

Donald and Douglas - The Scottish Twins

Allcroft then set her eyes on a bigger prize, the conquering of the United States market.  The Railway Series had never made it across the Atlantic in the course of its long history, and so this would give her a good standing ground to introduce the characters in her own way.  She struck a deal with television station PBS and created a half hour children's programme called Shining Time Station in which she would use Thomas in segments within the show, to be told by Ringo Starr who was to star as the 18 inch Mr Conductor.  The show proved to be a nationwide success and brought Thomas and his friends the worldwide fame in which Allcroft craved them to have.  Allcroft chose to rename a lot of the titles of the episodes too, possibly so they would fit with the ideals of the American public.  Thomas and Gordon in America was known as Thomas Gets Tricked instead, as well as the railway jargon such as points being changed to switches as well as trucks to frieght cars, and the biggest change of all, the Fat Controller was called by his Sunday name of Sir Topham Hatt instead to suit the politically correct and weight concious Americans.

Duck the Great Western Engine

Whilst Britt and Ringo tried to bring Thomas to America, David Mitton and Robert Cardona struck out on their own for their new venture - Tugs; having worked on Thomas, they wished to do something different but still with a transport theme.  The series revolved around the life and times of two rival Tug Fleets, battling for contracts and work in Bigg City Port - the biggest Harbour in the world.  It lasted for one full series of 13 episodes, and is fondly remembered by fans from childhood, as well as it's Director and Co-Creator, David Mitton.  Tugs is currently the subject of a DVD Campaign, supported by Sodor Island.

Duck and Oliver on "The Little Western"

The filming of the third Series of Thomas reconviened the production team in 1991.  However, this time there were to be some major changes to Thomas.  Ringo Starr had finished his work as narrator and instead of employing one narrator again for the English version of the programme, the producers decided upon two instead.  Michael Angelis of The Liver Birds fame took over Ringo's post for the UK/Australian version, whilst American comedian George Carlin was employed as both the American narrator and as Mr Conductor in the place of Ringo on Shining Time Station.  Although Carlin may have been renowned for his foul-mouthed antics in his "stand up comedy" act, his sweet mouth proved to be home to a great narrator for the series and still stands as a firm favourite among nostalgic fans today.

Bill and Ben at the Harbour

However, behind the scenes there were further problems.  The producers had chosen to write and use their 50% of their own material within this coming series, much to the disgruntlement of Mr Awdry and his family.  They were outraged and Awdry himself launched tirades of fury against Allcroft and her team in the press, to express his contempt at what they had done to his characters.  Even in the stories which Awdry had written, Allcroft and David Mitton were found to be making their own adjustments, mainly to expand the storyline to fill up time within the episode's running length.  A short story like "Percy and the Trousers" in it's original form could never have sufficed a full 4.5 episode, and there were reasons within The Trouble With Mud to make adjustments to accomodate for the fact the backstory was lacking, the reason for that being that they used the Awdry story relating to it in 1984 - Off The Rails.

Duke The Lost Engine

Understandably hurt by what Mr Awdry had said, Allcroft chose not to stray far from his stories in her following Series in 1995, which would be the first one not to appear on terrestrial UK television, where the Series would remain in the wilderness for the next ten years, exisiting as a straight to video franchise and being shown on Satellite television channel - Cartoon Network.

Skarloey at the sheds

However, as was the trend in Series 3, Allcroft and Mitton did adjust most of the stories in order for them to fit with her own concencus.  Much of the emphasis in this series was placed upon a new breed of characters: The narrow gauge Skarloey Railway engines.  The stories concerning them were plenty throughout the Railway Series, therefore meaning a great source of material for Allcroft and her team to cover.  However, she did let one story of her own slip into the series, namely RUSTY TO THE RESCUE in which the fictional reason for Stepney the Bluebell Engine's rescue from scrap is brought to life onscreen, and to give the new engine a bit of familiarity.  The fourth series was to herald the end of use of Railway Series stories and begin the new era, where the Reverand Awdry's characters would be guided by their television star status and no longer by their story book roots.

Gordon with his Panoramic View at Kirkronan

On March 21 1997, the Reverand Wilbert Awdry OBE died after a prolonged illness and being bedridden.  The year before, unknown to be the final book of the Railway Series had been published, and in 1998, following the aquisition of the full rights to the Railway Series characters, Britt Allcroft and David Mitton set about creating their own series of original Thomas The Tank Engine and Friends stories, to be used as a showcase for the upcoming movie in 2000, sacrificing the surplus material that was left over from the Railway Series books.

Cranky the Crane

Allcroft's fifth series of the television series proved to have a lot of thrills, spills and disasters throughout and introduced the first characters in the Series not to exist in print form, namely Cranky the Crane and a number of one off characters in the form of Derek the Diesel, Bertrum the Old Warrior and Old Slow Coach.  Also brought forth the debut of the third American narrator, Hollywood actor, Alec Baldwin, who would go on to star in the upcoming feature film, due for release in 2000, written, produced and directed by Britt Allcroft - Thomas and the Magic Railroad.

Thomas and Gordon during Magic Railroad

The prospect of a Thomas Feature Film had been worldwide knowledge for many years, even as far back as 1994 prior to the filming of Series 4 of the TV Series.  The Thomas brand was proving immensly popular and not to mention profitable too.  Some newspapers were brandishing the headline - "Thomas The Bank Engine" - at the amounts the Series was bringing in through merchandising and use of the Thomas name, and so it seemed that a feature film would be the next inevitable step.

The Dastardly Diesel 10

Thomas and the Magic Railroad followed the adventures of Thomas and his friends as they tried to help Mr Conductor, Lily and C Junior get back to Shining Time Station, when a Gold Dust crisis occurs, severing the connection between the two worlds.  However, with the fearsome Diesel 10 on the loose at the same time, it's not going to be entirely easy to put everything right.  The feature was criticised for being heavily Americanised and somewhat alienating British and Australian fans who hadn't heard of the Shining Time series, as well as the fact that it largely involved live action actors more so than the model engines of Sodor.  The film encountered numerous difficulties throughout the shooting process with several cuts made in a short space of time prior to release, which contributed to it's downfall - and therefore was deemed unsuccessful at the box office.

Chocolate Crunched Percy

Following the release of Magic Railroad, in 2001, the company formerly known as BRITT ALLCROFT, became known by the parent company name of GULLANE ENTERTAINMENT, with production of a sixth series of the popular TV Series beginning production in late 2001.  This would be the first series that Britt Allcroft herself would not take a direct hand in writing, with David Mitton focussing more upon the creative production side of what would be a more intensive shooting period than previous years.

Salty at the Quarry

This instead was left up to individual writers, with ideas being laid down by David Mitton, such as the legendry Brian Trueman who wrote and lended voice talent for Cosgrove Hall's Wind In The Willows among other productions for the same company, and George Tarry who wrote episodes of Rainbow in the 1980s.  The series also saw new a Producer in the form of Phil Fherle, who had worked on the film in conjunction with Allcroft, as well as new characters such as Harvey the Crane Engine and Salty the Dockyard Diesel.  Gullane's main perogative for the series now was to put emphasis on friendships and relationships as opposed to the Railway running fun that was dominant in the show previously.

Murdoch with Toby

The seventh series saw greater artistic freedom in the writing of the episodes, and as a result, better quality episodes were produced.  Around the time of production, HIT Entertainment, owner of major children's TV brands made a play for the rights to Gullane and swallowed the company up.  The company set about making changes to the programme which were to revolutionise the way Thomas would operate in the coming years.  Although Series 8 was a while off yet, plans for its arrival were going to be that of granduer and unlike what most Thomas fans were used to.

Thomas at the Quarry

Fittingly arriving in the 20th year of production of the Series, Series 8 of Thomas and Friends as the series was now known, proved a very different kettle of fish to what had previously been done, with almost everything changed.  The filming techniques were different for a start, as HIT began using new technology to shoot the Series, which they claimed to be more fluid and bright than the previous 35mm film.  However, behind the camera now was Thomas veteran Steve Asquith, who after 20 years in the shadow of David Mitton had finally made it to the Director's chair.  The opening sequence was reshot completely, as well as a new theme tune for the series, replacing the classic one by Junior Campbell and Mike O'Donnel, who also appeared to have left, with one instead composed by Robert Hartshorne with lyrics by Ed Welch, which formed the new Thomas song, Engine Roll Call!

Emily with her coaches

The Series also proved to be different by the characters they chose to use, who the producers wished to use to re-establish the core, and add boardroom manufactured female character steam engine Emily, who had been introduced the series previously as a main character.  Obviously a step in the direction of political correctness which has been made with every other television programme worth it's salt.  However, the limiting of the characters is proving to be beneficial with old favourites getting greater amounts of airtime than they previously have done in previous years.  Not only this, but the extended length to seven minutes instead of the previous five, has also been better for the quality of writing with key ideas being given more explanation and less of the need to cram everything in as best they can.

Engines lined up at the new Sodor Airport (CAE)

Thomas and Diesel 10

Prior to the release of Series 9, a new feature length special featuring Thomas and Friends was released - Calling All Engines.  Using the new camera works previously employed on Series 8, as well as the newly redefined cast, it brought back few engines who had been unseen for quite some time!  Engines such as those from the Magic Railroad film, namely Diesel 10 and Lady, both of whom had minor roles in the special; as well as long term missing characters Daisy and Derek, who were either seen as background characters or featured very briefly in the story itself.  Calling All Engines! centred itself around the introduction of a new Airport being built on the Island of Sodor, and following a trick by Thomas against the Diesels, who were meant to be building the steam engines a new shed at Tidmouth, and a civil war breaks out between them which sees work on the railway becoming virtually nil, and the new Airport in jepoardy of not being finished in time for it's opening!

Thomas with Dennis at the Shunting Yards

Series 9 aired in the Autumn of 2005, and carried on from where Calling All Engines left off and bringing the introduction of four new characters to the fold in the form of Neville, Molly, Dennis and Mighty Mac, as well as the reintroduction of the little engines and Bill and Ben the tank engine twins.  Series 9 didn't hold a great deal of changes unlike previous series, however, the improvement of the new format was slightly evident with the new storylines, but it does show that while the core is still established, they are making inroads to allowing new and old characters to reappear and continue to play a part in the series following an absence.  However, it is interesting to note that Michael Brandon has by this point narrated three full series of Thomas, and been the only American narrator not to leave following a run of two series, and that this has been the first Thomas series to air on television before video in both the UK and US for a great number of years!

Nelson, Oliver and Kelly

Patrick the Cement Mixer

Prior to the airing of Series 10 on terrestrial television in the US, a brand new DVD release was made featuring the first six episodes from the Jack and the Pack spin-off series, created by Phil Fherle.  The Pack characters had originally been part of a two episode run within Series 6 of Thomas and Friends, basically to introduce the characters and integrate them to the familiarity of the Thomas fold.  However, following the takeover by Hit Entertainment in 2002, little or nothing had been seen or heard about the Pack characters prior to the release of the "On Site With Thomas" DVD in the USA.  These new episodes introduced new members of "The Pack", who hadn't been mentioned in the previous two episodes, as well as giving greater character development to the aforementioned and introudced characters who did feature.

Henry and Rocky go for a run

Series 10 of Thomas and Friends aired in September/October 2006, and again, brought forth some surprises for fans across the world.  For a start, the usual run of 26 episodes per series was increased to 28 instead, to satisfy a 14 episode run of the new half hour format.  One of the most eagerly anticipated surprises of Series 10 was the return of Sir Handel, after an absence of ten years, to the television series.  Along with this highly anticipated return, came four new friends for Thomas - two new steam engines, Fearless Freddie and Rosie; and the first new non-locomotive characters since the Pack and Elizabeth - Jeremy the Jet Plane and Rocky the Crane.

Thomas and James at Tidmouth Sheds

Another surprise that occurred in 2006 was the deflection of Thomas from his usual home broadcaster in the UK.  ITV, who had broadcast the series for 20 years on and off (never showing Series 4 and 5, but returned with Series 6), opted to cut their children's broadcasting airtime quota, deeming it too expensive and unprofitable in comparison with their other areas of the channel's output.  Thomas, and a few other children's programmes were affected by this, with Series 8's broadcast on the channel being straddled between 13 episodes in 2005 and 13 concluding episodes in 2006.  But in September 2006 - Thomas found a new home on Channel 5's preschool morning broadcast Milkshake, alongside favourites such as Noddy, Rupert the Bear and Old Bear Stories.  Channel 5 went on to broadcast both sets of episodes from Series 9 and 10 accordingly from September, and continue to do so to present.

Whiff at the shunting yards

Series 11 launched in September of 2007, bringing with it some friendly new faces such as Silly Billy, Whiff the Garbage Engine, Hector the Horrid Hopper and Madge the Snub-nosed lorry, as well as some old friends making brief comebacks.  For the first time since 2003, Donald and Douglas made appearances alongside the Steam Team members, with other supporting characters such as Arthur, Rosie, Molly, Rocky, Neville, Spencer and Murdoch making returns in the new series, and hopefully heralding a new beginning for the TV series of present.

James and the Narrow Gauge Engines at the Wharf

This series however, only had 20 episodes broadcast, with the remaining six, featuring stories involving the Narrow Gauge Engines, being released exclusively on a special DVD, with the only brand new song of the series, all about them.  There was significance in the release however, with Freddie, a character introduced in Series 10, being the first character outside of the "core character-base" to have a story to himself.  Similarly, new character, Madge, had two focus stories based on her adventures and interaction with the Narrow Gauge Engines, which again provides hope that this will continue for other characters, and draw away from the strong "core-character" focus.

Thomas arrives in Great Waterton

But then, there was also the sad news that after Series 11, Michael Angelis and Michael Brandon would no longer be narrating.  Michael Brandon has expressed his sadness at leaving the series to Sodor Island in an interview which can be found here, saying how much he enjoyed being part of Thomas's world for the four years he was associated with the series.  Long term UK fans of the series were also sad to hear of Michael Angelis's departure also, he being a staple of Thomas's world for over a decade.  However, what softened the blow was the announcement of their replacement, who would be narrating future American and UK releases and broadcasts... none other than former 007 star himself, Pierce Brosnan, who will make his debut in late 2008, with the straight-to-DVD special release, The Great Discovery.

Thomas flies through the air

The Great Discovery was released to acclimation, with daring stunts for the Thomas model particularly, as well as Pierce’s soothing narrative throughout, which was felt by some to be a refreshing change, particularly in the UK.  Putting forward the importance of friendship, teamwork and accepting others without resorting to jealousy.

Edward with his CGI face

However, 2008 was to herald further changes to the set-up of Thomas and Friends as it was traditionally known.  In late 2007, there had been confirmation by a correspondent close to the set that there would be CGI implements employed, with HIT Entertainment planning a lot more in future.  This information was not disclosed to the wider community initially.  A further bombshell was dropped from the same source in May of 2008, when it was confirmed that this was the last Thomas series to be shot with the model animation format, and that the series from then on would be a CGI cartoon, with production outsourced to Nitrogen Studios in Canada.

Rosie puffs on!

This being highly sensitive information, the news of their redundancy still ringing in the ears of the studio crew, the SiF Staff and ViPs who were aware of the situation were adamant of keeping it under wraps – aware of the outcry that would be bound to occur... and did when The Sun newspaper issued an online article from a similar source close to the set, who had told all about the production move to Canada.  The news did not go down well with some, with a rampage of denial, some stating that ‘SiF was starting a rumour’ and The Sun was spreading lies.  The news was later confirmed via official online sources such as Licensing Biz and an official Press Release from HIT Entertainment themselves about the future of their properties – with Bob the Builder also receiving the CGI treatment as a means of cost-effectiveness, similarly outsourced to the United States.

Henry was sad about David's passing

In the same month, Sodor Island Fansite had the sad, but proud, opportunity to become one of the first online sources to report the untimely death of Producer, Director, Writer and Friend of SiF, David Mitton.  For eighteen months, David had been in contact with SiF Administrator, Ryan, and been granting opportunities to compile a comprehensive interview of his work and life in television, but most importantly, providing an insight into Thomas and Tugs over the years.  Sadly, the interview could not be completed as far as we would have liked, but what we have stands as a testament to a wonderful, creative man who innovated one of the best children’s television properties of our time, and dying before his final work – Adventures on Orsum Island, could be completed.

Thomas and Hank feel sad about David and George

Not long after, celebrated comedian and much loved Thomas storyteller for America, George Carlin died of heart-failure.  Both the passing of David and George was marked by beautiful and heart-warming tributes from Producer, TV Series creator and another of SiF’s good friends, Britt Allcroft, who worked alongside them both and shared her fond memories of them both, with Rick Siggelkow also providing his own thoughts and feelings toward the time he and his crew spent with George on the Shining Time Station set in the early 1990s.

Emily is happy

The final model series was aired firstly in the United Kingdom, where to the surprise of everyone, Michael Angelis’ name was seen to appear on the screen in place of the previously billed Pierce Brosnan.  Similarly, in the United States, while supposedly displaced from the TV Series, Michael Brandon had made a triumphant return, with Pierce Brosnan being billed on The Great Discovery DVD as the Special Guest Narrator.  This was the first series to be officially cut to 20 filmed episodes as opposed to the previous 26, and the last one to rely solely upon a storyteller.

There can only be one true Hiro!

Despite numerous behind the scenes changes over the twenty five years of production, the one constant that had always been prominent were the models used to animate the series.  They set the style of the series and won the hearts of millions.  However, animating in this way was proving to be expensive, so HIT Entertainment opted instead to get Nitrogen Studios of Canada, who provided the CGI implements of the 2008 series, to animate future material in full CGI.  It was to be a full makeover for Thomas and Friends – not only in terms of the physical appearance of the characters and their environment, but in terms of their vocals.  For the first time since Thomas and the Magic Railroad, the engines would have individual voices in the United Kingdom and United States, but by comparison, these voices would be territory specific.

The Sodor Steamworks

The 2009 special, Hero of the Rails, showcased this sweeping change with stunning animation by Nitrogen and a gripping storyline by Sharon Miller.  A story of friendship, bravery and hope – as well as extending the opportunity for multi-cultural characters to be introduced to Sodor, such as Hiro, a large Japanese engine who was brought to the Island several years ago in the very early days, subsequently laid aside and forgotten about until found by Thomas; as well as Victor, a Hispanic narrow gauge engine from Cuba who now runs the Sodor Steamworks.  Hero of the Rails had initially been earmarked as another model animation special prior to the final decision on the changeover, and it had been the suggestion of Thomas stalwart, David Eves, to create a Sodor Steamworks. 

Charlie the 'Fun' Engine

Series 13 of the TV Series was the first to use the full CGI animation.  Nitrogen Studios were working slowly but surely to achieve visual perfection, which meant a limited number of characters could be created for the storylines and a similarly limited number of locations, which meant that the Narrow Gauge engines were again absent from the series restructure for a second time.  The series aired first in the UK in January of 2010, receiving very strong audience figures, and putting forward some interesting new scenarios that could not be achieved with the models, such as showing James being repainted in a pink undercoat among other things.

And once again, we look to the future.  The upcoming 2010 special for the 65th Anniversary sees Thomas leaving the Island of Sodor for the first time – and ending up on the strange and mysterious Misty Island, meeting up with three new faces – Bash, Dash and Ferdinand.  The major question is – will Thomas make it back to Sodor safely?  The special is likely to see the reintroduction of Salty and Harold among other familiar faces, along with Captain – a life boat who will serve the new Search and Rescue facility, as Nitrogen Studios slowly bring Sodor to its new CGI universe.  It truly is a very exciting time to be a Thomas fan...!