Media Essays: The History of Thomas the Tank Engine Part 2
And so we follow on from last time where I recapped the genesis of the Thomas the Tank Engine series. For this part, we now talk about what is most likely the part you've all been waiting for. Ladies and gentlemen, media enthusiasts of all ages, it is time that we now delve into arguably the most famous aspect, and certainly the most popular, part of the Thomas and Friends franchise. This is the history of the Thomas and Friends TV show...
The First Try
Our story begins WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAY back in 1953. Yes really people, it starts that far back. You see, the TV show as we know it today was NOT the first attempt to make Thomas and Friends into TV series. The first attempt was all the way back in that year which all started with the BBC approaching the Railway Series editor, Eric Marriott, and inquiring about the possibility of adapting two stories from the series for television on June the 14th that same year.
It was to be a live broadcast and they were going to use OO Gauge Hornby Dublo Models for the engines in the stories that would be driven on authentic sets made by P.R. Wickham in the style of the original illustrations. The reason for this was to ensure authenticity to Author and Publisher requests. It's rumoured that six OO Gauge models were used with the models being shown in an issue of Model Maker Magazine, though a written article provides a description which contradicts the claims so they might not be accurate.
For the two stories the BBC chose to adapt, they had chosen The Sad Story of Henry and Edward, Gordon and Henry with the programme being titled The Three Small Engines. I don't get why they called it that as Edward, Gordon and Henry are NOT small engines but that's just me nitpicking. The Sad Story of Henry was the first episode to be aired. Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaand...
...it was a failure. A miserable catastrophic FAILURE. So what went wrong? Pretty much EVERYTHING! That's what!
First of all, the models would jerk around as they moved, which didn't really show good quality of the models. Second, there was a moment where the model of Henry derailed due to a failure to switch the points in time and viewers witnessed a moment where an ACTUAL HUMAN HAND picks him up and puts him back on the rails! You couldn't make this stuff up if you tried people! This was a thing that actually happened! Geez and people make fun of the actual TV series for its many goofs and errors. XD Another thing that added to the poor quality of the show was that all effects and the music had to be superimposed over everything. So to put it bluntly, the broadcast didn't go well.
In fact, on June the 23rd, the broadcast hit the front pages of The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. What, was it a really slow news day that day that they thought a failed broadcast was front page worthy? I guess somethings NEVER change with the news, am I right? Anyway, Wilbert himself was NOT impressed with the episode. He would call it "unprofessional" and the point-switching debacle as "an elementary mistake". Because of how badly the first episode did, the second episode that was due to air on June the 28th was put on hold and then ultimately cancelled. The BBC did attempt to rescue the project by offering to give Wilbert and the publishers of his books greater creative control over the production of the episodes, but the publishers felt that focusing on publishing new books was the better move for them so they declined the offer. As of today, the infamous broadcast remains lost and there is no way to view it, not even on the internet. There is a fan-recreation video of what it MIGHT have looked like that you can see here on YouTube, but the actual broadcast remains lost to time and likely will never be found as the BBC was not the kind of studio to keep old content back in those days. Just ask any Doctor Who fan and they'll tell you the same thing!
Thomas the Tank Engine Adaptation: Take 2
The next attempt came in 1973 when Andrew Lloyd Webber decided to have a crack at producing an adaptation of the series. And yes people, I mean THAT Andrew Lloyd Webber. The guy behind the Cats and Phantom of the Opera stage musicals. Bet you never knew he once tried to adapt The Railway Series, eh?
Well, he was actually a fan of the books and would read them as a child. With that in mind, he came to publisher Kaye & Ward with a proposal for his own musical television series based on the books with songs from himself and lyricist Peter Reeves. But there was a big catch in all of this: Andrew's company wanted control of almost everything, and that was something the publishers and Wilbert himself were NOT keen about and steadfastly refused to give them that level of freedom. Andrew's lawyers would try to argue that it was "necessary to secure the investment money from America which would be needed to pay for the animation and the film-making", but Wilbert and the others wouldn't hear of it. While Stanley Pickard, the then-managing director of Kaye & Ward, told Wilbert that he was maintaining personal contact with Andrew and still had a slight hope there might be a way out, the reverend was still apprehensive about the idea, saying and I quote:
"Once the Americans get hold of it the whole series would be vulgarized and ruined." - Rev. W Awdry
Yeah, he wasn't exactly wrong about that as we'll get into later...
Despite all this, an agreement was finally made and Wilbert received £500 payment in advance for the project. A pilot episode was commissioned from Granada and would supposedly feature 2-D cut outs of engines moving along a background in a style reminiscent of a certain other famous fictional British train that had his own show around the 70's. Animator Brian Cosgrove, whom you may recognise for works such as the animated film adaptation of The BFG or several children's shows like Danger Mouse and Count Duckula would've been involved with the show's animation. The cut outs and backgrounds were to be based on the actual illustrations from The Railway Series to give it that extra authentic look from the books. Despite all this, the pilot was completed in early 1976...but ultimately not picked up. You see, Granada decided not to produce a full series as they feared at the time that The Railway Series wasn't popular enough outside of the UK to justify infesting all that time and money in making a full series. Heh, how ironic that statement would be later down the line. XD
As the pilot never aired, there is currently no way to ever see it and I would guess like the 1953 attempt, it has since been lost to time and will never see the light of day. But don't think Andrew came out of this empty-handed. Quite the contrary actually. He would establish the Really Useful Group in 1977, naturally basing it off of the series' "Really Useful Engine" phrase and would later work on a musical loosely based on The Railway Series titled Starlight Express, which premiered in 1984 and has become one of his most well-known works of his career. Nice to know that he got a happy ending after all that, isn't it?
After that, it seemed there was no hope for Thomas the Tank Engine to ever make it to television. The closest we ever got was just Ted Ray reading the books out loud in episodes of Jackanory in 1970, but that was it. It seemed the franchise would remain a book series and nothing more. Until...
Third Time's The Charm
Hope was sent down from the heavens in the form of a British television producer, Britt Allcroft, a woman who would make history was we know it. Her story actually begins in 1979 when she was producing a documentary on the Bluebell Railway, which coincidentally enough is featured in one of the Railway Series books, Stepney the Bluebell Engine. During the making of the documentary, she actually ended up meeting Wilbert and during that time, she read some of The Railway Series books as part of her research before filming. It did not take long for her to be intrigued by what she read, saying:
"It really didn't take me long to become intrigued by the characters, the relationships between them and the nostalgia they invoked." - Britt Allcroft
She also thought "there was something in the stories that I felt I could develop that would connect with children. I saw a strong emotional content that would carry with little children's experiences with life." As a result, she managed to secure an arrangement from then publishers Kaye & Ward and after working with Wilbert to convince him that she could, with funding, turn the series into a successful TV show, was able to purchase the TV rights to the series at a cost of £50,000 (£183,884 in today's money). OK, so now she has the rights. But what about funding? You can't make a show without funding after all. Britt knew as much and you better believe she was more than willing to do whatever was necessary to get the money she needed to make the show! She even went as far as placing a second mortgage on her home just to raise the money she needed from her local bank manager! I hope you people appreciate the lengths people will go to in order to make your favourite shows! Whoever said work in the entertainment was easy has never actually worked in it...
In 1980, she co-founded Britt Allcroft Railway Productions (known internationally as The Britt Allcroft Company) with her then husband Angus Wright. By 1981, she had secured the finances needed and production of the show was able to begin. She started assembling the crew, some of which included producer and director David Mitton, a crew member named Steve Asquith, American-born producer Robert D. Cardona and the musical duo Mike O'Donnell and Junior Campbell, who would be responsible for writing and composing many of the franchise's most well-known songs throughout their times on the show. For this production, they would create 26 episodes each running at five minutes.
Production started in 1984 by David Mitton and Robert D. Cardona's own company, Clearwater Features Ltd. alongside ITV's Central Independent Television region. The series was shot and produced at the Clearwater in house studio in Battersea, a suburb of London, for the first series. They used live-action models of the trains that were operated by radio control alongside other vehicles like buses or cars that operated the same way with human and animals being static figures that would move occasionally through stop-motion. The train models would all have different face masks to wear to show a variety of different emotions depending on the scene with only the eyes being able to move. The use of moving models was seen at the time of the series' conception as an effective method of animating the stories. Shooting would relocate to Shepperton Studios in Middlesex, southwest of London for subsequent series that came after. For the series, they adapted stories from the first eight books along with one episode that the reverend himself specially wrote for the show, Thomas's Christmas Party. A pilot episode which was never aired on TV adapted Down the Mine and they later reshot the whole episode when adapting it for television along with the rest of the episodes.
There was one thing that Britt needed for her series to be a success: a narrator to narrate the stories as they were brought to life on everyone's television screens. And the one person she had in mind was none other than the legendary drummer of The Beatles himself, Ringo Starr. Before you ask, no, him being a member of The Beatles had NOTHING to do with why she hired him as she actually wasn't a fan of the band at the time. The ACTUAL reason Britt hired him was down to hearing his voice on TV and thought children could relate to him. Ringo initially declined to narrate the series as he hadn't read any of The Railway Series back then but when he gave the books a read, he changed his mind and would go on to narrate for the first two seasons of the show. Recording only took eight days for him to complete, including four episodes he had to re-do due to the tone of his voice. Curiously enough, his favourite character in the books is none other than the devious Diesel of all characters as he revealed in this old news story. He would narrate for the first series of the show in the UK and re-narrate 25 episodes in the US, while George Carlin would be the first US narrator for the show.
The series premiered at long last on October the 9th 1984, and after many decades of trying from various different companies and people to bring the series to TV...Britt Allcroft had finally been the one that struck gold. The series, titled Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends was a HUGE success upon airing and quickly became one of the most popular children's shows in the UK. And its popularity would only continue to grow as time went on. Naturally, a second series was made with Ringo Starr returning to narrate, but he would depart from the series after Season 2 as he wanted to carry on focusing on his music career. Naturally, this hasn't stopped millions of fans around the world associating him with the series and one could argue he's just as well-known, or even more so, for being the narrator of Thomas and Friends as he is for being a member of The Beatles. Even to this day, people can't hear Ringo's voice without it sounding like he's narrating an episode of Thomas and Friends as his voice has become that iconic to the fandom and so synonymous with the series. Anyway, Series 2 would adapt more books into episodes, including one book written not by Wilbert, but his son Christopher. Titled More About Thomas the Tank Engine, Christopher actually wrote that particular book with the intention of it being adapted into the show. Bet Britt was surprised about that. XD
Series 2 also adapted Thomas and Trevor, a short story from a Thomas Annual and a specially written episode Thomas and the Missing Christmas Tree. But most notorious about this season were two episodes that didn't actually get made. There was Gordon Goes Foreign which was deemed too expensive to make and then there's The Missing Coach, which was in the process of being filmed but halfway through filming, Britt decided to cancel it as she felt it was too confusing for the children and lacked in action. The episode itself would've served as the debut of the Scottish twins, Donald and Douglas, but their debut was moved to Brake Van instead with the exposition about their origins from this episode being placed there instead. As of today, there is no way to view the episode in its entirety though there are fan-recreations that can be viewed on YouTube. Sometime before his death, David Mitton revealed in an interview with Sodor Island Fansite that he was in possession of all the filmed footage they had before cancelling the episode. Given David Mitton's unfortunate passing in 2008, it's currently unknown who has the filmed footage, if anyone even has it at all. A leak on Twitter showed that the crew had filmed half the episode up until the part with the switching tenders, the very scene that lead to Allcroft putting the cancel-hammer on it, and the audio was the only thing missing. Several production stills like the one you see above were also revealed over time.
When Series 2 was released, the success of the show continued and Thomas's popularity would only continue to grow throughout the 80's. Kids couldn't get enough of the little blue engine and now merchandise was being produced to cash in on the popularity of the series. While The Railway Series did have merchandise back in the 50's and 60's with Pre-Cut Model Books and Meccano sets, Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends would launch VHS collections including episodes of the show to watch anytime and die-cast toy company ETRL would launch a MASSIVE line of die-cast Thomas the Tank Engine toys that kids (and adults) could collect and create their own Thomas railways with, starting in 1985 and concluding in 2004.
But another instrument in the show's success came when Britt Allcroft decided to take the next big bold step in making the show a mainstay in popular culture around the world: bring the series to America. That's when Shining Time Station comes in. You see, in-between production of Series 2 and Series 3, Britt's production team was working on two series: TUGS which ran for only one series in 1989, and this one. Britt teamed up with American producer Rick Siggelkow in order to create Shining Time Station. The show was a live-action children's sitcom which starred a magical character called Mr. Conductor, who would introduce two Thomas stories in each half-hour programme. Funnily enough, they ended up getting Ringo Starr to play Mr. Conductor in the show! Poor guy just couldn't escape Thomas the Tank Engine during the 80's, could he? XD When he left Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends, he also left this series too and George Carlin would take over as Mr. Conductor for the rest of the series. The show lasted until 1995 but it succeeded in its job of bringing Thomas to America as the success of the show increased the popularity and exposure of the series to Americans and led to a "Thomas craze" over there. At the peak of Shining Time Station's popularity, it would bring in 7.5 million viewers per week! So all Britt could say to that is "Mission Accomplished!". XD
So with a successful UK show and a successful US show all about The Railway Series, Britt Allcroft was really looking to be on top of her game for now. So of course, a third series was made for Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends. However, some changes would be made for this series. First of all, Ringo Starr had left so a new UK narrator was needed. Who could fill in for Ringo after his iconic narrations gave a voice to the series? Enter Michael Angelis, a small-time actor known for shows such as The Bill and Midsomer Murders. Humorously enough, he has an older brother, Paul Angelis, who was best known for playing Ringo Starr in the Yellow Submarine movie. It's almost like he was destined to take over from Ringo for this show, wasn't it? XD
While I can't find anything saying why he was chosen, Michael was clearly more devoted to the role than Ringo was as he would be the narrator for the series for 21 years after being cast in Series 3 with Series 16 being his last. He would also be the narrator for the series in some of its media spin-offs like numerous video-games and CDs. Michael has become just as synonymous with the series as Ringo has with his voice being so recognisable and iconic that much like Ringo, it's impossible to hear his voice and NOT think of Thomas the Tank Engine. His more energetic and lively performances and greater vocal range also made him a firm favourite with some debating even to this day if he is just as or greater than Ringo before him. Sadly, Michael Angelis is no longer with us, passing away from a heart-attack at his home at the age of 76 on the 30th of May 2020. This news led to a HUGE outpouring of grief from Thomas fans and has naturally lead to many tributes being named in his honour. Even though he was no longer narrating the show at the time of his death, it didn't stop people from expressing how much they loved his work on he show and how he was a voice of their childhoods, myself included.
Onto brighter stuff, Britt was now the producer of the show, taking over from Robert D. Cardona after his company closed down and he left the series, and she would remain in that position until Series 5. Another change was that the show wouldn't focus solely on adapting The Rialway Series stories and would feature some of their own stories as well with Britt and David writing a couple of them. They also adapted some stories from the Thomas and Friends magazine, which coincidentally were written by Andrew Brenner, a man who would later become the head-writer for the show in 2013. So why the change from the source material? It was down to of the stories in the books not yet used featuring large numbers of new characters, which would be expensive to produce, which is really weird when you consider the show would keep introducing new characters in later seasons so what the heck? Also, another change was that the producers wanted more focus put on Thomas as he had become the central character and thus the spotlight would be shifted closer to Thomas at the expense of other characters. Wilbert wasn't too pleased with the idea of new stories as he felt they would be unrealistic compared to his books with Henry's Forest especially ticking him off something fierce due to many inaccuracies on rail safety that was displayed in the episode. Sadly, Wilbert's not in charge so he couldn't really do anything about it. And this people is why you don't ever let people be in charge of your creations, it NEVER ends well!
Nevertheless, the show would still continue to be popular and successful with the Thomas fanbase growing and growing and more merchandise being sold as time went on. But things would change forever for the series when Britt Allcroft attempted to bring the franchise from the small screen...to the BIG screen. Our story continues next time with the history of Thomas and the Magic Railroad and the franchise afterwards...
For Michael Angelis
29 April 1944 – 30 May 2020
To the man who has voiced our childhoods. A man who for 21 years gave Thomas and Friends a voice to tell their stories. He will be missed.
Sources: Wikipedia, The Thomas Wiki and the Lost Media Archive.