Thursday, 9 October 2014

Steaming for 30 Years

On Tuesday, October 9th 1984, what could've been John Lennon's 44th birthday, a certain children's television show was making its debut on British television for the first time which were based on books by a vicar since 1945 and that is of course, Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends, narrated by former Beatle, Ringo Starr. 2014 marks the 30th anniversary of the television series and it had gone through some ups and through some downs, but had still kept on steaming on our television screens all over the world. So let's steam through the 30 year history of the series. 

Prior to the shows existence, let's take a look 35 years back when the television series was about to come into fruition. It was at the Bluebell Railway on a rainy day in 1979, Britt Allcroft was filming a short documentary about Britian's railways and met with the Rev.W.Awdry for an interview. In the dining room, discussion was made to turn the Railway Series books into a television series. One offer was made to the Reverend in 1977 and that was done by Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, one of Britain's famous play writers. He wanted the books to be a musical television series, but due to creative differences, the plans were ceased. In the end, a train musical was made in early 1984 and that was 'Starlight Express'.
Awdry gave his blessing to Allcroft's plans and half of the rights were granted by Kaye and Ward, the publishers of the books. With agreements made that anything made for screen must be in print first. So planning was made and so Britt Allcroft had hired David Mitton, as director and Mike O'Donnell and Junior Campbell as musical composers. All that is left is a storyteller.

On the Michael Parkinson show, according to Britt Allcroft on ABC Radio in 2009, in December 1981, Britt Allcroft had found the voice of Thomas the Tank Engine and that was of course former Beatles drummer Ringo Starr. At the time of the interview he was to promote his new album 'Stop and Smell the Roses', despite that only 30 copies were sold at HMV London that year unfortunately during the Christmas season. Plus it was at the time when Ringo Starr was fixing up his solo career after transforming himself from rock to disco. Prior to that, composer Mike O'Donnell & Junior Campbell joined the series as well as co-founder of Clearwater Productions, who work advertisements as well as children series TUGS (1989-1990), David Mitton and founder Robert D. Cardona. 

After such filming and editing, the first series was complete and was transmitted onto television on Tuesday, October 9th 1984 at 12:00 PM. The children of Britain were introduced to the television adaptation of Thomas the Tank Engine with the first episode 'Thomas and Gordon'. Prior the show's debut, Ringo Starr and Rev.W.Awdry had promoted the show on ITV's 'Good Morning Britain', with the Reverend's book, 'Thomas' Christmas Party', which would be an episode to conclude the first season. The show had met with critical acclaim. 

With the success of the first season, a second season was in the works. The series went with Reverend Awdry's later work as well as Christopher Awdry's stories such as annual story 'Thomas and Trevor'. The show had gained many fans, even the Royal family as Prince Harry during his childhood was seen at his first day of school with a Thomas pencil case.

The series went to go to an international stage, it was popular in Australia in 1987 and it went to America two years later, with a half hour programme, 'Shining Time Station', created by Britt Allcroft and Rick Sigglekow with Ringo Starr re-dubbing certain lines of the series to fit with the American audiences, such as the railway item such trucks being freight car or the Fat Controller being called Sir Topham Hatt. 

Thomas the Tank Engine went East. In April 1990, Japan was introduced to the little blue engine with famous Japanese actor Leo Morimoto, who had narrated the series from S1-8 as the narrator as well as a voice cast for the engines. The 2nd series aired in 1992 and on December of that year, in promotion of the third season, specially made footage was given to Fuji TV of Thomas meeting up with Japanese children's characters entitled 'Thomas and the UK Trip'. In the western world, many Heritage Railways across the UK had held 'Friends of Thomas the Tank Engine'. Fundraising events for the heritage rail factor to have their preserved locomotives resembling the characters, it was a far cry from the recent Thomas events nowadays.

1991 - 1992
With Thomas the Tank Engine getting worldwide recognition, a third series was in the works. However there were changes made. With Ringo Starr wanting to focus on his music career, he stepped down as narrator, but he still says he loved doing the show, Michael Angelis for the UK/AU audience and George Carlin was the US narrator, were the replacements and with the bankruptcy of TVS, the money provider for Clearwater Features, the production company closed down and their shows TUGS was cancelled and plans for a second season were shelved. Robert D.Cardona left the UK for Canada and David Mitton carried on his directors role with the Britt Allcroft company and Bluebird themes, which provided music with the composers left. The third season, despite its popularity, wasn't appealing to the creator of the characters, Rev.W.Awdry. The first two seasons were focused well towards his books but S3 was the start of the deviation of the books, as some episodes were based upon Andrew Brenner's magazine stories such as 'Henry's Forest', which the Reverend's most critically panned episode which the episode had resulted from railway logic.

1993 - 1997
After 1992, the TV run of Thomas as well as its spin-off series 'Shining Time Station' in 1993 was over and the fourth season was set as a 'straight to video' release. It was later shown on UK TV through cable channel 'Cartoon Network' and was used in the Shining Time Station spin off 'Mr. Conductor Thomas Tales'. The fourth season would be the last to used Railway Series material and focus heavily on the newer characters such as the Skarloey Railway engines, Stepney etc. It was also the first time that songs of Thomas the Tank Engine were released. In Australia and the UK, ABC and EMI had released a Thomas soundtrack with songs composed by Mike O'Donnell and Junior Campbell, with a story in between, which known by fans as 'Thomas and the Best Kept Station Competition', narrated by Micheal Angelis. Music videos were also released in the two respective countries in the 'Story and Song Collection' tapes, with deleted scenes and specially made shots from the TV series. Unfortunately the creator of the Railway Series books, Rev.W.Awdry had passed away at the age of 97 in 1997 and the previous year, Christopher Awdry ended the Railway Series with 'New Little Engine', but so far…

With the passing of Rev.W.Awdry, Britt Allcroft bought the full rights of the Railway Series and s fifth season was made. This series deviates immensely from the books with new character being introduced as the first non-Awdry characters, as well as seeing some lesser Awdry attention characters such as Oliver and with a Railway Consultant. Despite that some episodes have been based upon railway related incidents, some episodes tend to change characterisations of some Awdry characters, introducing one off characters and showcasing from unrealistic and illogical value which the series was found itself upon on since 1945. Some crashes have been taken account by a British professor who says that the results of the incidents in the series would make kids scared of going on a train, this would be reported five years later. Plus S5 was the introducing of Hollywood actor, Alec Baldwin as the US narrator. In Japan, Thomas Land was opened at Fuji-Q Highland park.

For years there were rumours circulating since 1994 of a Thomas movie with a working title 'Thomas and the Rainbow Railway'. Six years later, the first feature length film came out entitled, 'Thomas and the Magic Railroad' featuring actors such as Mara Wilson, Peter Fonda and Alec Baldwin. However the movie was deemed a box office failure and with British film critics saying that the movie was Americanising Thomas, with scenes of Shining Time Station. Plus the story was more focused towards the humans rather then the engines. Prior to film's debut, a test audience was made with completely different version of the film. On a hot summers day in L.A in 1999, Britt Allcroft showcased the directors cut of the film, which resulted into parents complaining that P.T Boomer maybe too scary for kids, the British voice actors such as Michael Angelis and John Bellis sound too old for the main characters and so on which resulted into the films failure. However the concept wasn't good as well making Sodor more universal rather then being a fictional island set in the real world. That year Britt Allcroft's resignation as chairman and the company was renamed 'Gullane Entertainment'. 

The sixth season saw some changes. The series is now focused on individual writers and with no creative support from Britt Allcroft, with David Mitton left in charge as well as being filmed in widescreen the first time. The stories were more simple compare to the last season despite some unrealism as well. Despite the production going well, stock market for Gullane was going down and HIT Entertainment saw their chance to merge with the company. So in that year, HIT Entertainment had bought the full rights to Thomas the Tank Engine. In the media prior to S6's debut year, Phil Ferhle had discussed that there are plans to give a character their own spin off show such as Bertie the Bus or Harold the Helicopter. 'Jack and the Pack' was suppose to be a spin off show, but with the merger of HIT Entertainment, the characters were incorporated into the Thomas series. 

This year would be the end of the classical era of the series. The last season to have Mike O'Donnell and Junior Campbell as composers and the last season to have David Mitton as director. The stories were the same as the sixth season and was given more creative freedom for its writers. The year was also Micheal Angelis' only US debut in the DVD 'New Friends for Thomas', which resulted in some unusual backlash from some parents at the time. In the end, a new narrator for the US was chosen and that would be the longest running US narrator, Michael Brandon, who was part of the Jerry Springer musical in London. 

With HIT Entertainment now under full control, the show had resulted into a reboot with brand new cameras and a brand new theme song. The series is focused upon eight main characters, with Emily taking the eighth spot due to the whole sexism criticism over the years. Originally, Duck was placed on that role but due to the sexism news and that most models in London were out of service, Emily was chosen. In the home video consumption as well as TV broadcast over in the UK and US, special educational intervals were made as well. 

2005 - 2007
With celebrations of the Railway Series books marking their diamond jubilee, HIT Entertainment had introduced the first DVD special, Calling All Engines! in 2005. The plot was focused towards the 'steam vs. diesel' plot line, which was vastly overused. However it gives us the moral that everyone is different but they share a common thing and that is being useful. The special also brings back Diesel 10 and Lady who were last in the feature length film five years prior, which was there for the result of toy sales of the characters. The ninth season aired that year and this is where the downfall of the series had come, according to fans, with a repetitive three strikes formula and poor characterisation such as Edward and Toby, which carried onto the tenth season in 2006 and was the end of Thomas' ITV run due to imposing children adverts which is the funding, deeming it as too expensive, for the broadcaster which brought Thomas to Channel 5's milkshake!. Also that year, more Jack and the Pack episodes were released, these were the continuation of the spin-off series. The eleventh season aired in 2007 which brought back some old characters as well as interesting story lines, but has been downgraded to 20 episodes rather then the usual 26. That year as well James Bond actor, Pierce Brosnan, was announced to be the narrator for the UK and US audience, but that was later changed.

While 'The Great Discovery' has been announced to be this years DVD special, news also broke out that due to UK animation taxes on the rise, production of Thomas the Tank Engine, as well as HIT's other brands such as Bob the Builder, Fireman Sam and Angelina Ballerina, were to be moved to certain countries to be converted to CGI. Thomas went to Canada's Nitrogen Studios. S12 was to be last season to showcase the model animation after 24 years of hard work. Pierce Brosnan was contracted to be the storyteller for the series with three seasons and specials, however at the time when it aired it was the return of Angelis for the UK and AU and Brandon for the US. It was explained that the 'international voice' for Thomas didn't work out well. Fun fact though was the that Gwyneth Paltrow was originally suppose to be the narrator, resulting her to be the first female storyteller. The Great Discovery marks the end the full model production of the series and the only time Brosnan would be narrator and sadly, former Thomas director David Mitton had sadly passed away on May 13th 2008 due to heart failure.

2009 marks a new chapter in the television series' history. The show is now in full CGI and was met with praise from fans young and old with the DVD special 'Hero of The Rails'. Featuring new characters such as Hiro, Victor and Kevin. Plus, for the first time since Magic Railroad, a voice cast was introduced for the UK and US audience. Also that year, the US were introduced to Mr. Akwright, an engine driver on Sodor during the intervals of the DVD, he was soon replaced by another character called Mr. Perkins a year later. The director of the series now was Greg Tiernan, who is the owner of Nitrogen Studios and is also a fan of the Railway Series books. Also that year in the UK, Thomas Land was opened as europe's first Thomas theme park.

It's the 65th anniversary of the Railway Series and the television series began to air the 13th series all fully incorporated with CG animation from Nitrogen Studios. The animation was praised, however the stories were not. The stories still revolve around the three strikes formula however it was repetitive and was filled with rhyming and alliteration and that was each and every plot in the series. Also that year was new special 'Misty Island Rescue' were Thomas was stranded on an island called Misty Island with new characters, Bash, Dash and Ferdinand. The story was also criticised by fans for its writing and repetition. Season 14 aired later on in the year and it's the same as S13. 

While it's suppose to be the 100th birthday of the Rev.W.Awdry, Season 15 aired on milkshake! however this season was titled as 'the worst series in the television series' history' and they are not wrong. The stories had showcased much poor morals to children with no comeuppance for the engines and excessive amount of rhyming and alliteration. But it was announced that year that this would be Sharon Miller's last season as head writer. 'Day of The Diesels' was the year's special with the return of Diesel 10. Although a bit of an improvement towards the last special, it still suffered from bad writing and Percy, who was the main character in the special, was moping about that Thomas was not paying attention to him. Nearing Christmas time, religious groups have slammed the writing for the 'winter holiday' remark in the series as they felt Thomas had suffered from political correctness taking away the word 'Christmas'. Even the late Hilary Awdry had her say against the word 'winter holidays'. 

This was Nitrogen Studio's last contribution towards the Thomas series as it was announced that production will move to Arc Productions. The 16th series aired early that year on ABC in Australia and it was met with some little praise. Though in one episode the original Thomas theme was remixed by Robert Hartshorne, the recent composer, giving the episode much praise. 'Blue Mountain Mystery' was the year's special and with the return of the Skarloey Railway engines in full CGI and were given welsh accents. The movie was given praise by many fans of its storytelling as it was script edited by Andrew Brenner. 

With excitement brewing of the new changes about to come in the series, with Andrew Brenner taking the head writing role and Ian McCue and Haliam Jabbour producing, S17 was released on DVD in America's Wal*Mart stores in April with five selected episodes from the series. It was later broadcasted on UK television in June 2013 with additional episodes left for the UK's DVD release 'Spills and Thrills' for 2014, some episodes from that DVD were broadcasted in Australia and Japan and returns of some old favourites like Duck, Bill, Ben and Harvey. Plus the American DVD 'Santa's Little Engine' gave us new intervals by Andrew Brenner as well as intervals on PBS Kids of Mr. Perkins. On the DVDs we see him writing postcards on various things and places around Sodor and read some Railway Series stories with beautiful illustrations from Lorraine Marshall and the originals from the books. The PBS kids ones shows us the engines on the mainland. 'King of The Railway', the DVD special was released and despite its simple storyline, it had shown great appeal to fans young and old.

There has been some surprises earlier in the year for the US audience. After years of complaining, Lionsgate, the US distributors that had released Thomas DVDs after Anchor Bay, had released 'Spills and Thrills' on DVD in widescreen format. Despite the changes, it still left Australia annoyed. In January, Hoyts and ABC had made a cinema run of the DVD with the intervals and original episode line up and when released in stores, it has been tampered with by removing the intervals and replacing 'Thomas' Shortcut' with a S14 episode. Later on in August 2014, Series 18 aired and is on hiatus at the moment, most likely until Christmas in the UK. 'Tale of The Brave' was the new special and was praised from fans from its story, moral and characterisation. In the fan base, Sean O'Connor, from Sodor Island 3D and SiF have started a donation drive to preserve the model of James the Red Engine that was used in the latter years of the model era. The link for more info is below and ends on October 31st.