Interview: Farewell, Ben Small!

Ryan interviews departing Cast-Member, Ben Small, and reflects on a time with Thomas, where he's been more than just a voice artist!

What inspired you to become an actor, and where did you gain your earliest experience?

 

It's funny really, I became an actor  in 1998, and fell into animation voices, which for me was the thing I most wanted to do!

 

Much of your work has been in American voice – do you find much difference between production teams in the US and the UK?

 

Ironically, most of my work pre 'Thomas' was American, mainly having a Canadian Grandpa and actually I'm much more confident and comfortable with US deliveries in my voice acting.  Hence why I was sent to audition for the US Thomas originally, but wasn't chosen.  This ended up being in my favour in the end as I would never have been the UK Thomas.

Have you done much in terms of live action work, in either film, television or on the stage – if not, is this something you’d like to pursue in future?

 

It's funny, as you get known for the things you've done most, so animation became my niche.

That said, back in 2005, I almost moved to Canada, as I was working on the show 'Make Way For Noddy', and for the recording of a Christmas special, the Voice Director Michael Donovan came over from Vancouver to direct the special.

 

Michael is one of the busiest and sought after voice directors and a fantastic voice actor himself. He was very kind and complimentary, regarding my own acting and we stayed in touch.

 

So I flew out and he took me round the studios there and introduced me to an agent who was willing to represent me if I made the move etc. so it was a big possibility at one point, and there is a lot of TV and movies filmed in BC, so the plunge into front of screen was a possibility for sure.

 

In the UK, bits of TV and theatre, but as I mentioned earlier I was known much more for voice acting, and as we all know you HAVE to go where the work is!

As an actor, how do you develop and create the voices you use for the characters you work with?  Do you base them on people you know or base them on your own perception and interpretation?

 

Man that's a toughie!  Generally people have a fairly strong idea of what they after when casting, but for sure if I hear a voice I like and am inspired by, I'll try and get it in somewhere. 

 

An example being 'Pet Squad' cbbc, when I went for the original casting, the producers weren't set on the voice types and lots of people auditioned.  The character I played  'Dodge' initially was going to be a UK delivery, which I did, but I had just watched the movie 'Bolt' and the main character was played by John Travolta, and I knew I had to play Dodge with an American accent, and asked the producers if I could try him with the American accent, which they were happy for me to try, and well the rest is history.

 

Without a doubt, the BIGGEST influence on my voice acting career, was the amazing Robin Williams. I was SO upset to hear of his passing, just beyond sad. No one could ever come close to his brilliance.  I remember when I first watched Aladdin and Robin playing the Genie, thinking , WOW!!!! That is what I want to do!!!!!!

You grew up reading the Railway Series books and listening to the audio narratives done by Johnny Morris – did you ever have a favourite book or story from these?

 

Ah, I loved Johnny Morris!  Awesome guy, a great voice actor himself.

 

The stories back then were far less focussed on Thomas, and the rest of the engines featured far more in all the stories. The story that sticks in my memory in particular is when Henry got a new coat of paint, and refused to come out of a tunnel for fear of his new paint being spoiled. (The Sad Story of Henry)

 

Your first audition was for the American voice of Thomas – given that the series is still very well received in the US and its popularity has grown since the CGI series launched in 2009, do you regret not getting the role over Martin Sherman?

 

As I mentioned I'd never have been the UK  Thomas had that happened, plus Martin did a great job with Thomas USA and he's a great guy too!

 

What attracted you to working on Thomas & Friends?

 

I was asked to audition for it, so again, the rest is history

Prior to your first audition for the UK version of Thomas & Friends, did you develop or interpret voices for the characters you planned to audition for, or were you instructed to meet a criteria put forward by the production team?

 

They had a pretty strong idea of what they wanted up front, plus the US cast get to record first so whoever was cast as the UK counterpart pretty much had to match the character.

 

Do you have, or have you developed, an interest in railways and trains in general since joining the series?

 

Always loved steam trains! Johnny Morris has a lot to answer for!! Lol

 

Given your time with the series – is there a character you would have liked to have voiced, but didn’t get chance to?

 

I really enjoyed voicing Flynn for the short time I did.

 

You won the role of Thomas for the UK version of the CGI Series around 2008.  How did it feel to know you were going to be the voice of such an iconic and loved character?

 

A MASSIVE responsibility!  He's such an iconic character.   And being the first actor to establish the UK voice of Thomas was a big deal!

Voicing Thomas in Thomas & Friends wasn’t the first time you’d played a titular character – you also did Lunar Jim for CBeebies – do you find playing the lead characters to be more rewarding or more challenging compared to the supporting members?

 

Not necessarily. Some of the supporting characters I've played have been some of my favourites.

 

Hero of the Rails premiered in September of 2009, how did you feel hearing your work in a cinema setting for the first time?

 

Mixed feelings, but my concerns were soon soothed.

 

Rev Awdry's daughter was there and that was intimidating to say the the least!!, but when I was introduced to her, she was a delight and extremely gracious and complementary of my performance and I kind of took that as a 'seal of approval'. Also some of the biggest fans and experts of ALL things Thomas were also there, including the guys I affectionately named the 'Fellowship of the Railway' of which you are one!  And again to get the comments from yourselves and the approval and thumbs up meant a great deal, and still do for that matter.

 

For the UK dub of the series, you’d have to redub the dialogue that Martin had already recorded, and match the lip sync.  Can you tell us more about this dubbing process for the series from your experience?

 

It's not easy for sure, and takes a long long looooong time!  Tough on the engineer who has to edit it up too.  Chris Renshaw who is engineered most of my sessions at the sound co is a long suffering genius!

How much creative freedom was allowed for you guys as voice artists to improvise or make contributions to the scripts or specials of the series?

 

Sadly not much at all really.

 

You’ve said previously that you based your version of Toby on Clive Dunn’s character from Dad’s Army, and for a lot of fans, it’s a favourite voice – was Toby a welcome distraction from playing Thomas?

 

It really was but it was deemed that he was sounding too old the way I wanted to do it, hence my last answer, but thrilled you guys liked the voice.

 

Throughout your time with the series – you also had to record for toys, games and various other tie-ins. How do you find this aspect of your work?

 

Very different process, as you have to deliver the lines much more deliberately and slowly to make sure the lines stay clear once they get to the stage of being part of the toy in question.

From very early on in your work with Thomas, you have been very friendly and welcoming with the fans, and we’ve always enjoyed a great dialogue with you – do you feel it’s helped with your work on the series?

 

It's been invaluable Ryan!  The best part of the process for me, as you have all been so kind and complimentary of all I've done on the show, and that has been a huge motivation for me and I'm very humbled by it.  As unless the fans like what you're do, game over!

 

The voice of Winnie the Pooh, Jim Cummings, will often use his character voice to make phone calls to sick children to give them a boost. Given your role as Thomas in the TV Series, would you have liked to have done something similar?

 

Oh indeed!! And have done many messages on answer phones to children who are huge fans, that's a huge privilege to do, and very important I believe. charities I feel strongly about are UNICEF and COMPASSION , and I'm always happy to help raise awareness for such great organisations

 

From Misty Island Rescue onward, you began voicing the character of Ferdinand, whose dialogue range is somewhat ‘limited’ to the phrase, “That’s right!” How did you find voicing the character, given the way his dialogue was written?

 

Canny!  That's right!!

It was already established that Bash and Dash had Newcastle accents in the UK dub of the series – Ferdinand’s accent was never 100% clear until Series 15, when you gave him a similar twang. Were you leaning to a different accent or dialect earlier on, or always aiming to make him a Geordie?

 

I think it was fairly quick to establish Ferdinands accent at the time and given that Bash and Dash were already established as from the North East, it just fit!

 

Again, with Ferdinand, would you have liked him to have had other dialogue to ‘explore’ the character a bit more and give you more to work with?

 

For sure, and with some of the other characters who featured on the odd occasion.

 

With regards to the voice cast, can you tell us more about how decisions are made on who voices which new or ‘returning’ characters? Do you audition or are you approached by the production team?

 

Bit of both really.

Throughout your first three series with Thomas & Friends, you had a lot of rhyming and repetition in your dialogue, which as you’re aware, there’s been criticism of – but, how did you find recording this?

 

I never had an issue with it myself and saw that part as something suitable for a preschool show.

 

During your time with the series, you got to work on the American dub as well, doing Charlie and Stanley’s voices. What was it like for you working with the American cast of the series?

 

Sadly we were always recording our sessions in isolation so never actually did any of the sessions together.

 

In 2012, you began voicing the character of Rheneas the narrow gauge engine – who is based on a real life engine still working in Wales – have you ever visited any of the railways or locations associated with the series?

 

I haven't actually and didn't know that He is based on an actual engine, how cool is that!! Another fact that you guys have always helped me out with!!  Thanks Ryan!!

The writing style for the series has developed and changed a lot over the last six years of the series – how do you feel about the new scripts by comparison with the earlier ones you and the team recorded?

 

I guess the earlier scripts were the ones I was developing the Thomas character with so they will always be the ones closest to my heart. People have different favourites as far as the features go, and my favourite is 'Hero of the Rails' for the same reason.

 

When Rupert Degas left the series in 2012, you took over his role as Flynn and replicated his voice for the character perfectly. Would you have preferred to have developed a new voice for the character as you did with Charlie, or were you satisfied just doing an impersonation?

 

I said before, one of my favourites!  If ain't broke.. Don't fix it!  That's right!!

 

How would you say Thomas & Friends compares to other children’s series you’ve worked on?

 

It's the most recognised for sure! Few people know who I am, but I'm yet to meet anyone who's not heard of Thomas

There’s been rumblings of a Thomas & Friends feature film since 2009 or so. Were you or other cast members ever approached about the possibility of participating in this project? Would you have been keen to have worked on such a big project as this?

 

I never heard that one, and certainly never approached.  Would have loved to do that!

 

Do you or your family have any favourites from the Thomas & Friends Episodes or Specials you recorded for?

 

My daughters are both fans of Misty Island Rescue.

 

Similarly, do you or your family have any favourite characters from the series?

 

I loved Hiro from HOTR as loved the way Togo Igawa managed to convey so much warmth in his Character.

We love hearing stories from Behind the Scenes – do you have any funny or special moments to recall or share from your time in the recording studio with your fellow cast members?

 

We're all pals that have worked together on many other projects, but always on our own during these sessions, so room for gaffs is limited.

 

In the time we’ve known you, you’ve organised the cast signing of items for our charity auction for Clic Sargent in 2011, attended Premieres and Events associated with the series and have been an excellent ambassador for the brand as a whole – do you have any favourite or special moments from your time with Thomas & Friends over the last six years?

 

They were highlights for sure. I was asked to visit a school that was situated in a struggling council estate near Bristol, a friend was a teaching assistant there and asked to meet one of the classes and talk about being s voice actor etc. I passed on a copy of HOTR on DVD to one of the boys who was a Thomas fan. This lad was such an authority on ALL things Thomas and was really attentive and such an amazing smile when I handed him the dvd. It was after I left that my friend told me this particular chap had real behavioural problems, and was constantly in trouble at school, but was so attentive what I was there and you'd never have known! What a privilege. Hoping to go back to the School again. I feel strongly that it's important to be available to people, especially with such an iconic character as Thomas, it's almost my responsibility to be available for this kind of work.

 

Sadly, Series 18 and Tale of the Brave mark your final involvement with Thomas & Friends – how do you feel about moving on after such a long time?

 

Pretty gutted TBH. Disappointed if for no other reasons than the ones listed above really. I guess HIT decided to go in a different direction with His voice. For sure a real honour to be the 1st to give Thomas UK his own voice.

Do you have any other projects in the pipeline at this point in time that you can tell us about?

 

The only animation I'm working on right now is the 'Matt Hatter Chronicles' for Platinum Films, shown on CITV at the moment.  You mentioned earlier a free reign to improvisation and input in voice creation, well the creator and director Nigel Stone, gives me such a free reign and has been so generous and trusting in allowing me to create the voices. Nigel always has an idea of or reference as he created the characters too, but it's really collaborative and loads of fun.

 

Do you have any words of advice for the actor who will be replacing you in the role of Thomas?

 

Just Enjoy it!

 

As someone who’s given so much to the fans throughout your time with the series, what would you like to say to those who have enjoyed your work and personal interaction?

Simply, Thank You so much to you all!  Your kindness, generosity and support of my work during my time on Thomas and Friends has been amazing!  And meeting some of you personally has always been such an honour and pleasure, and something I'll never forget!  Every Blessing to all of you!

Related Videos

Featuring clips from across Ben’s career in animation with Lunar Jim, The Matt Hatter Chronicles and various others!

 

SiF would like to thank Ben personally for his time on Thomas & Friends.  Throughout his time with the brand, he went far beyond being the UK voice actor behind Thomas, he was a great ambassador and representative between the series and the fans.  We will never forget his kindness, his generosity and will treasure his friendship for years to come.

 

The new voice of Thomas may well give the character a fresh sound – but Ben Small embodied the best qualities of Thomas The Tank Engine, and we sincerely hope that HIT Entertainment will consider inviting him back again at some point.

 

Best of luck for future,

The Fellowship of The Railway!