Interview: Sam Wilkinson

From an introduction to Thomas at the age of three, Sam Wilkinson has gone from fan to an official crew member of Team Thomas in 2012, using his knowledge gained as a volunteer on the Battlefield Line Railway and applying it to the world of Thomas & Friends.

 

Here, in Part One of our extensive interview, Sam talks about his involvement with the series, his hopes for its future and the difficulties in balancing reality with fantastical elements!

Important Disclaimer

The answers given in the following interview solely reflect the opinions of Sam Wilkinson.  

They in no way purport to represent HIT Entertainment / Gullane (Thomas) Limited / Fisher Price / Mattel

Any opinions expressed in this interview are his alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of HIT Entertainment / Gullane (Thomas) Limited / Fisher Price / Mattel or Sodor Island Fansite.

Thomas & Friends Railway Consultant
Sam Wilkinson
Interviewed by the SiF Staff Team (July 2015)

1. Would you say that you've had a lifelong interest or involvement in railways?

 

Yes as far back as I can remember railways have been a part of my life.  My first real railway experience was when I was 3 and being taken to my local Railway to a Friends Of Thomas event where I actually met Thomas for the first time!  My uncle was a working volunteer at the railway, and one of his roles was to play the part of The Fat Controller, on those special days.

 

2. Your earliest experience working with locomotives comes from your volunteering and participation on your local railway. Can you give us an insight as to your time and the roles that you played there?

 

I used to sit and watch the trains come and go. As I got a bit older I was allowed to explore more of the railway. I was well known to the volunteers so they would take me under their wing for a few hours.

 

My first recollection of helping out was on a Thomas day, handing out certificates to all the children that visited Thomas' footplate. I got more involved over the years, helping in the gift shop, selling tickets, serving on the buffet coach and with track work. I became Catering Manager and was involved in helping with the majority of the events. I realised that I had a passion for events and within a year took on being the key organiser for all family themed events including Thomas. I became the Commercial Director for 5 years, designed many of the leaflets and planned the railways yearly running timetable.

 

There are plenty of stories I could tell but they are probably best being kept under wraps !

 

3. Your involvement with Thomas & Friends began professionally when you were the organiser for Days Out With Thomas events. Can you tell us more about how it was organising such large events multiple times per year?

 

They are a lot of hard work but very enjoyable, even though at times you just want it all to end. There are strict guidelines laid down by HIT to ensure that each and every event gives the visitor the best quality experience, and that the Thomas brand is represented properly, and as accurately, as possible. There is nothing on the railway that gets overlooked prior to a Thomas day.

 

As the event organiser I was responsible for making sure everything was done such as booking of entertainment, the working timetable, staff required and with which department, decorating of the stations inside and out, theming the inside of the coaches, promotional leaflets, arranging transport of Thomas, online promotion and ticket sales, layout of sites and placing / setting up of the marquees and the activities inside them, setting up PA systems both on the platforms and through the train, dealing with HIT and much more. When that's all done you get around 3 hours sleep before getting up and walking down to the engine shed, to talk through the opening ceremony plans with the engine crew and the signalman.

 

On the event days, I along with The Fat Controller (Jim) and Chris (our technical guy with all things audio) would run the show, through a PA system live and Neil who is the Associate Manger for DVD at HIT would look after the activities within The Imagination Station and ensure all non railway operational matters were attended to.

 

All the engine crew and signalman had radios so everyone knew what was going on and what the next plan was. For anyone that came to the events, if you spotted Mr Conductor on the platform, or on top of Thomas singing and dancing, then I wouldn't be too far away :) As for the friends of Thomas, we certainly had some of Sodor's finest to join in the fun, Boco, Daisy, Henry, Percy, Fergus and Diesel and The Thin Controller were regular visitors with Toby, Duck, Douglas and Rusty having visited in the past. We even had a visit from Sodor Castle one weekend.

 

Obviously no event can run without the railway volunteers who all did great work and without them there would be no event.

4. It was through your involvement that the successful 65th Anniversary Events took place on various Heritage Railways across the UK. Did you feel it was important that such an important milestone in Thomas' history was marked with real heritage steam?

 

The Anniversary events were actually an idea I had which I put to HIT in early 2008. Thomas is based on railways, so to me the only way you could have a proper Thomas party experience is to be with the real thing.

 

There was lots of things to consider and the key one was to ensure that a party took place in every region, so that potential everyone could attend a party event. All the existing railways within the Day Out With Thomas program were invited to submit party proposals, should the railway in question be interested in hosting such a special event and the seven chosen railways met with HIT to discuss plans, promotion and everything else that goes with it.

 

The official title for the events Party With Thomas 65th Anniversary was my idea and so my leaflet was passed round the top table for the other railways to take and get idea from. It was probably because I so vocal for the events to take place that HIT decided I should put my money where my mouth was and my event would the country’s first. No pressure their then. We certainly set the bar and it was the railways biggest and best Thomas day ever on record for my railway, and the best single day the railway had had within the last 10 years.

 

A member of HIT attended and helped at every party event and so Neil and I being greedy helped at Embsay & Bolton Abbey Railway and the Dean Forest Railway. Neil went on to help at Bo'ness & Kinneil Railway and then the Kent & East Sussex Railway solo (truth be told he's not as good without me :))

 

The funny thing here is that on set up day for Embsay, HIT chased me to sort out things rather than the railways own event team! The events were great fun and the volunteers at all the railways worked tirelessly to produce top of the range quality events.

 

We were invited to the 65th Anniversary Party held at Drayton Manor in December of that year as a guest, so it was nice to watch someone else run around a change.

 

5. Your railway is home to the locomotive 'The Blue Circle', which is the basis for Fergus within the TV Series. Could it be said that you feel you have any special connection with this character as a result, or a particular desire to see his return within the TV Series?

 

I actually brought The Blue Circle to the railway for a 4 day Thomas event as Toby was having repairs and not available. The owner was that impressed that the loco never returned home and became a resident engine. The loco has now moved on to another railway but the owner still keeps in contact and awaits a call to send Fergus on tour once more.

 

I personally think Fergus would look great in CGI and I would love to see an episode that sees Fergus and Trevor interact.

 

6. Are there any railways that you have visited that you would say you've enjoyed in particular?

 

I visited The Nene Valley Railway some years ago when Thomas was in steam so that was a nice surprise, being as that was the first official Thomas having been named by Reverend Awdry. I got to go onto the footplate and blow the whistle. I also spent a week in Wales visiting the various narrow gauge railways. I remember walking through Tywyn Station (Talyllyn Railway) just as Peter Sam whistled past. Obviously that was the next train we caught, and after a chat with the crew, I was allowed on the footplate and blew the whistle at the far end of the line. Footplate visits on Thomas characters and whistle blowing became a habit of mine.

7. In your own free time, I imagine you've travelled to various heritage and preservation railways across the UK. Do your experiences from this often contribute towards your input towards the Thomas and Friends team, or have any ever locomotives you've encountered on your travels helped inspire new characters?

 

To be honest it's mainly from my railway volunteer work that helps me. I do take photos and notes from other railways, which do get used occasionally.

 

8. Were you familiar with the Railway Series or the Thomas and Friends TV Series prior to your contributions to the TV Series?

 

When I was very young, nothing seemed to interest me, then one day at a family friend's, a new video they had just bought was put on, and I was instantly hooked, my mother thought it was a miracle, it was Thomas, Percy & The Coal, from that point on Thomas was firmly within our household, and my life so far!

 

9. Either through your time working on the TV Series or otherwise, have you ever had any involvement with, any communications or indeed meeting with any members of the Awdry family?

 

According to my uncle I met Wilbert and Christopher at the same time at Cadby Rectory, which isn't that far from where I lived, but I don't remember it as I was too young. I do remember however meeting Reverend Awdry at Caedby, in 1991 / 1992. He signed a copy of Henry The Green Engine for me. I then met Christopher in 1997 / 1998, again at Caedby. He signed my Thomas The Tank Engine Complete Collection book for me and we chatted for a few minutes.

 

I also had some contact with the family regarding the possibility of Christopher attending our 65th party, due to various reasons it was not possible but he wished me all the best.

 

At the Thomas film premieres, I am introduced to any Awdry family member if they attend of which they generally do.

10. Did you have any involvement with the Thomas and Friends production team prior to King of the Railway and Series 17, during previous eras of the show?

 

With regards to the production, no.

 

11. Have you have any involvement with anything else Thomas related besides Day Out With Thomas and prior to joining the production team?

 

I visited Shepperton Studios whilst Heave Ho Thomas was being filmed and spent a few hours with the crew there. That was a treat to be hold. Being able to hold the actual Thomas model, that just been filmed on set was a special moment.

 

I also had a few conversations with Sam Barlow in connection with producing an updated map of Thomas' 65th Anniversary, where he sent me the latest map they had used or Misty Island Rescue and Series 14, but with the request to remove Misty Island and Series 14 locations as they were not due to be released until later that year.

 

To promote the anniversary year, I arranged for a Thomas themed float to attend at couple of local carnivals. This was also to raise money for The National Autistic Society (Thomas' Charity).

 

The float was decorated with Thomas bunting and banners and was armed with Microphones and speakers. Fergus bring the smallest character available was the chosen engine and The Fat Controller was hand to ensure everything ran smoothly. There was also a team on the ground with leaflets and Thomas stickers. I took to centre stage, mixing very bad singing, dancing and DJing skills as we delighted thousands of people that lined the streets and event fields.

 

The most impressive part of all the carnivals was during a pause in the middle of processions, where we took the opportunity to get around 3,000 dancing to The Wheels On Thomas followed on by them all singing along to Engine Roll Call.

 

We came first place in the first carnival and received a cheque for 150 for the NAS along with the money that landed on our float. We then came third place at the other and received a cheque for 50 for the charity.

 

The latter had a funny ending to it, And the end of the procession everybody has to come down off the floats, which was due to insurance, so no problems there, however Fergus was in full live steam. The carnival organisers didn’t understand this (and became quite vocal about this and parked a car in front of us) even though the procession had actually lead by a Traction Engine, but that was on the road and so could quite happily steam away, but because our engine was the on the float our crew had to come off. Our crew quite rightly was having none of it and the organisers who still didn’t understand went away and came back with two policemen. So you can imagine what went through our minds when a photographer took a picture of Fergus, The Fat Controller, Mr Conductor, and two Engine crew arguing with two policemen. When it was pointed out again the reasons why the crew couldn’t just leave the engine and that it would be the responsiblity of the police force and the carnival organisers should anything happen, the officers to be fair to them, apologised for any inconvenience caused, gave the organisers a few sharp words and they all went away and left us to it.

 

I have also organised a few Thomas Train Walks for the NAS which took place on Thomas event days allowing children to meet Thomas once the walk had been completed.

 

I also did the official review for The Times newspaper for The Great Discovery special. This involved watching the film at the railway with The Fat Controller, a reporter and a few railway staff which ended in a interview and photographs with Fergus.

 

I have also assisted the Home Entertainment department with content suggestions for the Christmas Express, Best Of Thomas, James and Percy DVDs, providing the title for Dinos and Discoveries and the content for the upcoming 1st Class Stories release.

 

12. Could you explain how you came to be involved with the Thomas and Friends team?

Do you find that your role can encompass other things besides simply consulting as to the authenticity of railway practice within the stories?

 

The short and quickish version is that HIT felt that a consultant to advise on a technical railway aspect was needed for Thomas as both Bob The Builder and Fireman Sam had a construction consultant and fire consultant, but Thomas didn't have anything. My name was brought up in conversation within HIT to Neil as a possibility because of my connection with the company. I received an email from Ian McCue, had a chat on the phone and arranged a meeting at the London office. The meeting went well, I was sent away with a load of homework and the rest as they say is history.

 

Because of my Thomas knowledge, it was a bonus for HIT and I do from time to time assist in other areas of Thomas, such as Home Entertainment, Live Events and Publishing. You could say my role is more of a Railway and Brand / Series consultant, then just a railway only.

13. What was the timescale for the start of your work on the series?   Did you start working on the series at the same time as Andrew Brenner did in 2010, or were you hired later on?

 

I joined in early 2012. I got asked one month if I was interested in the role and the next month the job was mine.

 

14. As a Railway Consultant, how do you maintain the balance between railway realism/accuracy, and more fantastical elements made to appeal to the target demographic?

 

It's a constant learning curve and juggling act as each year there is a different theme, each story is different and the needs of the story are different. We have to have episodes that are more aimed for the younger audience such as Disappearing Diesels and Emily Saves The World, but even those episodes do have certain railway realisms within them.

 

Part of my role is to come up with creative suggestions on how to achieve the same result but in a more realistic way if I feel the need to do so. There is always a compromise found, if I feel particularly unhappy about anything. That works on all sides, as sometimes the animation company have suggestions and such too. On paper nearly everything works, but on screen it is very different, and believe it or not in some instances, real railway practice looks worse than the fantastical elements.

 

15. After being recruited as a Railway Consultant on the new team, what were your first things to tend to?  Were there any things that you felt immediately required your attention?

 

There were 26 scripts and a special that had all ready been written and was into production, so that was the first thing, or the first 27 things to do! With that came a writers bible. All needed to be completed but each with varying deadlines, so it was a paperwork nightmare at the start, but I do believe it was worth it, and with the combined efforts of everyone involved, the results really do speak for themselves.

 

Outside of the physical production of the episodes, no project of mine is ever finished, there is always something that requires looking at, and always room for improvements and updates, for instance the red lining on the back of Thomas' bunker was a request of mine, the adding of lamps to the front and back of the engines and rolling stock, the Map Of Sodor, set updates, it's all work in progress and you will see more updates as each series progresses.

16. Could you reveal whether there is a “writers bible” that is provided to the writers of the TV Series?  If so would you be able to give us any insight as to its content and depth? How does this compare with any sort of document or encyclopaedia as guidance that the writers used as a reference during the previous era’s of the show?

 

Yes, it includes Character profiles, key Location bios and a map of Sodor.

 

The character profiles and locations bio were I believe produced for the start of Series 14. In fairness to the writers at that time, there wasn’t a great deal to go at, and that’s because very little character info / location info was actually passed on to HIT when they bought Thomas.

 

Now there is more information and a map for the writers to work from.

 

17. Recently, the visuals have seen a push to realise the importance of engines having a headlamp. Why was this considered particularly important? Would it be a wish to ever see accurate headcodes adhered to within the series, or even be a plot point in any upcoming episodes?

 

Headlamps was the first key asset change / update I requested, purely because of my railway work at and I felt that it was a very important part of realistic railway workings, because no train can run without them, either preserved or on the main network. It was also a small change to models that does not affect the model in any negative way.

 

These were added slowly to existing key characters and to the rear of rolling stock from mid way through Series 17 onwards. As you can imagine when you’re in the middle of production it’s not always easy to change a character model, and so some changes haven’t happened yet, and only get requested when we next see the character.

 

Any new character now automatically has a front and back lamp as standard, but the designs for the front lamp will vary depending on the type of locomotive we are building.

 

The changing of headlamp placement to be correct with the type of engine / train its pulling is not practical and would be a continuity nightmare. Unless you work on the railways you wouldn't even know that a headlamp code list even exists. The key thing is that it is now acknowledged on nearly every engine and train that there should be a lamp. For Series 19, we have given Spencer two authentic headlamps to show he is an express.

 

18. Are there any particular aspects of real railway operations you’d love to see utilise as a plot point in the series in future? (e.g. brake tenders, tow-roping, trap points, boiler tickets).

 

We do introduce one or two new technical terms each series, and you will notice that it's a mixture of dialogue and visual, as some things would be difficult to animate and explain to our target audience. I do suggest variations, some are used and some are not, for various reasons.

 

We used brake tenders during in Calm Down Caitlin, which was my suggestion as I believed it worked better than the original idea which was a coach brake problem.

19. Are there any particular engine prototypes you would like to see brought into the series which would serve well as a character on Sodor?

 

A Great Western Castle and a Diesel Multiple Unit. I think it would be funny to have the GWR ways being pushed down the funnels of the big engines by a big engine for a change, or for Duck to be brought down a peg or two when it comes down to rules of the GWR. I think it would be great for Daisy to have some competition in the form of a two car DMU.

 

20. There was a strong change of direction for the show and the manner in which the team looked to the original Railway Series books and considered their relevance to the TV Series come Series 17. Are you aware of what inspired these changes?  How important would you say an Awdry/'Railway Series' influence is to the series? Is this something that you help maintain in your role?

 

HIT had made the decision to make the changes, which is why I was brought in, in the first place. The series has had several directional changes under its different owners over the years. So it was bound to happen at some stage with Mattel as the new driver. I can't really go into any more detail then that im afraid.

 

Without The Railway Series there would be no Thomas, and we do acknowledge that. We do, wherever we can, relate to the Awdry family's work. If I can use anything Awdry related, I will.

 

21. In previous series, the characterisation of particular engines, such as Skarloey, Rheneas, Henry, Edward and Toby has been inconsistent with their character in classic stories. Has the team actively been attempting to restore and cement their true, original personas in recent episodes? What steps are taken to ensure that writers keep characterisations consistent and faithful?

 

HIT was aware of some character inconsistencies certainly around the time of Series 16, which is why there is a noticeable difference between that and Series 15 as a whole. Ian was a key factor in this. And so was Andrew when he joined, and then again when I joined.

 

As mentioned above in HIT’s defence there was not a great deal to go on when they took over the series, and as by that point the TV Series had moved away from the original books, I believe they looked at the last few series and that formed the basis of the new era of the show with Series 8.

 

Up until Series 17, the characters had been portrayed in their existing state for a good 10 – 12 years meaning that we couldn’t just go in and re-write the characters to be as they should be. Subtle changes have been made over the last few years, to get the characters more like they should be. This is still work in progress.

22. In the Series 8 - 16 era, it seemingly became commonplace for foodstuffs in particular to be curiously carried in open wagons, exposed to the elements, for greater visual impact to a young audience, but is thankfully a much less common occurrence, with foodstuffs and engines' incidents with them being virtually never played upon now. Was this something that the team felt simply had to go to create a more realistic portrayal of railway operations?

 

I think it was a mix really. It does give a better visual, but if it can be avoided generally now it does. Although there are a couple of episodes where it still does and will happen.

 

23. Recently the show has done a better job of incorporating more railway realism, with the likes of emergency cords, slip coaches, 'bankers', signal gantries and the histories and/or technicalities of particular locomotive bases being addressed and made relevant, such as Stephen's participation in the Rainhill Trails and Gator's sloping water tanks. While we may still get the odd exception where an episode does not conform rigorously to realism for the sake of the story, such as 'Emily Saves the World', how crucial would you say railway realism is to Thomas and Friends?

 

It’s all about balance. And that’s my job. It also depends on what you class as realism. As there are some things in Thomas, that the general viewer would class as not realistic but in actual fact is very realistic. There are also quite a lot of instances of those with railway knowledge who say what we put on screen is not accurate. I can assure you a lot of what we get questioned on, does happen on railway be it mainline or preserved, but these things are done behind closed doors on railways and are probably best kept that way.

 

Emily Saves The World is not that bad an episode, I’ll refer you to Rusty & The Boulder, or Up Up & Away .

 

24. Could you comment on the decisions to attract bigger celebrity names to the show such as John Hurt, Eddie Rayneman and Olivia Coleman?

 

It's not really a new decision as Thomas has always had a celebrity storyteller attached to him and even in today's world they don’t come much bigger then Ringo Star. With the characters having their own voices, it was only a matter of time before more than one celebrity voice at any one time would be working on Thomas. I can't really add any more than that. But it would be unforgivable to not, at this point, give credit to the whole voice talent team, past and present, they are all quality professionals and deliver perfectly. Let’s be honest if you just heard the voice and didn’t know the names of the actors, you wouldn’t know who was a celebrity and who wasn’t.

 

25. Is there a conscious decision to implement more female characters to the series in the name of diversity? Is it felt that female viewers would struggle to relate to male characters?  Are there ever fears of introducing 'token' females?

 

Thomas is generally a boys brand and to include lots of female characters would be going against the series origins and history. We do look at adding female characters when appropriate.

 

Like anything you need to have the balance right as we want to appeal to everybody.

 

We don't have any fears of introducing one off females, if the story requires it, it will happen, if it doesn't, then it won't.

26. Occasionally, Thomas and Friends is a series that will get, what is often felt to be, an unprecedented bad press in terms of its representation of female characters, even having come under attack from the British Transport secretary previously. Does the team feel particular care must be taken when it comes to the representation of females in the series? Some fans have suggested a greater number of human female railway staff might be an idea for the future; is this something the team could consider?

 

As I mentioned above, Thomas was created for small boy who was poorly and that is something we will not change. I don't think we need to introduce lots of new female characters just to please the occasional negative press. Once you start to change something for one comment, then you have to change it for several, which ultimately would mean you are essentially putting out a different series. Also I think we have very strong regular female characters in the series. Annie and Clarable take more of a lead role, and keep Thomas in line, the same as Henrietta does with Toby. Emily is a strong character who doesn't take any hassle from the male engines. Mavis also tends to take lead roles over the male engines at the Quarry.

 

We have discussed the possibility of employing female railway staff on Sodor, but that is not a decision that we can just do straight away.

 

27. How much is feminism considered within the stories?

 

It's not really something we have a rule book on. The writers will pick a character and write for them, male or female it doesn't make any difference. If they have a good idea, they will pick out the key characters which they believe work best with the story. We may decide that the character chosen is not as suitable as another, and so we will change it, but that rarely happens for the key roles in any case.

 

28. Is there a conscious decision to implement more foreign characters to the series in the name of diversity and multiculturalism?

 

Sodor to me is a essentially a giant Railway Museum.

 

I think it's very important to broaden the show's appeal, and having characters from other countries does just that. Thomas has been very successful in many countries, and the episodes from the earlier series around at the time of the initial success mainly had British locomotives in them. There is going to be more of a demand for merchandise if it is based on your own country.

 

We have at least one new British character each series, Stephen in Series 17, Samson Series in 18 and Ryan in Sodor’s Legend of the Lost Treasure for example, let alone the Rex, Bert & Mike, so I don’t see that there is any risk of losing Thomas’ British identity.

 

To be honest I think that you could just have The Logging Loco's on Sodor and it would still look and feel like a British Railway, with the scenery, rolling stock, background vehicles and the style the series has.

29. The franchise has a portion of its fanbase that have been diagnosed with Autism. Sufferers of Autism can be averse to change and appreciate routine and consistency and can be made uncomfortable with things that others might not give a second thought towards. Do things such as this have be taken into consideration?

 

We are mindful that the series has fans of all ages and types and we try to accommodate everyone, but no matter how much time, effort and thought we put into a story it is not going to please everyone.

 

30. Clearly, seeing people become injured from an accident is generally not the done thing, with 'A Better View for Gordon' in Series 5 being the only instance that comes to mind. Are there any limitations with regards to accidents that are portrayed within the series and how serious they can be?

 

The Fat Controller has gained a few cuts in his time if you look for them. The series is mainly about engines and so it makes sense for them to become damaged rather than humans. Also it’s made quite clear that the engines can be completely rebuilt with new parts. I think James’ crash in The Adventure Begins, shows we are capable of some pretty impressive and serious crashes.

 

31. Do the team feel that they've been taking greater steps to appeal to an age range beyond pre-school by offering more challenging morals and more exciting scenarios? 'Sodor's Legend of the Lost Treasure' promises themes of betrayal and plenty of action asides, for example, and generally has a much more mature approach compared to material of previous years, for example.

 

We want to appeal to as wider audience as possible. The specials are written specifically to include a wider audience range and the whole family is likely to watch it either at home or in cinema. But certainly since Series 17, the episodes themselves have been written with a slightly older audience in mind but ensuring we still do keep them for the key pre-school audience.

32. What do the team feel are some of the key morals and life lessons that it is essential to try to communicate to the developing next generation through the franchise?

 

Friendship is the key one. Followed by accepting when you’re wrong, admitting it, and then doing what you can to put it right.

 

33. Is any particular consideration given towards challenging stereotypes in the TV Series, and showing that individuals, and indeed society, can be complex and multi-dimensional?

 

No. And I don't think that anyone should be trying to work out things out like this, as this is not what the show is about and certainly is not how the show is written.

 

The same goes for some of the hidden moral ideas that we see are invented from time to time or the idea that equality differences are being exposed within episodes. Misty Island Rescue was a major one where we was being questioned on several aspects about the negative moral ideas and the impact we was putting across to children.

 

34. Is there any particular ideology behind the morals that the series attempts to communicate, support and teach? Would the series have any particular stance on conservatism/ liberalism/ socialism/ anarchism?

 

People are always trying to create divides and challenges to any show. Recently Peppa Pig was under fire. Noddy has been in the limelight a number times over the years. At the end of the day Thomas along with many others is a classic children's series, which started 70 years ago, of which children can learn from and play with. We do not sit down and try to go through every possible negative critic that could arise, if we did we would never produce anything.

35. Have the team ever considered looking in similar places for inspiration for new characters as Awdry did  and seeing if there are locomotives that could be drawn upon for characters that would have worked alongside existing Awdry's characters' bases in real life?

 

Not as such, but we do look at information regarding the prototype of new characters to see if we can use any of it for future stories. For instance Porter has three domes, which formed a key part of his introduction story.

 

36. Given how City of Truro, Flying Scotsman, Spencer, Hiro, Connor, Caitlin and Samson seem to operate on the Mainland, and other characters having worked there previously, varied locomotives usually associated with an array of different countries are all classed as working / living there. Is 'the Mainland' or 'the Other Railway' still interpretable as being the United Kingdom?

 

Yes it is. But up to now we don't call it such. We do however acknowledge Thomas' roots by him saying he worked at Brighton before coming to Sodor during The Adventure Begins.

 

37. Do you have any personal favourite character pairings or combinations within the series?

 

Yes but the two I have picked are from non Awdry content of which you hopefully will see why. I think The Thomas Way, for CGI and Thomas & Skarloey's Big Day Out for Live Action. Both stories use primarily Reverend Awdry characters and the stories feel like they have been taken directly out of the original books.

38. Do you have any personal favourite characters of your own from the series, or are there any that you feel are particularly strong characters, whether they are an Awdry or TV Series born creation?

 

All of the characters have something about them if you look for it. Obviously I hold a special bond with Sam our new merchandise only character and of course Fergus, but Thomas is, and always will be, my personal favourite for the reasons I mentioned earlier. Even though he is my favourite, I will try and have him removed him from a scene if I feel there is no logical / real reason for him to be there.

 

39. Are there any particular characters that you yourself have personally had a strong hand in the inspiration, creation or development of?

 

I'm involved with all of the above, but Stephen and Glynn would be the winners for that one.

 

Stephen went through some design changes as soon as I started because I wasn't happy with him. And the concept of a coffee pot was part of the original 70th Anniversary film idea which was mine.

 

40. Clearly HIT / Fisher Price will annually want new characters and destinations to sell toys of. What are your views on how the balance of screen-time between new and classic characters and destinations should be handled?

 

It depends on what you class as classic characters and destinations. For the older fans it may be anything from the Railway Series, for the slightly younger it might be anything from Series 1 – 7, and then one down from that is Series 8 – 12. For me anything up to Series 12 is considered classic.

 

I think generally the majority of new locations we create are as good, if not better in some cases, then some of the older ones, because they all have a proper function and placement. That goes for the characters as well. Newer characters and locations are always going to get more screen time, because they are what the current audience know. Classic ones have, and always will continue to be brought back, as long as we can do something decent with them, or believe we can make them work.

 

As I have mentioned before we will use Awdry / earlier series' info as much as we can within reason, and for the needs for the story.

41. To your knowledge, have there been any particular episodes as of King of the Railway that have been based on real life incidents or that have been inspired by aspects of real railway operation, whether as a result of your own input or otherwise?

 

Yes. Quite a few of them have been inspired by real life instances.

 

42. Has there been a conscious effort to introduce more 'action' characters with greater moving parts, such as Belle, who shoots water, Marion, the steam shovel, or Skiff the railboat?

 

It all depends on the story we are making, we try to create characters which are different looking in any way possible, so children and their parents can tell the difference both on screen and on the toy shelf. Moving parts are not essential but are a good extra if they can be executed correctly. Although it could be argued that Belle and Diesel 10 went a stretch too far, but they did do the job the story required and they are popular characters in general both on and off screen.

 

43. How important is, and how much consideration is given to, the 'merchandisability' of any new characters or returning classic/Awdry characters?

 

Any character must have some merchandise potential, or that character wouldn't have made it to the screen, now, or previously. With Awdry characters the majority that have appeared in the Live Action series have had some sort of merchandise line, and in some cases still do, even though they are not in the CGI series.

44. Similarly, how much consideration is given to how toys may be made from particular storylines and how tie-in merchandise may be able to be manufactured to co-incide with what is seen on screen?

 

As long as you have a decent story, you can create merchandise. We are owned by a toy company and even when we were solo, we relied on merchandise sales to stay in business and so everything we do needs to have a merchandise element attached to it, whether or not any is produced directly from a specific story. I'm aware that some fans do not like this idea, but at the end of the day, if the brand is to continue we need to keep adding new characters / items to sell. If we don't sell products, there will be no more series.

 

We do make certain episodes more merchandise friendly than others. In some respect that's our way of trying to balance fan and target based audience. It's as simple as that.

 

45. Do you feel that new characters will ultimately have equal appeal as existing ones to both children and adults? What steps are taken to attempt to ensure that they do?

 

Yes. Paxton, The Earl Of Sodor, Stephen are the prime examples.

 

It all goes down to the character's personality and the way they are written into stories. Gone are the days of introducing a new character for 5 seconds of screen time and then never seen again.

 

46. What is the team's view of recent controversial 'merchandise-only' characters such as Logan and Sam, considering the team does not appear to have been involved in their development, yet budget has undoubtedly been put towards making CG renders of them, that could likely have been used elsewhere? Are such 'characters' likely to ever make an appearance in the TV Series or will they be restricted to their respective merchandise adverts?

 

This is a tricky one. We see the reasons why merchandise characters are being created and it makes sense to a point. We had very little input with Logan, as he was, I guess, a trial and error character, which, credit to Fisher Price, worked well, but with Sam and any future characters it is the same process as any other character, which comes under our control, with input from other departments.

 

They have their own budgets which are totally separate from the series and specials. As it stands they are merchandise only, maybe in two or three years after they are released they may appear in

47. How is it decided upon how many and which characters should and will return to the series with a CG render from the classic series? Do you get much input in this decision in your role? Are there any factors that may work against or in favour of any particular character returning?

 

We generally try to have three or four 'bring-back' characters, and one or two locations a series.

 

I get asked my thoughts and reasons why, and it's taken from there.  Currently we have been looking at mainly Awdry / classic Britt / Gullane characters rather than our own Series 9 – 12 creations.

 

48. Who is responsible for selecting the prototypes used for new characters? What level of research goes into the basis? Who makes the final decision, and what would you feel is important in a prototype or a character's on-screen appearance and why?

 

It's myself, Ian and Andrew that pick the prototypes for the new characters.

 

The prototype is based on what the character's bio is likely to be, for instance with Ryan, Andrew wanted a tank engine that Thomas feels a little threatened by, so we needed a tank engine that was a bit bigger than Thomas. I picked four options, and it was agreed the N2 would be used. That's generally how it works from both Ian and Andrew's side as well.

 

The important thing for me is we have a character that has something different about them, both in their personality and looks. We have to make the character visually appealing and different to the existing cast in terms of colour and or design. Sometimes this is hard to achieve, which is why we do tend to look further afield for new character prototypes, and/or have a brighter livery than they would have had in the real world.

 

49. When the CGI models of returning characters are being constructed, is priority given to the original models of the classic series or the real life prototype that a character is based on when it comes to dictating their final appearance?

 

Both. We have to use the live action model as the main design, but we will add and take away to be as close to the original prototype as possible but staying true the original live action model / original book images. the series. Who knows what will happen.

50. Recently, the news has leaked the Small Railway Engines will be appearing in the next Special 'Sodor's Legend of the Lost Treasure' and becoming part of the TV Series. Could you offer any insight has to how it came about that the team decided to integrate the miniature Arlesdale Railway into the TV Series?

 

The Small Railway and Culdee Fell Railway have always been on the list to be created, ever since I joined, but these would always require a lot of time, resources and money to create. Also there is no live action reference so everything would have to be done from scratch.

 

In actual fact the storylines for this special is a combined effort of two or three story ideas, that were actually not going to be used for another few years. The original special for this year was going to be a totally different story, which wouldn’t have included The Small Railway, BUT would have still been a very fitting tribute the 70th Anniversary, with different characters from The Railway Series being created.

 

Watch this space.

 

51. Do the team still feel that they must continue to introduce their own original new characters alongside?

 

Yes. We have to.

 

52. Series 17, in particular, appeared to give greater development to some of the minor characters, particularly those introduced in the Series 13 - 16 era. Even Sidney received a new set of wheels, having been suspended from the roof of the Vicarstown Dieselworks for two years since his introduction so as that he could come into the fold as a character with greater story value. Was this approach to generally elaborate on such characters an intentional move so as to give these characters a fair airing and to clearly cement their characters?

 

Yes. A lot of characters had been created, same as with Live Action but then didn’t get much more screen time then their initial episode / special. For me if a character does not appear on screen, then children and parents are not going to know who they are and will walk right past them in a shop. Aside from the merchandise reason, these characters can and do bring something new to the series. Can you imagine what life would be like if Paxton had just been a background character?

53. Gator, introduced in Tale of the Brave, is based on what some might deem to be a somewhat obscure oddity of a locomotive. Did researching this prototype present any particular problems, considering the lack of photographs and information regarding this engine?

 

There was not a lot of real life picture reference for Gator. Andrew found it a while before the story was fully worked out, sent me the image with a 'here you go, good luck' comment, I worked on it and found more references, and then Arc produced a great render. This goes to show the capability that Arc have.

 

54. In terms of creating the new characters, are the locomotive or vehicle prototypes chosen first to inspire the writers, or are the characters written with a vague idea of a prototype in mind that is decided upon later?  Could you talk us through the stages of development that are gone through when creating and building up new characters?

 

It's pretty much as I mentioned before, Andrew / the writers will have an idea how they want the character to act, look and feel and we go away and have a look at the options. Then when we are happy with our choice, we send some notes to Arc and they draw us some versions. Once we are happy with the basic design, extra details are added, the engine design is approved and then colour choices are looked at, whilst this is being done the engine is being modelled, once built, any last minute detail changes are made and then model is sent to lighting. It is then sent back to us for final approval. Generally no changes will be made at this point, unless we spot something major, we have all missed.

 

55. Have there ever been any designs intended for characters that you have recommended to change to another design?

 

Not really we all share the ideas and agree a design, or if we like more than one, we would look at a hybrid, such as Reg or Butch.

56. What would you say to concerns that new characters are too frequently 'quirky' or outlandish?

Are there any locomotive designs you would love to see used in the series?

 

To be honest, I don't understand why there would be a concern about wanting to introduce a variety of locomotive prototypes to the show. To me Sodor is a giant railway museum, so if we can preserve many different classes of engine, then that's a good thing. If all the engines looked the same, it would be hard to tell them apart, and even more confusing when wanting to purchase them off the shop shelf.

 

57. How are names decided upon for new characters?  Some characters names have been found to have possible deeper meanings; 'Stephen' for instance translates as crown, which is somewhat relevant to the plot of King of the Railway.  Are there any similar deeper meanings that fans may not yet have picked up on?

 

No we don’t go into that research on a name, this is mainly a case of fans tying to create their own theory’s on what we have done, which is not a bad thing. It is an interesting read into how these theories are discovered. Sometimes we do pick names relating to their builder, such as Porter, who actually started as Porter then went through a name change and then went back to his original name. Samson had no reference to Neil at all. Although it was picked up later on, that the two looked a bit similar.

 

58. How much control might the creator of a character's debut script have over their facial appearance or livery?

 

It depends on what info the creator puts down. We will try our best to create what has been written, but we have to make sure a face design is not the same as any other current design and the same for the livery.

59. Originally Hank was intended to have a handlebar moustache, and, in the Railway Series, Iron Duke had a bushy white moustache. Is there any particular reason why facial hair, other than stubble for Iron 'Arry and Iron Bert, is perhaps an undesirable or unsuitable aesthetic for a Thomas & Friends character?

 

It has never really come up. We are not against any such idea so long as it can be designed and executed correctly. Wait and see for next year!

 

60. Who has the final decision on what a new character is to be named?

 

It's a joint decision like a lot of the things. Ultimately Ian has the final say on everything, unless there is something major that those higher up have to have an involvement in, but even then Ian usually has the final say.

 

61. Have there been any particular instances where character names have changed throughout the production process from an alternate original name upon concept or a working name until one is settled upon?

 

A few have changed from their original, including Stafford, Millie and Stephen.

62. Some characters have seen alterations to their aesthetics, such as Bill and Ben now having red wheels, and Jack now having a square, as opposed to a round, face? What was behind these decisions to tweak their appearance?

 

With Bill and Ben, Arc felt it would make them stand out a bit more, and when the designs came through we saw what they meant. With Jack, he had been produced under the old team and for some reason no one spotted the face shape change until I picked it up, when I joined but it was too late by that point, besides the square face does actually fit better.

 

That does not mean that we are going to start majorly changing all existing live action characters, or Railway Series characters, should they become CGI, but it must be remembered that Skarloey has had a colour change, and the narrow gauge engines had different colours to the original books.

 

63. With the recently announced introduction of a character in 'The Adventure Begins', namely Glynn, based on one of the 'Coffee Pot' locomotives referenced in the Rev W Awdry's 'The Island of Sodor: Its People, History and Railways' and the 'Railway Series Surprise Packet', what is generally the stance on the relevance and canonicity of less official characters that were still part of Awdry's universe but that were not given exposition within the Railway Series stories?

 

All of the characters that as far as we know have been created by the Awdry family under The Railway Series name are on a character list document and are considered part of the same.

 

64. Considering the level of detail on many of the newer models, are there any plans to update the original renders of the core characters, such as Thomas, Edward, Henry, Gordon, James, Percy, etc with the additions of rivets, or tweaks to make them subtly closer to their real life prototypes? (Or perhaps re-sizing Rusty's face, too...!)

 

We have discussed this, but we have to be careful not to change too much on screen, the odd bit of lining, a lamp and the odd bolt rivet is about the most we can do as we would also have to change all the marketing and merchandise designs, which would cost a lot of money for very little benefit.

65. Thomas and Friends has an ever-expanding cast and a noticeably sizeable number of characters to divide screen-time between. With children keen to see consistency with the characters and have their favourites receive focus, do you feel the Thomas and Friends series will get to a point where the conclusion is reached that increasing cast-count at the present rate puts too much of a squeeze on covering all the characters?

 

If I remember right, in Series 17 and 18, the only key characters that have not been seen is in an episode or special are Trevor, Bash, Dash and Mr Bubbles. I don't think it's any more of problem now then back with the classic series (1-7), let alone anything past them.

 

Edward didn't feature at all in Thomas & The Magic Railroad. Splatter & Dodge have not been seen since then. Diesel 10 and Lady didn't feature in any live action series episodes. Daisy didn't make an appearance in Series 3 or Series 5 - 7. Boco didn't get a show in Series 4 or anything past Series 5. Trevor didn't get a speaking role in Series 4 or 5. Old Slowcoach, Bertram, Thumper have not been seen since Series 5.

 

What we have done is try to give some of the lesser used characters a more starring role if not in Series 17 then in 18 and 19.

 

To answer the question about covering all characters, a scene at the Dieselworks lets say will showcase 8 characters. The China Clay Pits will show 4 characters, and The Blue Mountain Quarry can showcase 10 characters, with all those 22 characters actually being in their the correct locations.

 

66. Are there any characters that you would particularly like to see make a comeback?

 

To be honest I would love to see all the existing live action cast brought back at some point, even if we only see them once a series with just a single line of dialogue.

 

Fergus, Boco, Terence and Duke would be the key ones for me. I believe all four can bring something to the series that we don't currently have.

 

67. Are there any Railway Series characters that you would personally like to see make the transition into the TV Series in particular?

 

Same as above in an ideal world all characters would find their way into the series.

 

Bear The Diesel because he is the last original standard gauge Fat Controller's engine to be make the transition from book to TV, he is also a mainline diesel which is something we do not currently have in CGI. The Mountain Engines, not only does it bring 8 new characters but the railway and scenery itself would be stunning.

68. While there has previously been a general rule of thumb that Thomas should appear in every episode, more recently, this rule has become a little more lenient. There are more welcome instances where he does not appear in the episode. Obviously, there are places in Sodor where Thomas has little justification to be. Furthermore Thomas no longer dominates the series by being a protagonist of 50% of the episodes. Do you feel that Thomas has been over-exposed as a character in recent years, and do you feel that there is a given amount of exposition that he should receive?

 

The show is called Thomas & Friends, and the majority of the target audience when research was carried out by Mattel / Fisher Price came back with they want to see Thomas. You have to remember that from Series 3 Thomas was put in places where he wouldn’t normally be found. That is not something new that HIT have done. I will remove Thomas from a scene if I feel there is no reason for him to be there at all, but we have now we established that Thomas do sometimes pull The Local on the mainline, to give him a reason to be out there.

 

69. What is the team's stance on maintaining Emily as a 'main' character? Have the team felt her appearances should be kept about steady or have there been attempts to downplay her role? Have there been efforts to have her character more closely conform to her personality upon her conception in Series?

 

Emily is and always be a main character. As the song goes “There’s no one quite like Emily”.

 

70. In an interview with Story Executive Sam Barlow in the past, it was disclosed that the character of Duck, a popular character with many fans, was left to make way for a major female engine - and this became Emily. With Duck having been re-implemented in Series 17, has there been a conscious effort to reinstate his place in the series as it was in classic series as a key player?

 

Certainly Duck was brought back to be more than just a background character, and with the planned re-introduction of Oliver for the following year, meant we could re-instate The Little Western Branch Line and open up the west coast of the Island. We were aware of Duck’s popularity and the comments about him supposedly being replaced by Emily, so we did acknowledge this by having him temporarily replace Emily at Tidmouth Sheds in Duck & The Slip Coaches, much to the disgust of Emily who not only got left outside once but for two nights running. Poor Emily. I am happy to report that there is no bad feeling between the two engines and they are great friends.