Interview: Top Props

The Team Behind Top Props Chat About Their Collection And Plans For The Future

Sometimes things happen that inspire a leap of faith, which ends up taking you on a journey where the possibilities are endless.  This has certainly been the case for Chris Blower and Owen Hayward, two friends who on a whim, decided to begin a collection of Thomas & Friends props and memorabilia to tour around the UK for the enjoyment of other fans.


With several successful tour dates under their belt so far, appearing at Model Madness at the National Railway Museum outpost at Shildon and teaming up with The Star Tugs Company Ltd for a joint weekend at Midland Railway Centre, the pair are going from strength to strength and looking forward to future events – kicking off 2016 with an appearance at Brighton Modelworld.


Here, the lads chat to Ryan about their collection and aspirations for the future!

Important Disclaimer

The answers given in the following interview solely reflect the opinions of Chris Blower & Owen Hayward.  

They in no way purport to represent HIT Entertainment or Mattel

Any opinions expressed in this interview are theirs alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Sodor Island Fansite or other official bodies

Thomas & Friends Props & Memorabilia Exhibitors
Chris Blower & Owen Hayward
Interviewed by Ryan (December 2015)

Okay guys, introduce yourselves and tell us a bit more about the team behind Top Props!


OWEN: Owen, 21 and Essex-based. I’m usually the one who updates our social media pages, and organises the booking of events we attend. I’m a volunteer at the Epping Ongar Railway, and can usually be found tinkering with my model railway in my spare time.


CHRIS: I’m Chris and my main role in Top Props is acquiring all the props that make up our display. I’m an animation student and have directed various short projects in the UK and one in China. I grew up on a diet of shows which used stop-motion, puppets, models and miniatures – classic shows like Thunderbirds, Sooty, TUGS and, of course, Thomas! That was what inspired me to go into animation, so for me, Top Props is really a tribute to Thomas’ role in my childhood. It’s been such a great thing to be involved in.


What was your first introduction to Thomas & Friends?


OWEN: My initial introduction was long before I can actually remember; it was just ‘one show’ that I seemed to latch on to when I was very little. I would (apparently) sit there fixated whenever “Tikky the Tank Tank Tank” (which is what I used to call it, I’m told) came on screen.


The first thing I can actually remember is a visit to the East Anglian Railway Museum for one of their “Day Out With Thomas” events, which is probably how my love of steam railways in general was born too. I remember being overwhelmed at seeing the “real” Thomas, Daisy and Toby, and getting to go for a ride behind them all. I often got a slap on the wrist, as I kept running ahead to look at all the engines.


CHRIS: For my first Christmas, my parents bought me ‘Thomas’ Christmas Party’ on VHS, and to this day I read the classic stories to my younger brother every night, so Thomas has always been popular in our household! The way the classic series was filmed grabbed my attention from the start – I knew the show was filmed with model trains, but it’s what they do with the models that’s so spectacular. Every episode is a feature film in miniature – the direction, the music, sets, models, stunts and special effects were so professional.


I was especially fond of the book ‘Duke the Lost Engine’ and the ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’ VHS. It was definitely the Rev. Awdry’s writing at its best and Duke is truly a great character. The sets in Series 4 were also the best the studio ever did -  as a family, we went to North Wales every summer, so seeing the landscapes that inspired these stories was wonderful. They’re captured beautifully on screen and it really brings Sodor to life.

Your first purchase was the large scale Sir Topham Hatt model which was sold through the Prop Gallery in 2014, was this planned or a spur of the moment decision?


OWEN: A mix of both. We had seen other props listed previously on both Prop Gallery and Prop Store, which had taken our interest. We often commented on how great it would be to own such iconic artefacts.


We had followed the Star Tugs Trust and loved what they had done, and same when the campaign for James’ model was launched. Suddenly, there was a Sir Topham Hatt for sale! Twitter was abuzz with interest, and at the time, nobody knew where Trevor and Peter Sam’s models had gone, so we thought, “We can’t let another icon slip by - let’s buy him.” We did hope to join forces with Clearwater and display with James, so it’s unfortunate the model was sold before the campaign could get him. We seem to have to done ok despite this.


CHRIS: It was very much a spur of the moment decision – I’d never considered buying a prop from any film or show before! I was already aware of other props from “Thomas & Friends” disappearing and we’ve never found out where they’ve gone. I didn’t want the Fat Controller to have the same fate, so as soon as I was able to buy him, I did. Simple as that, really!


Peter Sam’s model from Series 4 was sold at the same time, of course, and several people I know were trying to find where he had gone. I was left with the choice – do I wait and see if Peter Sam becomes available again (which, sadly, was always a long shot), or do I buy the Fat Controller outright? It was an obvious decision. A year later, I still believe Topham was a fantastic investment – he’s the most well-known character after Thomas himself, and easily one of my favourites. I’ve always loved his comedy moments in Series 5 and the Yorkshire accent Michael Angelis gave him – so glad that they’ve returned that humour for Series 19!

What inspired you both to setup Top Props?  Did it just happen or was this something you’ve always planned to do?


OWEN: Very much ‘just happened.’  We purchased the large model of Topham, along with a Sodor Shilling and small workman that were also listed at the time. Suddenly, a few more items were offered, which were considered and some purchased. Seeing how popular the Star Tugs displays had been, and how much interest there was around the potential displaying of a James model, we saw an opportunity and decided to take it.


CHRIS: It came about by complete chance. Me and Owen have been close friends for years, and when Owen announced he was taking his model railway to an exhibition, and I had bought a Fat Controller model, it seemed natural to make a display with the two. Owen bought some more Thomas props that the Prop Gallery were selling, and Top Props snowballed from that. The Star Tugs Trust have had great success exhibiting props from TUGS, and we felt that Thomas should have a similar treatment.


Did you always intend to expand your collection to do touring exhibitions or is this just something that’s happened as time went on?


OWEN: I was personally very keen to do a touring exhibition, but only if we had the right stuff to display. Initially, with just a few figures, a scarf and a Shilling, I didn’t expect to get far. Then, as the collection grew, and we had a little more to offer, that’s when we started looking at going out to display it all. Our first ‘exhibition’ (at the Shoeburyness Model Railway Exhibition in November 2014) was very much a spur-of-the-moment thing. I had my model railway booked there anyway, and as we had just acquired our props, made an exception to display them there, to show we really did have them and were serious about taking them to display for fans to see. It was surprising how many people – both young and old – came up to ask questions and take pictures of them all.


CHRIS: Like most prop exhibitions, interest keeps building up over time. Once word got out that we had bought the Fat Controller, more Thomas props suddenly became available for sale – most of which are now ours! Last year, we had no idea this would all happen, but I’m so glad it has. We’ve made some great new friends along the way, and owning more props has really improved our display a lot. I don’t think one prop on its own would’ve been that interesting, but we’ve got quite a collection now!

How do you go about acquiring your exhibits?


OWEN: We keep a watchful eye on The Prop Gallery and Prop Store sites; most of our collection has come from the former, and we are offered most items before they get listed on the website there. We carefully consider everything, taking into account what we already own, the condition, price etc, before we make a decision whether to purchase or not.


We do keep an eye on various auction house sites too, after finding out about Peter Sam’s model being sold at one such venue. I was so close to winning us the “Buzz Buzz” animation cel from eBay too, but was outbid at the very last second.


CHRIS: We keep an eye on various auction sites and prop-related websites. Most people know about our work now, so we’re often first to know if any new Thomas props become available.


Given that Drayton Manor already boasts a Thomas Exhibition with models and props from the TV Series, do you think something similar could work on a touring basis?


OWEN: Absolutely. Thomas has gained a massive following over the years, which I don’t need to tell you all of course. The classic era will always hold a place in the heart of the fans, as it was what many of us grew up with and remember. What they achieved with the models – the sets, the construction, the adventures – always impressed. I remember people going crazy over the news of a display opening at Drayton Manor with original models.


The same response arose when pictures of the models at Nitrogen were shown, and again whenever any are shared from the displays in Japan. Whilst the Drayton Manor display is nice, there is definite scope for a display that shows off the vast array of models and scales used, and how the programme was produced and developed. Not everyone can reach Drayton Manor easily, so a touring exhibition, covering most of the country, or indeed the world, would no doubt prove immensely popular.


CHRIS: Absolutely. Millions of kids see Thomas as their idol, so meeting Thomas in person is such a thrill for them, which is why Day Out With Thomas works so well. At our exhibits, we always get kids naming their favourite characters when they see our 00 layout and saying “look it’s Thomas!” or “can we see James running?”.


Also, who didn’t have toy trains as a child? That’s the genius of the classic series for me – it’s so nostalgic for kids and adults. It’s beautifully filmed and Sodor is a world we’d all love to visit. It’s like Wallace & Gromit – we don’t care that they’re really plasticine, because their movies are always amazing! Just being able to see Thomas props has really opened my eyes as to how much effort goes into the show – I’d love more people to have that experience too.

Tell us a bit about what you have in the collection at present


OWEN: The star, as I’m sure our followers will know, is of course our large model of The Fat Controller, but we also have a smaller scale model of this character, and a selection of railway and dock worker figures in a multitude of scales, that would have been used on the sets around the character models.


CHRIS: We also possess a selection of storyboards and concept art, that would have been crucial in the pre-production stages. To compliment these, we also have some items that were gifted to the various crew members after each series wrapped up, including a body warmer from series 6, a Yo-Yo in a Gullane presentation tin, and of course the Sodor Shilling, presented at the wrap of series 12. And then, of course, we also have a selection of face masks from an array of characters.


OWEN: My personal favourite is the scene marker from series 6 - which still has the date 22.8.02 penned onto it – and a cinema quad poster for this year’s special, “Sodor’s Legend Of The Lost Treasure” (Not a prop as such, but still a very nice piece of hard-to-come-by promotional material.)


CHRIS: My favourite definitely has to be the big man himself (terrible pun alert…!), the Fat Controller. He’s where Top Props all started and, like I said earlier, he’s such an iconic character both in literature and on the screen. The faces are great as well – whilst I love it that the engines are based on real-life locomotives, it’s the faces that we all identify with. They make Thomas stand out from everything else on kid’s TV right now.

What plans do you have to expand your collection going forward?


It all depends on what we can source, or what is offered for sale. Our ultimate goal would be to have a character model or two, or a working replica perhaps, that we could use to demonstrate how the models were operated in the studio, and how big some of them really were.


I would also like to acquire some scripts, episode or specials, that people can read through and see how the production progresses from page to screen, and publicity materials from around the world which show how widespread Thomas’ success is.


To compliment our unfinished face masks, we would really like to acquire more completed ones – like George’s – that are easily recognised.


Tell us a bit about your exhibition and what fans and visitors can expect at the events you guys are at.


Fans can expect to talk to equally passionate fans, and the rare experience to see props and production material from the show up close and personal. We’re there to answer questions people may have, but largely we welcome visitors to see our exhibits at their own pace. It’s a great opportunity for Thomas fans, old and new, to share their love of the show.

Tell us a bit about your experiences touring as Top Props


Every event is different, and we’ve learned something new from each, be that how we arrange the display, the questions people ask, or indeed actually booking events. There seems to be hesitation from a number of places about booking us, as we aren’t officially associated with the Thomas brand, and as such aren’t too certain about the legal position in having us appear. We make no money from our display; anything we raise from sales or donations will either go towards covering our costs, or to a charity.


You’re still in the early stages of touring with Top Props, what plans do you have for future events and exhibitions for future?


We’d like to display at railways that have had a connection with the stories in some form, such as the Talyllyn Railway in Wales. We’re hoping to appear the Bluebell Railway’s model weekend in the future, which would be fantastic – especially if we can be situated near Stepney (who happens to be one of my favourite characters and engines).


We also hope to improve how we present our collection, but this will take time; we can’t afford to invest in this if we don’t get bookings. It would be good to appear at an event in most areas of the UK, or at least near enough for people within a certain radius to travel to and see us. This way, most of our followers will have the chance to come and visit our display.

Ideally, what would you guys like to see happen for Top Props in future?


We’d love to be involved in some way in an official display of models – especially with some engine characters, as they’re the stars of the show. Some have been on display in the States and Japan, hopefully it won’t be too long before the UK gets a larger display, or another event like the 70th Anniversary party at the British Museum that took place earlier this Summer.


Our long-term goal is to have at least one display a month, in a different area of the Nation.


What have been the biggest highlights for you guys whilst you’ve been working as Top Props?


OWEN: We have met so many fans at the few events we have done, all of who are full of questions and admiration. Meeting and talking to all these like-minded people is always a pleasure and makes us feel like our time has been well spent.


Our combined event in September 2015, with the Star Tugs Trust, was also incredibly fun, and gave us a chance to see props from two of David Mitton’s well-loved shows up close together.


CHRIS: Definitely seeing the reactions on people’s faces, and getting to meet Thomas fans old and new. Even though we’ve only done three displays so far, we’ve already had people coming back to see us again, and Thomas has such an incredible history that there’s always something new to talk about. It’s a very chillaxed atmosphere and lots of fun.

Any future events we can expect to find you guys at in the near future?


As mentioned before, we’re hoping to be at the Bluebell Railway in 2016, and possibly the Ribble Steam Railway near Preston. We are still looking at other events to attend throughout the UK; we’ll be at Brighton Modelworld in February too.


Any plans to do tours outside of the UK in other territories such as the USA, Canada or Australia?


The thought has always been on our mind. At the moment, I don’t think we have enough to credit overseas appearances. If our expenses were covered and our collection slightly bigger, then we would certainly consider going abroad to display.

What advice would you pass on to people or groups who would like to follow in your footsteps and do something similar?


OWEN: Start saving - it is not a cheap venture. But if you’re dedicated, passionate and can acquire the right stuff, then definitely go for it. The props could either be saved by someone like you, who will take care of them and display them for people to appreciate, or they can be snapped up by collectors and locked in a cabinet in a room where they’ll never be seen again.


CHRIS: Go for it, but definitely save up first. Props from films and TV shows are sold all the time, and it’s a completely different ball game to collecting toys – if a prop comes up for sale, chances are it’ll never happen again.


Anything you’d like to say to your fellow Thomas fans?


OWEN: Thank you for all your support, and don’t fret if we haven’t come near you yet – we’ll get there eventually! Keep watching and enjoying the programmes; it’s in the best place it’s been for years.


CHRIS: We’ve had such fantastic support from Thomas fans online and we’ve loved meeting Thomas fans in person, so thank you all so much! Stay tuned for more updates from us, and if you can make it to our events, we hope to see you there!