Sam Barlow - Script Executive

SiF speak to HIT Entertainment's former Script Executive, Sam Barlow!

Sam Barlow joined HIT Entertainment around the same time that Thomas & Friends and Fireman Sam were bought up by the company.  For eight years, he was the Script Executive for most of HIT’s brands including Bob the Builder, Angelina Ballerina, Fireman Sam and Thomas & Friends, and had a hand in creating Mr Perkins – a regular DVD extra on the Thomas & Friends releases.

 

On a personal note, he was one of the first people at HIT Entertainment to reach out to SiF and invited representative members to their Hero of the Rails premiere in 2009.

 

In this interview, we discuss Sam’s role at HIT, the work he did and his thoughts and opinions on the state of Thomas & Friends and other HIT brands throughout his tenure with the company, and what he’s done since leaving the company in 2010.

Important Disclaimer

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

He in no way purports to represent HIT Entertainment. 

Any opinions expressed in this interview are his alone and does not necessarily reflect the opinion of HIT Entertainment.

Former HIT Entertainment Script Executive (2002 to 2010)
Sam Barlow
Interviewed by Ryan (October 2013)

Sam, what authors or television series inspired you to become a writer?  Have you always had an interest in stories?

 

I grew up reading Roald Dahl and Asterix. And then later, Douglas Adams. I went through a big comics phase when I was a kid – I was an avid collector of the Beano and Buster and those classic British comics of the 70s and 80s. In terms of television, I think a lot of my influences came from the big screen – the early Spielberg movies (I will happily spend hours arguing that ET is the greatest movie of all time), anything touched by the hand of Jim Henson.

 

Where did you gain your earliest experience?

 

Well my parents are both creative. My dad, in particular, is a writer. So after I finished at university, and whilst I kind of bummed around not quite knowing what to do with myself, I was spending time with him brainstorming some of the scripts that he was working on. That’s what really got me thinking about making a career in the storytelling/script writing business.

 

What would you attribute to being your first ‘big break’ into the industry?

 

I would attribute a cosmic alignment of the stars and an incredible stroke of luck. I was really in the right place at the right time, just as the HIT Creative Department (as it was then known) had decided to take a gamble and hire a couple of very inexperienced script editors. And I was lucky enough to bag one of those positions.

You joined HIT Entertainment in July 2002, prior to the takeover of Thomas in September of that year.  How did you come to be involved with the company, and what was the first position you held with them?

 

You’ve done your research! Well as I say, the HIT Creative Department – helmed at that time by the wonderful Jocelyn Stevenson – had decided to hire and train a couple of newbie script editors. They wanted people with little experience but good instincts, and thanks to an incredibly fortuitous set of circumstances, my name cropped up as a possible candidate. They ‘auditioned’ me – and eventually offered me a trial run of three months as a trainee script editor. I ended up working there for over 8 years.

 

Throughout your eight years with HIT, you had a hand in the production of nearly all HIT’s active brands.  Would you say you had a favourite among the ones you worked on?

 

That’s a very tough question. I did work on many shows, but I think Bob The Builder and Thomas were always my joint favourites. They were so different – but both wonderful to work on, with such great people.

 

How familiar were you with Thomas before you began working on the show for HIT?  Did you read any of the original books as a child, or were you familiar with it purely as a television series?

 

I know this is probably heresy to admit to the SiF community – but I’d never really paid much attention to Thomas when I was a kid. We didn’t have the books at home – and by the time Thomas was first on screen I was about eight or nine, so probably more interested in things like Batman. Also it was on CITV – and we always watched CBBC in our house!

Thomas had been established as a world-beating television brand for 20 years when HIT took over, and seen no major format change in that time.  What reasoning inspired the radical overhaul that took place in 2003 - 2004?  How involved were you with the overhaul of the Thomas format after HIT Entertainment took control of the series?  Did you contribute any major ideas to the new format?

 

Well Thomas had been doing well for 20 years, but I don't think he was doing as well in the US as HIT believed he could be – mainly because he’d not been on TV for some time. Obviously success in the US is the big prize for any global brand, so the immediate goal, after the Gullane takeover, was to secure Thomas a high-profile slot on PBS (which is the US public broadcaster, and has a very large audience). PBS has a strong educational slant – so that informed how we approached the overhaul and changes we made. It worked, and Thomas relaunched on PBS, where he has remained ever since. I was very much involved in the relaunched show, of course, but those were early days for me, so the decisions were all taken by those further up the food chain!

 

You were Thomas’s Script & Story Executive for eight years (Series 8 to 16).  Given how uncommonly credited the role seems to be in television, can you explain what this entailed here?

 

It’s just a fancy term for Script Editor, really. They called me Executive in order to distinguish me from the freelance Script Editors that we had for those first few HIT series. Basically I managed the writing process from the HIT end of things.

 

From Series 8, the style of stories changed – was there a set format for writers to follow when writing the new episodes of the series?

 

Contrary to popular belief, we never wrote to a format, in the sense of a rigid structure. We certainly changed the guidelines in order to refocus the stories on character and child-relatable themes. The longer stories also allowed us to write stories with a three act structure – which is a classic narrative ‘shape’.

We asked Steve Asquith previously, from Series 8 onward, it became more common-practice to carry foodstuffs such as fish and cocoa powder in open wagons, when previously they were in closed ones – was this purely a decision from a creative standpoint?

 

It wasn’t really a script issue. It’s a tricky thing because, for the target audience, if you mention, say, a truck full of tomatoes, you really need to reinforce it visually. One could do that with a sealed wagon with a picture of a tomato on it – but that’s less impactful than seeing a truck full of bright red tomatoes. It’s just good visual storytelling for pre-schoolers.

 

Over the years the accidents on the show have ranged from weighty to downright cartoonish. Were there any restrictions over the years on the amount or type of crashes or accidents that could feature in the show? Were the engines only ever allowed to stay upright (save for Great Discovery) and have there been new restrictions put in place to never show an engine or a truck coming apart or getting damaged?

 

I think the feeling, when we inherited the show was that there were too many crashes, so we deliberately reduced them and only used them when it was totally justified by the story.

 

From Series 8 onward, the cast was streamlined down to a core eight engine characters. A lot of fans missed old friends like Duck, Oliver, Donald & Douglas – was there never any intention to expand the regular supporting cast as the series went on after 2004?  Was there always more of an emphasis to focus on the future, rather than the past (in terms of characters, stories and such) with the HIT produced series of Thomas?

 

The idea was simply to cement the core characters in the minds of the audience. I remember we chose which engines would be featured – and Duck was on the list, but we had to leave him to make way for a major female engine - and that became Emily. I seem to remember there was also an issue with some of the models at Shepperton, meaning that it was not possible for every engine from the past to continue into the new series - so that too played a part in those decisions.

Calling All Engines was the first Thomas & Friends TV Special ever produced – what were the feelings among the crew about undertaking the production?

 

It was a long time ago now, but I seem to remember the assumption had always been that long-form Thomas wouldn’t work - that it was too much of a jump from the 5 minute TV episodes. So Calling All Engines was a bit of an experiment – and one that paid off.

 

Calling All Engines was the first time that Lady and Diesel 10 had been seen since Thomas & The Magic Railroad, what made you guys want to include them here?

 

Those characters had both remained big sellers in the merchandise lines, despite having only been seen in Magic Railroad, so we were asked to work them into the story. I hope we managed to do that fairly seamlessly.

 

Whilst Calling All Engines used the Learning Segments to aid the story, The Great Discovery kept greater focus on telling the story – was there a feeling that they didn’t work last time around, or did Sharon feel they would detract from an otherwise good story?

 

As I say, Calling All Engines was a bit of an experiment, and the little interactive segments were part of figuring out how to do long form Thomas. When we came to write Great Discovery, we decided that the story was better served by losing those moments.

The writing team have come under fire for ‘reimagining’ certain characters from their original traits and personalities – was there a need to retcon some of the engines, such as Edward, Henry, Toby, Skarloey and Rheneas, to suit the stories?  Was there a ‘bible’ for writers to reference?

 

I don't recall any retconning going on. As far as I was aware the ‘characters’ we used were the same as those we inherited from the Gullane years – I think any character shift happened before we took over on the show. We may have made some characters more distinct (we certainly did this for Emily), but we didn't knowingly change any of them completely.

 

Between Series 9 and 12, there were a lot of new ‘friends’ that were only ever seen in one major appearance and then either forgotten completely or relegated into supporting roles – were there never any plans or intentions to develop them further?

 

We’d have loved to develop them further, but the commercial side of the company had (and I presume still has) a constant need for new characters to add to the merchandising. There are only so many active characters that a world like Thomas’s can support, so we had no option really but to let most of those ‘new’ characters fade into the background.

 

Would you say you had any favourites among the new characters introduced, or any of the pre-existing cast of Thomas?

 

Of the existing cast, I always liked Gordon and James – because they had the strongest characters and were the most fun to write for. Of the newer engines, there were so many it’s hard to pick one. I always liked Victor and Kevin because they just worked and became solid fixtures of our world.

In terms of creating the new characters – were the locomotive or vehicle prototypes chosen first to inspire the writers, or were the characters written with a vague idea of a prototype in mind?  (Guessing not all the writing staff were railway enthusiasts!)

 

Ha! No, I’m afraid to say that none of the writers, to my knowledge, were railway enthusiasts. They were storytelling enthusiasts! We’d create the character in the script – and then Shepperton or Nitrogen would apply it to an engine.

 

Had HIT ever asked you to remove any characters from the scripts, or certain details? Were you ever able to sneak in any details that went unnoticed, or did you ever have to fight for anything to be kept in?

 

We were broadly left alone for the series, script wise. The specials were a bit different and there was always a bit of a tussle about what went in and what didn’t. But that’s to be expected.

 

What input did you have with the Interactive Interstitials, which were produced between Series 8 and 10?  Can you tell us more about how and why they were initially conceived and developed?

 

Well US broadcasters tend to take shows in half-hour blocks - instead of the 10-11 min blocks we have in the UK - so its common to bundle up two or more regular UK-length stories to make a US length show. The interstitials become part of that bundle, to stitch the show together and support the educational slant for PBS.

You developed the Bob The Builder: On Site series for HIT Entertainment as a spin-off / sideline for that brand – was there ever any consideration to do something similar with Thomas before the ‘Down At The Station’ segments began in 2009?

 

I don’t think so. But it seemed like a really good idea when we thought of it.

 

Jack & The Pack were one of the first casualties of the HIT Takeover of Gullane, but brought back for The Great Discovery.  Would you have liked to have seen more done with The Pack characters in the series?

 

Yes of course.

 

The Great Discovery was meant to be the first of many adventures Thomas & Friends would have with Pierce Brosnan as the Storyteller.  Was the plan to enhance Thomas’s profile with a new ‘famous’ storyteller, akin to Ringo Starr, or simply to provide a fresh new voice for the series? 

 

I think the idea was to have one ‘A-list’ voice to be the international voice of Thomas – but that didn't work out.

 

Was Pierce always the first choice for the new Storyteller, or were other famous names considered? 

 

There were some crazy names being bandied about. And they were in serious discussions with another very surprising Hollywood star before the gig went to Pierce. I’d love to have seen what would have happened if they had taken the job!

Thomas underwent the first step of a bigger change in 2008 with Series 12, but wasn’t as economical as HIT Entertainment Execs had hoped – would you have liked to have seen the model / CGI hybrid continue a little bit longer?

 

I think it was a common feeling at the time that the ‘ideal’ vision of Thomas was the hybrid incarnation. However, it was prohibitively expensive for it to continue past that one season

 

In 2009, we saw Thomas and Bob follow Fireman Sam into a brave new world of CGI animation – given that Thomas had been doing well as a live-action model series, how confident were you of the move being seamless and easy?  Was there a contingency plan in place if it hadn’t worked out?

 

Personally I was very sceptical – although I’m sure much of that was rooted in my loyalty to the Shepperton crew who were being disbanded. However, as it turned out, the CGI incarnation was beautifully realised.  In terms of a contingency plan, I don't recall. All of those decisions were taken much higher up the food chain to little old me. I think with a move as huge as that, however, it’s hard to have a plan b. It’s an all or nothing thing. 

 

You mention working with the Shepperton crew – would you say you had a good relationship with the stalwarts like Steve Asquith, David Eves and Terry Permane?

 

Very much so. Especially with Steve (Asquith).  Dave (Eves) and Terry (Permane) I knew less well, but only because I was based at HIT head office, and only occasionally ventured down to Shepperton. I got to know most of the crew at the infamous Thomas Christmas parties, which I attended without fail.

 

Any interesting or amusing anecdotes you can remember from the Studio Floor, or about your time with the series?

 

As I say, I spent little time of the studio floor – so I wasn’t really part of what happened there. The annual Secret Santa at the afore-mentioned Christmas parties was always pretty outrageous, but I don’t think it’s my place to recount any of those stories.

Since 2009, there’s been a lot of concern regarding British children’s animation being outsourced to foreign companies.  As someone who works in the industry yourself, what’s your take on it?

 

Most of the HIT shows I worked on – Bob, Thomas, Angelina Ballerina and Fireman Sam – ended up going overseas which was a great shame. Mainly because we have a genuinely exceptional talentpool in this country. Animation is just something we do well, like music or comedy. However, it seems like things have taken a turn for the better, with government tax breaks for UK animation now in place. The mood in the industry is certainly better than it was a few years ago. I’m working on a beautiful new show that is being animated entirely in Belfast.

 

Hero of the Rails was initially being developed as a Model / CGI production – did the script and planning need to undergo a lot of revision to suit the new production?

 

You really have done your research! The story was certainly underway before the CGI transition had started, although I don't think we needed to change much. The big challenge for me in moving from live action to CGI was figuring out the writing style - how to balance the storyteller and the character voices, and how to preserve that unique ‘storybook’ feel.

There’s always been this feeling that the CGI makeover was considered to be Thomas in a new universe – were there ever any plans to just reboot the series completely and start again, treating Hero of the Rails as a clean slate?

 

I don't think we ever considered the CGI series to be a reboot. Series 8 was perhaps a reboot – but CGI was just a straightforward continuation. In my mind at least!

 

With Hero of the Rails and Series 13 – you were limited in the locations and characters you could use for the series.  Would you say this impacted upon story ideas or plans for the series?

 

I don't really recall actually. Sometimes a bit of limitation can be a good thing, creatively. I seem to remember that we had to really make use of what we had.

 

Naturally, the base cast for the CGI Series would always be smaller than the model one with a lot of rendering to be done – how did you decide on which characters should and would come back into the series?

 

I don’t remember specifically. I think many of CGI engines were obvious choices – the main eight, the key Diesels, Salty, Mavis and the others. The one thing we knew was the Narrow Gauge engines wouldn’t be making the jump just yet. I believe they now have.

By Series 11, a three-strikes situation was the norm for every episode, which became the standard for Series 13 onward.  Was it a conscious decision to have this framework for writing in place, or did it just happen to turn out that way?

 

You know, it was never a conscious thing. Structuring things in threes is a natural narrative device – so you’ll see it in many other sorts of stories. Thomas is a notoriously hard show to write – and it was always important to keep our stories very simple. So that’s why I think things ended taking that sort of form.

 

The Specials were always written more freely in style and structure, why was this never brought over to the TV Series itself?

 

These things are always about money! The specials are  the centrepiece of Thomas’s world so the budget was always there to explore new places and ideas. The series episodes were always much more limited – in money and time.

 

The writing team became noticeably smaller after the CGI switchover, with Sharon Miller writing the overall majority herself. Was there a reason behind this?

 

To be honest I don’t recall it being smaller, but it may have been. Sharon did write a great many scripts at that time. Mainly because she’s great – but also due to production pressures.

The emphasis upon rhyming, alliteration and repetition became heavier and heavier until it peaked in Series 15 – was there a feeling that this would appeal to younger viewers and add something of a ‘fun-factor’?

 

Ahh yes, the infamous rhyming issue. The idea was to try and preserve some of the literary heritage in the CGI era, to give the storyteller a little more to do that just read stage directions. It was all meant with the best of intentions – but I do recognise how unpopular it became.

 

How did the concept for Misty Island as a location come about?

 

Misty Island was conceived at an Indian restaurant in London by Greg Tiernan, Sharon Miller and myself. The idea was to genuinely do something extraordinary with Thomas. Hero of the Rails had been so successful that we wanted to expand our horizons a bit. We talked about all sorts of broad story ideas and the one that stuck was to do a sort of Robinson Crusoe type story - Thomas getting washed up on a desert island! It seemed totally insane… and that was why it appealed to us.

 

Misty Island Rescue carried on the trend of using non-British locomotive prototypes.  Was this a conscious idea so prominent territories such as Japan and the USA would have representative locomotive types?

 

That was certainly the case with Hiro from Hero of the Rails – but the engines from Misty Island weren’t conceived with that intention. I’m sure Nitrogen did masses of research to make Bash, Dash and Ferdinand as authentic as possible though.

Misty Island is renowned for its Jobi Wood, how did you guys come up with the name?  Is it derived from something else, is it an acronym, an in-joke?

 

That came from Sharon’s script. I’m not sure where it came from. I don’t think it’s a particular reference to anything.

 

I’m guessing Bash, Dash and Ferdinand were a perfect fit for this satellite island where anything could happen?  How did you guys come up with these characters and characteristics? Was there a deeper backstory developed for them, as we saw with Victor in Blue Mountain Mystery?

 

The idea was that Misty Island was a sort of Lord of the Flies version of Sodor. It was a forgotten, abandoned place. So the engines that lived there, we figured, had been in isolation and had therefore developed their own culture and their own way of speaking. The characters came out of that idea.

 

Is there any great reason as to why Bash, Dash and Ferdinand and Misty Island itself have only ever appeared in episodes written by Sharon Miller?

 

I don’t think so. I think we knew that a certain number of episodes would be featuring the Misty Island characters – and it just made sense for Sharon to write those, as she created that little world.

It could be said that Bash, Dash, Ferdinand, Den and Dart were the first characters you guys consciously wrote for voice actors as opposed to a storyteller.  Did you guys on the writing team appreciate the flexibility that the new format gave you?

 

Hero of the Rails was the first time we wrote for a cast of voice artists – but yes it certainly allowed a much broader range of emotions.

 

How much time was devoted to writing the Specials for Thomas & Friends compared with the episodes for the series?  What would you say went into the process of writing the ones you were involved with?

 

It’s all a bit of a blur – but I think it was a couple of months for each one. The process was similar to that of a series episode, but longer. We’d brainstorm a story, which might take a few days. Then we’d put it onto paper and pitch it to the company. If we got their approval, we’d start writing. And if we didn’t, we’d freak out briefly and then go back to the drawing board.

 

Were there ever any ideas for Specials you’d liked to have seen developed for television which never made it to the production stage?

 

Oh yes. Several. I wish I could say more about those stories but I should probably keep them to myself.

Day of the Diesels saw Percy take the leading role for the first time in a Thomas special – was it an easy decision to have a character other than Thomas as the leading player?

 

Yes it was. It really gave that story fresh energy to build it around Percy. It wouldn’t have worked for just any engine – but Percy is rich enough (and popular enough!) to be able to handle it.

 

Day of the Diesels plays a lot on the Steam Vs. Diesels angle that’s been prevalent in Thomas since the 1950s, but was this intended as a vehicle for the Diesel 10 character or did he just fit in with the creative team’s plans accordingly?

 

The Steam vs Diesel thing has been part of Thomas for a long time – so we wanted to tell the ultimate Diesel vs Steam story. And the ultimate Diesel is Diesel 10 – so it just made sense. The story came first.

 

Day of the Diesels suffered some cuts and changes during production as some scenes were deemed too scary for children.  As the last ‘Special’ script you contributed to, were you disappointed it never went out ‘as written’?

 

Yes of course. I think I’d left HIT by the time that was in full production, so I don’t really know the full story there.

As editor, what sort of things did you most often find yourself changing in the scripts? Can you recall any major alterations you made?

 

My job as script editor isn’t really to make major alterations or changes  - it’s more about helping shape the story as it develops. The big changes tend to happen before a word has hit the page.

 

What would you say the biggest challenges were for you as Script Executive whilst working for HIT Entertainment, and with Thomas particularly?

 

Without doubt, the biggest challenge was negotiating the line between creative and commercial. A show as huge and profitable as Thomas comes under unbelievable pressure from all sides – and part of my job was to try and keep everyone happy, which was basically impossible.

 

As Script / Story Executive, you will have had creative input into all 170 episodes produced between Series 8 and Series 16, would you have liked to have written a story for Thomas yourself?

 

I should probably have had a go – but as I’ve said above, it’s such a hard show to write, and under huge pressure. It would have put me in a very tricky spot had I tried to write an episode and it had turned out to be rubbish!

You wrote all 17 episodes for Mr Perkins for the Thomas & Friends DVDs – could you tell us more about those?

 

The company wanted some extra material for DVD use – but Nitrogen were up to their eyeballs on the regular episodes, so the idea was to do something simple in a studio with one actor. My boss asked if I’d like to write it- and I jumped at the chance. I don't think they are my finest work… they were all written so quickly. But they forced me to put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard) in earnest for the first time. So I’m very grateful for them.

 

The new format for the series clearly worked, with Thomas regaining a prominent slot on PBS in the USA and a Bafta Nomination.  What would you say was your proudest moment working on Thomas & Friends?

 

That’s a tough one. The Bafta nomination was great. And the reception to Hero of the Rails was pretty special.

 

You left HIT Entertainment in 2010 to go freelance, can you tell us more about the projects you’ve worked on since and what you’re currently doing now? 

 

Yes I left to go and work with The Foundation on a couple of their new shows – Tickety Toc on Channel 5 and Let’s Play on Cbeebies. Since then, I’ve been writing and script editing on a gorgeous new show called Driftwood Bay which should be airing on Channel 5 and Nick Jr in 2014. At the same time I’ve been head writing a show called Ella Bella Bingo for a great company in Norway – and I’ve just started working on a comedy series for Radio 4, writing with my dad. Oh and I’ve just become a dad myself, so that’s taking up a lot of my time.

What advice would you give anyone wishing to enter the world of television writing and production?

 

My advice would be to watch and write as much as humanly possible. Watch and learn. And then write, write, write… and write.

 

Finally, do you have any words for the fans of the HIT brands that you’ve worked on down the years?

 

Hmmm… I guess I’d like to say that I’m aware that not everything we did with Thomas was well received by the older fans. But I’d like everyone to know that we did what we did to find Thomas a new generation of fans… and to secure Thomas’s history for the future. I'd also like to defend the record of the marvellous Sharon Miller, who did more to defend Thomas’s integrity during the last decade than almost anyone else.

In the mid-2000s, HIT’s Production Department was working with stop-motion (Bob the Builder, Rubberdubbers), traditional 2D animation (Angelina Ballerina), CGI (Fireman Sam) and live action models on Thomas, did you have a preference over what medium of production you enjoyed overseeing most?

 

I’d hate to have to choose, as all of the teams we worked with  - particularly in that era – were truly amazing. I was proud to work on all of them. But if you really twisted my arm I’d probably say Stop Motion – purely out of personal preference.

 

You served as Bob the Builder’s Supervising Producer for a while – can you tell us a bit about what it was like working on that?

 

Well I worked on Bob for over eight years. My title changed but my job – the script and story guy – stayed pretty much the same. I absolutely loved Bob – and I particularly loved working with the guys at HOT Animation in Manchester who, in their day, were one of the finest animation studios in the world.

Fireman Sam was the first HIT Entertainment brand to go CGI, was it a difficult process to redevelop the programme, or did the fact that Sam could be set in modern day make things easier?

 

Actually, you know what, when we started developing the CGI series, we started off by changing loads. The Fire Station became a sort of military bunker, we had a mountain rescue centre that was like a Bond villain’s lair. The whole thing was lurching dangerously into Thunderbirds territory (I’m exaggerating a bit…!). But we realised that we were taking it the wrong direction and brought it right back to the show we all knew. That was a wise decision. We brought it vaguely up to date with Dilys’s shop and other little bits – but largely it’s the same old Sam

 

Whilst Fireman Sam had been ‘rested’ for a few years before making the changeover from stop-motion to CGI, would you say it was the testbed for the other HIT Entertainment brands making the leap?

 

I was never really part of the HIT strategy in that way – but I think it was, more or less.