The TV Series - A History

The TV Series - A History

This is a History of the Railway Series and Thomas's rise to TV fame from 1953 to present, chronicling the attributions of each new Series.

The iconic first shot of Thomas from 1984

The quality of the Awdry stories and characters had piqued the interest and captured the interest of many over the years.  While Britt Allcroft will always be remembered as the person who was able to translate the stories onto the screen successfully, attempts were made previous to this, dating as far back as 1953.  The BBC approached the Railway Series editor, Eric Marriott, about televising two stories from The Three Railway Engines in June of that year for the programme Children’s Hour.  This was to be done using 00 Gauge Hornby models and sets reminiscent of the illustrations, suitably adapted by PR Wickham, (who had created the relief map of Sodor), to ensure authenticity at the Author and Publishers’ request. The episodes were to be broadcasted live from Lime Grove Studios, the first being during the afternoon of Sunday 14 June, 1953, with the second on the 28 June.

A less than dignified start in 1953

The live broadcast did not fare well.  The BBC chose to adapt ‘The Sad Story of Henry’ to the screen, and in addition to the model engines, the Director, Douglas Mair, had to cope with superimposed rain, music, effects and live narrative provided by Julia Lang of ‘Listen With Mother’ fame.  The Reverend Awdry, himself an experienced railway modeller, condemned the jerking motion of the models, the ‘freely adapted script’ required to meet contingencies of a ten-minute broadcast, and the ‘elementary mistake’ of not switching the points, which led to a nasty derailment.  Eric Marriott, who was viewing the broadcast with his family, was surprised to see a large hand pick up the engine and replace it on the rails again!

Edward puffs out of the sheds again

Surprisingly, the incident made front page of national newspapers just over a week later by Tuesday 23rd June, receiving attention from the Daily Telegraph and superseding the 10 Rillington Place Murder Trial in the Daily Mail.  The embarrassment resulted in the intended 28 June broadcast being put on hold and later cancelled completely.  Attempts were made to revive the project with the BBC offering to give Awdry and the Publishers more creative control over the production to ensure a more successful broadcast, but these were declined by Edmund Ward who insisted upon the ‘publication of books’ rather than assisting with the creation of a television series. The books were read aloud on the BBC, however, in the much-loved television series, Jackanory.  These were performed by the late Ted Ray, sitting in a Station Master’s office, reading five books from the Railway Series between 20 September and 2 October 1970.

Gordon the Big Engine

In 1973, a life-long fan of the books approached Kaye and Ward about producing a musical television series based on the Railway Series.  The acclaimed theatrical talent, Andrew Lloyd Webber, had retained such affection for the books that he had even named one of his companies ‘The Really Useful Company’, after one of the railway’s better known phrases.  However, there was apprehension from the publishers and the author, as the outlined plans would have given Lloyd Webber's company the rights to the books, characters and anything that was yet to be written or published.  The argument for this was that this level of control was ‘necessary to secure money from American investors needed to pay for the animation and film making’. 

Full steam ahead for Andrew Lloyd Webber

The project continually stalled, with the Reverend Awdry stating his own personal belief that ‘Once the Americans get hold of it the whole series would be vulgarised and ruined!  But in spite of the signing of contracts and a 10,000 investment trying to advance the project, Andrew Lloyd Webber had abandoned the project by 1977.  By 1976, he had found mainstream success with Evita, and found that the stage was his natural home.  However, he went on to create a railway-based musical, geared more to the American market, based on the story of Cinderella.  Starlight Express opened in 1984 to critical acclaim and remains one of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s most celebrated productions.

Percy at the Big Station

In 1979, the Reverend Awdry was to be interviewed on the Bluebell Railway for a feature on steam railways.  The producer, Britt Allcroft, had chosen to read some of the Railway Series books for research purposes prior to meeting him, and became engrossed in the characters, stories and situations.  She was convinced that they would translate well to the screen, and suggested the idea to the Reverend after dinner one evening.  Still sceptical following the previous dealings with the BBC and Andrew Lloyd Webber, he warned Britt that previous attempts had not been successful.  However, this did not deter her interest and she began to pursue the idea, negotiating the television rights for 50,000, and then beginning the difficult journey to source finance for production.

Toby on his old branch line

Many parties she approached were keen to provide the money, but wanted to have creative control of the product.  In the end, Britt was able to gain the funding she needed from her local bank, and by 1981, was financially able to put the series into production.  Many different types of animation were considered from cell-animation to stop-motion.  However, an animator put forward a recommendation to seek out assistance from the Director of a yoghurt pot commercial, based in South London.  The Director had been David Mitton, co-founder of the Clearwater Film Company with fellow Gerry Anderson student, Ken Turner.  At the time, Clearwater specialised in stop-motion advertisements, but the project piqued David’s interest, and he suggested the use of ‘live action model animation’, not dissimilar to that used by Gerry Anderson’s puppet films in the 1960s.

Bertie The Bus

Terence the Tractor

Around the same time, through a mutual friend, Britt was contacted by two musicians keen to provide the music for her series.  Mike O’Donnell and Junior Campbell produced several sample themes for Britt to consider, with the main one intended for the opening theme ending up as Toby’s theme tune in the series.  But her biggest coup was her choice of Storyteller.  Having heard his voice in a Michael Parkinson interview, Britt was convinced that Ringo Starr was the natural person to bring the televised adventures to life.  Although not keen to participate initially, Ringo eventually warmed to the idea and agreed to provide his vocals.  On meeting the Author himself, he admitted to not having read the books in his childhood, but was impressed by what he was seeing.  Awdry commented, “You were deprived!”  That meeting in particular went rather well, with Ringo being mesmerised by Awdry's branch line layout in his house.  His wife Barbara Bach,  however, was in a state of immense boredom by the time they left!

Ringo and the Reverend on TV AM - 1984

Together, the Britt Allcroft Company and Clearwater produced a successful pilot, using the story Thomas Down The Mine, and eventually, production began on a full series of twenty-six episodes.  On the morning of the series’ debut on 9 October, 1984, the Reverend Awdry was invited on to breakfast television, TV AM, along with Ringo Starr, to discuss the series and the books behind them.  The pair spoke very highly of their involvement with the production, and even showcased the new spin-off publication, Thomas’s Christmas Party.  Using content from the first eight books of the Railway Series, Britt set a core character base with Thomas, Edward, Henry, Gordon, James, Percy and Toby, receiving critical acclaim and bringing the characters and stories to a wider audience, as they premiered on ITV.

Duck joins the Sodor crew for Series 2

The success of the first series prompted a second, and this time, David Mitton and Britt Allcroft set to diversify the story base a little more, choosing some of Awdry’s strongest works and developing the strength of the series as a whole.  It also provided a window of opportunity for Christopher Awdry to contribute material, as there was some slight concern from Britt that there was a clear lack of Thomas stories to feature.  Thus, the Railway Series book, More About Thomas The Tank Engine, and the Annual story, Thomas and Trevor, were written to meet the needs of the producers, who were subject to a contract clause by Kaye and Ward, which stipulated that all material featured on television must be released in print form first.

TUGS - Clearwater Features' final major production

Following the second series, David Mitton and Robert D. Cardona wished to produce their own original work, a co-venture between Clearwater Features and TVS called TUGS, which would premiere in 1989.  TUGS drew comparison with Thomas as it utilised the same live action model animation techniques and made use of the same composers, Mike O’Donnell and Junior Campbell. Set during the 1920s in ‘the biggest Harbour in the world’ – Bigg City Port, it focussed upon the day-to-day adventures of two rival Tugboat fleets, competing for contracts within the port and beyond throughout darker and more dramatic storylines than that seen in Thomas.  TUGS ran for one full series of 13 episodes, and whilst a second was planned, the bankruptcy of TVS meant that this could not go ahead.  TUGS was the last major production that Clearwater Features were involved with prior to their liquidation in the early 1990s.

Ringo and the kids at Shining Time

Britt Allcroft began work on launching Thomas in the United States.  Striking a deal with broadcaster, PBS, she co-created a vehicle for Thomas called Shining Time Station with Rick Siggelkow.  The series would be a half-hour programme revolving around one or two episodes of Thomas, and exploring the lessons and morals within the stories.  To maintain continuity with the British series, Ringo Starr was asked to play Mr Conductor, an eighteen-inch tall man who told the stories to the children who visited the station.  The series soon began winning numerous accolades, including two Emmy nominations for ‘Outstanding Performance in a Children’s Series’ (Ringo Starr), and ‘Outstanding Direction’ for the series Director, Matthew Diamond, who won his award. 

Tubby or not to be?

However, in a bid to fit the ideals of the American public, numerous changes took place to the episodes themselves.  Several titles were changed; many technical terms were adapted to suit the American audiences’ familiarity, and the title of ‘Fat Controller’ was politically corrected to ‘Sir Topham Hatt’ so as not to offend.  The original British narrative for the series was used, albeit slightly altered throughout with Ringo re-recording some parts to adapt the story with necessary changes, recommended by Britt’s American television advisors, such as Dr. Ron Slaby,  the Child Psychologist appointed to work on Shining Time Station and later employed to assist in the production of Thomas and the Magic Railroad.

Puffing proudly into the 1990s

In the early 1990s, Thomas’s success in the American market had prompted the commission of a third series.  This would be the first production undertaken solely by the Britt Allcroft Company, with Clearwater Features no longer operating.  However, the third series would also see the creative differences widen in the working relationship between Awdry and Allcroft. For the third series, it was seen as necessary to develop new scripts for the TV Series, half of which would not be based on Awdry material.  It could be argued that there were a proportion of Railway Series stories that could have been adapted, but, these would have incurred the expense of building more new and expensive models, and drawing screen time away from established characters.  The scripts would also have to lend themselves more so to the American market, helping to further establish Thomas there.  Hence a number of Awdry stories were adapted more loosely than they had previously.

Not everyone was happy during Series 3

The reaction of the Reverend Awdry and his family was not favourable to these changes.  They had been sent copies of the scripts for approval, but were quite upset that the producers had gone on to shoot the stories anyway – including the ones that the family had objected to.  This led to tirades in the press on the part of Awdry, and a general cooling of relations between the family and the TV Series producers.  David Mitton stated that while he “always loved the Awdry stories,” his main priority was “telling a story” and that he “would always strive to be as close to the original story as he could possibly be, while taking the filmed translation of the story into account.  Britt also defended the decisions made, not as cold-hearted ones, but as necessary moves to ensure the success of the characters.

Oliver the Western Engine

Mavis the Quarry Diesel

Series 3 also saw the introduction of two new storytellers as Ringo Starr decided to leave Thomas behind to pursue his musical interests again with his All Starr Band.  To further the success in the United States, Britt Allcroft and Rick Sigglekow brought in American comedian, George Carlin, to replace Ringo as Mr Conductor on Shining Time Station.  As well as being storyteller for the new Series 3, George also retold stories from Series 1 and 2, many of which Ringo had not adapted for the United States.  In the UK, another Liverpudlian actor was sought to emulate Ringo’s tones.  Michael Angelis, who had starred previously in The Liver Birds and Boys From The Black Stuff, took over duties for the UK and Australian releases and provided an enthusiastic and lively narrative throughout his storytelling.  Both stand in very high regard with nostalgic fans today.

The Narrow Gauge Skarloey Railway Engines

After 1992, the TV Series was no longer broadcast on terrestrial UK television, and following Shining Time Station’s third series in 1993, the preference was to produce ‘specials’ of that series instead.  Thus, when Series 4 came to be released in 1995, it became the first one to be released ‘straight-to-video’ as a ‘made to specification’ series.  The series was shown in the UK on Satellite channel Cartoon Network, whilst in the USA, Shining Time Station made use of eight stories.

Stepney pays a visit in Series 4

What made Series 4 unique was that it focussed very stringently upon the introduction of a huge number of new characters.  The introduction of the little Skarloey Railway engines saw much of the emphasis pushed onto developing and showcasing these characters, which meant a return to using Awdry Railway Series material for (almost) an entire series, including several stories by Christopher Awdry as well.  However, Britt Allcroft and David Mitton continued to adapt the stories to suit the audiences in all territories, and even wrote an original piece to introduce Stepney the Bluebell Engine - the Producers wanting The Island Of Sodor to be a universal place, and not pigeon-holed as a British island, which had been firmly established by the Rev. Awdry.

Henry mourns the loss of the Reverend and George C

On March 21 1997, the Reverend Wilbert Vere Awdry OBE died following years of prolonged illness and being bedridden.  It would be around this point that the television series would begin to dominate Thomas.  The Britt Allcroft Company bought up the full rights to Thomas from the publishers, Heinemann Books, who were selling off their children’s publishing arm, and following the acquisition, Britt Allcroft and David Mitton set about creating their first full series of original Thomas The Tank Engine and Friends stories, to be used as a showcase for the upcoming movie, due for release in 2000.  In 1997, George Carlin played the role of Mr Conductor for the final time, choosing to move on and pursue a movie career instead.  His final stint was as part of ‘Mr Conductor’s Thomas Tales’, a spin-off from Shining Time Station.

A Cranky new friend in Series 5

Series 5 was the first to introduce non-Awdry characters such as Cranky the Crane among others, who became ‘one-offs’.  It also provided Britt and David with an opportunity to flesh out Oliver and other characters, who had received less Awdry attention than many of the other characters throughout the railway series – and allowed David Mitton to indulge in exciting crash sequences which he loved putting together with his crew.  Series 5 marked another series first, in which a Railway Consultant joined the Production team. David Maidment, founder of the charity Railway Children had canvassed Britt's company for a donation. Britt wanted to help, and an agreement was struck where in return, Maidment would tap into his extensive railway experience to guide Series 5's storylines. As a result, several of the episodes such as A Better View for Gordon, James & the Trouble with Trees and Baa had a real-life railway incident basis. The series also saw the introduction of the second American storyteller, Hollywood actor, Alec Baldwin, who would become the third actor to take up the role of Mr Conductor – this time in the upcoming movie.

Gordon looks forward to the feature film!

The tantalising prospect of a Thomas Feature Film had been touted for quite some time.  As far back as 1994, prior to the filming of the fourth series, rumours had been floating around with the working title of Thomas and the Rainbow Railway.  Shining Time Station had also been the subject of a possible movie deal as well, with a treatment written up by Rick Sigglekow as far back as 1993.  The initial idea was to base the movie around the Shining Time Station franchise, while incorporating Thomas into the feature as a supporting feature.  Sadly, this idea did not get off the ground with Siggelkow joining the BBC Worldwide Americas Children's Division in 1995.

Thomas looks to the Magic Railroad...!

Britt persevered, however and was contacted in early 1996 by then Vice-Chairman of Paramount, Barry London, who expressed an interest for a Thomas theatrical feature produced under the studio’s banner. Britt initially signed a contract with Paramount to write the script, and London carried the agreement with him when he left Paramount to head Destination Films. Pre-production work on the film titled Thomas and the Magic Railroad was officially announced to the world in February, 1999.

Lady the Magical Engine

Thomas and the Magic Railroad thus became a fusion of both a ‘Thomas’ movie and a ‘Shining Time Station’ one.  Combining the live action model animation and live action actors, the movie followed the adventures of Thomas and his friends as they tried to help Mr Conductor, a young girl called Lily and Mr Conductor’s younger cousin, C Junior, get back to Shining Time Station when a Gold Dust crisis occurs, severing the connection between the two worlds.  However, with the fearsome Diesel 10 on the loose at the same time, looking for a lost steam engine called ‘Lady’ it would be no easy task to put everything right. 

HIT tried to take over in 2000, but were rejected

It was during the movie's post-production that HiT Entertainment first set eyes on acquiring the Thomas franchise. In the opening rounds of negotiations in early February 2000, HiT initially offered close to 220 million, a figure which was later increased substantially to 356. News of HiT's interest in Thomas actually benefited Britt's company, whereupon the price per share leapt from 7.50 to 8.92. By mid-February, Britt and the board were in a position to kindly turn down HiT's offer, stating that Thomas remaining as a high-quality and independent portfolio asset was in her company shareholders' best interests.  Also being considered at the time was the possibility of relocating the TV Series to Toronto. The deciding factors against this move in the end were the results of a cost analysis and Britt’s recognition and protection of Thomas as a British cultural icon. 

James, Thomas and the fearsome Diesel 10

As work on the movie progressed, Production encountered challenges with several major cuts made in a short space of time prior to its theatrical release in July, 2000. Although receiving a few favourable reviews, the movie was panned by mainstream critics and was not deemed to be a box office success. On account of focusing upon Shining Time and the American live actors, the movie was heavily criticised for alienating British and Australian fans, as well as abandoning Thomas’s roots.  However, later VHS and DVD sales of the movie proved quite successful. The performance of the Movie also led some journalists and sources to believe that Britt was pressured by board members to leave the company as a result. However, as evidenced in the following, this simply isn’t true.

Thomas and Elizabeth

Prior to the release of the movie, Britt Allcroft was feeling the strain of her success.  As Chairman of the Britt Allcroft Company, she was constantly removed from the creative side of Thomas that she so sorely enjoyed.  During late summer and early fall of 2000, Britt’s company underwent a major reorganization which culminated with the company being renamed to Gullane Entertainment. In September 2000, Britt made the difficult decision to stand down as company deputy chairman and director, while still retaining shares and the role of Executive Producer for the sixth series of Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends scheduled for production in late 2001.This would be the first series that Britt Allcroft herself would not take a direct hand in writing, with David Mitton focusing more upon the creative production side of what would be a more intensive shooting period than previous years, with TATMR Producer Phil Fehrle taking over the role of Producer from both of them.  

James and the Red Balloon

Writing for the sixth series was placed in the hands of individual script writers, with some storylines being outlined by David Mitton to provide a guiding hand.  Among the new writing staff were the legendry Brian Trueman who wrote and lent voice talent for Cosgrove Hall's Wind In The Willows among other productions for the same company, and his son, Jonathan, who he had collaborated with for the writing of stop-motion series, The Treacle People, produced by Fire Mountain Productions.  Thomas was one of Brian’s final writing contributions prior to retiring.

Jack and Byron working hard

Jonathan also played a part in developing the first two scripts for what was intended as a Thomas ‘spin-off’ series, Jack and the Sodor Construction Crew, developed by Phil Ferhle.  These stories were to be based around construction projects on the Island of Sodor, with a group of road-based construction machines taking centre stage.  Jack and his friends were introduced in two special episodes during Series 6, with directing duties falling to series veteran, Steve Asquith.  The models for ‘Jack’ were significantly larger than the ones on the ‘Thomas’ set, and thus, a scaled-up version of Thomas was built to ease the transition.  However, around September of 2002, Gullane succumbed to a takeover bid from HIT Entertainment, who had been pursuing the Britt Allcroft Company from 1998.  The ‘Jack’ series became one of the first casualties of the takeover, and while it was still shot in its entirety of 13 five minute episodes, it was not released until three years later in 2006!

Ben bought some gold buffers from his old shares

With Series 6 pre-production easing nicely into production during the spring of 2002, HiT once again focused their attention on buying out Gullane, this time taking advantage of the company’s recent depressed stock market performance. The strategy HiT’s negotiators used was to try to convince Gullane’s board of investors that joining HiT would produce mutual benefits for expanding into the European and North American broadcasting and merchandising markets. After some back and forth parlays, the terms and conditions of the merger were complete. By July 8, 2002, it was officially announced that HiT now owned the Thomas brand, having secured Gullane and its assets for 139 million effective September, 2002. 

Jack and Alfie would stay as part of 'Thomas'

The Jack & the Pack episodes were in the process of being filmed when the HiT merger took place, with word coming down from the new owners implicitly stating that Jack was to be incorporated into Thomas and Friends. This explains why early merchandising and promotional photos of the characters initially had “Packard Construction Company” emblazoned on their sides which was quickly changed to “Sodor Construction Company”.

When HIT stepped in, the Pack fell...

Jack and his friends were introduced in two special episodes during Series 6, with directing duties falling to series veteran, Steve Asquith.  The models for ‘Jack’ were significantly larger than the ones on the ‘Thomas’ set, and thus, a scaled-up version of Thomas was built to ease the transition. Even so, the ‘Jack’ series became one of the first casualties of HiT’s takeover, and while it was still shot in its entirety of 13 five minute episodes, it was not released until three years later in 2006!

Spencer the Silver Bullet!

Series 7 had already been planned out and agreed upon, and while HIT were able to implement some of their own ideas, it was very much the last full Gullane series.  In the US, Series 7 was released simultaneously on DVD alongside Series 8, with a new storyteller replacing Alec Baldwin.  Michael Brandon had been starring in Jerry Springer: The Musical in London when he was spotted by HIT Entertainment bosses, and approached to undertake the role.  Thus, he was charged with the task of telling two series worth of stories at once for general release.  In the interim however, Michael Angelis provided narrative for the US version for four Series 7 episodes, and the two Jack and the Pack episodes released in the US on the New Friends For Thomas DVD release.

The Skarloey Railway Engines in Series 7

Throughout Series 7, the writing staff were given greater levels of creative freedom, while David Mitton began the process of ‘winding down’ from his role as the Director, choosing not to continue under the HIT Entertainment produced series.  The new company wished to install its own team to handle Thomas, so Phil Fehrle was also relieved of his duties. Following the exodus, veterans Robert Gauld-Galliers, Mike O’Donnell and Junior Campbell also stood down following the takeover – which would see Thomas and Friends take a brand new creative approach.  Back in late January of 2003, Britt became a Non-Executive Director on HiT’s board, as well as a Creative Consultant for the series. She stood down from the Director position in May the same year to focus upon her other business ventures from her base at Santa Monica, though retained her role as Creative Consultant. Unfortunately, this too came to pass, thus ending her involvement with Thomas – but still retaining an enduring interest and love of the characters.

Brightest and best...!

Series 8 saw TV Series writers, Paul Larson and Abi Grant develop a new format for the television series, alongside HIT Entertainment’s Executive Producer, Jocelyn Stevenson.  The running length of the episodes was extended to seven minutes, and the 35mm film had been replaced in favour of recording on digital through BETA Cam SP technology.  Following the departure of David Mitton, Steve Asquith had taken his place as the Director, with Simon Spencer, who had worked on Jim Henson’s Construction Site (where Steve was a consultant), taking over as the Producer.  Musical themes were provided by Robert Hartshorne, who joined the series half-way through filming, with songs written by Ed Welch, who wrote the new theme tune – Engine Roll Call.

# They're 2, they're 4, they're 6, they're 8 #

Emily becomes a main character in Series 8

The eighth series was treated as a rebirth and re-establishment of ‘Thomas’, and this meant scaling back the number of characters sharing the spotlight.  HIT wanted to focus solely upon eight principal characters: Thomas, Edward, Henry, Gordon, James, Percy, Toby and a new female character who had been introduced in the previous series, Emily.  The latter was introduced to provide a strong female presence in the male-oriented ‘Steam Team’.  For the most part, a small group of supporting characters were kept, but the focus remained firmly upon the ‘core characters’ in a bid to reaffirm their roles.  For US broadcasts, a special half-hour block was constructed with two Series 8 episodes, a shorter Series 7 one, and padded out with songs and ‘interactive interstitials’.

The New Tidmouth Sheds

Prior to the release of Series 9, there was a special straight-to-DVD special release, Calling All Engines.  The special was made for the 60th anniversary year, with Thomas and his steam engine friends encountering difficulties whilst working with the more unruly Diesel characters on the new Sodor Airport.  While not acknowledging the events of Thomas and the Magic Railroad, the special also saw the brief return of Diesel 10 and Lady, as well as cameo appearances from Daisy and Derek – who had not featured in the series since the 1990s.  The special was significant in the way that it dealt with the destruction of the original Tidmouth Sheds, which were later replaced with a seven-road shed with a place for Emily to sleep, thus cementing her as one of the team.

Britt speaks out for Thomas

Thomas and Friends found themselves under new ownership once more during the spring of 2005, when private equity investment group Apax added HiT Entertainment to their portfolio. The buyout prompted Britt to publish an open letter to Apax in Variety, reaffirming how special Thomas and his Friends are, and asking the new owners to “respect the ethics and values associated with Thomas”.

Mighty and Mac - or Mighty Mac...

Series 9 aired in the Autumn of 2005, and carried on from where Calling All Engines left off.  HIT Entertainment appointed a new Script Editor, Sharon Miller, and allowed for the return of the narrow gauge engines, who had been notably absent throughout Series 8, as well as introducing the first new characters created specifically for the new format, these included Mighty Mac, a Double-Fairlie locomotive like those found on the Ffestiniog Railway in North Wales.  It also marked the first time that an American storyteller had remained with the series for a third series, and the first time that a Thomas series had debuted on television as opposed to DVD in both the UK and US for a great number of years!

Everyone did the 'Happy Front Loader Dance'...

In the autumn of 2006, the Jack and the Pack ‘spin-off’ series was finally released on DVD.  The cast of the stories expanded slightly upon those featured in the Series 6 episodes, and titles were changed slightly to accommodate more familiar characters, Thomas and Percy.  To bring the new episodes into line with the new Thomas format, the music was provided by Robert Hartshorne, however, these episodes were never broadcast on television alongside Series 10, which was assumed would be the case.

Thomas and the Narrow Gauge Engines at the Wharf

For Series 10, the number of episodes was increased from 26 to 28 to celebrate the milestone.  One of the biggest surprises of this series was the return of Sir Handel, the narrow gauge railway’s No.3, who had been absent from the series since his debut series in 1995.  It also saw the further development of the narrow gauge railway with the implementation of The Wharf, and introduction of a scaled-up James model to join Thomas in interacting with the narrow gauge engines (who had been scaled up since the 2002 series). 

The engines celebrate launching on Channel 5 UK

The series was also aired on terrestrial UK television alongside Series 9 in 2006, as Thomas deflected from ITV, who had broadcast the series for 20 years on and off, (never showing Series 4 and 5, but returned with Series 6). This was the direct result of the recent policing powers granted to the UK’s Office of Communications (OFCOM) to impose restrictions on television adverts aimed at children – a major source of funding for broadcasters. Consequently, the broadcaster had opted to cut their children's broadcasting airtime quota, deeming it too expensive and unprofitable in comparison with their other areas of the channel's output.  Thomas and a few other children's programmes were affected by this, with Series 8's broadcast on the channel being straddled between 13 episodes in 2005 and 13 concluding episodes in 2006.  Thomas found a new home on Channel 5’s preschool morning broadcast Milkshake, where he has become a very popular fixture.

Gordon with the Scottish Twins

Series 11 debuted in September of 2007, becoming the first Thomas series to be shot in High Definition, and saw further reintegration of characters again with Donald and Douglas reappearing with supporting roles during Gordon and the Engineer.  This was also the first instance of cut-backs as well, with no new interactive interstitials or music videos being showcased within the half-hour blocks.  As opposed to the usual run of 26 episodes, the series ran with 20 instead, with six being kept aside for a straight-to-DVD release.

Madge keeps an eye out!

The straight-to-DVD release saw six episodes focusing upon the narrow gauge engines, with the only new song of the series, The Narrow Gauge Engines, being released as part of the DVD.  There was further significance in the release with Freddie, a character introduced in Series 10, being the first character outside of the ‘core character-base’ to have a story to himself.  Similarly, new character, Madge, had two focus stories based on her adventures and interaction with the Narrow-Gauge Engines.

Percy looks to the future...

Series 11 was also meant to mark the end of Michael Angelis and Michael Brandon’s storytelling. Michael Brandon expressed his sadness at leaving the series to Sodor Island in an interview which can be found here, saying how much he enjoyed being part of Thomas's world for the four years he was associated with the series.  Long-term UK fans of the series were also sad to hear of Michael Angelis's departure, he being a staple of Thomas's world for over fifteen years.  However, what softened the blow was the announcement of their replacement, who would be storyteller for both future American and UK releases and broadcasts was none other than former 007 star himself, Pierce Brosnan, who would make his debut in late 2008, with the straight-to-DVD special release, The Great Discovery.

Thomas discovers Great Waterton

The Great Discovery was released to acclimation, with daring stunts for the Thomas model particularly, as well as Pierce’s soothing narrative throughout, which was felt by some to be a refreshing change, particularly in the UK.  Putting forward the importance of friendship, teamwork and accepting others without resorting to jealousy.  However, the situation had changed with Pierce throughout the year, and instead of being storyteller for three series and three specials as previously stated, his sole contribution to the Thomas series would be in The Great Discovery.

Stanley was shocked by the CGI move

However, 2008 was to herald further changes to the set-up of Thomas and Friends as it was traditionally known.  In late 2007, there had been confirmation by a correspondent close to the set that there would be CGI implements employed, with HIT Entertainment planning a lot more in future.  This information was not disclosed to the wider community initially.  A further bombshell was dropped from the same source in May of 2008, when it was confirmed that this was the last Thomas series to be shot with the model animation format, and that the series from then on would be a CGI cartoon, with production outsourced to Nitrogen Studios in Canada.

Onward and upward for the Little Engines

This being highly sensitive information, the news of their redundancy still ringing in the ears of the studio crew, the SiF Staff and ViPs who were aware of the situation were adamant of keeping it under wraps – aware of the outcry that would be bound to occur... and did when The Sun newspaper issued an online article from a similar source close to the set, who had told all about the production move to Canada.  The news was later confirmed via official online sources such as Licensing Biz and an official Press Release from HIT Entertainment themselves about the future of their properties – with Bob the Builder also receiving the CGI treatment as a means of cost-effectiveness, similarly outsourced to the United States.

Thomas and Hank mourn David and George C

In the same month, Sodor Island Fansite had the sad, but proud, distinction to become one of the first online sources to report the untimely death of Producer, Director, Writer and Friend of SiF, David Mitton.  For eighteen months, David had been in contact with SiF Administrator, Ryan, and been granting opportunities to compile a comprehensive interview of his work and life in television, but most importantly, providing an insight into Thomas and Tugs over the years.  Sadly, the interview could not be completed as far as we would have liked, but what we have stands as a testament to a wonderful, creative man who innovated one of the best children’s television properties of our time, and dying before his final work – Adventures on Orsum Island, could be completed.  In light of David’s passing, production on Orsum Island stopped completely, and his company with David Lane and Michelle Fabian-Jones (both former Clearwater Film Company associates) ceased trading.

Edward wasn't sure what to make of it all either

Not long after, celebrated comedian and much loved American Thomas storyteller, George Carlin died of heart-failure.  Both the passing of David and George was marked by beautiful and heart-warming tributes from Producer, TV Series creator and another of SiF’s good friends, Britt Allcroft, who worked alongside them both and shared her fond memories of them both, with Rick Siggelkow also providing his own thoughts and feelings toward the time he and his crew spent with George on the Shining Time Station set in the early 1990s.

Toby was happy to finally move his lips

Series 12, the final one filmed with models, was aired firstly in the United Kingdom, where to the surprise of everyone, Michael Angelis’ name was seen to appear on the screen in place of the previously billed Pierce Brosnan.  Similarly, in the United States, while supposedly displaced from the TV Series, Michael Brandon had made a triumphant return, with Pierce Brosnan being billed on The Great Discovery DVD as the Special Guest Narrator.  This was the first series to be officially cut to 20 filmed episodes as opposed to the previous 26, and the last one to rely solely upon a storyteller.

Thomas the CGI Tank Engine

Despite numerous behind the scenes changes over the twenty five years of production, the one constant that had always been prominent were the models used to animate the series.  They set the style of the series and won the hearts of millions.  However, animating in this way was proving to be expensive, so HIT Entertainment opted instead to get Nitrogen Studios of Canada, who provided the CGI implements of the 2008 series, to animate future material in full CGI.  It was to be a full makeover for Thomas and Friends – not only in terms of the physical appearance of the characters and their environment, but in terms of their vocals.  For the first time since Thomas and the Magic Railroad, the engines would have individual voices in the United Kingdom and United States, but by comparison, these voices would be territory specific. The hybrid Model-CGI elements also offered another first: animated CGI engine crews, Fat Controller and other Sudrian citizenry, with birds adding to the ambiance of each episode.

Thomas and Hiro

The 2009 special, Hero of the Rails, showcased this sweeping change with stunning animation by Nitrogen and a gripping storyline by Sharon Miller.  A story of friendship, bravery and hope – as well as extending the opportunity for multi-cultural characters to be introduced to Sodor, such as Hiro, a large Japanese engine who was brought to the Island several years ago in the very early days, subsequently laid aside and forgotten about until found by Thomas; as well as Victor, a Hispanic narrow gauge engine from Cuba who now runs the Sodor Steamworks.  Hero of the Rails had initially been earmarked as another model animation special prior to the final decision on the changeover, and it had been the suggestion of Thomas stalwart, David Eves, to create a Sodor Steamworks. 

Victor and Kevin at the Steamworks

Series 13 of the TV Series was the first to use the full CGI animation.  Nitrogen Studios were working slowly but surely to achieve visual perfection, which meant a limited number of characters could be created for the storylines and a similarly limited number of locations, which meant that the Narrow Gauge engines were again absent from the series restructure for a second time.  The series aired first in the UK in January of 2010, receiving very strong audience figures, and putting forward some interesting new scenarios that could not be achieved with the models, such as showing James being repainted in a pink undercoat among other things.

Diesel 10 in all his CGI glory

The 2010 Special, Misty Island Rescue saw Thomas leave the Island of Sodor for the first time, getting lost at sea and ending up stranded on a mysterious satellite island three miles off the coast of Brendam... Misty Island - home to a massive logging operation and to three mischievous Logging Locos, Bash, Dash and Ferdinand, who Thomas must lead and listen to in order to get back home to Sodor with his supplies of the special Jobi Wood required to build a new Search and Rescue Centre... however, even when Thomas is back safe and sound, there's still trouble looming on the cliffs above.  Diesel 10 is back... and he's ready for causing trouble (this is a lead-in to the follow-up special for 2011, Day of the Diesels, which was slotted in last-minute by the Nitrogen team).

Henry and Stanley

Series 14 began airing on the day of Misty Island Rescue's UK DVD release in October.  The first 10 episodes had been completed ahead of work on the special's production in 2009, therefore leaving out Bash, Dash and Ferdinand for the first half of the series, but making them semi-regular stars of the series in the second half of the 20 episode run.  The series saw the return of Stanley to the fold (as a supporting / non-speaking character), as well as 'Arry and Bert who appeared in the Sodor Steamworks being repaired.  In addition to the new faces, Whiff was given a new friend called Scruff to help work with him at the Sodor Waste Dump.

Thomas, Butch and Harold

Much to the surprise of fans in the UK, Series 15, which had been due to air following the 2011 Special feature, Day of the Diesels, began broadcasting on the 1st of March 2011.  This was the shortest period between new series that Thomas & Friends had ever seen, however, it was not as satisfying as viewers had hoped it would be, given the high hopes for the nature of the plot for the 2011 Special.

Not seen much...

Unlike the two previous series, which saw the characters from the previous special gain some spotlight in a significant way, the characters and new locations from Day of the Diesels were shunted into two episodes and given very little airtime, whilst the Logging Locos from Misty Island Rescue featured consistently throughout.  However, the first sense of proper continuity between episodes within the series occurred with the Logging Locos being the basis of a loosely fitting ‘trilogy’ where they each received a reward for being ‘really useful’ – (this idea was mentioned by Chris Signore at the Hero of the Rails Premiere, and was seemingly taken onboard).

Series 15 Writing Team were 'in a fog'

The voice acting team saw a new member come on board with Rupert Degas taking on the roles of Bertie, Dart, Flynn the Fire Engine and Butch the Breakdown Lorry, who got his first speaking role since his 1998 introduction.  However, the writing throughout the series seriously let it down, with bad morals being perpetuated through poorly thought-out scripts, suffering from the formulaic writing format imposed upon the writers.  (Simon Martin wrote a series of blog posts on the 15th Series of Thomas and Friends in March 2011, which can be read on The SiF Blog).

Fire-Fighting Thomas

However, despite the mediocrity of Series 15, there was some light at the end of the tunnel when Greg Tiernan, the Director for the CGI version of the series, let SiF know that there would be changes ahead.  Later, the information was leaked that Sharon Miller had stood down from the Head Writer position after seven series in charge.  She would be replaced by Andrew Brenner, formerly Head Writer for the new CGI Fireman Sam series as of the 17th series of Thomas & Friends due to air in 2013, promising a return to quality storylining and abandoning the structure put in place during the Miller-era of Thomas and Friends.

Den and Dart weren't that happy either...

Day of the Diesels was released in October of 2011, and was met with fairly mixed reviews from both the older fans and parents giving their thoughts on Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.  Whilst eliminating the rhyming element, which had been prevalent throughout Misty Island Rescue and Series 15, there were still a number of negative aspects associated with the movie.  The film had received a number of cuts and changes throughout, as some scenes were deemed unsuitable for the child audience the movie was aimed at.  But the main criticism was the lack of action throughout, with Percy simply rushing from place to place, being very dialogue-heavy, and having three characters who were given absolutely no dialogue whatsoever throughout the film – with one new character (Sidney) appearing for less than three seconds!

Percy and the Calliope

Series 16 premiered in the Spring of 2012, and was again reviewed in the SiF Blog, in the same way that Series 15 had been the year previous.  Whilst the rhyming element of the series had been removed completely, the uncreative and rigid style of storytelling continued to plague the series.  However, there were some positive aspects throughout the series – the narrow gauge engines returned, as did the original Thomas and Friends theme, played on a calliope, and a number of the changes being pushed forward by the new production team began to take effect. 

Spencer and Stafford

It also marked the end of some elements of the series.  Sharon Miller stood down as Head Writer halfway through the production of the series, with Script Editor duties being passed to Becky Evans in her place, prior to Andrew Brenner succeeding her in the role.  Similarly, Script Executive Sam Barlow stood down from his role, with Series 16 being his last production.  And fan favourites, Nitrogen Studios handed the production torch over to Arc Productions for the continuation of the series.  Blue Mountain Mystery marked their final involvement with Thomas & Friends at the end of 2012.

Even Paxton was amazed!

Blue Mountain Mystery was released on DVD in September of 2012, and became the first Thomas & Friends Special not to be released in the United States ahead of other English-speaking territories.  Blue Mountain is the transition point between the old team and the new one for Thomas & Friends, being the last piece that Sharon Miller had a hand in writing and the that Nitrogen Studios had in terms of production.  However, it was the first instance of Andrew Brenner’s influence on the series, and the first time Ian McCue had a full involvement with the final production (Series 15 / 16 and Day of the Diesels were written and in production by the time he came onboard).

Rusty was delighted with "Blue Mountain Mystery"!

On the whole, Blue Mountain Mystery was very well received, with flashbacks to classic Awdry stories to keep older fans happy, a well-structured plotline, stronger writing than what has been seen in previous years, the return of five of the narrow gauge engines and the standard batch of new characters.  It also provided the first instance of character development for Paxton the Diesel, loosely introduced in Day of the Diesels with no dialogue – who went on to win the affection of fans in our Blue Mountain Mystery poll.

Thomas at Knapford with his 'Funny Funnel'

And once again, we look to the future.  2013 sees a new beginning for Thomas & Friends, beginning with the 2013 Special, King of the Railway, preceding Series 17, which will see the first stories written by Andrew Brenner and his team of writers.  From initial indications, it seems that the crop of new stories should be well-received by fans, abandoning the current writing structure in favour of going back to the more freer style of creative writing, with a higher standard of story concepts to boot.  The new series will also hold some special surprises for fans.