Animation and Cartoons Wiki
Thomas & Friends

Thomas & Friends (originally known as Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends and later Thomas the Tank Engine and Thomas & Friends: Big World! Big Adventures!) is a British children's television series that aired across 24 series from 1984 until 2021. Based on The Railway Series books by Rev. W. Awdry and his son Christopher, the series was developed for television by Britt Allcroft. The series follows the adventures of Thomas, an anthropomorphised blue steam locomotive on the fictional North Western Railway on the Island of Sodor, and several other anthropomorphised locomotives on the North Western Railway, including Edward, Henry, Gordon, James, Percy, and Toby, who work for the Fat Controller, who wants his engines to be "really useful engines".

In the United States, it was first broadcast with the spin-off series Shining Time Station on PBS in 1989.

The rights to the series are currently owned by HIT Entertainment (a subsidiary of Mattel), which acquired Gullane Entertainment in July 2002.



The first attempt to adapt Awdry's stories for television came in 1953, when the editor of the Railway Series books, Eric Marriott, was approached by the BBC, who wished to use live-action model trains to re-create two stories from Awdry's first book, The Three Railway Engines. 00 gauge Hornby Dublo models appeared on sets that reflected the style of the original illustrations. The first episode (based on "The Sad Story of Henry") was broadcast live on the evening of Sunday 14 June 1953 from Lime Grove Studios. The live broadcast did not fare well: a failure to switch the points caused the model of Henry to derail and it had to be replaced on the rails by one of the operators. The models moved jerkily, and all effects and music had to be superimposed.

News of the broadcast hit the front pages of The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. Awdry branded the episode "unprofessional", and the point-switching debacle an "elementary mistake". As a result, the second episode scheduled for 28 June 1953 was put on hold, and then later cancelled. The BBC offered Awdry and the Railway Series publishers greater creative control over the production, but the publishers declined, preferring to focus on publishing new books for the series.

Nearly twenty years later, the BBC featured Awdry's stories in the television story-telling show Jackanory. Fourteen years before Thomas and Friends was aired, Ted Ray (sitting in a stationmaster's office) read five Railway Series books in episodes that aired between 20 September to 2 October 1970.

In 1973, Andrew Lloyd Webber (who had read The Railway Series as a child) approached publisher Kaye & Ward with a proposal for a musical television series, with songs from himself and lyricist Peter Reeves. However, the publishers and the author refused to give Lloyd Webber's company "control of almost everything", which Lloyd Webber's lawyers argued was necessary in order to "secure the investment money from America which would be needed to pay for the animation and the film-making." The status of the project seemed uncertain, and while Stanley Pickard (Kaye & Ward's managing director at the time) told Awdry that he was "maintaining personal contact with Andrew and still had a slight hope that there might be a way out", Awdry remained apprehensive, saying that "Once the Americans get hold of it the whole series would be vulgarized and ruined." Eventually, an agreement was reached and Awdry received an advanced payment of £500. A pilot episode was commissioned from Granada, which would feature 2D cutouts of the engines moving along a background in a style reminiscent of Ivor the Engine, with involvement from animator Brian Cosgrove. The cutouts and backgrounds were based on illustrations from The Railway Series. The pilot episode was completed by early 1976, but Granada ultimately decided not to produce a full series, as they feared that at the time Awdry's stories were not popular enough outside the UK to justify the time and money needed to make the series. Andrew Lloyd Webber later established the Really Useful Group in 1977, a name derived from the phrase "Really Useful Engine". He would go on to work on a musical loosely inspired by The Railway Series, called Starlight Express, which premiered in 1984, and became one of his most well-known works.

Early years and the series' success[]

In 1979, British television producer Britt Allcroft was producing a documentary on the Bluebell Railway, a heritage railway in Sussex which featured in the Railway Series book Stepney the Bluebell Engine. As part of her research before filming, Allcroft read some books in The Railway Series and was highly entertained and impressed with the stories which Awdry had written, later remarking that "there was something in the stories that I felt I could develop that would connect with children. I saw a strong emotional content that would carry with little children's experiences with life."

Allcroft worked to convince Awdry that she could, with funding, convert the stories into a successful television show. Her efforts were successful, and she purchased the television rights from the publishers of The Railway Series at a cost of what was then £50,000 ($74,000 in U.S. dollars at the time). Allcroft still had to work to raise the money to finance production and (despite showing a keen interest) wanted a level of creative control which she did not want to forego. In the end, after several years of searching and having to place a second mortgage on her home, Allcroft raised sufficient funding from her local bank manager.

By 1981, Allcroft had secured the finances to produce the show, she started to assemble the crew, including producer and director David Mitton, also the founder of Clearwater Features Ltd.; crew member Steve Asquith; American-born producer Robert D. Cardona; and composers and songwriters Mike O'Donnell and Junior Campbell, who are also musicians.

As a 5-minute TV segment (1984-2000)[]

The series started production in 1984 by Clearwater Features Ltd. (Mitton and Cardona's company) and ITV's Central Independent Television region. The series was originally shot and produced with live action models at the Clearwater in house studio in Battersea, a suburb of London, for Series 1. It later relocated to Shepperton Studios, Middlesex, southwest of London for subsequent series. The use of moving models was seen at the time of the series' conception as an effective method of animating the stories. Locomotives and other vehicles were operated by radio controls, while humans and animals were static figures. Stop-motion was occasionally employed for instances in which a human or animal character would move. Hand-drawn animation was used in Series 3 to create bees (as seen in the episode "Buzz Buzz").

The first series (1984) used stories from the first eight books, along with one specially written by the Rev. W. Awdry, Thomas's Christmas Party. The second series (1986) used stories from Book No.9 (Edward the Blue Engine) to Book No.30 (More About Thomas the Tank Engine). The latter book was unusual, as it was written specifically by Christopher Awdry to be adapted by the show. At that time, it was a contractual obligation that the series could only adapt stories that appeared in print. The series also used a story from a Thomas Annual, "Thomas and Trevor", and a specially written stand-alone story, Thomas and the Missing Christmas Tree. One episode ("The Missing Coach") was in the process of being filmed, but was cancelled mid-way through filming as Allcroft decided it was too confusing for young viewers. The production team went on to use "Better Late Than Never" instead. The story "Gordon Goes Foreign" from the Railway Series book The Eight Famous Engines was also planned to be adapted but was scrapped due to budgetary limitations.

In between production of the second and third series, the production team were focused in producing two other television series: Tugs, which ran for one series in 1989 for Television South (TVS); and the American television series Shining Time Station, which repackaged Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends for the American television market from 1989 to 1996.

Just before production of series three, Clearwater closed on 31 December 1990, with The Britt Allcroft Company becoming the sole producer. Series three was broadcast in 1992 on CITV. It was made at a cost of £1.3 million (approximately $9.3.million in U.S. dollars at the time).[verification needed] The series was a combination of episodes derived from The Railway Series, stories in the Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends magazine (written by Andrew Brenner, who would later become the show's head writer starting in Series 16), and a couple of original stories by Allcroft and Mitton.

One of the primary reasons for diverging from the original books was that many of the stories not yet used featured large numbers of new characters, which would be expensive to produce. Another reason was that the producers wanted more stories about Thomas (the nominal main character). Awdry complained that the new stories would be unrealistic (see Henry the Green Engine for more details). Robert D. Cardona left as producer, while Britt Allcroft joined David Mitton as co-producer. Angus Wright took over as executive producer.

Series 4 was first released directly to video between 1994 and 1995 before its broadcast debut on ITV. The producers planned to introduce some new female characters, including motor car Caroline, Nancy, and The Refreshment Lady. Some commentators took this as a response to accusations of sexism levelled against the series two years earlier. In reality, these were not "new" characters, but creations of Awdry from the original Railway Series books. Series four was almost entirely based on The Railway Series. The narrow gauge engines were introduced, and were the focus of a number of episodes. Only one original story ("Rusty to the Rescue", written by Allcroft and Mitton) was used, but this took certain elements of plot and dialogue from Stepney the "Bluebell" Engine.

The fifth series (1998) (also first released directly to video before its TV airings on Cartoon Network) was a radical shift, as all episodes were written by Allcroft and Mitton with no further stories being adapted from the Railway Series. This series saw the introduction of new characters, such as Cranky, The Horrid Lorries and Old Slow Coach. It also focused on more dramatic and action-oriented plot-lines, with more severe accidents, than in the earlier series. After series 5, Angus Wright stepped down as executive producer. It was also the final series broadcast on Cartoon Network, as Nickelodeon UK would eventually acquire the broadcast rights to the show for it to air on their newly created Nick Jr. channel in 1999. CN continued to air older series until their broadcast rights fully expired in 2001.

Thomas and the Magic Railroad was released in July 2000 in the UK, US, and Canada. It featured new characters created by Allcroft, along with characters from the show that introduced Thomas to the U.S., Shining Time Station. Despite high production values and the popularity of the show, the film was criticised by British reviewers who were unfamiliar with Shining Time Station. The movie was well received by young children on both sides of the Atlantic, but made only $19.7 million at the box office, against a cost of $19 million to produce.[citation needed] The film was broadcast on BBC1 on 1 January 2004 and again on 29 December 2008.

Later years[]

The Britt Allcroft Company (which changed its name to Gullane Entertainment in 2000) was purchased by HiT Entertainment in September 2002, a company specialising in children's entertainment.

The sixth and seventh series (2002-2003) was the first released directly to VHS and DVD as forty-six episodes in the US and fifty-two in the UK and continued to introduce action-packed storylines and new characters, and saw the introduction of a writing staff. The sixth series (2002) was an attempt to create a spin-off based on the successful Bob the Builder series. Two episodes introduced a group of construction machine characters known as "The Pack". The spin-off did not materialise for some time. Eventually, in 2006, thirteen episodes were released straight to DVD in two collections: On Site with Thomas and Thomas' Trusty Friends. It was the first series broadcast on ITV since series 3.

The fact that older sets were used and the episodes were shot on 35mm camera (as opposed to the digital camera used at the time of the episodes' release) suggest it was filmed some time before Series 8. In Series 7 (2003) the programme title was officially shortened to Thomas & Friends, this name having been used on merchandise and video covers for three years previously. Phil Fehrle replaced Allcroft and Mitton as producer, though Mitton remained as the director. Executive producer Angus Wright was replaced by Peter Urie and Allcroft as executive producers for Series 6.

In 2003, Allcroft stepped down as executive producer, making Urie the sole executive producer for Gullane Entertainment, and Jocelyn Stevenson was the executive producer for HiT Entertainment.

The eighth series (2004) was the first released directly to VHS and DVD as four episodes in the US and six in the UK were released before airing on television on Nick Jr. in the UK and PBS in the US. It introduced a number of significant changes to the show. Many of the original founding team involved in the original show since 1984 left the production, including Britt Allcroft, director and writer David Mitton, and original composers Mike O'Donnell and Junior Campbell. The latter two had been embroiled in a protracted legal dispute with HiT before their departure. Asquith, who was part of the original production team since 1984, took over as director, while Simon Spencer replaced Phil Fehrle as producer.

A new theme song and incidental music were composed by Ed Welch and Robert Hartshorne, respectively. Episode runtime was increased to seven minutes. The series was produced using digital video camera, creating a somewhat different look for the show. Other changes included the additions of CGI educational sequences and transitions between stories. Executive producer Peter Urie also left, while Jocelyn Stevenson remained in her role as executive producer. Sam Barlow became the story executive, while Abi Grant and Paul Larson served as script editors. This series saw the adoption of a centralised cast, including Thomas, Edward, Henry, Gordon, James, Percy, Toby and Emily.

HiT Entertainment was itself then acquired by Apax Partners, a private equity company, in March 2005.

A straight-to-video film (Calling All Engines!) was released shortly before Series 9 in 2005. While featuring characters from Thomas and the Magic Railroad, it was not a direct sequel. It proved successful, which resulted in more direct-to-video specials being produced.

Series 9 (2005) and 10 (2006) saw the expansion of the supporting cast with new and old characters. From Series 9 the narrator would call out the episodes' names and from Series 11 the theme song was sung starting with the sound of a train whistle. Series 10 aired with twenty-eight episodes rather than the twenty-six of previous years. The eleventh series (2007) was filmed in high definition format. Twenty episodes aired in the original broadcast, while six were released directed to DVD as Engines and Escapades. Jocelyn Stevenson had stepped down as executive producer after Series 10, with Christopher Skala taking her place as executive producer for Series 11. Sharon Miller became the script editor from Series 9 to 11.

Series 12 (2008) saw the introduction of CGI effects (provided by HiT Entertainment's subsidiary Hot Animation), with the intent of producing the show entirely in CGI the following year. The traditional models and sets were still used, but with computer animated faces superimposed on the models to allow for changing facial expressions. Humans and animals were fully computer animated to allow for walking movement. Only twenty episodes were produced and broadcast (the U.S. broadcast featured six additional episodes from Engines and Escapades). Sharon Miller became the head writer, starting with Series 12.

HiT announced multiple changes to the show beginning in 2009. One new aspect was the introduction of live-action host segments to Thomas' home video releases. The host took the form of a character who worked on The Fat Controller's (Sir Topham Hatt's) railway, who would instruct viewers in craft projects. For the final 2 DVDs released for series 12 in 2009, the host was named Mr. Arkwright, played by Robert Slate. In 2010, beginning with the DVD "Splish Splash Splosh", the host, played by Ben Forster, was named Mr. Perkins. Upon Forster's death in 2017, he was replaced by Mark Moraghan, who played "Mr Evans" in the web series.[citation needed]

For budgetary reasons, the other major changes were a move to production in CGI, rather than using physical models, and the addition of a voice cast to support the established narrator. The DVD feature (Hero of the Rails) was the first Thomas & Friends production to showcase these changes, and Series 13 was the first television series in the new format. The CGI animation for the series was provided by Nitrogen Studios of Vancouver.

In September 2010, Apax was preparing to sell off HiT Entertainment and its franchises, including Thomas – regarded as the single most valuable asset – in order to help clear HiT's debts, and in February 2012, sold the company, along with the Thomas properties, to "US toy giant", Mattel.

During production of Series 16 (2012), Sharon Miller stepped down as head writer, and Andrew Brenner (who had written some Thomas stories in the third series) assumed the role after serving as script editor for "Blue Mountain Mystery". Additionally, Sam Barlow stepped down as story executive after the sixteenth series, and the production of the CGI animation was moved from Nitrogen Studios (of Vancouver) to Arc Productions (of Toronto). King of the Railway and Series 17, both released during 2013, serve as the first special and series developed by the new animation and production teams respectively.

2014 saw Tale of the Brave and Series 18, the second special and series animated by Arc, respectively. 2015 saw The Adventure Begins, a special coinciding with the 70th anniversary of the franchise, and Sodor's Legend of the Lost Treasure; Series 19 began airing that same year. 2016 saw some changes; longtime composers Robert and Peter Hartshorne (father and son team) left the series and Chris Renshaw and Oliver Davis took over. 2016 also saw Thomas & Friends: The Great Race and Series 20 began airing the same year. Series 20 was the last series of the show to air on PBS Kids; when Series 21 began airing in 2017, the American broadcast of the show was moved to Nick Jr., ending a period of almost 28 years of Thomas & Friends on American public television. 2017 also saw Journey Beyond Sodor. The show was pulled away from Nick Jr. at the end of 2019.

A twenty-second series of Thomas and Friends was announced consisting of 26 episodes with, among many other changes, such as Edward, Henry and Toby being removed from the Steam Team to make room for two new female steam engines named Nia (Africa) and Rebecca (UK), and the narrator has been replaced with Thomas talking to the audience (however, Mark Moraghan, the previous narrator has said that he will still work on the series). Series 22 is set after Big World! Big Adventures!, which came out on 20 July 2018. It introduced gender-balanced and multicultural characters, and features a new theme tune. The series is split into two-halves; the first half sees Thomas travelling around the world and visiting India, Australia, and China, while the second half takes place back on the Island of Sodor. The series was released on Netflix, Amazon and Hulu in the late half of 2018.

Thomas & Friends was renewed for a 23rd series which debuted in 2019.

The 24th series was released in September 2020. The series was also the final series animated by Jam Filled Toronto, also the last series of the entire original series.

A second live-action/animated Thomas & Friends film is in development at Mattel with Marc Forster serving as director.




Other works[]