Thomas & Friends (Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends until 2002) is a British children's television series, which had its first broadcast on the ITV network on 4 September 1984. It is based on The Railway Series of books by the Reverend Wilbert Awdry and his son, Christopher Awdry. These books deal with the adventures of a group of anthropomorphised locomotives and road vehicles who live on the fictional Island of Sodor. The books were based on stories Wilbert told to entertain his son, Christopher, during his recovery from measles. From Series one to four, many of the stories are based on events from Awdry's personal experience.
In 1979, whilst researching for a TV program she was about to produce about the British love of steam trains, the British writer/producer Britt Allcroft came across the books from the The Railway Series, . written by Wilbert Awdry.
In the early 80′s, Britt Allcroft visited Rev Wilbert Awdry at his home several times, to discuss train history, and it was during this time Britt first conceived the idea of adapting Awdry's stories and images to film, for children. In 1983 Britt brought the television rights to bring the stories of The Railway Series to life as the TV series Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends
The series started production in 1983 by Britt Allcroft Productions, Clearwater Features Ltd (David Mitton and Robert D. Cardona's company) and the ITV company Central Independent Television. The series was originally shot and produced with live action models at the Clearwater in house studio in Battersea London, ( Series 1 ), then relocating to Shepperton Studios, Middlesex, southwest of London for subsequent Series'. The use of moving models was seen at the time of the show's conception as an effective method of animating the stories. Locomotives and other vehicles were operated by radio, 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.
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 9 (Edward the Blue Engine) to Book 30 (More About Thomas the Tank Engine). This 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 show 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. The second series was actually a 27-episode series, as a single (unaired) episode ("The Missing Coach") was in the process of being filmed, but despite being filmed it was never shown because Allcroft decided it was too confusing for young children/younger viewers. The production team went on to use "Thomas, Percy and the Coal" instead.
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 from 1989 to 1990 for TVS. The American television Shining Time Station, repackaged Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends for American television market.
Just before production of series three, Clearwater closed in 1990, with The Britt Allcroft Company become the sole producer. Series three was broadcast 1991 to 1992 in two parts, (one part having 16 episodes and the other having 10). It was made at a cost of £1.3 million. The series was a combination of episodes derived from The Railway Series, stories in the Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends magazine, and 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 was that the producers wanted more stories about Thomas, the nominal main character. The Rev. W. Awdry complained that the new stories were 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 four was also broadcast in two parts, (one part having 10 episodes and the other having 16) from 1994 to 1995. The producers planned to introduce some new female characters, including Caroline the car, 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 the Rev. 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") was used, but this took certain elements of plot and dialogue from Stepney the "Bluebell" Engine. The fifth series (1998) was a radical shift, as none of the stories were taken from the Railway Series. This series saw the introduction of new characters, such as Cranky, The Horrid Lorries and Old Slow Coach. After series 5, Angus Wright stepped down as executive producer.
Thomas & the Magic Railroad was released in July 2000 in the UK. It featured new characters created by Britt Allcroft, along with characters from the show that introduced Thomas to the US, Shining Time Station. Despite high production values and the popularity of the show, the film was criticised by UK 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 $16 million at the US box office at matinee prices, against a cost of $19 million to produce. The film was broadcast on BBC1 in 1 January 2004 and again on 29 December 2008.
The sixth and seventh series continued to introduce action-packed storylines and new characters, and saw the introduction of a writing staff. The sixth series in 2002 was notable for its 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 didn't materialise for some time. Eventually,in 2006, thirteen episodes were released straight to DVD. 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 Britt Allcroft as executive producers for Series 6.
In 2003, Britt Allcroft stepped down as executive producer, making Peter Urie the sole executive producer for Gullane Entertainment, and Jocelyn Stevenson was the executive producer for HiT Entertainment.
The eighth series (2004) introduced a number of significant changes to the show. Many of the original founding team involved in the original show since 1983 left the production, notably Britt Allcroft, and director and writer, David Mitton. Original composers Mike O'Donnell and Junior Campbell, also departed, and became embroiled in a protracted legal dispute with HIT.
Steve Asquith took over as director, while Simon Spencer replaced Phil Fehrle as producer. A new theme song and incidental music was 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 include 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, starting with Series 8.
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 a high definition format. Twenty episodes aired in the original broadcast, while six were released direct to DVD. Jocelyn Stevenson had stepped 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, with the intent of producing the show entirely in CGI the following year. The traditional models and sets were 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 broadcast (the US 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 railway, who would instruct viewers in craft projects. For the final 2 DVDs released for Season 12 in 2009, the host was named Mr. Arkwright (played by Robert Slate). In 2010 for the CGI Series, the host was named Mr. Perkins (played by Ben Forster) and has remained host ever since.
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 show these changes; 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. Series 17 saw some changes, as Sharon Miller had stepped down as head writer after series 16, with Andrew Brenner assuming the role. Additionally, the production of the CGI animation was moved to Arc Productions of Toronto.