Tugs - 25 years on!

ROBIN BUCKLAND visits a new display

An article in Model Boats in July 1990 covered the production of a children's TV programme called ‘Tugs’. That feature closed with the words, 'Now shooting is long over, and before perhaps a second series, each of Clearwater's precious tugboats have been carefully packed away in boxes and locked in a storage vault at Shepperton Studios, but then at £8000 apiece, wouldn't you look after them!

'Tugs' was an idea that grew during Season Two of Thomas the Tank Engine, when Robert D. Cardona and David Mitton were working for Britt Allcroft around 1985, producing those five minute stories in live action animation at Shepperton Studios, all so different from the latest computer generated stories. When a new studio at Shepperton became available, pre-production began in 1987 and actual production started in October 1987. It ended in December 1988 with a complete series of 13 episodes, each half-an hour long, and all safely in the can. That series was aired in the UK in 1989 through their link with TVS and sold to other TV networks around the world, but sadly a second series never materialised. With an expensive process to create another series of 13 half-hour stories, both Clearwater Productions and their partner fell victim to the change in the TV licensing at that time which meant that TVS had to re-bid for the franchise and they lost. So as TVS went out of business, the vital support for another series was pulled away from the Tugs series, and Clearwater Productions folded as well. So in large part, the models stayed locked away in their custom made boxes, stored and awaiting their fate, although one or two did see a new life with some modifications, in the Thomas the Tank Engine stories.

Of the two partners, David Mitton went back to work on Thomas the Tank Engine, which he did until around 2003 while Robert D. Cardona went to work in Canada, where he directed about 60 episodes of a Canadian series called ‘Theodore Tug Boats’. It wasn’t quite the end of the Tugs footage either, as that was reworked in the USA in 1997 to make a series called ‘Salty’s Lighthouse’. This created new stories using the footage, with US voices in place of the British ones. One of the original tugs, the paddle wheeler O.J., was adapted, but losing his face, to become ‘Lakesider’ in Thomas the Tank Engine, a format which it is still in use to this day.

The stories were set in an international harbour in the 1920's, and the work being done was factually based around the documented history of the Crawley Marine Tugboat Company of San Francisco and what they did in the harbour and the local rivers through the different seasons of the year. That was then interweaved with a story centred on the rivalry between two rival tugboat companies so as to create a children’s entertainment programme. The tugs each had a bridge that could turn as a head and faces with moving eyes. Each one had a set of different faces for all the different expressions that were required in the stories, helping give them their own personality.

The 'Star Fleet' was made up of seven tugs belonging to Captain Star and these were:

 

Two Switchers

Ten Cents (Stack No.1) and Sunshine (Stack No.7)

Two harbour tugs

Big Mac (Stack No.2) and Warrior (Stack No. 5)

A railway tug

Top Hat (Stack No. 4)

The older Paddle-Wheel harbour tug

 O.J. (Stack No. 3)

The Ocean-Going tug

Hercules (Stack No. 6), the largest of them all.

 

The opposition were five tugs who made up the ‘Z Stacks’ belonging to Captain Zero and these were:

 

Three harbour tugs

Zorran (Stack No, 1) the leader, and Zebedee (Stack No. 2) and Zak (Stack No. 3)

Two Switchers

Zug (Stack No.4) and Zip (Stack No. 5).

 

Other characters included Lilie the lightship; Grampus the miniature submarine; and Billie Shoepack which was an Alligator tug.

And now?

25 years later, a group of partners have got together to buy the models and form a new company around them, namely 'The Star Tugs Co'. The group have been able to purchase all but two of the models used in the series, but sadly don’t know what has happened to Grampus the submarine and Top Hat the railway tug, though they do have the box with all the different faces for them! If anyone knows of their fate or whereabouts, then Star Tugs would like to hear from you. They currently hope they will at least be able to locate the plans and build replicas in future. So with 18 models in the collection, work is now beginning so as to show them to the public once more.

Having run that feature 24 years ago in this magazine, Model Boats was invited to see them again as their new home which has been opened in an old railway carriage, sited in the collection at the Midland Railway Centre at Butterley Station in Ripley, Derbyshire. The group have been working on the exterior of the carriage and have repainted it and begun work on the inside to create two separate compartments, one with displays set to hold six of the tugs at any one time, and the other with a large Thomas the Tank Engine together with a TV and DVD player so children can see the videos of the newer episodes. When we were there we had the chance to watch as the first visitors were let in and the models were unveiled one at a time. The overwhelming comment from all of them was how good it was to be able to see the tugs in the flesh as part of a programme they remembered from their childhoods.

The ones on display for the day included Boomer, Big Mac, Ten Cents, Lilly, O.J., Zorran and Billie Shoepack. We were very fortunate in also being allowed behind the scenes, and got to see some of the others that are still being kept in storage, though not all of them are on site as yet. As I have already written, there will be six on display, but not always the same models, depending on when you visit.

The models

The tugs vary in size, but all were finished with equipment and weathered to give them a more accurate appearance as well-worked tugs in this time of transition, when steam was taking over from sail and just before diesel took over from steam. They did not actually ‘sail’ as they were mounted on trollies under the water's surface in the tank so as not to get unrealistic movement once on film. With their movement around the harbour to be controlled, along with the head movements, it took two human controllers for each boat during filming. Smoke from the stacks (funnels) was fed through the hull during filming rather than needing a specific unit inside each tug and their interiors still contain the electronic gear. After all these years they are generally in a remarkably good condition, although most of them do require a bit of restoration work which is one of the tasks still ahead for the Star Tugs Company. They managed to successfully complete a Kickstart Campaign to raise the money to acquire the railway carriage as a home for their new exhibition and have put a huge amount of personal effort into the carriage and building the displays.

As for the future, well they know that some of the larger models used in the sets and programmes remain in storage with the Thomas the Tank engine materials, so just maybe they will be able to get hold of more of these marvellous models so we can all see them again. Reminding us of childhood memories may even bring more people round to the thought of getting into model boating, now they are older and perhaps have the disposable income to get their own?

My thanks to the Star Tug Company team who were so helpful when I visited, these being Ryan Hagan, Sean O'Connor, Sam Wilkinson, Charlotte Stokes, Chris Eden-Green and Doug Roberts. Anything else you need or want to know is on their website: www.thestartugs.co.uk.