PRODUCER: THE THOMAS THE TANK ENGINE MAN DOCUMENTARY (QUANTA FILMS)
Nicholas Jones is the Creative Director of Quanta Films. Nicholas was the producer of the 1995 The Thomas the Tank Engine Man documentary commissioned under the BBC's Bookmark Series.
This interview was originally posted on the Roll Along Thomas Blog (August 12th 2011). We'd like to thank Melad Moshiri for his kind offer to publish his interview with Nicholas Jones for long-term posterity on SiF.
~ with Melad Molshiri, August 12, 2011
To start off Nicholas, how did you start off in the industry before becoming a Journalist?
I worked in BBC Radio and in fact only do journalism as a spin-off from my TV work. I got into radio really by a) going to university and b) attending an early radio journalism course at the long-defunct National Broadcasting School.
You have since set up your own company Quanta Films, how do you feel about this achievement?
It is always good to have a company through which to make a film. The real sense of pride comes from building up a library of copyrights. However it is very hard work and most of one's efforts produce little results.
How did you first become involved with the 'Thomas the Tank Engine Man' documentary?
My mother wrote an article in 1993 about Wilbert Awdry for 'The Oldie' magazine and spotted that in 1995 it would be 50 years since the Thomas book was written. I then went to see Wilbert and he agreed to take part in a possible film. I offered the idea to both Channel 4 and BBC TWO and to my amazement they both wanted to make it.
Was it hard preparing and setting up the project?
Preparing to film Mr Awdry, his friends and family was not difficult. In those days there was far less material available to do research, i.e. no internet. But setting up filming the shoot of Thomas Series 4 was a nightmare. The makers were impossible to deal with.
You were indeed given access to visit the filming of the Fourth Series of 'Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends', what was it like seeing the models and sets in all their glory?
We had to pretty well charge onto the set to film them, because we were being ignored by the PRO for the shoot. But it was a great surprise to see this huge train-set, under very bright lights, with a busy crew. I was very impressed, and found the models wonderful.
What was it like meeting David Mitton, the Director?
A charming man, confident in his abilities, who gave us his opinions despite being very busy. I found him the only agreeable person in the studio. His death was sad.
You secured a lengthy interview with the Reverend Wilbert Awdry, how was that for you?
It took a lot of effort but it was a very interesting day. Sadly, he had got up specially for us the day before, only to collapse so we had to film him in bed, heavily medicated. I am very glad I got the chance to film him - no-one else had so much time with him.
Upon meeting Awdry, were you nervous about meeting the man who created it all?
No, because I had met him already and we were very well prepared. I was more worried about his health. It was a hot day in September and his bedroom got very warm with the film lights. But he was determined to put his all into our filming shoot.
What was Wilbert like in person, did you get along well and become friends after production on the documentary finished?
A very honest man. I think he rather liked me - he liked the fact that I knew his books and could remember extracts from over 30 years. We certainly got along well, but I did not see him again. I wrote to him after he received his decoration (due, in part, to the film I think).
What was the most interesting thing you shot or saw during the making?
His bedroom was lined with books written in the Manx language. I asked him if he had read them. "I've read them all five times", he said! I didn't know there were any books in Manx... Also, it was fun going in the signal box on the West Somerset Railway.
How was your knowledge of engines, railways and Thomas before, during and after filming?
I always had quite a detailed knowledge of railways and engines. As a child, the steam engines we played with as models (Hornby etc) still actually ran on the real railways. I was particularly pleased to access the Ivo Peters archive collection (for the shots of the trains climbing the Lickey). My rail knowledge enabled me to choose good archive for the film.
Was there any footage that was left in the cutting room floor?
Most of it! We overshot greatly. I'd say we used under 10% of what we shot.
When Wilbert died, BBC TWO granted your request to repeat your documentary on their channel, how did you feel about it?
He died the night my first documentary about Sir Frank Whittle went out, by coincidence. I rang the BBC and to my surprise, they agreed to show the film without any hesitation. I was very flattered and pleased.
You are a fan of 'The Railway Series', do you have a favourite book, character and/or story?
My favourite story will always be out of the Mountain Engines book - Skarloey etc. I vaguely recall being read the story as a child. Also, I recall the story of Henry and the rain. I've a photo pf me clutching the postcard of him bricked up - probably taken in 1962 when I was 4... But in recent years I came to like Percy - I asked Wilbert if he were his favourite engine. He wouldn't say - but I suspect it was!
Do you still keep in contact with key contributors involved in the film such as cast and crew?
I can still contact Wilbert's daughter Veronica. But actually none of the production crew kept in touch afterwards. It was a difficult film to make (apart from filming Wilbert and his friends).
The phenomenon of Thomas is insanely large and the character is recognised in almost every country, what's your view on that?
I find it amazing! I think that money has become the sole reason for the interest today's producers and publishers have in Thomas. Yet money played no part in the original ideas. I think that the focus on money has ruined the whole thing.
The TV Series is still running to this day, have you watched more episodes such as the HiT Entertainment produced ones, do you have a favourite episode?
I have to confess I have never watched the TV series except where my work required it, and that meant those existent by 1994. I would only be interested in stories from the original Railway Series. However, I thought the TV version of Thomas and the fish in his tank looked lovely.
If you have seen it, what is your view on the CGI Series and were you surprised when the announcement was made to produce Thomas in CGI?
I'd like to see the CGI version. I'm not at all surprised by the decision to make it in CGI - the sheer cost of producing a series like Thomas meant a move to CGI was inevitable.
Ringo Starr was involved in the first two series and Michael Angelis still voices the series ever since his first in 1991, what do you think of their performances, have you met them?
Sadly I've never met either. We could not persuade Ringo to appear in the documentary. I was astonished when I learned Ringo was to do the voice but he has been a great success. He clearly loved the stories and that comes across.
Season Two is considered by a number of fans as the definitive series, do you agree with this and do you have a favourite series?
I think the second probably is the best. I know that Wilbert quite liked it. But I've watched far to few of the TV programmes to have a favourite series. What inspired the documentary was the original books and the TV version was merely part of the story of an author.
How big is your collection of Railway Series, Thomas books and do you own any of the DVD's/Videos?
Somewhere, I've got all the first series of the Railway Series from when I made the film. Wilbert signed a few of the copies for me.
You have often been campaigning about getting your documentary released on DVD, do you think you will ever see the light of this?
I am not optimistic. One just never knows. Maybe one day people will see the value of the film and I'll get all the necessary agreements to make a version available.
Now the last thing here is about the recent 42nd Railway Series book, Thomas and His Friends. Have you read it yet, what do you think of it and have you also viewed the predecessor, Thomas and Victoria?
I'm afraid I have not seen either book. I prefer to remember the first 12 books, of Wilbert's.
At the end of a new book, there is a play on of words suggesting that this could be the last Railway Series book, would you like to see more and not see it end?
I'm afraid I think it is time to stop producing more material. The best books have all been written long ago. Wilbert stopped in 1972 for good reason - he had no more ideas.
Finally is there a message that you would like to give to the fans?
Firstly, I am always flattered that so many young people are interested in the film. I know Wilbert would have been delighted. My message is simple: if you enjoy something creative, stick with it and learn as much as possible about it. And for all those, like yourself, with YouTube channels or blogs, let me wish you the best of luck with them.
We would also like to thank Nicholas Jones for participating and providing such wonderful insight. We wish him all the best for future.