During the evening of Thursday, 17 January, I spent the better part of an hour by phone speaking with Rick Siggelkow, Executive Producer and Vice President, Children's Division, for BBC Worldwide Americas. We had a fascinating discussion about his work on the critically-acclaimed SHINING TIME STATION television series that Rick co-created and produced with Britt Allcroft between 1989 and 1995. Fans will see that even after the passage of a dozen plus years, Rick still keeps a special place in his heart for Shining Time Station.
~ J. Gratton, 21 January, 2008
Rick, let’s go back to the beginning. How did you meet Britt and come up with the idea for Shining Time Station?
Jay Islin, who was the head of Channel Thirteen (the NY PBS station) had brought a tape of “Thomas The Tank Engine” back from England and gave it to me, asking if there was anything we could do with it. No one thought that it would work or catch on in the US, but I showed the tape to some children and saw how much they liked it. So I called Britt in London to work out ideas on how to introduce Thomas to America by expanding it into a ½ hour show. Britt came over to New York and we spent the next few months developing a new series that eventually became “Shining Time Station.” By that time Ringo Starr was on board and we went on PBS a year later.*
*[Sunday, 29 January, 1989 6:30 PM ET]
Can you tell us a bit about how the Shining Time Station theme song came to be?
I knew the great composer Joe Roposo, who had composed music for children’s shows like Sesame Street. I gave Joe a call and Britt and I arranged to meet with him. He composed and recorded several music videos for us, and they were so good that we hired him to write the theme song for Shining Time Station.
We were also familiar with talented singer and musician Kevin Roth, who was independently producing CDs for kids. Kevin was hired to work on some music videos for us and it seemed like the perfect match to have Kevin perform the theme song. I think he nailed it on the first the second take. It’s still a beautiful song.
Where, and what time of year in Toronto was Shining Time Station filmed?
The show was mostly shot at Studio Oasis. The Mr. Conductor scenes were also shot there. We went to Toronto five times: first for the Holiday Special, then season two, season three, and two more times for the prime-time specials.
The shoots happened in just about every season of the year. The longest shoot was for the third season, and that went through the winter, and lasted for 8 or 9 months, I had actually moved my family to Toronto from NY.
Back to Ringo and George, I get the impression that they were really into playing their roles and having a lot of fun. Did they ever share these feelings with you?
Yes, we all had fun. I like to say that if you’re not having fun producing a kids show, you’re doing something wrong. They both had a lot of ideas they liked to try out with the character and I think they each liked the magical powers Mr. Conductor had. It sounds trite to say they were reliving some aspects of their own childhoods, but I think there was an element of that at work. The Mr. Conductor shoots with Ringo and George were always exciting because of who they were and also because we were pushing the matte technology into places no other show had gone.
Given George Carlin’s mature comedy background, can you tell us how he became the next Mr. Conductor and storyteller for the series?
When Ringo left the show we were faced with a problem. The parents from that generation of children grew up with the Beatles and their music and held Ringo in high regard. Who else was out there that held that same appeal? Mick Jagger? (laughs). We were looking for someone from that same period that had a connection with the parents. That is how Britt and I chose George Carlin.
We sent him a few Thomas episodes and a script for a test reading, and when we heard his lines it all made sense to have him become the new Mr. Conductor and storyteller.
George is renowned for his off-color humor in his comedy acts, but there’s a whole other side of him that people don’t realize. In addition to having a great voice, he’s very smart and is a brilliant storyteller.
I’d like to ask you to make a few comments about your work with the following cast members...
Didi Conn (Stacy Jones):
She is one of the nicest people in the world – her sweetness is genuine. Of the entire cast, she was the most experienced actor. She was very good with the kids and was the perfect gentle mother figure that we wanted for the show. Didi was great at improvising scenes with Brian O’Connor. She’s currently developing and producing a pilot for a kids show of her own, called “Didi Lightful.”
Brian O’Connor (Schemer):
I’m still in touch with Brian. A brilliant comic. He worked incredibly hard on the show. He would take the script and come back later with suggestions for his scenes which we almost always accepted. Schemer’s obsession with nickels and his curl were his inventions. He was really into physical humor and didn’t shrink away from pratfalls. After Shining Time Station, Brian returned to school and became a guidance counsellor and helping teens professionally which is great, and he’s still developing ideas for kids shows.
Tom Jackson (Billy Twofeathers):
A super guy. Tom brought a quiet dignity to the show along with introducing some Native myths and music. He played the straight man to balance the antics between Schemer and Stacy. We also thought that he was a good role model for boys, who really don’t see that many grounded men on television. So many men on kids TV are buffoons or bad guys, although I think that’s changing. He was a solid guy and his character was an important part of the show.
The kids: Jason Woliner (Matt Jones), Ari Madger (Dan Jones), Erica Luttrell (Kara Cupper), Nicole Leach (Tanya Cupper), Danielle Marcot (Becky), Jonathan Shapiro (Schemee):
I’m sorry to say that I’ve not kept up contact with the kids as I’ve done with the adult cast members. Many child actors get out of acting when they get older. I understand that Jason is a performer-director in New York. It would be great if I could get back in touch with all of them.
The Jukebox Band (Flexitoon Puppets):
An enormously talented group of people who brought the puppets to life and as a result the puppet band assumed a larger role in the series than we’d first thought they would. In the beginning we would shoot the puppets with three cameras like a concert, but then Craig introduced the concept of shooting pieces of the song separately. There would be costume and scenery changes, so the songs became more like little stories or music videos. All wonderful characters.
Child developmental psychologist Dr. Ron Slaby is credited as the Series Advisor for Shining Time Station. Can you tell us about some of his recommendations for the storylines?
When the Thomas episodes were brought over from England to the States, there were language issues with the terminology used between our two countries. For example, what we call ‘freight cars’ over here are called ‘trucks’ in England, so Ron helped us out finding equivalent words that would be easily understood by American children. He also thought that “Fat Controller” should be changed to 'Sir Topham Hatt', because he thought, and I agreed, that it was a less prerogative name.
Another thing was that the episodes adapted from the Rev. Awdry’s stories sometimes felt heavy- handed in terms of the punishment given to the engines. Ron felt the engines needed a way to redeem themselves.
Attitudes had changed and become more liberal since the stories were written. Ron would suggest a few word changes in the Thomas episodes to make the harsher words sound softer – more like the way an American parent would address their child.
Ron also read our episode scripts and provided us with notes suggesting dialogue clarifications such as ‘this is not a word that a child might use’.
Ron helped us out with addressing a few of the big issues that we centered the episodes around (bullying, racism). I remember (laughs) one story where we were planning to have ‘Elvis’ visit Shining Time Station. Of course the real Elvis Presley was dead, and we were going to use an Elvis impersonator. We ran our concern past Ron. Ron just laughed and said that it wasn’t a problem!
Seriously, any preschool show should have an advisor like Dr. Slaby on board.
Why didn’t Shining Time Station go on to produce a 4th Series?
At that point we’d produced 65 episodes and the feeling from the investors was that we’d done enough. In the industry, if you have 65 shows a series can go into syndication and still provide a return on investment. Britt had also subsidized as much as she could and PBS didn’t have any extra money to put into the show.
Had it continued, the series would have eventually wound down. I’ll always have fond memories of co-producing Shining Time Station - even after I moved on to the BBC in 1995. I loved working on the show.
'How the Station got its Name' was the last episode in Series 3. Was the episode intended to be a series send-off?
Yes, How the Station got its Name was considered to be a nice way to wrap up the series. There was never an official end to the series or wrap party. At that point the cast and crew were hoping that the specials were going to be produced, so it was kind of left open ended. You always hope for more.
Did you enjoy producing the specials?
Producing the specials was great. We were able to use a whole new set of stories where Shining Time Station wasn’t limited to being a sitcom on the set. The specials really opened up the show as we were able to expand the action outdoors.
Where were the outdoor scenes for the specials filmed? Were they all shot in the Toronto area? I've learned that 'Once Upon a Time' filmed sequences on the South Simcoe Railway in Tottemham, Ontario.
That’s correct on both counts.
You had a few famous names guest-starring in the specials, namely Lloyd Bridges (Mr. Nicholas) in 'T’is a Gift' in 1990, and Jack Klugman (as Max Okowsky) in ‘Second Chances’ in 1995. Were they great to work with? I couldn’t help but notice that Jack’s voice was extremely hoarse in 'Second Chances'.
They were all wonderful to work with and immediately fit right in with the regular cast and the spirit of the show. Jack had just had major surgery on his throat, which is why his voice sounded hoarse.
Many fans were and still are touched by the sentimental music video in ‘T’is a Gift’, with the child and the hobo that lived on his train set. It drove home how lonely people can be during what should be the happiest time of year. What was your reaction to it?
At the time we loved the song but worried it might be too heavy for a kids Christmas show. But we went with it for the reasons you mentioned and I remember after the show had aired the minister at my church made a point of referring it into his holiday sermon, so I knew it had touched people and that we’d made the right decision.
Do you have a favorite episode or Special?
Every time I think of one that might be a favorite, I think of another episode or special that I like just as much for different reasons.
A bit of the behind the scenes magic, can you tell us how the effect of trains arriving and departing at Shining Time Station was done?
You must mean the lights in the window at the rear of the station set. Visualize a circular piece of plywood. A strip of cardboard with vertical slits cut into it was connected to the plywood’s outside edge. The plywood disc would rotate as a bright light shone through the slits which would then be projected onto the station’s frosted windows.
We had a stage hand that became such an expert with timing stops that you’ll notice the train reversing a few inches upon arriving at the station; just as you’d experience on a real train.
Did you ever have the opportunity to visit Thomas and Friends at Shepperton Studios?
Oh yes, I went out there a couple of times. David Mitton had built an extraordinary set and it was a pleasure to watch him work.
Shining Time Station received many accolades for its content, and for teaching life’s lessons and morals (responsibility, humility, honesty, friendship) in a non-patronizing way. Many fans would like to see Shining Time’s return to television, though many say that the feel and content would be next to impossible to recreate today. I’m interested to hear your take on this and was there ever talk of bringing the series back?
It was a great show for its time. Mind you this was before things like school shootings and internet predators became such a concern. Parents today feel more besieged by these events and are more concerned about protecting their kids from the outside world. I don’t know how they would feel about having their kids hanging out at a train station interacting with adults, even though it’s obviously a fantasy situation.
My generation of producers felt that kids’ television may not change the world, but it can help make the world a better place. I don’t see as much of that in today’s kids TV. It’s become more of a big business and more about demographic share and making money. Shining Time was one of those rare shows where a really talented group of people came together at the same time from a variety of different areas – puppets, musicians, live actors, model builders, etc. Some of how the show developed was directed and planned by me and Britt, but of it was also timing and luck that brought us all together and make it work. As a producer, that is something very special.
Britt and I took a collaborative approach for producing the show. We found that if you listen to people, you’ll find that they have great ideas and have more enthusiasm if you make them part of the process.
I sometimes think of trying to find a way to bring it back. I’ve even talked to Britt about it. Maybe as a reunion special for a PBS fundraising event? I would love to see that, as would most of the original cast. HiT Entertainment now owns the rights to Shining Time Station. Any talk of bringing it back is only a fantasy at this point – but from a creative standpoint I’m sure it could be done and I think people would flock to see it.
Were you involved in the early movie discussions before you moved on to the BBC?
I was involved in the movie discussions before moving on to the BBC. The earlier film treatment had a circus train coming to Shining Time and an evil Ringmaster kidnapped Mr. Conductor. As I remember it, Thomas and the other trains had to come to his rescue. Over the course of the story a circus girl became friends with the Shining Time kids and overcame her fear of horses to become a circus stunt rider, and in one memorable scene Schemer was shot from cannon.
Can you tell us about some of your other work since leaving Shining Time, in particularly about your latest endeavor – Dinosapien?
I went on to produce the “Noddy and Friends” half-hour series for PBS and the science fiction “tween”: series Ace Lightning that was syndicated in the US and aired on BBC in the UK, and CBC in Canada. In 2006, I shot Dinosapien in Drumheller, Alberta. The concept for the show was to explore what would’ve it been like if certain species of dinosaurs survived to this day and had evolved into intelligent beings in North America.
In addition to the paleontological science and research that you put into producing the show, I understand that you’ve included elements of old American Indian legends in the show. Can you elaborate on those points?
I’m part Native-American which helped inspire the character of Billy Twofeathers in Shining Time Station. I like to make the connection between these legends and science, and in Dinosapien there is a native character named Ten Bears who is a medicine man. Some of the series concept was built upon American Indian legends that were their way of explaining the large dinosaur bones they came across in the badlands. These bones were all given different names such as ‘unktechi’ as once belonging to large creatures. The final episode of Dinosapien, ‘The Thunderbird’ is based on one of these legends.
Since Dinosapien is filmed in western Canada, did you ever entertain the idea of inviting Tom Jackson to guest-star in an episode?
At the time we were filming in Drumheller, Tom was busy with other commitments and was unavailable.
Where/when can fans catch episodes of Dinosapien? Is there an official website that they can visit?
If they Google “Dinosapien” they’ll find a few web sites, including the web site run by Discovery Kids, who air the show in the US. As of now, it runs seven days a week in the US, and airs in the UK and Australia, and has been sold into about 20 other countries.
Lastly, what message would you like to send to both the old and new fans of Shining Time Station?
It’s very gratifying to know that the series has touched so many lives and that it’s still playing for all the fans, old and new, who have kept it alive on the Internet. I just want to sincerely thank everyone out there who visits Shining Time Station.
On behalf of SiF, I'd like to sincerely thank Mr. Siggelkow for sharing his personal time and insight with us. We wish Rick all the best and many happy returns with his current and upcoming projects.
Additional thanks also to the BBC's Georgie Hollett for putting us in touch with Rick.
George Carlin's sudden passing on June 28, 2008 was unexpected and saddened many longtime fans of Shining Time Station. Here, Rick wishes to send this tribute for George to all fans of Shining Time Station and its beloved Mr. Conductor...
Memories of George Carlin on “Shining Time Station”
By Rick Siggelkow
Co-Producer, “Shining Time Station”
Britt Allcroft’s June 26 piece for The Los Angeles Times offered a sensitive portrait of George Carlin that few people outside of his family and inner circle had ever seen. Working with him in the intimate confines of a recording booth, Britt was able to draw out George’s childhood memories and put them to brilliant use in his narration of “Thomas the Tank Engine.”
By contrast, my time with George was spent on the studio floor shooting his Mr. Conductor scenes. This was where we would “shrink” his character down to 18 inches tall through the magic of ultra-matte. It was painstaking work, but with George it was never dull.
First he would have to stand in front of a wall of green and be inserted (or “matted”) into previously shot scenes called “backplates.” Then he would have to find his eye-line, a point in space where he was supposed to be looking, like “That stain on the wall over the craft table.”
Next, he would have to react to lines being read to him from off camera, not by another actor but by a production assistant or floor manager. Sometimes he would have to walk, run, jump or hide behind some oversized green-painted prop. If the lighting was off and he didn’t cast the right shadow, if the prop had moved by an inch, or if the matte wasn’t absolutely perfect, he’d have to do it all over again. This went on for fourteen hours a day, day after day, for several weeks.
You can tell a lot about star talent by how they treat the crew. Some stars barely notice the crew, but George was different. He learned everyone’s names and their interests. One day he might recommend a book to a grip, another day he’d be discussing scenes from an obscure movie with the lightning director. He even made a point of inviting the crew to his comedy shows. When some of them went to see him in Vegas, George made sure they got the best seats and invited them all backstage. The crew loved him.
Although George was a consummate professional, either before or after a take he’d usually offer some funny insight or unexpected comment. Once he teased me about diversity at “Shining Time Station,” noting that a woman, Stacy Jones, ran the train station and a Native American, Billy Twofeathers, was the engineer, but a middle aged white guy named “King” owned the railroad.
George was also a perfectionist, a true craftsman. His sense of timing and his ability to match his shots (to be in the exact same position from one take to the next so that we could easily edit the scene together) was flawless. More times than not, George would want another take so that he could make some improvement. It might be a change in his inflection or an expression on his face, but it usually made the scene better, and it always made it funnier. We would all hold our breath until it was over and then the studio would explode in laughter.
Sometimes his brilliant jokes and patter would happen so fast it would fly past you. Then, of course, when you tried to tell one of his jokes at home it was never as funny. That’s when I realized the difference between a true comedian like George Carlin and the rest of us. He saw the world differently and he took notes. Somehow he saw that everything had the potential to make people laugh, and his humor flowed so naturally that he made it look easy.
George never forgot the tender age of our audience, but he also never talked down to them. He was a man who showed kindness to everyone at “Shining Time Station,” and he never took a moment of life for granted. Working with George was a joy and privilege. He was one of the great ones.
August 18, 2008