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Whilst TUGS ended production after one series in 1989, the series has a legacy which spans a lot longer, a legacy we hope we can build on and help to keep the spirit of the show alive!



TUGS was born out of a desire to succeed and drive forward the skills, advances and techniques that Clearwater Features had made through their production work on two series ofThomas the Tank Engine & Friends, which had been a phenomenal success for the Britt Allcroft Company.  The company’s Directors, David Mitton & Robert D. Cardona began developing plans for a new children’s television series, which would be similar in terms of production style, but ultimately would be darker and edgier than the Rev. Awdry’s railway world. 


The decision was ultimately made to continue with the transport theme that had been so successful for Thomas with Clearwater associates mooting ideas based around planes, cars and boats.  However, it was when Robert D. Cardona visited San Francisco and met someone who owned a Tugboat company, that the idea for TUGS began to germinate.  Inspiration was drawn from the detailed history of the Crawley Marine Co. and eventually developed into a series focussing upon the day to day battles of two rival Tug fleets competing for contracts in the biggest Harbour in the world, Bigg City Port.



Clearwater made use of a new studio space being created from a former boilerhouse on the Shepperton Studios site, large enough to house the 45ft x 25ft tank which would be used to create Bigg City Port, and the associated ‘up river’ areas where the tugs would compete for work.  This area became known as T-Stage, apt because it would become the home for TUGS and Thomas the Tank Engine until the move to CGI Animation in 2008.


Bigg City Port was developed to assimilate the best bits of San Francisco and New York in the 1920s, reflecting the designs used for the Tugs which would be based on the East and West Coast American fleets.  Clearwater’s team built 19 working tugboat models of varying sizes and designations, along with a seaplane (Sally), midget submarine (Grampus), three tramp-steamers and a 12ft liner model which was frequently painted and modified to portray various different vessels – along with a vast array of smaller craft to populate the set and give Bigg City Port some life.



After it had been confirmed that Tugs would not be continuing in production, a board meeting was held by the company that now retained the controlling stake in TUGS.  The Chairman of the company was reluctant to see the models thrown away and asked members of his board if they would be interested in storing them.  There was no interest from any of them, and in the end, he was left with no option but to take them home himself and store them in his own house.  And until 2010, that’s where they stayed – locked away in their storage cases unseen and untouched.


Their custodian knew he didn’t have the expertise required to mend the models and restore them to their former glory.  It wasn’t until 2010, when he found a well-respected model-boat enthusiast called Richard, who had recently completed a large project and knew he had found the right man for the job.  Richard bought the models and took them home with him to Norwich with the intention of working on them as a retirement project.  However, despite the best of intentions, fate intervened and Richard’s circumstances changed.



TUGS began shooting in 1987 and completed a year later in December of 1988, with the series finally airing in 1989.  Episodes of TUGS would be 15 to 20 minutes long, so it would take the team longer to produce than the previous two Thomas series they had worked on. The production stage pushed Clearwater’s expertise to the limit, trying to find ways to make the movement of the Tugs through the water look convincingly realistic, working with pyrotechnics on dramatic fire and explosive scenes, as well as trying to overcome smaller obstacles which would otherwise have impeded their progress.


Having built up a good working relationship with the composers, Mike O’Donnell and Junior Campbell, on Thomas the Tank Engine, they employed their services to produce the music for TUGS.  Mike and Junior created a style of music which was not entirely similar to Thomas, but still maintained that reminiscent familiar vibe which had lent itself so well to the Thomas the Tank Engine series.


TUGS aired on the ITV network in 1989, and was sold for broadcast in New Zealand, Australia, Portugal, Finland and most notably, Japan, where it received great acclaim and a raft of tie-in merchandising released.  Items of merchandise released in the UK included five VHS tapes, two ERTL die-cast toys of Ten Cents and Sunshine, a board game, 10 picture books based on episodes from the series, four smaller books with original stories and two Annuals released in 1989 and 1990 respectively.



Television South (TVS), who were partners in TUGS Ltd. (the company created byClearwater Features (1986) Ltd, Castle Communications and TVS to manage and produce the series) went bankrupt after losing their broadcasting license.  TVS unfortunately bid too high to retain the license, bidding £59 million a year for ten years, which was deemed unsustainable by the Government officials overseeing the process.  They lost out to Meridian Broadcasting who had only bid £36 million.  Meridian planned to act as a publisher broadcaster, and not produce the same quantity of programmes that TVS had done.  The company had planned to carry on as an independent producer, but ultimately, TUGS would not be among the programmes they would be making.


Clearwater Features 1986 Ltd. had been the second attempt by Mitton and Robert D. Cardona to make their company work, and whilst they had enjoyed success with Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends and worked on various adverts and productions for other companies, they too had suffered with the high production costs associated with TUGS, and in the end, they succumbed to bankruptcy by the end of 1990.  Both David Mitton and Robert D. Cardona wanted the series to continue, and at one point there was interest from Britt Allcroft Company who wished to add it to their portfolio to sit alongside ‘Thomas’ as their own project. However, problems with the liquidator put paid to this, and the rights to the series passed to a 50/50 split between Robert D. Cardona’s new company and Castle Communications who retained them.



David Mitton became an employee of the Britt Allcroft Company, continuing his contract to direct and produce all episodes of Thomas The Tank Engine & Friends.  Following the collapse of TUGS, he had been devastated, but he savoured the opportunity to return to the set of Thomas when the third series was commissioned.  He and his crew, many of whom had started out on TUGS, used the experience they had gained to produce something very special for the first series to have North American audiences held firmly in mind.  Key members of the team he had assembled for TUGS followed him to the set of Thomas, and many such as David Eves, Nigel Permane, Jeremy King, Chris Lloyd and others stayed with the series after he left.



Robert D. Cardona left the UK to begin a new life in Canada, working on the conceptually similar, Theodore Tugboat, which borrowed a lot of elements from TUGS and Thomas. Robert was one of the series’ various Directors throughout its run between 1991 and 1998, it was deemed successful, however, never aired in the United Kingdom until the late 1990s on the short-lived satellite Discovery Kids Channel.



Models used on TUGS were frequently lifted from their vault for set-dressing on Thomas The Tank Engine & Friends – the tramp steamers and Liner model were the most obvious examples, as well as the various fishing boats dotted around the Harbour in the 1991 and 1995 series.  The most obvious example of all is undoubtedly the repainted OJ model, sitting in the narrow gauge railway’s Lakeside station – best seen in Peter Sam & The Refreshment Lady. OJ became Lakesider III, and retains the guise to this day...!


The VHS tapes for the series remained in circulation with Castle Communications producing new copies for European countries as late as 1995 – six years after the series had ended. However, it was their next venture which would return TUGS to television screens and finally give them a presence in the American market – although sadly, it was not to be the original product that audiences would be subject to.


In 1995, Robert D. Cardona and Castle Communications sold a 50% stake in the rights to TUGS to a company called Sunbow Productions who were planning to produce an educational series called Salty’s Lighthouse, which would make use of traditional animation whilst also making use of the original TUGS footage to create a story centred around the tugs in the Harbour.  Salty’s Lighthouse butchered the original TUGS footage and re-cut it to make stories completely devoid of the pre-existing story.  All voice-actors, music and sound-effects were specially done for the new production, and whilst most of the names remained the same (OJ became Otis, Big Mac became Big Stack despite the names tattooed on their hulls), Bigg City Port gave way to ‘Snuggleboat Harbour’ instead.


Salty’s Lighthouse ran for 39 episodes, and around the late 1990s, there was talk between Robert D. Cardona and Castle Communications of buying back the rights to put TUGS back out on VHS again to enjoy the successful sales the series had enjoyed when it first aired. However, Castle Communications later changed focus to concentrate on music, becoming the Sanctuary Group – famous for signing the indie band, Keane, and were later bought out by international conglomerate, Universal.  Similarly, Sunbow were bought out by Sony Wonder, a division of Sony Music in 1998, who sold Sunbow’s TV production and distribution assets to German company, TV Loonland in 2000 for a sum of $20m (US).



In 2007, the first real homage to TUGS was made since the show ended in 1989.  TUGS Audio Productions began working on the first new adventure for the Star Tugs in 18 years, releasing the production, ‘Lost’ in September of that year to acclaim from fans of the series, and winning praise from composer Mike O’Donnell who particularly enjoyed the themes based on his own work with Junior Campbell, saying that ‘it was just the way we would have done it!’


As of 2013, TUGS Audios currently boasts 5 finished episodes with one in production stages, and a feature length special currently receiving composition work at present.  The original intent was to produce a 13-episode series, akin to the TV Series, however, this plan has stalled and will ultimately end with the release of the feature length special, Storm Bringer.


Similarly, there has been significant interest in the development of a fan-made CGI feature which is currently in the pre-production stages.  Benji Clifford and Jon Grandsen have stirred up interest in the TUGS fandom with their project, and whilst initially planning a six part series, they instead opted to produce a feature length production. This unfortunately has been indefinitely shelved with its future in doubt.



Possibly the biggest development since the ending of Tugs has been the invention of the internet. 


TUGS has gained a strong internet fanbase since 2002, thanks in part to the rise of the Thomas The Tank Engine fandom.  Discussions through various internet forums breathed new life back into the franchise, websites were setup – the most notable from this period, Bigg City Port is still around, but never updated.  The uploading of the VHS released episodes to YouTube has also helped bring the series to a new audience, whilst this has been viewed negatively in some quarters as being detrimental to a potential DVD Campaign, we believe it has had a very positive impact for the greater good in reviving interest in the series, and will provide support when a pivotal breakthrough is made.

Zip, in the conditiion he was found in by Richard

In November of 2012, Richard approached a group of fans to enquire about parties who may well have been interested in purchasing the 18 models he held.  Initially, the thought was to seek out an interested buyer for the models from previously associated crewmembers who may well be interested in buying them for posterity’s sake.


This proved somewhat fruitless, and thoughts soon turned to the idea of purchasing the models ourselves.  The biggest obstacle in our way was funding – Richard had been given a valuation for the Tugs, and had agreed a fair price with us as preferred bidders.  We wavered over the issue for some weeks, discussed ways and means to raise the capital and what our action plan would be.  When news of the models sale went public, AuctionBay, who had sold off a selection of the Tugs faces in June of 2012 had seen significant interest in the models and preparations were being made for their sale through eBay.


We realised that this could have serious implications.  Richard wanted the models to remain in the UK – and if they went to auction, there was a danger that there would be absolutely no real chance of a proper reunion or exhibition of the models.  They would be scattered, locked in attics, garages or storage units as private collector’s items.  It was then we decided we had to take the chance – so we agreed the sale with Richard and began preparations to buy the models in January 2013.

Zip, after cosmetic repair/restoration by Richard




In the weeks leading up to the big day, time off work was booked, a van was hired, a banker’s draft was prepared, a hotel conference room was booked and the models were allocated their new homes.  On the 26th of January 2013, we convened at the Brook Hotel in Norwich for the handover of the models.  The foundations of the new company were forged, and plans were put in place for what was to happen next.


The future of the models will entail various exhibitions and participations up and down the United Kingdom, following a very successful 25th Anniversary year in 2014.  The goal and intention for The Star Tugs Company Ltd. is to bring TUGS to a new audience, and allow it’s many faithful followers to enjoy seeing their old friends up close! The Tugs now have a permanent home in Derbyshire where they can be viewed throughout the year, when they don't get to go out on tour. Our attention now turns to developing that space and to bigger and better things for us as a whole.

We look forward to a long and exciting journey with all of you!



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