What inspired you to become an actor, and how did your career begin?
My dad, who worked in the shipyards, had a part time job as a kid as a projectionist and was always interested in movies. I grew up watching and talking about TV drama and films on a Saturday afternoon. A TV documentary on a travelling theatre company called 7.84 doing a show called 'The Cheviot, the stag and the black black oil', about the Highland clearances inspired me, as did seeing a production of Close the Coalhouse Door. I discovered there were local drama groups and joined them, and discovered girls. I went out with a couple, and made friends. I also started writing plays and loved improvising and performing. I reckoned it would be a better way of making a living than being in the Shipyards. I got my first acting job while I was an Assistant Stage Manager, playing a dead body. (Spot the Lady, Newcastle Playhouse) The play was so bad I got the only decent reviews. It said'Body is Best Actor', and went to my head. I did a BA HONs at Bretton Hall in theatre and sent a play I had written to BBC radio. They put it on and I got an audition for the BBC radio rep., and from there did TV and the classics, though I've always had a soft spot for radio. This helped when I was asked to do voices for Tugs.
Growing up near an industrial city like Newcastle, did you ever have an interest in transportation at an early age?
My Dad worked in the yards so I was aware of ships, and how there were built, and how a river was controlled by a harbour master. But I wasn't a mechanical kid, no particular love of the machines, just intrigued by the possibilities of travel and the escape they offered.
Given that Clearwater Features had produced two series of Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends by the time they were putting out auditions for TUGS, were you fairly aware of who the company was before you auditioned?
Their work, sure, I'd seen Thomas, but I didn't know the Company at all at that stage.
How did the TUGS production go about recruiting the voice talent for the characters? What attracted you to the roles of Sunshine and Zak?
I was submitted by my voice over agent at the time, she sent them a tape. I didn't get to choose the roles, Bob Cardona wanted me to do Sunshine and Zak - I was very happy to do any of the voices. Sunshine was most fun, he had more action.
Were there ever any plans for you to play any of the other major characters? Can you recall any of the more minor roles you did throughout the series?
I think he'd chosen the voices very carefully, so I don't know if I was considered for other roles , just that those were the two he's settled on for me. I did play other, tiny parts, but I can't remember them. We all did some effects - what we call ambience, casual dockside chatter, that sort of thing, in other voices, which could be used by the sound mixer to beef up and localise establishing background noise mixed through from grams, but I don't know if it was ever used in the mix.
How would you describe an average day recording for TUGS?
It's technically demanding but it's not a twelve hour shift on a building site in the rain. If you're not on mike you sit in the green room reading the paper and chatting. It's very civilized. We were all good and fast, so there was no tension about time running out.
You mentioned that Robert D. Cardona was the one who worked with the voice actors to direct the voices and was very ‘hands-on’ with the production. What was it like to work with him and David Mitton? Did you have a good working relationship with the producers?
Great. They were both very professional.
We love to hear behind-the-scenes humorous anecdotes from former cast & crew. Do you have any to share of your time in the recording studio?
There was the usual banter. There is an episode, I'm not sure which, in which Lillie Lightship gets holed on rocks and Grampus the submarine had to put his nose in her hole to stop the water going in. Noses going into holes caused a lot of giggling and funny filthy ad libs. I seem to remember the actress crying with laughter. I think in the original script she had to ask the other ship to put his nose in her hole. I think they may have rewritten it. I cant remember her name.
Were the character accents and dialects all pre-determined before you and the other actors came onboard, or did you all play a part in helping them ‘develop their identities’? Was there much creative freedom in the voice acting?
Bob had very serious ideas about these characters, and was quite capable of ringing you at eleven at night. I was filming Henry V for Kenneth Branagh, during the day, and would come in from wet muddy battle scenes, knackered, or a day spent working with Ian Holm (my hero) and discussing the life of a soldier in Henry's army, then just as I was going to sleep the phone would ring- again, and I'd be plunged back into the world of Tugs - it was brilliant! He talked one night for an hour or more about Sunshine so I had a pretty clear idea of what he wanted - light, cheerfull, always optimistic but occasionally shy - in kid's terms, he was like the hero's littler brother, the seven year old to his ten year old.
I based the voice of Sunshine on a character my dad used to make us laugh with when we were kids. He is a very funny man and used to slip into characters to play with us. Sunshine was the voice he used for 'Gypsy Jackie', a kind of daft clown he had developed, a wide eyed boy of the woods. .I decided Sunshine had been built in a little woody backwater yard, he was a coastal kid impressed with the big harbour - a bit like the new kid at big school. But when I saw the model I remembered a kid at school who had a tooth like Sunshine, and who spoke with a whistle. So I took Jackie and added a whistle.
If you did, did you have to 'prepare' your voice/vocal chords in any way to allow for different pitch, tone or general sound of a character?
Zak was more difficult to sustain because it was lower, and I had to swig from water a lot - studios are dry and the AC is switched off during recording. If I had a dry mouth I could't get the whistle when I moved over to Sunshine
Did everyone record their lines for an episode together in one session, or were all character lines recorded separately?
A mix of both. Bob and David wanted us all there all the time but different schedules of busy freelancers meant we sometimes worked live with each other and sometimes matched up with a tape of someone else.
Have you seen or worked with any of your former TUGS castmates since the series ended?
Yes. I worked with Timothy Bateson, Nigel Anthony, and John Baddeley on several occasions, and I have worked with Sean Barrett many times.
You’ve carried on a very successful acting career since finishing with TUGS, what would you cite as being the highlight of your career so far?
The next job!
From what we can gather, you are quite passionate about the Theatre and have been involved in various productions – can you tell us more about that?
Well I've worked as an actor for all of my professional life. I I've been lucky enough to work in all fields. I've enjoyed everything from Shakespeare to new plays to panto to site specific work, and I try and fit theatre in to filming and recording.
As an actor, is your preference to play to screen, live on stage or providing voiceover talent in a recording booth?
They are all different. They are all fascinating in their own way. Any project I work on I find it compelling to learn the craft and do it well.
Did you ever get chance to visit the model set during filming?
Oh yeah, we were in the same studios at Shepperton, though on different lots - we were in sound and they were in the tank. . And we had pictures of the characters. When I saw the models I was surprised at how big they were.
With mature themes such as death hinted at in episodes like Munitions, were you ever particularly surprised or impressed by the storylines in what was essentially a children's programme?
For Robert it was a very real world, he had done his research thoroughly, and it was a rich world of experience. All good children's drama is just good drama, written for kids.
Were you expecting to reprise your roles in a Series 2 of TUGS? Was there any talk early on about that possibility?
I think they were certainly hoping to repeat the success of Thomas and planning ahead. But it would have been a while before we were needed, so our availability was never looked at.
The voice talent for TUGS were never credited in the series’ titles or credits, did this bother you at all? Was there a reason given for it?
Although I've probably got the old video copies somewhere I don't think I ever sat and watched them so I can't remember being aware of it. You spend so much time watching it in studio, without credit captions, as you rewind and revoice, its never occurred to me to watch the finished edit.
You have also been credited as a Writer and Director for television, radio and stage – how do you find being on the ‘other side’ of the production?
I came from a very multi-disciplinary training. Bretton Hall was a wonderful, incredibly inspiring and liberating place and it's a tragedy that it was closed. I've always been interested in every aspect of the business of storytelling. I will stand mesmerised in a marketplace in Marrakesh watching a man telling an ancient story in a language I don't speak but I also like to know on a film set where my key light is and what lens is on the camera. The advent of new technology means the ability to create films lies at everyone's fingertips. I see young performers like Nathan Bryon coming up who don't feel they have to conform to the stereotype of just being an actor. I think this will happen more and more.
If the series had continued, would you have felt comfortable writing an episode of TUGS? Did you ever have any ideas for potential scripts for Robert and David to consider?
I would love to write for TUGS. At the time it wasn't a consideration, they had a writing team in place. But I've written extensively for children so it would be a pleasure.
Were you surprised to find that the TUGS models had survived after all this time, and that the series still has a strong following 25 years since it first aired?
Yes to both. I'm delighted in the original models are intact. Over the years people have mentioned the series and I presumed it was available but I had no idea it had achieved cult status. It's lovely to work on something and for it to make them smile when they remember it.
In your own personal opinion, do you think the series could still work for child audiences today?
Oh yes, because if characters are strong and reflect the emotional dilemmas of their audience, they will always work. Of course the scripts would need to be right, the plots, but if you have a setting like TUGS, stories are not a problem.
If given the opportunity, would you reprise your roles and play Sunshine and Zak again?
What projects are you currently involved with at the moment?
As an actor I've just done WPC 56 for the BBC and I'm just about to film episodes of the new series of Waterloo Road. I'm writing for television and stage . So I'm busy for the next year or so. By then, perhaps, I'll be offered the chance of another series of TUGS...
WE'D LIKE TO THANK SHAUN FOR HIS TIME AND CANDER IN THIS VERY INFORMATIVE INTERVIEW, WE HOPE YOU ENJOYED !