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The Tugs Story

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This is my interpretation of the history of Tugs based on conversations with various members of the production team and various research I and others have undertaken. The actual events may have been somewhat different to how they have been reported in this essay.


When Tugs came out it was an extremely popular series it had an appeal to both children and adults which is extremely rare for any children's series even to this day. When talking to people at various events it has become clear to me that there were two groups of people who grew up with Tugs. Those who remember and loved what was a unique production and those who have either forgotten it or didn't get chance to know of it because of its short run. So why did such a beautiful series that so many people hold such fond memories of get forgotten? Some say it was cursed with bad luck, others say that it was just a rip off so it got what it deserved. From what I've seen there was an element of bad luck but it seems that there were some fundamental business decisions that went wrong along the way too.

To explain where the idea of Tugs came from and indeed where it went wrong the clock needs to be turned back to 1983/84 when Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends in production. David Mitton of Clearwater Features owned a 50% stake of the rights to the television in partnership with Britt Allcroft for the series carrying the name of the cheeky fussy little tank engine. For Mitton times had become tough for one reason or another and he was struggling at the time and thought that Thomas & Friends was going to fail. Convinced that the series was going to be a huge success Britt Allcroft re-mortgaged her house several times over (this was the 1980s, well before the banking system was changed forever in the late 2000s) and bought the remaining 50% of the rights from Mitton giving her full control over the politics behind the series and more importantly any revenue generated by it. Mitton's financial problems seemed to have been solved and everything carried on. However Mitton and Clearwater Features were mere contractors from this point onwards, making the episodes on behalf of Britt Allcroft.

In late 1984 Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends was first broadcast to the world and it was an instant success. This is when Mitton and Robert D. Cardona (Cardona being the other half of Clearwater Features) decided that they wanted to create their own characters with their own stories. After all you don't make money in this world through working for someone else, the best way to make money is by working for yourself. They knew that they wanted to make a series based on transport that was bigger, better and more advanced than Thomas the Tank Engine, but what? Being based at Shepperton Studios they were surrounded by inspirational material, Heathrow Airport, one of the world's busiest airports and Queen Mary Reservoir, home to the UK's Premier inland Sailing Club and the other transport connections of the M25 and M4 right on their doorstep. Series 2 of Thomas the Tank Engine went into production during 1986 and it was at some point during that year that the idea of Tugs was born. It has been said that the idea came to either Cardona or Mitton while they were sitting on a veranda in the USA while watching the boats sailing by.

During 1986 the Tugs company was setup as part of Clearwater Features with TVS Television providing them with that all important commission. A creative team of writers and model makers were taken on to design a whole new world and the characters to inhabit it. As we already know they chose the 1920s and the completely fictional location of Bigg City Port, thus giving them freedom to use any design of boat they pleased from the era to give the series a truly international feel. The stories were based on the real life events of Crowley Maritime, an American tug fleet operating mainly from San Francisco at the time, now doing the majority of the work on the Western Coast of the USA. Instead of having the tedious rivalry between Steam and Diesel which was present in Thomas the Tank Engine, they instead decided to go with the more realistic rivalry between two opposing fleets and created the Z-Stacks. The Z-Stacks or Zeros were given a more gangsta style look because they were based on a fleet based in New York at the time, Moran Towage. In some episodes of the series they could be seen as baddies, however anti-hero is a more appropriate title for them in my opinion.

During the course of pre production the design of the Star Tugs evolved as shown by the original artwork logo featured on much of the merchandise. It turns out that during production the Star Fleet were originally designed to have a timber clad livery to give them a more rustic and detailed look. This has been seen in a photo that has surfaced on the internet of Ten Cents during production before he was rebuilt with the more familiar Star Tugs yellow livery. This is possibly one of the aspects that pushed up the budget of Tugs. It was commonly said that parts of Clearwater Features had a bad habit of overspending, so maybe outlets like this is where it started to go wrong.

Production was said to have lasted a total of 12 months, in that time 13 episodes lasting 30 minutes were shot. Unlike Thomas the Tank Engine, each character had their own voice, in the British version of the series each character had their own regional accent too. Something which gave the characters an extra layer of distinctiveness which has rarely if ever been seen in other television productions to this day. It was during this time that things started to unravel for Clearwater Features and Tugs. Mitton short on money once again needed a quick injection of money and sold his share of the Tugs rights to Castle Communications for an early video release of 4 of the Tugs episodes. These episodes were released on two different VHS videos as two episodes both 20 minutes in length, giving the cassette's a total running time of 40 minutes. Twelve months later in 1989 Tugs was eventually broadcast on the Children's ITV slot on the ITV Network in the UK, this time in a 15 minute format with a new look theme sequence including a CGI graphic. It would seem that the initial release of the Tugs episodes deflated the value of the series meaning that the television channels weren't willing to pay a much for the series as Clearwater Features had originally hoped. The remaining episodes were released on VHS by Castle Communications under the name "Castle Vision." As part of the marketing of the episodes the strapline "From the producers of THOMAS THE TANK ENGINE AND FRIENDS" was used at the top of the front covers. In hindsight this seems to have fuelled people's perceptions that Tugs was just a cheap rip off of Thomas the Tank Engine. From what I can gather the series was only run once in the UK, when my Mother recorded many of the episodes for me to watch to give her a break from the Thomas the Tank Engine theme repeating itself several times throughout the day. This meant that the merchandise got little publicity resulting Tugs making a huge loss which crippled Clearwater Entertainment. Mitton and Cardona parted company after production came to a halt with Cardona returning to Canada where he began work with Cochran Entertainment on the production of Theodore Tugboat amongst other projects. Mitton returned to work on Thomas the Tank Engine, this time as an employee of Britt Allcroft, not as a contractor, where he remained until Series 7 in late 2003.

The rights for Tugs remained in the possession of Cardona and the successor to Castle Communications until production began for Salty's Lighthouse which was created by Sunbow Entertainment and released in 1997. To make production possible, the two shareholders both sold a 25% share of Tugs to Sunbow giving them a 50% holding of the rights. Cardona always had the intention of buying these rights back however for one reason or another that never happened. Salty's Lighthouse was made by using old footage from Tugs episodes with hand drawn animation to create original characters who watched over their antics in the port. 40 of these episodes were made and it was broadcast around the world. Salty's Lightouse co-insided with the launch of the Tugs Fandom on the internet, with repeats being broadcast on the UK's Channel 4 Network until 2003. It was during this year that the Bigg City Port Website was launched and successive Tugs forums were created, these included the Star Tugs Pier and the Clearwater Forum as part of the Bigg City Port group of websites. These eventually merged with the Sodor Island Forum in around 2008. During this time one thing that became clear was that Salty's Lighthouse introduced a new generation of fans to Tugs, proving that there was still a demand for the series as it continued to inspire more and more children. However with the rights to the series split three ways, getting the parties who own the series to communicate with one another has been rather difficult. It was said that David Mitton shortly before his death in 2008 was starting to look into buying back the rights for Tugs so that it could get its release on DVD. He told the Tugs fan community that he had written over 90 episodes which sadly never made it past pre production for a second series.

This would seem to be the end of the Tugs story however in late 2012 one of the members of the Sodor Island Forum was approached by a model boat builder in Norwich who had in his possession 18 of the original character models from the television series. In this collection were all of the Z-Stacks, Fire Tug, Sea Rogue, Old Man, Lilly Lightship and with the exception Top Hat, all of the Star Tugs. In early 2013 a group of fans had built a consortium called "the Star Tugs Trust" to buy those models with the aim of putting them on display to the public. In 2014 that aim was achieved when a series of events and a semi permanent exhibition was opened. I too joined in with the organisation of these events and helped fund the opening of the exhibition at the Midland Railway, however after disagreements on legal issues and the ethics involved in the running of the now renamed "Star Tugs Company Limited" I now no longer work with them nor support them. However in the time that I was working with them, I was able to purchase the Seaplane model which was built as the stand in Sally Seaplane as they didn't have the resources and didn't think that it was worth the asking price.

So this brings us to where we are today, at the moment we know that 18 of the Tugs models are in the possession of the Star Tugs Company Limited, with one in the possession of Bigg City Port. An earlier sale on eBay that saw 4 sets of the Tugs character faces saw one set sold to a member of the Star Tugs Company, which are now the assets of the Star Tugs Company. Another set is in the possession of a Tugs Fan in the UK with another set in the possession in the USA and another in Australia. The Tugs DVD Campaign with was started as a mini poll has currently moved onto a petition via in the hope that the rights to the series can be consolidated in one place so the series can be re released on DVD or legal download. The whereabouts of the remainder of the Tugs character models are unknown, it is presumed that as their storage at Shepperton Studios meant their "being thrown round a container" for several years before the liquidation of Clearwater Features that any model not in the possession of Bigg City Port or the Star Tugs Company has been destroyed unless definitive proof can be given. As has been the case since production came to an end, I am always interested in finding out the whereabouts of the models so if someone knows for definite where the remaining models are I am willing to purchase them for safe keeping and potential displays in future along with the spare Seaplane (now known as Phoenix).

As for the rights, as far as we understand they currently lie with 50% being in the possession of m4e (Made 4 Entertainment) which is a German Children's production company who now own the rights to Salty's Lighthouse. The 25% holding that was held by Castle Communications is now held by part of Universal Entertainment and the final 25% is with Robert D. Cardona and his family Estate. If you would like to see Tugs make a return on DVD, legal download or even a revival, it can only be possible if these three entities talk to one another. Please follow the link to the DVD Campaign petition at to make it happen, this doesn't have to be the end of the Tugs Story.


You can find the Bigg City Port community at, together we are one voice campaigning for a better future for Tugs. If we approach the rights holders as many individuals we are simply just being an annoying group of individuals who are more likely to be ignored so we ask that you please refrain from approaching them on your own.

This was Tugs!

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