Several years ago, I bought and received a job lot of early Thomas & Friends videos and the like from an eBay seller. The auction's description mentioned that several of the videos were actually given to him prior to the release of the series on VHS, implying that the seller originally worked on the show in some way. Some of the early tapes he sent me were in relatively good condition (Considering they're almost thirty years old) and some are a little worse for wear, with missing boxes, labels, etc.
Some of the tapes had the original labels missing and had crudely-written replacement labels stuck to them. Other tapes had earlier versions of certain episodes with extra (or missing) sound effects, as well as short bits of footage that did not make it to the final versions of the episodes.
The video that grabbed my interest the most, however, was a video simply called "Early Reel", which I believe was filmed in the early 1980's, alongside the original pitch-episode "Down the Mine".
Now, "Down the Mine" was pitched to ITV before filming on the series properly began. Once it was green-lighted, Series 1 of Thomas & Friends was produced, and "Down the Mine" was re-shot to become the show's 25th episode, meaning that this video could not have been Britt Allcroft's pitch to the ITV network to get Thomas green-lighted.
Intrigued, I played the video before any of the others I received in the Job lot. The video starts with a date displayed in the bottom right hand corner. It only appears for a few seconds, and it says "5/6/1981" which would mean the 5th June, 1981. According to most sources, 1981 was the year filming began on the show.
After this, the title card appears. As this was one of the earliest, if not the earliest "Thomas" videos to be completed, it makes sense that the familiar theme tune, along with the famous scenes of Thomas bypassing a windmill and stopping at Ffarquhar station, is absent. Instead, a relatively plain title card is used, simply displaying the classic Thomas & Friends symbol shown at the end of all Series 1 and 2 episodes of Thomas & Friends. After a few seconds, it fades to black.
Ringo Starr is not present as the narrator. There is no narrator, the video contains no speech, merely sound effects, making it all the more unnerving.
The episode starts out with Knapford Station being completely mobbed, with trains populating virtually every platform (As only 7 engines were featured in the first season, it's likely that one or two unmodified "Marklin Engines" were pulling some of the trains). A goods train (of trucks full of stone) is present in the goods platform, which is the platform closest to the viewer. The camera zooms in to look more closely at the goods train, and we then see Thomas back down on the train.
Thomas' model looks off in this "Early Reel". It is, presumably, the same model as the one used in the "Down the mine" pitch, which is visible in a single scene in the broadcast version. Thomas' siderods are chunkier than the TV Series model. His wheels are also slightly smaller and his running plate is lower, obscuring part of his wheels. The thing I found creepy is that the engines' eyes don't move in this. They're painted on, very much like the Troublesome Trucks, and characters like Terence and Caroline.
So Thomas, with his lifeless eyes, pulls out of the station and onto the open line. The puffing noise in this video is more realistic, as if recorded from real locomotives.
Further down the line, Thomas passes Percy. Again, his model is noticeably different to his model in the show itself. His tanks are less rounded and his whole look has a more industrial feel about it, similar to how he looks in some of the later Railway Series books. As the two engines pass each other, they whistle, their whistles sounding the same as they do on the show.
Immediately following this, Thomas gets sent down the wrong line. We see a shot of Thomas rolling down the wrong line with a surprised look on his face. It looks similar to the one on the show, except it is more detailed and seems to convey more horror, as if Thomas is severely loathing the thought of what is to come.
We see Thomas roll down a steep gradient, with the trucks surging against him. The shocked face from the last scene is still present. A level crossing is ahead of Thomas, which he immediately runs into and breaks. To make matters worse, a car is on the level crossing at that point in time, which Thomas rams into, sending it tumbling out of control.
A semi-mountainous set similar to the one from "Thomas in Trouble" (Where Thomas is confronted by the policeman) is seen with Thomas in the far distance. The difference is that there are more rocks, ridges and cliffs, and less grass. A pair of derailed trucks are present on the line in front of Thomas. Thomas, unable to stop, smashes into the derailed trucks and flies off of the rails.
Thomas continues to roll along the ground (a thin piece of string is visible in a few scenes) until he tumbles off a rocky ledge. He falls all the way down the mountain cliff with a more unsettling face. It is similar to his "Eyes shut" face from the show, but conveys intense fear and his teeth are gritted. While this is going on, a climatic orchestral piece is heard, which is likely to be a piece of stock music.
Thomas reaches the bottom of the mountain and crashes into the rocky ground below. A terrible metallic crash can be heard, while Thomas' body shell explodes on contact with the ground, with bits such as whistles and handrails flying in several directions. An explosion sound effect is added for a more dramatic effect. Even worse than this is a pair of male voices letting out blood curdling shrieks, which I assume are Thomas' driver and fireman, either being killed or badly injured by the crash.
As the crash dies down, the camera pans and we see some of Thomas' remains, including the upturned, exploded body shell, as an ominous strings piece (again, probably stock music) is played. The face is gone, faded to a smokebox door, flames are around the broken pieces of Thomas, and a breakdown train can faintly be seen in one shot- appearing to be coupled to Percy, whose face is obscured by its cab. You can faintly hear a male voice saying the Latin sentence "Feliciter est nemo nocere". Slowly, the scene fades to black.
On the black background, some text, in white, reads "There's nothing quite like it", below the middle of the screen, in Rockwell. In the Railway Series "There's nothing quite like it" was the motto of the North Western Railway, the railway featured in the books and TV show. Following this is a copyright notice, "A Clearwater Features production for Britt Allcroft, Ltd. © Britt Allcroft (Thomas) Ltd. 1981". While the copyright date is displayed, the faint sound of steam hissing is audible, along with a faint, yet shrill sounding steam whistle, which sounds like a more realistic version of Thomas' whistle.
The screen remained blank for about thirty seconds. Slowly, it faded to a night scene. The colour is very washed out at this point. A rusty engine with Thomas' shape can be seen coasting along a run down branch line. I say "coasting" because the engine is making no puffing noises to signify that it's moving under its own power. I can only assume that the engine is a ghost Thomas or something similar. Thomas no longer has a face, but instead a regular smokebox door. The smokebox door isn't secure, so it keeps banging against Thomas' smokebox. Each time the door opens a there is some sort of substance that is faintly visible inside Thomas' smokebox. I initially assumed this to be ash, but upon closer inspection it looks like some sort of rotting flesh. I still like to think that it's ash, however.
Throughout these night scenes, very little sound is present. During close-ups of the "Ghost Thomas", some awful grinding, squealing and clanking noises are heard.
The branch line terminates at a scrapyard. By this point, Thomas is rolling at a considerably slow pace, slower than usually seen on the early seasons of T&F. Oddly, most of the scrap models are not the regular scrap engines seen on the show. The scrap consists largely of broken up road vehicles and the like. Thomas slinks into a damp siding. After stopping, a man- modelled in the same style as the series proper- holding a cutter's torch appears, standing in front of the rusty Thomas. The camera pans down slowly whilst fading to black.
After about six seconds, the sound of birds chirping is audible. I was half-expecting the tape to take a more lighthearted approach.
I was wrong.
A black-on-white hand drawing faded into view. It was of a set of sidings with rows of steam engines that had been withdrawn from service. Having several books and magazines on British Railways in the final days of steam traction, I am used to this sort of scenario. However, the engines were completely dilapidated. Their frames were bent out of shape, various bits of the engines were cracked and dented, most engines were missing things like smokebox doors and buffers, and all the locos simply looked completely mauled. As I am something of a British Railway buff, I found this image to be a little upsetting, though I imagine that many people will be completely unfazed by it.
If you're a long-time follower of Thomas & Friends, or have children or younger siblings that are into the show, then you'll know that there are literally hundreds of characters in the series- even more if you count things such as the original Railway Series books and the magazines. This picture did not have hundreds of engines, but the choice of engines were interesting to say the least.
All of them represented real engine classes, some of which formed the bases of characters that weren't yet created. For example, there was a North Staffordshire Battery-Electric locomotive. Fairly little known until 2012 when it was brought out of obscurity by serving as the basis for the character "Stafford". Even more bizarre was the inclusion of two Manning Wardle L-class tank engines. Any fans of the series will know that both Billy and Charlie are based on this engine class.
Other engines were not used as a basis for any Thomas character. For example, the London, Tilbury and Southend Railway class 79. This engine class normally sports a Westinghouse pump, as seen in the linked image. The drawing showed the pump to be missing. However it had not been torched off, but rather it appeared to have been wrenched off, leaving a gaping hole in the smokebox. There were similar holes in the engine's boiler.
And in the middle of the picture was Thomas himself, barely recognisable. His smokebox door had been broken right off, as had most of his cab and external parts. Some of his wheels were missing, his siderods were removed, and what little paint that had remained on the dilapidated, hole-ridden body shell was almost completely faded and obscured by rust.
As for sound, the chirping birds played throughout the showing of the drawing, about 27 seconds in total, along with the unmistakable sound of a Black 5 whistle. The whistle was long and drawn out, lasting for the whole showing of the image and still trailing after the image had faded to black. It would seem that the recording was from an engine that had been taken out of service and was being drained of steam, ready to be broken up. This made the image all the more unsettling. Partway through, the whistle almost seems to begin to sound pained.
I've always been somewhat unnerved by static captions or images. Especially if they're not accompanied by any text or music. I've never liked static TV idents used to signify the death of a Royal Family member, for example. This was no exception. The imagery and the soundtrack didn't help matters either.
After a while the whistle begins to get a bit static-y. The image shows again for a split second, but now with a black-on-red colour scheme. It's not blood-red or anything, but rather a "perfect" red you'd expect to see as the default red for old editions of Microsoft Paint. The red quickly fades to a more brownish-yellowish hue, before fading away completely.
Unfortunately, since then, the tape has been worn out to the point where no clear image can be made out anymore. My original theory regarding "Early Reel" was that it was not meant as a pitch, but was a test episode written (and of course directed) by David Mitton to see how much action and violence would work in a 'Thomas' episode. Note that the show's fifth season contained more violence and crashes- it was the first to consist entirely of newly-written material, not written by the Awdry Family, who had written the Railway Series books.
I assumed that the incredibly violent scenes, not suitable for a children's cartoon, were likely added simply because the video would never go public, so they didn't have to worry about things being too violent or scary. It may be worth noting that earlier in 1981 (8th March) a train in Argentina travelling to Buenos Aires crashed into a pair of derailed trucks at Brandsen Partido. This could be a coincidence, but it could also be a way of continuing the Awdry's tradition of basing the accidents in the series off of real life events.
Prior to the tape wearing out I contacted Britt Allcroft, David Mitton having passed away several years back. She was curious as to how I'd gotten hold of the DVD, as it had been missing for about thirty years. She confirmed to me that David Mitton did not have any input in the film, but was written by a caretaker at Clearwater whose name had escaped her, but she belived that his surname was Richmond. This employee had had a grudge for David Mitton ever since they were teens, but the reason behind this has not been confirmed. Some believe that during education He felt that Mitton was finding ways to make him fail all his courses, depriving him of a future. It's not known how this may have been done, though Mitton was a distant relative of the head of one of the exam boards at the time. Richmond was 'certain' that Mitton had a hand in making him fail, and swore revenge on him. Britt believed that Richmond created this short film with the intent passing it off as Mitton's work, in an attempt to get Mitton sacked as a means of revenge. I told her that I had received the film in a job lot of old, rare Thomas VHS tapes, some of which were dated prior to the show's launch in 1984. It turned out that the eBay seller was called "Richard Almond". Britt was uncertain whether this was this "Richmond" fellow, but told me to contact her if I found any more news.
I watched the film one last time for clues. I was actually surprised to see that there were some secrets I had not seen before. At the big station, there were advertising posters for Richmond cigarettes. I was unsure whether or not this was a coincidence, but decided I'd contact Britt Allcroft once I'd watched the whole video again. I got to the scene where Thomas couples up to the trucks. On closer inspection, I could make out markings on the truck closest to Thomas. It was text that read "LDM 160508". I wondered what this meant, so I did some searching, only to realise that David Mitton passed away on the 16th May 2008. I wondered what the "LDM" would have stood for, before I realised that the "DM" would be David Mitton, and due to the date of his death written on the truck, the L would have probably stood for Late. The following truck had an even more interesting message on it. "100794" was the number written on it, which happens to be my birth date. Another number combination was written on the same truck: "NO B23S3". I was initially puzzled before realising that Book 23, Story 3 of the Railway Series is called "Escape!".
The climatic crash near the end of the film was likely to be where more secrets lied. I paused the tape and advanced frame by frame. For a split second I saw a frame with a black background and nothing but a date in a plain, sans serif font. It said "4.1.2033". Several seconds in the film later was another freeze frame, saying "doom is inevitable".
I couldn't find anything more, but was interested with what I had. I tried to contact Britt Allcroft only to find that she'd stopped using her old email and had begun using a new one, which I was unable to find, and no one else I asked knew what it was, either.
My theory is that some of the film is by Mitton. I believe that the original synopsis would have been as follows:
Thomas backs down on a goods train. He takes the train down the line before realising that he's been switched to the wrong track. He then crashes but survives in one piece. Percy then arrives with the breakdown train to lift him back onto the rails.
The "Richmond" fellow probably added in bits afterward- such as the writing on the truck, which I imagine was a re-shot scene because convincing enough effects weren't easy to come by in the early 80's, the screams of Thomas' crew and the destroyed Thomas, as well as everything that played after the copyright notice for obvious reasons.
The thing that perplexes me is the phrase "There's nothing quite like it". The original motto of the N.W.R. in the RS books is in Latin ("Nil Unquam Simile"). Is it possible that "There's nothing quite like it" was a proposed slogan or catchphrase for the TV Series? Sounds better than "Confusion and Delay" at any rate.
The way scrap engines are used in this film is interesting to me. Many times in the series we see the engines going through scrapyards, even encountering scrapped locos looking just like themselves, but the characters look as cheery as ever.
I don't particularly believe that what was said in the tape is going to happen, but hey, If I die on the January 4th, 2033, then I'll take back what I said.