Sunday, January 15, 2023


You never question what you are watching on television when you are only five or six years old, and I saw absolutely nothing wrong with watching a children’s drama series set in a 1920s New York-like city about a fleet of anthropomorphic tugboats.

“Tugs” was created by Robert D. Cardona and David Mitton, the former an American TV scriptwriter and producer working in the UK on shows like “Crimes of Passion” and “Emmerdale”, and the latter a special effects technician for Gerry Anderson’s Supermarionation series turned director of TV advertisements. Their production company, Clearwater Features, developed the TV version of “Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends”, producing the first two series – one thirteen-episode series of “Tugs” followed, using the periscope camera system developed for “Thomas” that could film at the models’ eye level.

I remember being enraptured by “Tugs”, watching it every week on its run from April to June 1989, because I like ships anyway – I think it might be the crossing of the eternal sense of adventure, elegant design, and a massive scale of engineering. I have always lived in the Solent area of the UK, with the Royal Navy and car ferries of Portsmouth Harbour on one side, and the ocean and cruise liners in Southampton on the other side. Tugs are naturally found in both harbours moving the larger ships around, and here they were on TV, doing exactly what I saw in real life.

I saw the premise as what I now know is a Hitchcockian “MacGuffin”, the driver of the plot that is not important in itself. The Star Fleet, owned by the human Captain Star and comprised of main character tugs Ten Cents, Sunshine, Warrior, Top Hat and More, are competing for contracts with the villainous Zero Fleet, comprising of Zorran, Zug, Zip and so on. Captain Star, also the narrator of the series, is represented only by a megaphone talking to Star Fleet from a harbour building – no humans are seen on screen in “Tugs” perhaps to distance itself from the set-up of “Thomas the Tank Engine”. The stories took place in and around the Bigg City (spelt with two g’s) port, and essentially was a workplace comedy.

I don’t remember seeing any merchandise at the time, although figurines, annuals and VHS cassettes did appear, and while a second series of “Tugs” never materialised, I had two Lego ships to be getting on with, and real tugboats a matter of minutes away. Every so often, a mention of the show would appear, or a picture would come up, and my love of the show as a child became a running family joke. 

Then the YouTube videos appear asking the same questions they did of “Thomas the Tank Engine”, questions I never thought about: because the ships have faces, are they alive? Do they procreate? Does Captain Star use the tugs as slave labour? Isn’t Captain Star’s voice the same used for the “Protect and Survive” videos and “Two Tribes” by Frankie Goes to Hollywood? (Yes, the last one is Patrick Allen.) The faces never bothered me, as I was already used to trains with faces by then, and the tugs were painted in the correct colours – you may as well ask why they were all wearing hats.

Fortunately, I still think of “Tugs” as being a great show, with high production values and breezy storylines, so long as you don’t think about it any harder than that.

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