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TUGS: A Bigg Retrospective

average rating is 3 out of 5


William Hemingway


Posted on:

Aug 9, 2023

Film Reviews
TUGS: A Bigg Retrospective
Directed by:
Lewis D. Gilbert
Written by:
Lewis D. Gilbert
Sean Ruttledge, Shaun Prendergast, Peter Boys

You'd be forgiven for never having heard of TUGS before even if, like me, you were born in the 80's and were about the right age to have enjoyed the program when it was first released on our TV screens in the Spring of 1989. A model animation series based around the conflicts of two shipping companies in a particularly explosive port in Bigg City, a miniature sized version of 1920's New York, TUGS was in fact a very British production. Coming hot on the heels of the success of Thomas The Tank Engine And Friends, producers Robert D. Cardona and David Mitton sought to take the already proven animation style and transpose it to a brand new setting which could perhaps provide the necessary tension for more exciting conflicts. The series however, only lasted for one season – thirteen episodes – and then fell out of favour only to be left behind by the onset of computer generated imagery and lost in the mists of time. Until now.


Now, nearly thirty-five years later, documentary film-maker Lewis D. Gilbert has gone behind the scenes to gather as much footage, collate as much data, and get as many model makers, production assistants and voice actors as he can muster to help him tell the tale of this oft-forgotten children's animated series. To his credit, Gilbert has done a very good job of bringing everything and everyone together and has managed to accumulate a glut of information on pre and post production which he presents to us over the course of two and a half hours.


For a production story that for most people involved in the project lasted only a matter of months, there is a wealth of backstory, construction and filming anecdotes, as well as other interesting asides which get shared throughout the documentary. These come straight from the horse's mouths with many of those involved in the series talking fondly of their time on TUGS and everyone getting to have their say about what they learned, enjoyed and shared during the experience.


The documentary, without any clear demarcation, focuses on three aspects of the TUGS journey which at least gives it the feel of a three act structure. Talk about model making and pre-production gives way to chat about filming, editing and release, which then in turn leads to interviews with fans and outside agencies to discuss legacy and subsequent projects. A long time is spent on each section to allow each talking head the space to share their expertise and personal memories, but as each person is spoken to in isolation there are sometimes conflicting notions of who did what, or who made the big decisions involving the creation of each character, with only patchy recollections of individuals to rely on.


TUGS: A Bigg Retrospective certainly achieves what it sets out to do, which is to investigate, record and preserve a very select section of British TV history that might otherwise have gone unnoticed and truly lost forever. Nobody remembers TUGS – nobody. I certainly don't. It didn't stay on screens long enough to make an impact on the psyche of the young viewers it was aimed at, and by the time it was released children my age were being treated to the divine glories of Visionaries, Centurions and Thundercats on Saturday morning television. It is really important then that a new generation is getting introduced to the incredible animation work and analogue film-making procedures which reached their apogee in TUGS in the mid-late 80's, something which is sadly absent from children's TV today.


While the documentary may have certain troubles with its audio, sometimes fading away to almost nothing so it's impossible to hear what's being said, and the fact that it is way overlong at two and a half hours, it is otherwise well put together and treats its subject fondly. It is obviously going to be difficult to find an audience for a film about a show that the audience doesn't remember, but with the ever pervasive internet allowing new generations of children (of all ages) to stumble upon things from the past, this film's YouTube release will hopefully bring to the table new fans and old fans alike, able to share in the childlike glee of discovering something precious and saving it from obscurity.

About the Film Critic
William Hemingway
William Hemingway
Digital / DVD Release, Indie Feature Film, Documentary
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