Five Facts About Mike O’Donnell – Right On Track
In the latest episode of Right On Track, we had the incredible privilege of speaking with composer Mike O’Donnell, who worked on the first seven series of Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends (1984-2003). Working with fellow musician Junior Campbell, Mike crafted the programme’s incidental music, songs and, yes, the ubiquitous theme tune.
There were plenty of revelations made by Mike that not even we – diehard fans of the show – knew about before the interview. Here are five things we learned from the legend himself.
1) He grew up in Britain’s spiritual Home of Music
Mike was born and raised in Liverpool – a town in northern England most famous, arguably, for being the birthplace of The Beatles. Other artists who emerged from the area include Cilla Black, Gerry & the Pacemakers and The Searchers. It would appear that the reason why so many musicians found fame in Liverpool is because there wasn’t much else to do in the early Sixties.
“In Liverpool, at the time, you were either into football… or music – that was all there was,” Mike says, “and I went for the music side of it.”
But it was Lonnie Donegan, a pioneer of the Skiffle genre, that first inspired Mike’s passion for music.
“You could buy [Donegan’s] records, and then learn the three chords that were on it, and go from there.”
2) He got the Thomas gig through Ringo Starr
Pretty much everybody knows that the former Beatles drummer narrated the early episodes of Thomas & Friends; but what’s less known is that it was through Ringo that Mike found out about the series being developed.
Whilst Ringo was travelling internationally in the early 1980s, Mike was looking after his recording studio in Ascot; upon his return home, Ringo told Mike that he was being sought as the narrator for the series, which at that time had not yet found a composer.
“I found out from Clearwater – which was [director] David Mitton’s office – [producer] Britt Allcroft’s phone number, and I just gave her a call and I said, ‘Look, have you sorted the theme out?’ and she said ‘Not yet’.”
From there, Mike was able to pitch his ideas, and eventually hired as composer alongside Junior Campbell.
And returning to Ringo Starr…
3) The classic theme is based on a Beatles song
According to Mike, the original theme tune for Thomas & Friends is a direct homage to “Mean Mister Mustard”, which can be heard on The Beatles’ penultimate album, Abbey Road.
For context, here’s the original theme…
…and here’s “Mean Mister Mustard”
According to Mike, the Beatles reference was made with Ringo Starr in mind:
“Because I knew Ringo was narrating [the TV series] and I thought, ‘Maybe he’ll – at some point down the line – sing [the theme], or sing a version of it’.”
So without Ringo, it’s unlikely that Thomas & Friends would have the famous theme that everybody knows and loves.
4) Yes, he meant for Daisy’s theme to sound like that!
Way back in Episode 14 of Right On Track, we asserted that the theme of Daisy, the Diesel Railcar not only sounds similar to the theme of Cruella de Vil from 101 Dalmatians, but is also akin to “stripper music” – the kind that would play in a seedy burlesque club.
Mike revealed that the latter assertion is correct, because that was entirely intentional. As he tells it, David Mitton originally gave Daisy’s model pink buffers (a feature unique to her character) which made her look “kind of like a hooker”.
“It was based on the stripper music, to go along with David’s pink buffers.”
But despite the risqué connotations of Mike’s compositions, he didn’t seem particularly worried about how the show’s target audience would react.
“I mean, a five-year-old’s not going to know what the stripper music’s all about.”
5) He’s got his own TV show in the works
That’s right! Mike has been developing a children’s television series of his very own for some years now, and recently pitched his idea to Karrot Entertainment, the studio behind the award-winning Sarah & Duck. In his interview, Mike lamented on how difficult it is to become involved in children’s television, “because it’s such big money.”
“We’re going down a puppet route, because nobody seems to be financing animation anymore, unless it’s an already established brand… Trying to get new stuff off the ground is next to impossible.”
Regardless, we’re all eagerly awaiting to see the fruits of Mike’s labour.
Our interview with Mike O’Donnell can be found in Episode 39 of Right On Track below. You can also click here to download it.