TUGS was a children's television series, first broadcast on 4th April 1989 on ITV. The show only produced one series of thirteen episodes and was created by two former producers of Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends: Robert D. Cardona and David Mitton.

The series was noted for the high quality of its production and storytelling, which used detailed live-action models (much like the first twelve series of its sister show). Since the 2000s, the show has developed a cult following.


Set in the 1920s, TUGS is about the adventures of two rival anthropomorphised tugboat fleets: the honourable & hard-working Star Tugs, managed by Captain Star (who recounts the stories), and the devious & deceitful Z-Stacks, managed by Captain Zero. The stories take place in the fictional Bigg City Port, 'the biggest harbour in the world'. Throughout the series, the Star Tugs and Z-Stacks compete for contract work, towing ships into & out of the harbour or delivering bargeloads of important goods such as foodstuffs, fuel, munitions and garbage. Most of the episodes focus on the stark rivalry between the two tug-fleets, which the Star Tugs usually receive praises and contracts for their hard work and bravery, while the Z-Stacks usually receive their comeuppance for their underhandedness, but learn to assist when there's danger.

Most of the episodes begin with Captain Star (as narrator) remembering a tale from when he ran the Star Fleet, introducing us to the main story and later concludes the episode reflecting on the events with a moral for the viewer to understand (e.g. 'always respect fire', 'avoid jumping to conclusions before knowing the truth' 'everyone must have a good streak in them somewhere' etc.) or a summary of the episode itself.


After two successful series of Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends, Robert D. Cardona and David Mitton decided to create a new television series. Their aspiration eventually materialized TUGS, an original idea based on real-life event of working tugboats across New York, San Francisco etc. Mitton and Cardona decided to set the stories in the 1920s, as it was considered the 'heyday of the steam tug' and regarded in maritime history with the most affection.

Similar to production on Thomas & Friends, the series was filmed at Shepperton Studios between 1987-88 using large scale models and miniature sets. The boat models were mounted on an underwater trolley, hidden underwater and pulled across the set with transparent strings. Remote control devices were used to power mechanisms within the models, such as the moving eyes and rudders.

Contrary to popular belief, TUGS' premiere debut was on a UK VHS first released in November 1988. However, on 4th April 1989, its proper debut commenced when it first aired on Children's ITV in the UK, and was later transmitted in several other countries including (but not necessarily limited to) Australia, Finland, Singapore, Brunei, France, and Japan. Despite the show's American influences, TUGS was never exported to North American territories. After thirteen produced episodes, TVS filed for bankruptcy, the rights to the series were sold and scattered throughout the years, and Clearwater Features closed its doors in late 1990, thus ending TUGS. In the 1990s, the show would reach American audiences in another form. Robert Cardona licensed the footage to be edited and redubbed for the American show Salty's Lighthouse. The latter renamed certain characters (Big Mac became Big Stack, Zebedee as ZeeBee etc.) and changed the location name to fit in with the Salty's Lighthouse characters.

The models and sets were sold to Britt Allcroft, whose new company used the models (albeit heavily modified), for Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends from 1991-2008. The switch from live-action models to CGI for the series in 2009 ended the use of the models, but some of them such as the crane, Big Mickey, continue to appear in the CGI series.

After TUGS, Robert Cardona emigrated to Canada to direct a similar series about tugboats called Theodore Tugboat which was very successful in North America. David Mitton continued to work on Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends until he retired after the seventh series in 2003.

Since 2000s, TUGS gained a cult following through the power of internet and online fan forums. In mid-2012, the original models and props used in the show's production were bought by a group of fans who, in 2013, established TUGS: The Exhibition - a dedicated organisation displaying the show's various models and props and other TUGS memorabilia. Through the internet and the Exhibition, the number of TUGS fans has steadily continued to rise over time and its legacy continues to grow.


In total, 13 episodes of TUGS were made during 1987 to December 1988. They first aired on the British TV channel, Children's ITV from April - June 1989, and were later transmitted in several other countries.

See: List of episodes

  • All thirteen episodes were originally 20 minutes but modified and edited to 15 minutes for broadcast on television. This was most likely done because of time-slot issues. As a result, the 15 minute versions are notably different in narrative, style and story execution as opposed to the 20 minute versions. The original 20 minute cuts of four episodes (Sunshine, Pirate, Munitions and 4th of July) were released on VHS.


Star Fleet

  1. Ten Cents
  2. Big Mac
  3. O.J.
  4. Top Hat
  5. Warrior
  6. Hercules
  7. Sunshine


  1. Zorran
  2. Zebedee
  3. Zak
  4. Zug
  5. Zip

Other Characters

The Major Locations in and near Bigg City Port

For other minor locations, see the articles Bigg City Port and Other Locations in TUGS.

  • The Star Dock - the home of Captain Star's well-known and much-loved Star fleet. Appears in most episodes.
  • The Zero Dock - the home of Captain Zero's devious Z-Stack fleet. Appears in most episodes.
  • Lucky's Yard - this is where watercraft go to be repaired when they are damaged or in need of maintenance. They can also be scrapped.
  • The River - former home of Sunshine, when he worked for the Salvage Fleet. Home to Billy Shoepack, Sea Rogue, his uncle and Boomer (as a houseboat). A few towns, a railway line and a logging industry are located along the river.
  • Dem Der Rocks - Hazardous large rocks near the estuary, home of Lillie Lightship, appears in many episodes.
  • Municipal Garbage Corporation - where Lord Stinker gets his garbage loads from, and where Jack the Grappler is located.
  • Liner Dock - The tugs are often seen docking ocean liners in Bigg City's largest dock. Both tug fleets are frequently competing for contracts from liners to bring them into port. The Princess Alice is frequently seen in the background of most scenes at the dock, although plenty of other liners pass through as well. In "Bigg Freeze", the main liner dock freezes up due to bad weather, and the dock is replaced with a temporary one further out at sea.


Unfortunately, the cast of TUGS was never credited. Some of their identities are still ambiguous. However, thanks to the diligent research of various members of online forums, several have been revealed.

Read more about the original Tugs cast

Other Languages

Although the series only had 13 episodes, TUGS was broadcast, redubbed and VHS released in two countries.

Language Name
Finnish Purtilot
Japanese がんばれタッグス
Swedish Bogserbåtarna

Swedish Newspaper's TV listings from 1991 showing TUGS being broadcast under the name Bogserbåtarna on TV3 in the children's block called Barntrean

On the Internet, this show said to have been called Os rebocadores in Portuguese, but no source has been found.


Music was composed by Mike O' Donnell and Junior Campbell, who also composed the music for Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends, they used a Prophet 2000 sampler and a Roland Jupiter 6 synthesizer, Pete Zorn played the saxophone in the theme. The outro of the episode, Bigg Freeze, features vocals by Sue Glover. There was some talk of releasing a full-length three minute single of the theme music which also would have been sung by Sue, however these plans fell through when Clearwater Features' folded.

Behind the Scenes

The sets were built out of a large water tank, measuring 45 ft. by 25 ft. and with a depth of 14 inches. The complexity of building this tank is the reason why TUGS did not have a test pilot, unlike Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends, in which one of its episodes, Down the Mine, was originally filmed as a test pilot before being re-shot for its first season.

The water was 30 cm deep and was filled with blue/green dye to give the water a sense of depth. David Mitton reportedly kept goldfish in the water and fed them every day until the toxicity of the tank killed them.

The models were built by DBP models. Originally, they were built to run on a motor, but these turned out to be too heavy for the models to move, so they were mounted on a chassis that was pulled by string.

The same set was used for most of the episodes. The scenery was changed to represent different locations.

To manoeuvre the boats, change faces, work on the set, etc., crew members wore galoshes and worked in the tank. According to model-maker Jeremy King, the constant bending down gave the crew cramps once production had ended.

The models were still onsite at Shepperton Studios until around the time David Mitton died. A liquidation company came in and removed them. According to Chris Lloyd, the crew-members were offered some of the models, but they had been in a container for a long time and were damaged. Eighteen of the original models are now owned by the TUGS Exhibition.

According to a private interview in December 2012, the seller company of the face masks said, that after the production offices were cleared out, every single item came to them. They had several items relating to a planned second season, but now all of them have been sold. They have gone to sellers in the United Kingdom, the United States and Australia.


Tugs merchandise was rather common in the early 1990s. Some of that merchandise includes:

Read more about Tugs merchandise


  • Ten Cents, Sunshine, and Top Hat are the only characters to appear in every episode.
  • Up River is the only episode not to feature the Z-Stacks.
  • Regatta is the only episode to have an alternate title: 4th of July.
  • On the Sunshine/Pirate and Munitions/4th of July video descriptions, Captain Star's name is misspelled as "Captain Starr".
  • The Dock Railway engines, rolling stock and barges track gauge are 45mm (Gauge 1/G gauge), same as standard gauge characters appearing in the first twelve series of Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends.
  • High Winds and Trapped are the only episodes with two Z-Stacks (Zebedee and Zug) are the focus characters.
  • The Port Authority is the only character mentioned throughout the series.
  • Hercules is absent more than any other Star Tug and the least relevant in character roles.
  • Big Mickey and the ocean liner model are the only Tugs models to appear in the CGI Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends (was by then called Thomas & Friends) series. Big Mickey also gained a face in the show's twenty-first series.
  • S.S.Vienna is renamed the S.S. Roxstar in the Thomas & Friends episode Seeing the Sights.
  • The whole Star Fleet is featured in Sunshine, Regatta, Ghosts, High Winds, and Bigg Freeze. If Grampus was included, the whole fleet were featured in Ghosts and Regatta.
  • There is an American spin-off of Tugs called Salty's Lighthouse, in which characters had Americanising accents, some had different names, and some male characters were changed to female. Most scenes were reedited to create new plots.
  • In the first intro, deleted scenes from Sunshine, Pirate, and Ghosts are included.
  • In an interview in April 2008[1], David Mitton revealed that a second series had been planned well in advance of the shooting/filming of the first series. Already, over ninty-six scripts had been written by Mitton himself and other writers with a regular thirteen episodes to be produced. Most of the series would have been set Up River instead of the Bigg City Port setting, which Mitton considered restrictive and difficult to film in. As well as the same regular main cast, some new tugs would have been introduced. TVS going bankrupt ultimately halted the second series from being produced.
  • Interestingly, no human characters are ever seen in the show, although megaphones are used in several office windows to describe several human voices, including Captain Star and Captain Zero.
  • In an audio interview in 2019, Mike 'O Donnell recalls he and Junior only worked on 20 minute versions of the episodes, as opposed to the 15 minute broadcasts.



  1. David Mitton interview with SiF”. Archived from the original on 13 March 2019.

External links

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