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She's Putting Children on the Learning Track

Television With 'Thomas the Tank Engine' and now 'Mumfie,' Britt Allcroft has created a phenomenon--engaging young viewers' minds in the process.

November 05, 1998|LYNNE HEFFLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lounging serenely on an old wooden bench, gazing out at her "bit of green"--a grassy tangle burgeoning under the sun behind her recently purchased Santa Monica beach house--Britt Allcroft has reason to smile.

Having mortgaged her home in her native England in the early 1980s on a career gamble, the quiet-voiced Allcroft today heads up a multimillion-dollar international empire that includes three series for preschoolers on the Fox Family Channel. Its foundation is the little train that could: Thomas the Tank Engine.

"Thomas," the children's TV phenomenon--it airs in more than 120 countries--is the result of a hunch Allcroft had when, as a writer-producer for British television, she happened across "The Railway Series," a set of children's books, circa the 1940s, written by the Rev. Wilbert Awdry.

Taking "a huge, huge financial risk," Allcroft and her then-husband and business partner, Angus Wright, acquired the book rights, and Allcroft set about bringing her vision to life.

"I had a lot of comments like, 'You're off your head' and 'We'll bail you out, baby,' " she said. "But I've always operated on gut instinct, and I was absolutely sure it would work."

Her vision was to tell the stories on screen as an extension of the way they would be told at home, by one storyteller (in the United States, storytellers have included Ringo Starr, George Carlin and, now, Alec Baldwin), and to give a sense of three dimensions, "so you felt that you could actually step into this world."

So it was that in 1984 "Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends" debuted on British television with its anthropomorphic, electronically powered, lovable trains in a colorful tabletop train world.

Not even Allcroft could have envisioned its staggering, lasting success, as the combination of trains, gentle storytelling and a multitude of related merchandise proved irresistible to children and parents all over the globe.

Allcroft then created, with Rick Siggelkow, another winner, "Shining Time Station," an interweaving of "Thomas" segments, puppetry, music and live action.

Allcroft's latest "gut instinct" creation is "Britt Allcroft's Magic Adventures of Mumfie," a classically animated, quirky musical series about a little elephant and such eccentric pals as a tiny flying pig, a scarecrow, a pirate, a benevolent "Queen of the Night" and a whale who's a living ocean liner.

"Mumfie," 39 half-hour shows specifically created for an American audience, airs with Allcroft's other series, formerly seen on public television, weekday mornings on the recently reformatted Fox Family Channel.

Whether they will help Fox make significant inroads against preschooler programming on PBS, the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon remains to be seen, but Joel Andryc, senior vice president of Fox's children's TV programming, said Allcroft's series are serving as the "signature programming that would make parents aware that we're a new entity out there."

And with music as a major element, "Mumfie" fits the network's goal to make music its "point of difference" from other children's programming, Andryc said.

The "Mumfie" stories, inspired by illustrations that Allcroft discovered by '40s artist Katherine Tozer, are accompanied by smoothly crafted, Broadway-style songs by Larry Grossman and Allcroft's co-writer, John Kane.

"I didn't start off thinking that 'Mumfie' would become a musical," Allcroft said. "It just kind of demanded that it would."

No, such music is not too sophisticated for children, she said, nor is the comic wordplay, which is appropriate for its target audience but deliberately not babyish.

Offering less "underestimates children," Allcroft said. "Children want to reach up, [not] down.

"I think part of what I do is instinctive," she said of her work overall, "the way the rhythm, the ebb and flow of the storytelling, the music and the sound effects kind of weave in and out."

Her starting point is a philosophy akin to PBS icon Fred Rogers and Nickelodeon's "Blue's Clues": a quiet center.

"Kids live in this very noisy world, and it's very technologically driven in lots of ways, with electronic bleep-bleeps, sounds going off, and the rest of it--a fast-forward life. But a human being has a natural rhythm to life . . . programmed by nature, and I think human beings need that rhythm.

"I think that is part of what makes these shows comfortable," she said. "They have space for children to use their imagination."

The daughter of a Russian emigre and a "beautiful and talented" mother, Allcroft began writing professionally at age 15. At 17, she was writing for radio and television, later directing and producing for live theater as well as TV.

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