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Inteview: Brit Alcroft: Secret sadness behind my Thomas The Tank Engine success; AS EVERY CHILD'S FAVOURITE TRAIN STEAMS INTO CINEMAS, ANNA STEWART MEETS THE WOMAN WHO MADE HIM SUCH A HIT.

F rom next week there will be no escape. Thousands of small children across Britain will be grabbing parental hands with sudden passion, and pointing urgently at posters advertising the first full-length Thomas The Tank Engine film. Parents may groan inwardly, but Britt Allcroft, the quirky grandmother who turned Thomas into a massive phenomena by putting the stories on TV, may allow herself a quiet smile of satisfaction at the children's eagerness.

It's not because Thomas And The Magic Railroad will bring further millions rolling into the coffers of her pounds 205 million company - and they surely will.

But because the new pounds 12 million Hollywood movie will be another giant stride towards a more personal goal - to "try to create happy childhood memories".

Britt has done this so far by producing new books and 78 short animations of Thomas stories - many in the UK with the flat Northern tones of Ringo Starr as narrator. The animations are seen in 121 countries, and heard in nine languages. The little engine also brought New York to a halt a few years back when 25,000 children turned up to see him arrive at top department store Bloomingdales. There's even a Thomas theme park in Japan.

But the wish to create happy memories is especially poignant for Britt - one of the top 100 richest women in Britain - as her own father walked out on her family when she was five. She saw him just once again, when she was 16.

"I'm sorry now, but that's how it is. Many years ago I produced a television series for Channel 4 called Mothers By Daughters, triggered by losing my mother. And I spent a long time not really caring that much about my dad.

"But later I realised I did, and I still do. It's not an indulgence. It's realising that it's a pity, but you have to make positives out of negatives.

"Probably a psychologist would say that's my wish to make good memories for kids. Sure, in some ways it's tied up to my own background," she says.

A psychologist, surely, would also have a field day with Britt's own liking for the firmly moralistic tales of Thomas and his fellow engines, written by the late Reverend Awdry. And with the personal drive that has pushed the girl from Worthing, Sussex - "who never quite knew who I really was" - to head a multi-national company.

Most parents in Britain will know her name.

The Britt Allcroft Company owns the rights to many must-have toys in Britain - from Thomas goodies, to Pugwash memorabilia, Mumfie and Art Attack. She even owns 50 per cent of Sooty.

But the well-spoken, feline-eyed woman behind the name is far less well-known.

She's an eclectic mother-of-two and grandmother-of-one in her mid-fifties, who still wears faintly hippy-chick dangly earrings, baggy overalls - and who enjoys sewing and her family as much as "going to a rock concert and screaming".

Her main home these days is an "adorable old house" that used to be a bordello, on the beach in Santa Monica, California, where her family - usually based in Edinburgh - gathers regularly.

It's a long way from the modest Victorian house in Worthing where she grew up with her mother Jessica, aunt Trow and sister Dido.

"I did spend a lot of time alone. That's not a sob story. It's a fact of life. In some ways when you have some hardships you grow up tougher and sometimes it's easier to understand what other kids go through.

"In many ways I was very fortunate. I grew up by the sea which has stayed with me.

I would spend a lot of time rollerskating on the prom. I learned to run barefoot on the beach. We didn't have a car. We didn't have very much at all.

"We didn't have a television when I was little. We had to rely very much on other resources for entertainment. I loved biking, which I still do very early every morning.

"I had an aunt who was much older than my mum and she would take me on what she called `adventure walks'. It was really just simple stuff. She wouldn't tell me where we were going and quite often they were the same ways. But it felt exciting and an adventure. You never knew quite what was going to happen around the corner. I loved that.

"Reading and story-telling was introduced to me very early on. I loved the smell of my library ticket!"

She feels storytelling encourages a child's sense of self-esteem and self-worth, and becomes a support system to them through life - "I found it with my own children, I found that with my own experience."

At school she was the self- confessed oddball, and was unhappy until the sixth form.

"The town bred, more than I thought, people like me who didn't fit into a particular mould. I never quite knew who I really was. The old British class system? We were somewhere in the middle.

"I had this highly-artistic mother. My most glamorous memories are when I was little. Mum loved the theatre. We'd go to London and see the big musicals. I think my love of show business was helped by that. And from the time I was four I would go to see the films that she wanted to see. The images stayed with me. When I was starting to think about the new Thomas film I went into the resource of my mind, and some of the images of the movies that I remember I have my mum to thank for. Like High Society. I wanted to be Grace Kelly's sister. And Shane which remains one of the great movies of my life. They just stuck with me."

At 20, Lord Mountbatten sought her out after she single-handedly stage- managed a charity showing of Live And Let Die at a Southampton theatre. She organised a variety show for him, and over the following years, before his murder by the IRA, they became good friends, and he became her mentor.

"He did so much for me, because he believed in me," she says.

She had the confidence to join the BBC and later ITV as a producer, which led to a chance meeting with the Rev Awdry in 1978 while she was making a film about steam travel. She spotted the potential of his Railway Stories straight away and, over a dinner with Awdry, bought the rights from him for pounds 50,000. She had to mortgage the Southampton family home she then shared with her husband Angus Wright, a religious advisor, and two young children, Ben and Holly, to raise the funds.

It was a massive risk, even though Angus was working. She says she had a lot of support from Angus - and complete conviction from herself.

"But it was tough. You look back on things and you think, `My goodness me!' If you have children and you have a career and you love both and that can be a very tough struggle. I was working out of home and, although they couldn't avoid what I was doing, I somehow wanted to keep them separate.

"By the time Thomas went on television in 1984, my daughter was coming up for eight, my son six. They did help me. Just getting to know what little kids like and what they don't like, there were things that influenced me."

Later she and Angus separated, though he stayed linked to the company until his retirement.

Today Britt has business interests across the world and regularly commutes between LA, Canada, Tokyo and Britain. But home and her family is where her heart remains. She is considering buying a home back in Britain, and her children and grandson Ru, two, had been visiting her home in California when we spoke.

Ru, clearly, is going to be looking forward to the new film.

"Thomas And The Magic Railroad will be the first film that millions of children will see in their lives. It's a pretty important landmark," she says, with not a little pride.
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Title Annotation:Features
Author:Stewart, Ann
Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Date:Jul 9, 2000
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