Tugs is a lesser known creation by Robert Cardona and David Mitton. The two had previously worked together on a well known children's TV show by the name of Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends, first broadcast in 1984, based on The Reverend W. Awdry's books,
The series was 13 episodes, each of which 20 minutes in length, was broadcast in 1989 on ITV, produced by TVS (Television South), however because TVS went bankrupt in 1989, Tugs was eventually cancelled and a second series, which was planned was never made. As it was made by the same production company, many of the sets and props had come from the Thomas the Tank Engine series, just modified. The tug models were made using the same methods. Originally, Mitton had planned for them to be remote controlled, but it didn't work out. The electronics were left in for the head motions and eyes. The rest were done through face masks that gave expressions. As to simulate motion, the entire series was filmed in small water tanks with the Tug models having wheels on the bottom and they were pulled using wires. The camera work was it's own format, the Clearwater Periscope Lens system, which was developed by Clearwater Productions. Only two cameras were built, one used for Thomas and the other for Tugs. It allowed for much closer filming of the models and allowed for filming at the model's eye level, rather than long shots.
As this picture demonstrated on a character named Burke, The flesh coloured piece is a face mask, which can be removed and replaced with a number of other pieces to simulate expressions. Some characters only had one or two at most. The empty space there is for the motors, which would not only turn the head from side to side via remote control, it would also move the eyes and any other actions the face had. For example, Top Hat's neck raised and lowered, Grampus squirted water.
The series is set in the 1920s, in the fictional Bigg City. We see a rivalry between two tugboat companies, the "good" characters in Star Fleet and it's owner, Captain Star, who not only is their boss, but serves as the series narrator, who appears to be reminiscing about these events later on in life. The real life equivalent of these were the Crowley Maritime Corporation, which operated in San Francisco at the turn of the 20th century. Star Fleet were given the best jobs because of how good they were. Star also taught them to be brave, loyal and honest.
On the flip side, we have the Z-Stacks, lead by the nefarious Captain Zero. These were the villains of the series per sae and acted not unlike mafia gangsters. Their real life counterparts were the Moran Tugs of New York. They often are seen trying to sabotage the good work done by the Star Fleet tugs, as well as transporting dangerous cargo, like explosives for higher pay.
As the series ran on, there were a number of smaller characters that were used for the stories, many of them only had one or two appearances in the series. Some of the minor characters that made repeated appearances were Grampus, a submarine, Lillie Lightship and Izzy Gomez, a South American Tramp Steamer that often tries to sneak into Bigg City Port.
Compared to Thomas the Tank Engine, this show was much darker in tone. In the episode Munitions, Bigg City Port is almost destroyed by Bluenose knocking over a fuel container which catches fire and spreads to a munition loaded steamer called Kraka-Toa. In Ghost Fleet, which is a horror themed episode, we see a fleet of blank white tugs carrying around a galleon that almost appears like a ghost fleet. In Regatta, Lillie Lightship is struck and takes on water, under threat of sinking, she's saved by Grampus. In the episode The Pirate, a character by the name of Sea Rogue's uncle is kidnapped by two tugs and threatened with scuttling, unless the Sea Rogue steals barges for them. Even in one episode, Grampus himself is threatened with destruction until Captain Star buys him off the navy. Many other characters throughout the series have also become beached and were threatened with sinking before being saved.
The show was extremely popular in the UK and Japan. It was ported to the US where it was turned into Salty's Lighthouse and a sister series, Theodore Tugboat, which takes a lot of inspiration from the series and uses very similar props and models. Sadly, the series has never been released on DVD in any region, however, all 13 episodes have been released on VHS been 1989 and 1993 through Castle.
There is a company called The Star Tugs which have managed to find several of the original prop tugs from the series and have restored them to their former glory. They display them at several shows across the UK. It's great to see a number of fans are preserving the props and models from a series that has sadly been forgotten and overlooked. You can also see a video of one of their events here.