“Bust my buffers!” The WTF casting of Pierce Brosnan as Thomas the Tank Engine narrator

Just when you think Pierce Brosnan has done it all, along comes a railway relic to prove he really has. And, as Matt Glasby discovers, Brosnan attacks the role of Thomas the Tank Engine narrator like it might be his last.

The Irish actor Pierce Brosnan means a lot of things to a lot of people. To some, he’ll always be the fifth James Bond. To others, the guy that murdered Bob Hoskins in The Long Good Friday. To others still, the guy who murdered Abba in Mamma Mia!. Younger viewers may know him as the man whose emphatic line reading in Taffin stretched the boundaries of what actors could achieve with their mouths, in the process spawning a thousand memes.

But to my son Elliott and I, he’ll always be the silver-tongued narrator of the 2008 Thomas the Tank Engine film The Great Discovery. Combining winsome models, earworm songs sung by slightly out-of-tune children and a surprising amount of train-based peril, it’s best thought of as the Licence to Kill of the series: a violent, exciting end to Thomas’s analogue era.

For the uninitiated, Thomas the Tank Engine is a slightly annoying little blue train created by the Reverend Wilbert Awdry in the 1940s. In 1984 he hit the small screen with Thomas & Friends, gradually becoming the star of a colossal media franchise. Whatever the format, the basic story beats are the same: Thomas acts like dick, he’s rejected by his (almost entirely male) pals at Tidmouth Sheds, then he learns his lesson, usually through the intervention of faulty infrastructure. Yes, it’s an absolute sausage-fest and a little bit goddy, but it’s carried off with a certain old-world charm.

For reasons nobody has ever satisfactorily explained, the show was originally narrated by former Beatle Ringo Starr. The baton then passed to actor Michael Angelis (another Liverpudlian) and Michael Brandon (AKA Dempsey from TV’s Dempsey and Makepeace) in the US, before Brosnan stepped all-too-briefly into the breach for this movie, directed by series regular Steve Asquith.

Quite what possessed a multimillionaire movie star to narrate a straight-to-DVD kids’ flick has also never been satisfactorily explained, but Brosnan attacks the role like it might be his last.

“The island of Sodor is surrounded by beautiful blue sea,” he begins. “It has fields of green and sandy yellow beaches, there are rivers, streams and lots of trees where the birds sing.” But just as you’re getting lulled by that mellifluous brogue, he steps things up a gear. “Who’s that puffing down the track: it’s Thomas!” he exclaims with more gusto than Starr managed in 20 years.

Brosnan, it transpires, is great at two important aspects of the job: eking out the poetry from otherwise pedestrian narration and making model trains crashing into things sound VERY EXCITING INDEED.

What he’s not great at is accents. Never the most chameleonic of performers, Brosnan is more star than character actor, so when he attempts Northern English for The Fat Controller (later renamed Sir Topham Hat, for reasons you can probably guess) or upper-class for The Thin Controller (AKA Mr Percival), things spiral quickly.

Perhaps his biggest swing is Duncan, a curmudgeonly Scottish train, for whom he goes full Connor MacLeod, using a strange, lisping intonation never heard before on planet Earth, let alone the island of Sodor.

The plot is simple, if perplexing. On a trip into Sodor’s overgrown interior, Thomas discovers the deserted town of Great Waterton, which was long thought lost, despite being in the middle of an island. The Fat Controller decides Thomas and friends will help restore it for Sodor Day. But Thomas becomes jealous of a shiny new silver train called Stanley and fucks him over, in the process destroying Great Waterton’s tower. He then steams off in a sulk, only to get lost too.

All this drama gives Brosnan plenty of opportunity to unleash those vocal fireworks. “As the tower crashed to the ground, bricks and dust exploded everywhere!” he marvels.

Soon, Thomas finds himself whizzing through an abandoned mine, like something out of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. “Up Thomas whooshed and down he whizzed!” emotes Brosnan. “It was very scary, but it was very exciting!”—much like that Scottish accent.

Next, Thomas is floating through a flooded tunnel on a piece of debris—a scene that makes up for what it lacks in scientific plausibility with lots of dynamic train’s-eye-view shots.

To the tune of Where, Oh Where is Thomas? (sample lyric: “Thomas is having a whale of a time, he’s trapped inside a disused mine!”) the entire island goes searching for him, schoolchildren included. While it’s hard to imagine this is usual protocol for a lost train, these guys did manage to misplace a whole town, so who knows?

Eventually, of course, Stanley saves Thomas, then Thomas saves Stanley and all is fixed in time for Sodor Day. The film then ends with another terrible song, followed by the same song—IN RAP FORM, an outrage which deserves its own article—and you’re left wondering exactly what it is you’ve just seen.

Though Thomas would never reach such giddy WTF? heights again, it wasn’t the last time he’d star alongside a celebrity: Peter Andre appears as an arrogant Australian racing car in 2018’s Big World! Big Adventures.

But for reasons lost to the mists of time—like a wayward train or a massive town—Brosnan was never asked back, and for that we are all the poorer. Except, perhaps, the Scottish.