Hollywood vetoes Liverpool accent as voice of Thomas the Tank Engine loses his Liverpool voice

Keith Perry
Saturday 29 April 2000 00:00
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For fireman John Bellis, providing the voice for Thomas the Tank Engine in a £12m Hollywood blockbuster was a once in a lifetime chance.

Dreaming of starring alongside big name actors including Alec Baldwin, Peter Fonda and Mara Wilson of Matilda and Mrs Doubtfire fame, Mr Bellis spent hours preparing for his audition.

The Liverpudlian even beat off competition from the likes of Ewan MacGregor and Bob Hoskins to land the role alongside Merseyside actor Michael Angelis, of Liver Birds fame.

But now the pair have been shunted into the sidings after audiences at test screenings on the other side of the Atlantic said they did not like their accents. The news was particularly heartbreaking for Mr Bellis, 35, who won the role when he gave the film's producer, Britt Allcroft, a lift. He was working as a taxi driver on the Isle of Man and gave her a guided tour while she was looking at film locations.

As he dropped her off, Miss Allcroft, who owns the worldwide rights to Thomas the Tank Engine, told her colleagues: "I have just heard the voice of Thomas. The man is exactly how Thomas would sound".

Mr Bellis was whisked off to Toronto to begin voice testing for the part. But audiences said his rich Scouse accent simply seemed "wrong coming from the engine".

They also gave the thumbs down to Mr Angelis, who plays Percy and James, even though he already narrates many of the stories for British television.

The pair were doubly baffled by the decision, as the Thomas series on British television was originally narrated by Ringo Starr in a broad Liverpudlian accent.

Now, Miss Allcroft is trying to recast the voices of Thomas and his friends as a matter of urgency. A spokesman said it was likely they would remain English but more youthful.

"Michael and John did very good work for us and we greatly admire them and are very grateful. But in tests people all said that the voices should be different and we are listening to that," the spokesman said.

"It is not a question of the accent not being clear because they have wonderful voices. It seemed to boil down to them sounding too old."

Last night, Mr Bellis said he was "gutted", but wished the film-makers well. "It was supposed to be my big break," he said. "But it hasn't put me off and I am hoping something else will come along."

Alec Baldwin, who narrates the Thomas series in America, will star in the film as well as Easy Rider star Peter Fonda.

Mr Bellis' agent Bob Barr said the role would have earned the would-be star a small fortune, both from the film and syndication rights whenever his voice was used in Thomas the Tank Engine toys. "Imagine how much you'd make from the lead role in a movie with stars like Alec Baldwin and Peter Fonda," said Mr Barr, "Poor John is devastated. But hopefully there will be other roles."

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