Musicians are a funny breed. Constantly on the move, looking for progression, they are a jittery bunch. Never satisfied with sitting on their laurels for too long, this has culminated in some of our favourite musicians trying their hand at all manner of jobs outside of the musical world. Often, the most glamorous musicians will be branch into TV and or film in the hope of doing something productive, all the while earning a quick, healthy buck.
We’ve seen this countless times. Lady Gaga in the A Star is Born reboot, the majority of the grunge scene in Cameron Crowe’s Singles, and even Madonna in 1990’s colourful Dick Tracy film. The television series Portlandia has also featured many of our contemporary musical heroes in bizarre cameos.
This is a trend that has long been established. The ‘Rat Pack’, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davies Jr., Dean Martin and the rest all constantly blurred the lines between musician and actor, encompassing that now-defunct middle ground of “entertainer”. Even the ‘King of Rock and Roll’ himself, Elvis Presley, starred in numerous blockbusters during the 1950s, setting a precedent for things to come.
No discussion of musicians sojourning into acting would be complete without mention of Liverpool’s favourite sons, The Beatles. Their contributions to film with 1964’s A Hard Day’s Night and 1965’s Help! actually helped to establish the concept of the music video, and also abandoned the overdone trope of a rags-to-riches plot that involved musicians, as was seen with films regarding musicians prior.
Furthermore, the animated 1968 film Yellow Submarine, based on the Beatles song of the same name, is deemed to have kicked off a boom in animation at the time, as artists and animators were found that they could fully express their ideas using psychedelic visuals. It marked a divergence from the confines of the Disney standard productions and has even been credited with saving the feature-length animated film in a staggering feat.
The Beatles guitarist George Harrison was such a fan of cinema that in 1979 he had a cameo in Monty Python’s Life of Brian and owned the production company HandMade Films, which financed it. HandMade was so significant it was also responsible for other British classics such as Time Bandits and Withnail and I.
Harrison wasn’t the only Beatle that had a foray into acting outside of the band, either. Drummer Ringo Starr starred in numerous big-screen roles, including 1967’s The Magic Christian, the 1971 spaghetti-western Blindman and even as ‘Larry the Dwarf’ in Frank Zappa’s surreal musical 200 Motels. These are just a handful of the numerous on-screen appearance Starr has made, with him playing a variety of weird and wonderful roles.
However, there exists an even more iconic on-screen role that Starr played, his most famous of all. However, this was not a film appearance but a television one. Now largely forgotten, from 1984 to 1986, he was the first narrator of the classic children’s programme Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends. The warmth of his broad scouse accent was one of the original series’ defining features, and to those who remember, it is a defining point in his career.
It is uncertain what persuaded him to take on the fantasy series role, potentially ample amounts of cocaine, money, and boredom or maybe just plain fatherhood. However, these aren’t mutually exclusive. His take on the role was as enthusiastic as ever: “Thomas is a smashing little engine – he’s number one and never lets anyone forget it.”
His original stint with Thomas lasted only two years but was nonetheless iconic. He couldn’t stay away for long, though. It turned out that Starr was so enamoured with the world of the friendly talking railway engine that he returned to the universe and starred as ‘The Conductor’ in the spin-off series, Shining Time Station, in 1990. However, this didn’t last long either, as after the first season wrapped up, he quit to focus on his musical project the All Starr Band. Was it worth it? We’ll let you decide.
Ringo Starr has always been full of surprises, and one would argue that he is the hardest Beatle to pin down; this has added to his colourful personality. So in this vein, why not revisit some of his acting work?
Watch a clip of his narration in Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends, below.