It’s no secret; I like trains.
And a lot of that I owe to a little, blue tank engine with six small wheels, a short stumpy funnel, a short stumpy boiler and a short stumpy dome. 70 years to this day, the Reverend Wilbert Awdry published the first of his Railway Series which told the stories and adventures of the Island of Sodor; a place where the railway is still the perfect way to travel. But the greatest thing about The Railway Series and its resulting ‘Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends’ television show isn’t that it has survived for so long; it’s that it is still some of the greatest children’s literature ever written.
The origins of Thomas the Tank Engine are just as compelling as the stories themselves. Awdry was faced with having to entertain his young son, Christopher, who was taken ill and so, being the doting father he was, Awdry recited a poem about engines getting stuck in tunnels due to rain for his sick boy. This then evolved into longer stories about different engines. After being persuaded, Awdry finally published ‘The Three Railway Engines’ in 1945; a book of his first four short stories, citing influence from watching steam locomotives hard at work and the stories he told his son. Thus, Henry, Edward and Gordon were cemented in the creation of the tip of the iceberg. What’s good about this is that they all had their own personalities. Gordon was the fastest engine on the island and so he pulled the express. This made him proud but boastful and oftentimes, he could not see his faults because of that. Henry was more bashful but learned to overcome his dread. Edward was sometimes over-looked because he was older but when he does get the opportunity, he is shown as being vastly wiser and he works incredibly hard. These are evident in real life steam engines; each have a different personality and each has a learning curve to adapt to. Add in the values and traditions of friendship and hard work and learning from their own mistakes that you find in all the best children’s books and colourful and detailed pictures for each page and Awdry was on to a winner. But what about Thomas himself?
Like A. A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, Thomas was originally a toy owned by Christopher and was given his own book the year following the release of the ‘Three Railway Engines.’ It mainly focused on the little blue engine and his short adventures that included not trusting trucks, being too impatient with a train full of passengers and inadvertently leaving them behind and remembering never to get on Gordon’s bad side. Sir Topham Hatt, – The Fat Controller, known as the Fat Director at that time – puts Thomas in his place by making him shunt trucks in the goods yard but when a new engine – James – has a serious accident, Thomas’s mentality changes and realises that he has the opportunity to put things right earning him is own branch line as well as two smart new coaches called Annie and Clarabel in the process. And thus, the next book focuses on James; which begat stories of Thomas on his own branchline; which begat the introduction of Percy; which begat the turmoil faced by Henry; followed by Toby the Tram engine; followed by Gordon; Edward and so on. The last book written by Reverend Awdry was published in 1972 and now The Railway Series had expanded to include mountain engines; tramways; welsh inspired narrow gauge engines; famous visitors and miniature engines. The books also had an amazing vocabulary, sticking with a more mature and in depth style that remained informative but also readable to six year old without it being daunting. Yes, there were big words but being a curious child, you learn what it means and then that word is forever emblazoned in your head ready for next time. I wouldn’t expect books nowadays to use the words ‘Resource and Sagacity’ but the nature of how Gordon and James describe Oliver paints the picture perfectly without having to go into too much detail.
Another great thing about the stories is that they gave an insight to the troubles faced by railways at the time so you’ve got visiting diesels claiming ownership of the railway because the mainland is going through dieselisation (where steam engines were being phased out); engines running away from being turned into scrap; and all manner of breakdowns and accidents. But it also showed us how great and diverse the railways could be. With engines becoming famous on the mainland, overcoming the road network and the devious double-decker buses; and people understanding the value of steam locomotion. As the stories went on, the characters developed more and built on their personalities more and more until each character had their own fundamental trait. Percy and Thomas would often play tricks on each other but still remain good friends; Edward became had a methodical outlook; James was always adamant that Gordon was inferior yet Toby proving otherwise; and Henry had overcome his fear of the Flying Kipper (I swear, that train of fish wagons was cursed). I absolutely loved the illustrations, particularly the more recent ones. They showed some incredible details that added depth and certainly more scale that previously. The illustration of Henry below is one of my personal favourites.
The books stayed popular and in 1984, with Britt Allcroft at the wheel, ‘Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends’ made it to the small screen. Narrated by Ringo Starr, the TV adaptation followed the stories of the books. Starr narrated with air of dryness to his delivery, giving the engines a somewhat sarcastic tone and quick wit. This was matched by series three when Michael Angelis took over narration, adding a bit more humour that didn’t stop at the slapstick. He also added in the personalities of the engines. I still find the retorts to be sharp and witty. The production was good too, favouring an actual model layout with all the engines reproduced in bright colours with moving eyes over animation. As the series went on, stories were being made especially for the show. This came with a bit of controversy from Awdry and retaliation from Allcroft. Awdry wanted a more realistic portrayal that was represented in his books but Allcroft had creative freedom and from a children’s TV producer perspective, creating something that appealed to the audience would be more captivating.
As the TV show went on, original stories not related to the books where being made but they still held some regard to how a steam railway ran and operated. But after the turn of the millennium when production could be made cheaper with the inclusion of CGI, I felt that some of the stories lost their touch. It may sound ridiculous but for a children’s TV show, it became too childish. Kat and I firmly believe that shows such as the Herbs, the Clangers, Camberwick Green, Bagpuss and Thomas retained their charm by talking to its audience regardless of their age just like the books did. It might not be complex but you can understand if you were three or ten or fifteen years old. Thomas has now fallen into a strange rut where it has become alienated from that audience it used to. It still focuses on railways and morals and life lessons but there’s now more engines than ever, the narration is dumbed down and that shine has been lost. Maybe I’ve just grown up and the zeitgeist has taken its seat but I’m not ending on a bad note, I refuse to!
The books, however, continued to be made through the 80’s and 90’s right up to the very last one being published in 2007. These were written by Christopher Awdry. Yep, he had gone from being told the stories to writing his own again citing inspiration from actual stories from railways. Christopher published a further sixteen books bring the grand total to forty-two and laying the series to rest. But even though I’m twenty-three, there’s still a part of me that firmly believes that Thomas, Gordon, Henry, Percy, James and company are still hard at work keeping troublesome trucks in check and taking holiday makers to the sandy beaches on the entirely fictional Island of Sodor. This is what all good children’s books should do; they should make you believe that no matter what, there is a world out there where anything is possible. And I say that because re-reading my Railway Series Collection every now and then, I don’t feel nostalgic or the like, I feel like it is still happening. Thomas the Tank Engine has now reached millions of people the books, TV show, toys, Hornby models, clothing, video games, feature films – that starred Alec Baldwin and Peter Fonda, no doubt – real life, full scale versions; absolutely anything imaginable. Negativity aside, I am still glad that Thomas and his friends still continue their adventures to this day, 70 years on. 70 years of pulling coaches, shunting trucks, crashes, breakdowns, elephant encounters, getting stuck in snow, struggling up Gordon’s hill, teasing and playing tricks, making friends but fundamentally, working hard and being a really useful engine. It’s clear that this train is still up to steam and isn’t stopping anytime soon.