Chase Thede looks at the allure of Thomas the Tank Engine and what makes him so special
You excitedly run into whichever room contains your TV. You take your VHS Tape out of the rewinder and stick it in the player. You see that Anchor Bay logo, and your excitement only builds. You see the logo on the screen of Britt Allcroft Studios and hear that faithful tune. Suddenly, you are taken to a windmill, and a little engine and two coaches puff past. You hear that famous song of "da-da-da-da-da-DA-daaaaa" and you can't help singing along. As the story begins, you can't help relaxing and being taken through the world of this little blue engine.
"Thomas was a tank engine who lived at a big station. He had six small wheels, a short stumpy funnel, a short stumpy boiler, and a short stumpy dome. He was a fussy little engine, always pulling coaches about. He pulled them to the station, ready for the big engines to take out on long journeys, and when trains came in, and the people went away, he would pull the empty coaches away so the big engines could go and rest. He was cheeky too. He used to play tricks on the other engines. He liked to come quietly beside them and make them jump." But all he wanted to do was get out of the yards and see the world.
One of my biggest childhood (and still current) obsessions was Thomas the Tank Engine. I loved anything and everything that had to do with the little blue train. I can name any character you put in front of me without batting an eye and I can proudly say that I have watched almost every episode (only skipping the abysmal Season 13, in which I briefly fell out of interest with the show, but I came back). I am an absolute Thomas nerd, and always will be. This year, Thomas and his friends celebrated their 70th birthday, which is a longer time to be around than any other children's character I've seen. It wasn't until recently that I wondered "why? Why am I so allured to a show about talking trains? What allures children (the target audience) to the show?" I began my research by looking into the origins of Thomas and his friends to try and figure out what exactly it is that makes Thomas so magical.
So what exactly makes Thomas so great? Although there are some out there who will simply dismiss it as a show made for preschoolers and nothing more, Thomas is much more than that; Thomas is a world; our world. Thomas is grounded in reality, never doing anything too crazy and therefore making it all that much easier to relate to. Any and all railway practices in most episodes are based on things one would do on a real railway, and you always learn a moral at the end of them. Unlike most children's TV shows where the morals are simple, Thomas' morals are inspiring and unique. A popular one is "never give up", and "don't let teasing get the better of you", and just recently "you can't please everybody". These morals allow the viewer to empathize with Thomas and his friends, and this isn't beginning to get into the stories themselves yet.
I know a big factor in Thomas' success and survival was his appearance in The Railway Series, the original books by The Reverend Wilbert Awdry and Christopher Awdry, and the basis for the modern show. Wilbert Vere Awdry, born in 1911, was an Anglican cleric who grew up in Box, Wiltshire. He lived in a house called "Journey's End"' which was 200 yards from a tunnel that was used by the Great Western Railway (the railway that he would later make his characters Duck, Oliver, and Bear come from). Trains would often run by while Wilbert was lying in bed, and they would need to be banked (pushed up the hill) by another engine when the rails proved too slippery. Although to other people this may have just seemed like obnoxious noise, Wilbert thought differently. He thought the puffing of the two engines sounded like the one at the front saying "I can't do it! I can't do it!" and the one pushing would respond with "I will do it! I will do it!". This would later become the basis for one of the earliest stories in the books, Edward and Gordon, in which Edward, a kind hearted old engine, had to help Gordon, a big, proud engine who didn't like pulling trucks, up a hill with his goods train. Although Awdry's love of railways stuck with him into his adult life, the stories would not come to fruition until one faithful day in 1943.
Christopher, Wilbert's son, had the measles. He was bed-ridden, and very bored. His father felt sorry for him, so he decided to tell him a story. He told him a story about a little engine that hadn't been let out the sheds in a long time, and how he had a day out. When Christopher asked what the engine's name was, Wilbert hastily said...Edward. Yes, you have that right; the first stories about Thomas and his friends were not about Thomas himself! Rather they were about Edward, an old engine that was kind, and knew how to handle both coaches and trucks. Christopher was enthralled by the story his father christened Edward's Day Out, and asked for another story. Remembering his childhood near the tunnel, he told Christopher the story of Edward proving himself to a pompous big engine, named Gordon, after a rude boy who lived on the same street as them. Christopher loved these stories, and asked for models of the engines to play with. Wilbert made Christopher a model of Edward, some coaches, and some trucks. Christopher asked for a model of Gordon, but he couldn't get enough wood, so he made a tank engine instead. When asked what the tank engine's name was by Christopher, Awdry decided that "Thomas the Tank Engine" seemed like the most logical name. "Is then when the stories about Thomas show up?" You may be saying this, and I have an answer; no, not yet. There's one more character we need to meet.
Henry. Henry, Henry, Henry. Poor Henry the Green Engine is essentially the problem child of the Railway Series. Henry is a big green tender engine who is rather high-strung, vain, and panicky, but works hard pulling both coaches and trucks nonetheless...but not at first. Henry was built in 1919 from blueprints stolen from Nigel Gresley, a famous locomotive designer, and is a combination of two designs. This combination doesn't work, and Henry is riddled with mechanical problems, and some fitting attitude problems to go with them. And this begun with his first story, which was fittingly titled The Sad Story of Henry. Henry, being the highly-strung engine he is, doesn't want the spoil his paint in the rain, so he stops in a tunnel and refuses to move. Although the passengers try to both push and pull him out (with the introduction of the Fat Controller, the rather rotund leader of the railway, and a firm but fair figure who was initially introduced as a bureaucrat stereotype, then known as the Fat Director, standing aside saying things like "My doctor has forbidden me to pull"), and even another engine is called to try and push him out, but it does no good. So the Fat Director decides to brick him up in the tunnel if he refuses to move, and he is left there. This story's origins are unknown, as an engine being bricked up in a tunnel has never happened in real life to my knowledge.
Awdry then decided to put his three stories, Edward's Day Out, Edward and Gordon, and The Sad Story of Henry, into a single book. Although the publishers loved the material, they insisted that Awdry bring the three engines together in a happy ending. Awdry complied and wrote Edward, Gordon and Henry, in which Henry gets let out of the tunnel to help Edward pull the express when Gordon breaks down. Together, these four stories formed The Three Railway Engines. Released in 1945, The book was successful, and the publishers pressured Awdry to write another one. Christopher wanted stories about Thomas, so Wilbert took it upon himself to write another set of four stories. Thomas was a cheeky little engine who shunted coaches for the bigger engines. He was sick of the yard and wanted to go out and see the world. Through a series of adventures that include getting dragged along the express by Gordon, going down the line without the coaches he needed to pull, and almost having an accident with Edward's trucks, Thomas eventually ends up rescuing a new engine called James (painted black in his initial introduction, though more properly known as a red engine) with a set of railway cranes (devices that have a large arm and are used for lifting heavy things like engines and coaches and trucks) known as the Breakdown Train and Thomas gets his own branch line. Thomas' book, Thomas the Tank Engine, was a smash success, and the publishers pressured Awdry to write more, which he did, and the story is simply history from there.
As I continued my search, I found it difficult to pin down what exactly it was that has kept Thomas popular. So, using my membership on Sodor Island Forums, a Thomas fan forum that has been around for 13 years, I reached out to head admin, Ryan, who is often in talks with higher-ups who work on the show, about possibly getting an interview so I could get closer to pinning down exactly what it is that has kept Thomas is the hearts of many for so long. He agreed about two minutes after I sent him the message, and we made a time for a call on Skype. When the day arrived, I waited anxiously with my questions until we finally came together on Skype and I began with a simple question; "What do you think it has been that has allowed Thomas to survive for such a long time?" Ryan paused for a bit, and he said "I'm not really sure. It's just, as I've said on the radio, it's timeless. Basic case of classic storytelling; simple stories, strong characters...and generally the fact that the stories are amazing." I agree with what Ryan says about Thomas having strong characters. One of Thomas' most defining features are its strong characters with clearly defined flaws. Thomas being very cheeky, James being self-absorbed, Gordon having hubris like no tomorrow, and Henry...
After being let out of his tunnel, Henry was painted blue and returned to service. But his mechanical issues began to rear their ugly head. Beginning with Thomas' Train, in Thomas the Tank Engine. Thomas had to pull a passenger train, but left the station before his coaches could be coupled up to him. You know why Thomas got to pull that train? Henry was too sick to do so. And this is the only time Henry appears in the book. He did nothing to deserve his sickness, he's just sick. This gives Henry some sympathy with the reader. Henry doesn't speak again until Thomas and the Guard in the fourth book, Tank Engine Thomas Again. Here, he makes Thomas late with his shy steaming acting up, saying "I suffer dreadfully and no one cares". Later in Troublesome Engines, the following book, Henry gets sprayed by a circus elephant and goes on strike with Gordon and James to get another engine to shunt their coaches. However, Henry would go on to receive his own arc in Henry the Green Engine. Henry has not been working right, despite his new parts and the return of his green paint, and the Fat Controller is considering sending him away. Henry is not in a good place right now. This makes the average reader feel sorry for him, as his life purpose and job are on the line. However, Henry catches his break in the form of the Fat Controller acquiring Welsh Coal for his exclusive use. Henry can now function for the first time! And, because of the way Henry is written, you feel happy for him. However, Henry's joy doesn't last very long, as, when out on a fish train, he crashes into the back of another train and ends up very damaged. So the Fat Controller sends him to Crewe, which he calls a "fine place for sick engines". And Henry comes back, better than ever with a new shape and larger firebox. You feel happy for him, because his problems are over. Henry is a strong character because you feel what he is feeling, and that is a well-written character. Ryan had Henry the Green Engine as a child, and he told me that he will always have a soft spot for it, and I agree. Henry has always been one of my personal favorite characters, but when I asked Ryan who his favorite character was, I got a surprising result...
The interview between Ryan and myself was going well. I then decided to ask him who his favorite character was. Ryan said "I would say it's between Edward, Gordon, and Thomas. Gordon because...he's Gordon really. He mucks up, but there are redeeming qualities there as well. He's like the big brother, and he makes up eventually". I think this is the perfect way of describing what makes Gordon such a great character; he's a jerk, but he is a likable jerk. He drags Thomas along with his express, but that's because he woke him up from his nap. When Gordon goes speeding down the line with Thomas in tow, you don't feel upset with Gordon, you're laughing at Thomas. Gordon is a strong character because he does mean things and still makes up for it in the end, like, as Ryan said, a big brother. His entire arc in Gordon the Big Engine involves him being in "disgrace" after rolling off a turntable and into a ditch and trying to redeem himself. He helps James up the hill when slippery leaves cover the line, he rescues Thomas from a mine, and finally ends up redeeming himself when he pulls the Queen of England's royal train when she visits Sodor. Gordon matures over time, and although he still has his shortcomings he is really useful all the same. And this is what makes Gordon so human as a character, and what has made him one of the series' most popular and iconic characters, outside of Thomas, Percy, and James.
Earlier, Ryan mentioned Thomas' simple stories contributing to its popularity and survival. What Ryan said is correct, as the lack of simple stories is what contributed to the downfall of Thomas' sister series, TUGS. TUGS was a thirteen-episode series put together by many of the crew on the early seasons of Thomas, and it was developed between the second and third seasons of the show. It revolved around two competing fleets of tugboats, the Star Tugs, headed by Captain Star, and The Z-Stacks (said as Zed-Stacks), headed by Captain Zero, and their adventures competing for contracts and trying to gain more business for their captain. It was put in production with models, much like Thomas the Tank Engine, and strong characters. But if you asked me to explain one of its stories in a single sentence, I couldn't do it. Although it is considered a cult classic within the modern Thomas fanbase, I believe one of the primary reasons it never took off like Thomas did was the complicated stories being difficult to understand due to there usually being multiple ones per episode. Thomas is both defined and simple in its storytelling, and that is what makes the concept so strong.
It is no secret that the TV series, Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends, is really what blew up Thomas' fame and made him a worldwide phenomenon outside of the United Kingdom. But how did it come about? Back in 1980, TV Producer, Britt Allcroft, decided to create a televised adaptation of the Railway Series. After four years of preparation, she and director David Mitton put together a 26 episode series based on the first eight books of the Railway Series, using working model locomotives built by the crew, with clay faces. The series was a success, and carried on for six more series after that before HiT Entertainment bought out the studio in 2004, and the show was turned over to them. At this point, the brand blew up, and it grew even more popular that it had been before. I asked Ryan why he thought this was, and he put it down to HiT's strong marketing for the show, which is certainly accurate. They have managed to get it back on TV instead of just DVD releases, and have recently created a Thomas presence in areas where there has never been one. So the TV Series is obviously a big factor in Thomas' survival and popularity.
When using the Sodor Island Fansite's "The TV Series - A History", a synopsis of Thomas' history on television, which Ryan helped create, I looked into the history of the televised adaptation of Thomas and I made a discovery; the TV series we know isn't the first televised adaptation of The Railway Series. In 1953, the BBC decided to adapt two stories from The Three Railway Engines. They were to be broadcasted live from Limegrove Studios, using models much like the TV series did...except it went horribly, horribly wrong. No known footage exists, but it is known that the live broadcast made the director and crew have to deal with too much, such as the superimposed rain, music, effects, and live narration. Wilbert Awdry, an experienced railway modeller, reportedly pointed out the shoddy condition of the models, but the BBC wouldn't listen. On June 14th, 1953, The Sad Story of Henry (Henry still can't catch a break) was adapted, and was plagued with many things going wrong. The most famous of these mishaps was the points being set against the Henry model and causing it to have a nasty derailment. Viewers were surprised when a giant hand came down from the top of the frame, picked up the engine and returned it to the rails. They cancelled the second broadcast, and a story about the disastrous broadcast made The Daily Mail the following week, beating out a murder trial for the front page. This is considered the primary reason why so many parties were reluctant to fund Britt Allcroft three decades later.
At this point, some of you may find this paper utterly ridiculous. Some of you may be saying "It's obvious what has kept Thomas around so long! It's trains, kids like trains!" Well, there is another show about trains that may just change your mind; Chuggington. Significantly less grounded in reality than our little blue friend, Chuggington follows the adventures of the "Chugger" trainees as they attempt to find their way into their new jobs. Plenty of jumping on and off the rails and whatnot, it's absolutely nonsensical. However, Thomas has always been able to crush it in terms of DVD sales. Ryan told me during our interview that a friend of his distributes DVDs for HiT Entertainment, and receives the sales figures for Thomas DVDs and other DVDs released alongside them. So you cannot put it down to just trains and say that it sells. Thomas is more than that, despite Chuggington attempting to cash in on that appeal.
I think a big reason on why I'm such a big Thomas fan now is my love of the show when I was a child. It was a creative outlet for me with the wooden sets I would build, and still build. It would keep me excited for the future when my life wasn't going well, with new DVD releases always giving me something to look forward to, and still do, with the premiere of Season 19 coming out on June 9th (I've placed my pre-order already), and there are plenty of others like me, who come together in Thomas communities like the Wikia and Sodor Island Forums. Our fondness of something from the past is known as nostalgia. Nostalgia is defined as "a sentimental longing of wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations." This is the best way to describe my affection for Thomas. Nostalgia is primarily the reason that Thomas has such a big fanbase outside of its target audience. Aside from being of much consistently higher quality than other preschooler's shows due to being very grounded in reality (unlike shows like Chuggington), Thomas has been around for so many years and it has resonated across so many generations that the nostalgia is what brings many people to love the show now just as much as they did when they were children.
I asked Ryan what he thought made Thomas so magical, as I was having trouble putting it together despite all the pieces to the puzzle I had dug up. Ryan gave a response that I feel like summed up Thomas' 70-Year lifespan in a nutshell; it's timeless. People in their seventies remember reading the books in their childhoods, and kids who have not even turned one watch it on TV. It's a phenomenon that not many other children's characters and franchises have the lifespan to experience. Yet whether you read it in 1945 or watched it on TV in 1984, you're still experiencing the same, timeless story about a series of locomotives on a little island called Sodor.
I eventually came to realize one thing; there is not one true thing you can nail down to say "this is what has made Thomas popular" because there truly isn't a right answer. Thomas has been able to survive for so long and sustain its popularity because of its strong characters, simple stories, and the fact that it has a rocket ship of nostalgia backing it up. Whether you are as big of a fan as myself in your current age, or you enjoyed the show as a child, or even never experienced it all, it cannot be denied that Thomas is an icon of children's television, and is likely to continue to make children happy for generations after our time.
I decided to write this paper because I realized that I had never been able to truly figure out why I love these locomotives with faces as much as I do, as well as other people like me. And as I wrote this, I feel like my love for Thomas has only grown. By trying to discover what has made Thomas so special, I realized all the more reasons that it was special to me. I soon came to the realization that this paper allowed me to know more about Thomas than I ever did before. I never had really thought about the way that Henry or Gordon were written before, or even known about the infamous Sad Story of Henry Broadcast of 1953. Thomas has been chugging for a steady 70 years, and with the release of The Adventure Begins, a new CGI animated special based on The Three Railway Engines and Thomas the Tank Engine, featuring re-orchestrated versions of the classic songs, I feel it is being celebrated in a rather suitable manner.
This paper also taught me to be prideful in my interests. Some might think me immature for still liking Thomas "the Train" (please don't refer to it as that, that's not even the proper title and it shows how ignorant you are), but I don't care. This paper made me realize what it truly means to be a Thomas fan, and the fact that I should be proud of it. I hope that this paper has made everyone who reads it realize that if you feel passionate about something, you should look at why it's so special and maybe it will make you even more passionate. Godspeed, Thomas the Tank Engine. May you stay Really Useful for seventy more years, and beyond.