Railway Series Studies
Thomas the Gravy Train
and Business Partners
By Ryan Healy
The facts I am about to state are apparent with many people who are fond lovers of the original Railway Series by the Rev W Awdry and his son Christopher, as they also will be with people involved in business themselves. The Television series of "Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends" was only ever made possible through the unlikely partnership of an ambitious and canny business woman and an elderly clergyman who wrote about talking trains, having been influenced by his father's affection for railways as a child. But now with the clergyman dead and the canny businesswoman no longer in control of the product, what has become of their work?
Following the massive Box Office flop that was Thomas and the Magic Railroad, Britt Allcroft was ousted from her position on the Board of Directors at Gullane Entertainment, the company responsible for making Thomas the Tank Engine and the company holding the rights to the characters at the time, having acquired them from Reed Publishing, who's children's publishing arm had been sold off in 1998, and in turn, the rights to the characters and books went with them. This gave Allcroft and her company full control over what they could produce in future series of their television programme, which they used to their full advantage in producing the fifth series of Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends, in which they used their own material within the stories. But the following series saw Allcroft left behind creatively, and so came the introduction of individual writers for the sixth series.
The sixth series seemed to rely on gimmicks more than anything else; numerous and silly crashes were added for excitement, playing on old Railway Series storylines was common for the new writers and even the new characters seemed to lack the charm of the Railway Series originals. Instead of character warmth, the programme found itself relying on gimmicky characters such as Salty the Dockyard Diesel with a funny accent and little catchphrases to try and hook young viewers. Not only this, but there were severe distortions also of previous stories, Thomas was seen pushing snow away without a plough, he tried this once before and got stuck; as well as the hugely unrealistic Thomas and The Jet Engine which saw Thomas flying down the line after a jet propels him, possibly neglecting the fact that the same thing happened with Gordon in the opening episode of the series!
And to boot, the emphasis on railways was taken away to focus on a new kind of core, that being the importance of friendships and relationships which would be found to be tied in with almost every episode within the new set of episodes. This was largely found to be for the benefit of the programme as a whole in appealing to a more modern audience, particularly mothers and fathers who were found to be politically correct and did not agree with the morals and attitudes that the Rev Awdry used in the original stories. Although very well and good, it takes a lot away from what Awdry was trying to achieve with his stories, and they certainly lack the charm and ingenuity of the originals.
Tokenism wasn't uncommon for the following seventh series either, with the introduction of the first full time female steam addition to the Fat Controller's Railway - Emily, who was later added to the main body of characters in the eighth series, to please the Politically Correct as a measure taken by new parent company HIT Entertainment. Sexism was a main cause for concern in the original Railway Series, with many of the main engine characters all being male and the female characters being coaches! Daisy and Mavis provided a change to this, but not a great one as they were still in a minority and only ever seen as minority characters. The main reason for the changing of attitudes toward sexism was to fit in with the demands of the politically correct Americans, who had previously seen "The Fat Controller" become known as his Sunday name of "Sir Topham Hatt" in order not to offend!
The television series has very much changed in identity from the one that was spawned by the Railway Series. The original adaptations in the first two series were exceptionally accurate and faithful to the Rev Awdry's vision for his characters, but in the third series, there was a clear strain on relations between Britt Allcroft and Wilbert Awdry. Allcroft and Mitton sent the Awdrys copies of the scripts for their approval; that was however, after they had begun shooting! Awdry launched a scathing attack on Allcroft and David Mitton as a result. This had proved something of a turning point in the association between the Railway and TV Series.
Mitton and Allcroft were starting to rewrite the stories in a style that were different to the originals in a style that fitted round their 13 newly concocted episodes which Wilbert found to be nonsensical, offering no railway-like explanation, and in the words of a very perplexed Mr Awdry - "Merely reveal their lamentable ignorance of railway matters! That such rubbish should be credited to me is a gross insult!"
However, it should be taken into account that Allcroft and Mitton did have their reasons for doing what they did. Although 52 of the stories in the series had been used up in previous series, and there were 105 written by Wilbert and more being churned out by Christopher, many of them contained new characters that were yet to be introduced into the TV series. Ultimately, using these stories would involve building new models, and there again, taking up further expense as well as airtime that could be used in favour of classic characters that were the programme's foundation. In turn, they began crane shunting the character of Thomas into situations where he would never have featured previously, much to the creator's disgust! This was one of the first signs of gimmicks being used to sell the television show and the appeal of the lead character.
So really, what has been the cause of this change in the direction of the television series from its original roots? Although HIT Entertainment have said that they wish to maintain the standards of the Rev Awdry's original stories, they are clearly catering for a more modern audience through what they are choosing to do with the programme now. They are trying to combat sexism in the writing by bringing Emily to the main forefront of the characters and introducing full-time pantomime villains, such as Diesel, 'Arry and Bert. But one flaw in their plans is that they have destroyed Awdry's clever structure for the railway by cutting out branch lines too, allowing Thomas and the other engines to run here there and everywhere, and funnily enough, allow them to be available for any jobs the Fat Controller may have for them. This has proved not to be in the programmes' favour as they have removed many traces of realism as a result from the series, which has been sad to see.
It's sad to think, but many children being introduced to Thomas nowadays will probably not be aware of the Awdry family influence on the Thomas series, nor will they be aware of the Railway Series books that have been written as the basis for the programme. To be fair in saying it, television has really gone and killed the real Thomas the Tank Engine, whom sadly has been left in the dust while his television twin continues to dominate the world, gaining more and more popularity as he puffs through life making more and more money for his copyright owners! But really what has brought things to this point? Allcroft herself once said to Christopher and Diana Awdry at a flashy lunch in an early meeting that she wanted to make her first million by the time she was 41. So was it ambition that got in the way of good sense and ruined good relations with the creators? She also expressed the fact that she was a creative person. Was it this creativity that got in the way? She touts the Thomas and Friends television series being her own creation, as it is now sprawled across the TV screens - CREATED FOR TELEVISION BY BRITT ALLCROFT, as opposed to the former, more subtle and modest - ADAPTED. Perhaps it was neither and the lust for money and world domination is the root of this current problem. HIT Entertainment have made millions out of the last three series of Thomas the Tank Engine, particularly in the United States where the programme is regaining popularity with politically correct parents who are more responsive to the modern day good morals of the new episodes, which they hope will have an effect on their children. But really should television be relied on to be reinforcement for the everyday behaviour of a child? If a child is brought up in the home properly, parents shouldn't have to rely on television as much for a child's moral guidance, and see it more as a form of entertainment for them.
But no matter how much it is bleated on, the Railway Series is doubtful to be returned to television screens in future series as a basis for Thomas the Tank Engine for any means, whether they are in the form of style and technique of writing or in the form of episode stories. As much as it is disliked, the programme needs to maintain the standard of modern values demanded by the world's public, particularly in the crucial American market, and so political correctness is necessary by all means for the programme to live on. Even if it is at the expense of the Awdry family and what would be regarded as purist fans of the series. One thing they shouldn't rely on is the constant use of gimmicks to sell the series, although appealing to some, do not work for all.
The characters introduced since the Railway Series stories ended also have proved to be less endearing than the originals, not having the same level of charm as the Awdry creations, many of them simply put in the series to fulfil a work purpose such as Harvey, who's only function, is as a travelling crane. Many of them are bland of personality too, Arthur in particular is simply another goody-two-shoes sent to join the crew, he has no real third-dimension to his character, he has no real attributes that define him from the other characters like that, unlike Murdoch who has his strength, Emily her status as being the only female steam engine, Fergus as being the only Railway traction engine on the Island, Salty with his accent and catchphrases and Harvey with his crane. However, new character Spencer has the bonus of being a highly entertaining character with a pompous attitude likely to that of Gordon. However, it is clear that many of these characters are simply there to expand the merchandising sector and generate more money from merchandising, as no doubt children will love them anyway and buy the toys!
All in all, money at the end of the day seems to be the main player. But as Christopher Awdry once remarked recalling Allcroft's statement about wishing to be a millionaire by the time she was 41, "Not all of us want to be millionaires!" This in itself showed that the man was more interested in writing and pleasing children than making a fast buck and for that he should be applauded. His constant lobbying of HIT Entertainment for them to see sense over Thomas may go without success, but to say the least it is commendable that he is working so hard to try and regain so much for his father and his legacy, returning Thomas to what it is supposed to be, which should be an appealing character first and a gravy train second!