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RS Reviews: Tank Engine Thomas Again - The Adventures That Carved The Legend


Tank Engine Thomas Again

Reviewed by MRHLoco


By Ringo!

 

When it comes to my interest in the Railway Series, it's difficult to say where the starting point was exactly – I've been told that age reduces memory over time. But, as with many SiF members, I do know that Thomas The Tank Engine & Friends, the famous TV series of the 1980s, was a big part of it and with good reason. In Ringo Starr's generation particularly, I was introduced to some of the finest stories ever penned by the Reverend Wilbert.

 

I doubt very much if it was the first book I ever read from the series but Tank Engine Thomas Again is certainly, for me, one of the classics. All four stories from this volume found their way into that magical first season of episodes and all were adapted to perfection! One particular Thomas video I had as a child included those four stories so it's perhaps appropriate to say that this started off my great personal affection for Thomas The Tank Engine.

 

An Octopus's Garden Of England!

 

Continuing Thomas' adventures from Volume 2, this book takes us to Thomas' branch line for the first time and immediately we start the first story with a fascinating blend of the old and the new in more ways than one. For a start, Thomas has earned the independence he so craved and now it's just a question of how he'll cope with the responsibility it brings. And, for the most part, he does so in the most admirable way possible but more on that under characterisation.

 

As discussed further on in this review, it's amazing to note how many events Wilbert Awdry found useful in this series of stories. The television episodes that came later may have made them feel a bit more...complete in some ways (the TV version of Thomas Terence & The Snow really shows us what the author meant by 'nearly buried' under as much snow as that) but the books that inspired them were still brilliant nevertheless.

 

Of course, the volume wouldn't be complete if Thomas was the only character: I would expect that coming from more recent TV episodes, sadly. From that hard-working countryman Terence and the helpful but competitive public transport role of Bertie to Annie and Clarabel the confidant coaches, the Reverend gave them all a chance. The human roles were never forgotten either but played less of a part: the established vehicles still needed some fleshing out first!

 

On the whole, this is a positive volume with the innocence of youth in its nature and there's nothing exactly bleak about it. All the same, the presence of Bertie and his assertion that 'we buses have to work' clearly indicates the animosty between road and rail that was to become more profound later on when Dr Beeching came along. And, on several occasions, Thomas has a battle to face but, as with a lot of children, he's been unconsciously programmed to survive.

 

As time went on and the Railway Series books gained a strong following, the Ffarquhar Branch became particularly popular and somehow it's not hard to understand why. Through the illustrations (more on those shortly), the quiet atmosphere of country life and the various characters that served it, one of Sodor's backwaters rose to fame, much as Stratford-Upon-Avon did through the works of Shakespeare. And the diverse incidents covered in this particular book are a big part of that.

 

Easily one of my favourite stories in this volume is Thomas Goes Fishing, partly based on how far the Reverend went for historical accuracy. Not only did a Glasgow & South Western engine crew come across a boiled eel in their locomotive's tank one day but the water bucket process had been used as long ago as September 9th 1863 on the opening day of the Highland Main Line between Pitlochry and Aviemore. It also led to a memorable scene in The Titfield Thunderbolt!

 

Historical references are plentiful in more ways than one: the river bridge on which that story takes place is in fact inspired by Isambard Kingdom Brunel's famous Maidenhead Bridge, still defying the laws of physics to this day! The prototypes of Terence and Bertie are sourced from road vehicles of the period and there's signalboxes and semaphore signals too: everyday railway items that, in this day and age, can only be found on branch lines to Bodmin General or Embsay!

 

Railway companies went to great levels to promote the delights of the countryside: a relaxed picnic beside the River Severn near Highley, for example, must have made a dramatic difference to the industrial hardship and intense pollution levels of Victorian Birmingham, my own birthplace. So, in a sense, Thomas' Branch Line reflects the idealisation of British Isles life that can be seen in those early posters: more peaceful, less troubled, great territory for adventures!

 

Left Behind On The Easel?

 

It's fair to say that C.Reginald Dalby's artwork set standards and emphasised clearly just what was really needed. Starting with the not-so-good bits of it, a certain illustration in Thomas & The Guard gave the Reverend a big continuity issue: not only did Henry seem to have gained a brass-capped chimney but also buffers the same shape as Gordon's! And that, bearing in mind that the two Big Engines shared colour, tenders and appearance at the time, resulted in many letters!

 

In fact, Dalby's history with the Reverend wasn't exactly positive: for all the bright charm it had, his artwork also had serious flaws that resulted in his downfall over Percy, a fellow tank engine who Thomas would later befriend. The Henry image was an especially dodgy one (indeed, in this book, some pictures of Thomas' facial features are better than others) and other volumes probably have more examples of flaws than I can list here...

 

That being said, I have no desire to be unfair on Dalby. On the contrary, his art enchanted Allcroft and Mitton when production on Thomas's television debut started in earnest. That first illustration transfers the familiar in a different landscape, as the episodes did later. Small details (such as men by the trackside) also came in and, although there was less emphasis on making the art solid, this is more than made up for by how believable the scenarios are made.

 

On Page 25, for example, Thomas' intense expression of agony and a passing workman's alarmed reaction complete the image of how serious it is and the snowplough on Page 39 is immediately faimilar from the TV adaptation! The changing seasons (autumn to winter in particular) are sublime and the snow scenes remind me a lot of Disney's Once Upon A Wintertime, which I also loved as a child, which predated this book by a year and which has left me quite moved upon rediscovering it recently.

 

The Stars...Of Our Show!

 

In recent years, the overuse of Thomas in the TV Series has explained most of the dissatisfaction that's been going against him. For me, however, there's much to like about that particular character and the stories in this volume are part of my evidence. Another reason is that, here and on many other occasions in the original books, we get to see Thomas experience human changes and thus evolve in methods that recent TV episodes have mostly ignored.

 

When we first met the character, he was still at the start of the pecking order and frustrated by the limits on his way of life. As the volume in question has already been covered, I won't go too much into detail but I suspect that a continuation of his adventures was just what younger fans of that time longed to see. After all, Thomas had (and still has) so many recognisable personality features that he as good as wheel tapped into their hearts!

 

So Thomas is presented as affectionate, confident and with a great sense of humour, telling Henry in no uncertain terms that he needs 'exercise', after a lengthy delay at the junction. From the very start of Thomas & The Guard, in fact, the narrative makes it very clear how seriously Thomas takes the responsibility of keeping the branch line in order. Not only for the locals but also because no one should have an excuse to doubt his value now, least of all the Fat Controller!

 

Such is Thomas' frustration over the situation that it results in him leaving the guard behind! In the original book, however, the incident was caused by an umbrella left to its own devises, based on a similar incident at Eastbourne. Even then, the guard, unable to attract the crew's attention, chases the train himself, knowing it'll be halted at a signal. His success speaks its own volume, reminding Thomas of the value of patience and also a taster of things to come...

 

Now to Thomas Goes Fishing and, again, Thomas is captivated by a pastime that seems so easy for humans. If only he could fish himself and we can't help but agree! In theory, he could, with his crew's help, but, as the driver points out, their busy schedule won't permit it and nearly every other engine (possibly excepting Edward) seems to think fishing ridiculous. It's no surprise as such that Thomas is naively skeptical of the rather patronising words 'Engines Don't Go Fishing!'

 

Thanks to an out-of-order water column, he gets his wish sooner than expected but there are some painful side effects to contend with. The Fat Controller returns here as a sympathetic parental role, much like Thomas' crew. All see the amusing side of the outcome and soon resolve the problem by genuinely fishing, adapted to perfection on screen! But Sir Topham is quick to caution Thomas that he'd rather not have to deal with the same problem twice and our hero is quick to agree!

 

But, though Thomas is more careful what he wishes for now, he still has some way to go and, upon meeting Terence for the first time, is less than tactful about 'caterpillars'! In winter, he's fitted with a snowplough and detests the heavy, cumbersome object endlessly. In an interesting twist, his fierce battle with it reflects a child's wars with adults who are constantly telling them what to do, an image that Roald Dahl, another of my favourite writers, made good use of!

 

Thomas soon gets his own back on the snowplough (and a telling off for his trouble!) but blizzards results in the line being blocked. Unaware of the side effects, his' own overconfidence quickly gets the better of him and, emerging from the tunnel, he recklessly charges a snow drift, only to stick fast in it. After several unsuccessful attempts to free him by crew and passengers, his distress is very apparent: he's seen his mistake alright but is it too late to rectify it?

 

Apparently not: who should come thundering through the tunnel to Thomas' rescue but Terence?! Although a minor character, this newcomer is the first road vehicle we ever meet in the Railway Series. Industrious and employed on a farm near the railway, his appearance seems comic but he laughs off the comments about 'ugly wheels' in good humour and emphasises how versatile he is, thanks to his ability to literally make tracks.

 

Better still, upon learning of Thomas' troubles, Terence has no desire to hold back: having never held a grudge in the first place, he now has the perfect chance to prove his point and his own very helpful personality. It certainly is a lesson that stands the test of time: since then, Thomas has always been accepting of newcomers and appreciative of what makes us unique. But there's still one more character yet to meet...

 

A red single decker bus was called upon to rescue the stranded passengers so it's natural enough that Thomas & Bertie should introduce Bertie himself. This time, Thomas is more cautious before judging the newcomer but, given how seriously he takes his role on the railway, it's only a matter of time before Bertie's matching persona of confidence and over-zealous sense of duty provokes him into accepting the challenge of a race.

 

Being familiar with the plot of the aforementioned film The Titfield Thunderbolt, which also featured a race between a branch line train and a bus belonging to a local rival company, I do wonder if the events of Thomas & Bertie went on to be inspirational to Tibby Clarke. However Pearce and Crump were kee to use the closure of the Titfield branch to their advantage: perhaps Thomas, not realising it at the time, fears that Bertie is out to do likewise...?!

 

Interestingly, this was one of only two Reverend Wilbert tales that were entirely fictional: he rarely did this and, at the end of the story, clearly emphasises that it's unlikely to be repeated, even on Sodor. Even so, the sheer thrill factor we get is infectious: Thomas may still be one who isn't willing to take criticism lying down but he's learnt sense from the previous stories. The evidence? Well, he knows the railway and the obstacles that are in the way by heart!

 

Sure enough, Bertie ends up restrained several times by a level crossing, traffic lights and possibly limited congestion, much to his frustration. Add the fact that speed limits existed even in those days and Thomas' claim that he can go faster is certainly coming true. But Thomas has problems of his own to content with. There's all the stations and signals for a start and even he gets a nasty shock when he sees Bertie crossing a bridge ahead: that's enough to break anyone's self esteem...!

 

But, in a way that only Edward has ever truly matched, Thomas perseveres the whole way, never once letting problems defeat him. He crosses the river on replenished tanks and the terrain counts in his favour for the final stretch, much as i did for Brunel! Burrowing beneath hills in the tunnel, he reaches Ffarquhar in triumph and he and Bertie soon earn each other's respect, and gain a great working relationship in and around Ffarquhar.

 

So, yes, there's a lot to love about Thomas, especially in these stories. He's more flawed than his mentor Edward but not as much as some heroes I could mention. Whenever he makes a mistake, he endevours to learn from it and, in the events of the final story, his new found maturity is proven by his effort and determination, which can work for us too, if we put our minds to it. But, above all, we can connect with the fulfilment and fun he gets in life through his adventures.

 

All The Drums & Whistles!

 

Ultimately, that explains the reason for his particular longevity. Edward was the best role model of all the engines, later joined by Toby, Duck and BoCo. But, even so, Thomas was also someone you could look up to, certainly a role that children could feel particular empathy with. He wasn't exactly perfect but then he didn't need to be: his experiences were in line with what nearly everyone went through at some point in their lives and that captured the readers' imagination!

 

So, while I love all the Reverend.W.Awdry's works equally, Tank Engine Thomas Again has a great element that still makes it stand out personally. If you ever wanted a reason why Britt Allcroft took Thomas on as her TV series mascot, for instance, the stories of this volume and the first one of all before it are the best evidence. They literally carved a legend in the iron he was made of and, as the years and volumes passed, it only continued to thrive...

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