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RS Reviews: Thomas & The Great Railway Show - Stephenson to Awdry

Thomas & The Great Railway Show

Reviewed by MRHloco

Flying The Flag

Of the three Christopher Awdry volumes I can remember having as a young boy (one of which was New Little Engine), two in particular stand out clearly in my mind many years later. One of these was Thomas & The Twins, a classic with humour, character development and images of Cornwall that I can relate to from the many holidays I've had in that area. The second, Thomas & The Great Railway Show, was a bit more special...


After many adventures that the Awdry family had brought to life so well, Thomas was at last about to 'see the world' beyond the Island Of Sodor, on his own and for the first time since the collective trip to London in the 1950s (see The Eight Famous Engines). Where better to go than the National Railway Museum where so many legends from the world of railways have permanently settled and where the Railway Series itself found its way into the museum's library archive?


A Great Railway Journey

Opened to the public for the first time in September 1975, the National Railway Museum lives up to its name very well as a place dedicated to the history of railways. It's been through many changes over the years, some of them quite radical. The old York North Motive Power Depot, for example, was chosen to house it and stood the test of time remarkably. The only problem with it was the poor quality engineering techniques used in the concrete roof structure during earlier rebuilding.


So, in 1990, the former MPD closed to allow a massive reconstruction. To avoid the museum itself closing completely, a goods depot on the other side of Leeman Road (already a store for the rest of the collection) was transformed to resemble a railway station from the steam age. It and the nearby yard were then opened as what became known as 'The Great Railway Show' and it is during this period in history that Thomas comes to visit.


All the Railway Series volumes are famous for being set on the Island Of Sodor: an escapist world in which steam locomotives would always have a safe haven, regardless of what took place on the Mainland. To tell you the truth, when steam was run down in the 1960s, BR did not expect projects like those at Sheffield Park or Keighley to do well. In different circumstances, Sodor and York might easily have been the only two main line based steam paradises left in the UK!


In this volume, however, we're taken beyond Sudrian metals for a considerable percentage of the writing material and on the first adventure that feels truly...cinematic. Thomas' journey to York alone takes him within a junction's distance of the Settle and Carlisle Railway (no mention in the text) and just imagine the landscapes on the road journey in Not The Ticket. I often wonder, in fact, just what could have happened if Britt Allcroft had taken this on, instead of Magic Railroad!


The year 1990 is in fact the year of my birth and during that year the railways were right up in the big league. British Rail now operated in business sectors, had many interesting colour schemes and was much more customer focused than before, especially in territory covered by the Network SouthEast sector. Heritage railways were really flourishing too, the Kent & East Sussex's extension to Northiam and the Severn Valley's varied loco fleet being good examples of this.


So, setting wise, The Railway Series Volume 35 combines not only one of my favourite parts of the British Isles but also a lot of implied background. The route of Thomas' road journey is left open to guesses but I suspect it's probably on the A59 road from Skipton to York via Harrogate, seeing as that's a direct route and had been improved to lorry-carrying standards in the 1980s. It also passes Embsay whose steam railway regularly hosts Thomas events in the summer many years later.


The City Of York is the perfect place for the NRM: as well as its history with railways, it's got plenty of attractions that George Bradshaw would have loved! Every illustration in this book captures both locations perfectly. I've never known the yard to be surrounded by buildings (Trouble On The Line) but perhaps that's artistic license? Anyway, as well as my own great affection for Thomas himself, I've fallen in love with the NRM too and still visit regularly, as I've done many times since 1995.


The presentation of the celebrity engines alone is enough to convince us of how special this is and the intense detail is only part of it. On Page 53, as Thomas is preparerd for the railtour with Green Arrow, even the latter's nameplate detail is flawless! Meanwhile, the identity of the 'Man In Charge' isn't clear but the limited hair in the illustration on Page 61 suggests he could be Richard Gibbon, the NRM's Head Of Engineering at the time, given his close involvement with the engines.


A Vision Fulfilled!

As mentioned with Tank Engine Thomas Again, Dalby's artwork was simple and appealing but not as accurate or consistent as it probably could have been. John.T.Kenney and the Edwards couple were a major improvement: tiny details became commonplace and, although the landscapes had characteristics associated with Monet, the ability to believe in what you saw was further enhanced, especially by what we remember from Mountain Engines!


But, for me personally, Clive Spong was, and still is, a sound reason as to why Christopher Awdry's volumes hold firm. The image of Thomas on Page 13 of this volume in particular captures the best of literature and media alike. Compared with Dalby's work on Page 61 towards the end of Tank Engine Thomas Again, Spong's take on the facial features here has expression by the shovelful, more detail, better proportions, is less distorted and feels more...human!


And then there's the rim around the smokebox door: whereas it could hardly be seen in previous artwork, Spong keeps it so consistent that you feel you're really looking at a genuine steam engine with more detail than a toy. In fact, remembering what Thomas started as (a wooden model made as a Christmas present for young Christopher Awdry), that proves the character's overall evolution even further and just how believable these works of fiction really are!


In this volume and others, Spong uses the very best elements of his predecessors: Dalby's bright colours, the Edwards couple's stunning landscapes, Kenney's attention to detail. On that subject, the damage Thomas suffers on the level crossing in Museum Piece is not only perfectly presented (loose buffer, dented smokebox, etc) but is also consistent until he reaches York. The exact same idea applies to the sublime detail on Green Arrow, Iron Duke and Mallard in particular!


A Starr Attraction!

Needless to say, Thomas himself is the character who flourishes the most and it's interesting here to note the quality of Christopher Awdry's storytelling techniques. There's still plenty of the original Thomas left, of course: that youthful sense of excitement and anticipation in Museum Piece should remind us of his exploits in the early days. But this element has been kept in check with sensibility that comes from experience and is even more profound in Trouble On The Line.


What's really interesting about Thomas' invitation to the NRM is that he doesn't let fame go to his smokebox, as Gordon, James or Henry might. Instead, he seems puzzled by the great admiration people have for him and impressed that it's resulted in this. He never fitted into the ego category to begin with but the fact that he treats the privelige accordingly and never takes any of it for granted proves that this value has stood the test of time.


Throughout the series, Thomas always made it his mission to credit the Fat Controller, never once forgotting his employer's kindness in Volume 2. Now, under the pen of the author's son who he was created to entertain, he's representing Sodor in an exhibition with many other famous engines and intends to prove his value by showing Sodor's impact on railway history. Perhaps that's the implied intention, knowing how many of us grew up with and still enjoy his Sudrian exploits!


But, as per his previous adventures, it isn't all plain steaming and Thomas quickly comes to grief on a level crossing in the Yorkshire Dales, one of my favourite National Parks. Injured and unable to safely use the railway, he remains stranded in a siding, braving the inclement weather (much as I've done on walking holidays in the Dales). Perhaps he hasn't felt as helpless as this since before Terence rescued him? At any rate, I've felt the same way at various times growing up.


Of course, there's always hope and the NRM arrange a resolution to the problem: unfortunately, it seems that a road journey is called for! We've never been taken into the subconscious minds of these characters before – until now. And it works, far better than it ever has in the TV series. The Big Engines have always been very particular about self respect so Thomas is convinced that they would see this as the ultimate joke and suffers a few nightmares as a result!


But self-respect counts for a small percentage and, to his own amazement, Thomas quickly warms to the new perspective of road travel. At last he can see the world as his road vehicle friends would and a true Awdry-esque twist comes as a result of being parked on double yellow lines! Not only is the parking attendant's reaction exactly as one would expect, seemingly without noticing Thomas' polite greeting, but, looking at that illustration on Page 31, I often try to guess which street it's in!


Upon arrival in York, straight away, we're introduced to interesting characters with a profound mark on railway history. The first one also turns out to be the one who features the most: No: 4771 Green Arrow. Why that particular engine? That's a great question to ask at the first reading – I'd be as curious as Thomas to know whether previous Sudrian visitors were there. In fact both of them were in working order during 1990 but City Of Truro was, for the most part, absent from York.


As for Flying Scotsman, perhaps Thomas met him on the journey, since the Doncaster brother was based at Carnforth at the time, shortly after returning from his own Australian exploit?! Green Arrow himself is a V2 but similar in appearance and a veteran of fast fitted freight. Boxhill is implied to have met Thomas before his career on Sodor while Rocket's faceless cameo is a very interesting contrast with Thomas himself: two ends of a historical timeline!


Broad gauge Iron Duke also features as a walrus moustached descendant of Brunel and Gooch! It's clear to see how much fun Spong had with the faces on these engines and that, in itself, was a dramatic depature from Reverend Wilbert practise! But it's the illustration on Page 49 most of all that fascinates me: for the first time, Thomas has been posed with two genuine celebrities of the steam age, in the form of Mallard (the fastest steam engine of all) and Duchess Of Hamilton.


The expressions of the newcomers do suggest that there's some LMS/LNER rivalry but it doesn't completely explain their personalities. Common sense suggests that Christopher Awdry wouldn't characterise Mallard as yet another 'Big Engine' to avoid doing the idea to death but, for an engine referred to in Volume 31, the expression does prompt me to guess, as it would do for any reader! As for Thomas, perhaps he's attempting a peacemaker's role for a change?!


Moreover, Trouble On The Line further shows Thomas' coming of age in the books. As always, he takes responsibilities very seriously and, in fact, his first reaction to the crowds beside the standard gauge Demonstration Line is one of outright apprehension. There's no literal-minded recklessness (as per Thomas Comes To Breakfast). Far from it: he's seen that behaviour in the spectators and realises that a potentially dangerous incident could occur unless crowd control is maintained!


This was the only story Christopher Awdry was unsatisfied with, mainly as the original was 'watered down' by his publishers. Whatever the inspiration was initially, I strongly doubt if it involved serious injury but it's hard to be entirely certain! It's bad enough that the finished story manages to terrify a small child in the crowd and I must admit I've always been uncomfortable with that bit! But at least the intended message comes across: bold and stark and serious.


As we may expect, Thomas' confidence in himself and his mission takes a heavy blow, including a fear of being 'reported' for the incident. But any haunting memories he and the audience have of the breakfast incident are rapidly melted when the Scarborough Spa Express season starts. With only Duchess Of Hamilton and Sir Lamiel as logical competitors, Green Arrow faces the challenge of hauling it with extra coaches so Thomas offers his service and is promptly accepted!


To call what follows 'the adventure of Thomas' life so far' might sound like hyperbole but is actually quite appropriate: during the return journey, he suddenly notices track subsidence ahead by the river at Kirkham Abbey! The location itself is depicted with artistic license but the technical element associated with Christopher's writing isn't overdone. The railtour passengers continue by road and, forced to run wrong line, Thomas and Green Arrow return to York, victorious.


As Thomas passes the landslip in the illustration, one almost feels that this is as close as he's ever come to following in Edward's wheelturns. The slightest increase in speed could affect the damage even further. And perhaps he's haunted by a critical question: what exactly does he (Thomas The Tank Engine) have that others don't? And the answer comes the next day when the Fat Controller visits with the museum staff to reward him for his actions and for doing Sodor proud.


Thomas' reward (a plaque proclaiming his new status as part of the NRM Collection) is a signficant element here. From a mischevious, literal-minded station pilot, he's been through many adventures still relevant today. Gaining a branch line caused him to evolve and his maturity is clear to see but his caring nature and sense of humour remain: that was why Britt Allcroft made him a TV mascot. Now his place in literature and railway history are indisputable!


The Ultimate Favourite

So...Thomas & The Great Railway Show: what can we conclude with? Well, it's one of Christopher Awdry's best volumes. The stories themselves may not be exactly what he intended but it doesn't prevent them from being quality entertainment (essential to the Railway Series' longevity) without being over-ambitious. It blends adventure, comedy, heart and illustrations that capture all the best elements of previous works, flourishing my railway interest and sealing my love of York.


It emphasises the importance of railway safety and, like Thomas' debut volume, proves that, with teamwork and our best efforts, we can achieve the amazing. The writing style and author may be different but Thomas' essential personality isn't. In fact, this surprisingly obscure volume fixes him in the permanent spotlight of classic literature alongside other famous underdogs, like the BFG and Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer, as an example to humans and railway engines everywhere!


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