‘Based on the Railway Series by the Rev. W. Awdry’ – This little caption accompanies the opening credits to every episode in the wonderful television series, Thomas the Tank Engine.
However, as blasphemous as it sounds, the series could have potentially remained as a cult icon – a series of books that have delighted train folk and their children – and perhaps not been such a dominant force in the world. Many websites on the Internet that focus on Thomas and his friends tend to not predominantly show pictures from the books. More often than not, the popularity of the series grew from the television series created by Britt Allcroft and directed by David Mitton. In fact, if it wasn’t for this programme, I wouldn’t be writing this essay now.
Many fans now have been told of all the old stories about the development of The Railway Series and other people’s attempts to transfer it to other media. Musicals, live television – most failed, bar talking books. However, during the late seventies a young business woman named Britt Allcroft offered to make the aging book series into a highly professional children’s television show.
With the excellent direction of David Mitton, the music of Campbell & O’Donnell and the soothing narration of Ringo Starr, it became an upmost success. The Thomas franchise began, with two series of the programme flying by before anybody could tell what was going on. All these stories were written by an Awdry – Wilbert or Christopher – and then adapted into the show.
As you might hear nowadays, “then there was a storm on the Island of Sodor.” The early nineties came and another series of Thomas was bound to turn up. ERTL toys, books, videos (which were relatively new, they’d only been around for the past 5 years or so) were filling up the shelves and the public demanded more. Plenty of stories by Wilbert and Christopher were there to be adapted. All was set.
But Britt decided not to. She had decided to take her own way – adapting quite a few of the books by Wilbert into the series and the rest she wrote with Mitton. This outraged many “purists” and it still does to this day. But I’d like to ask a big question to everyone – What’s The Matter With Series 3?
For a start, of the 26 episodes transmitted for the series, 13 of them were based on Rev. W. Awdry’s work, of which were slightly adapted given circumstances (Time for Trouble and Tender Engines would need extra engine models that would probably be too expensive).
Therefore, only half of these stories were Britt’s and could they have been all that bad? When I first saw them (I must have been what, 6 or 7?) I found these stories the most memorable. In fact, I can still see in my mind One Good Turn with the dramatic confrontation sequence between Bill and Ben.
However, scenes of Toby’s Tightrope, Mavis and Bulgy were also notably memorable but the best story of the season had to be Escape. The start, mind you, was changed slightly to give the story perspective (although good on paper, to start a story in the Other Railway would be murder for TV narrative – why is Douglas there? Why does he care about Scrap? What is his motive?) but the product is terrific.
Ask any Thomas fan about Series 3, and more often than not they’ll speak of that terrific shot of the two engines triumphantly crossing the viaduct into the Fat Controller’s railway. So although purists may argue that Britt didn’t make all of Series 3 from Awdry stories, let me say this – the ones she did use, she used well!
Furthermore, fans of both The Railway Series and Thomas complain about the fact that the were lots of stories that could be adapted but weren’t. The Narrow Gauge engines, for a start, were not used in this series. Considering how expensive it would be, to not only have extensive main gauge railway stories, but to feature a few stories with whole new types of engines on completely different tracks would be awkward.
Hence this is a possible reason why they dominated Series 4 – but if you don’t mind me saying, this may have proven to be more awkward. Similarly, the Mountain Engines, the Small Railway Engines and such would be impossible to create for the show with the financial situation. Especially if they were only to be used for a few episodes.
Other than this, the main “accusation” purists to the Railway Series have towards Britt and Series 3 in particular was “How dare she write her own material – she knows nothing of Wilbert’s work!”.
Britt by the stage is an experienced writer and television producer. Wilbert is an experienced Author. What kids want to see on television is often different to what kids want to read in books. As someone in the shoes of many kids – I honestly did not care about the flagrant laws broken in Henry’s Forest. In fact, I loved this story.
It showed a different nature to Henry, that not only was he an express engine who takes trains and moans about things, but he’s a nature lover. Kids like beautiful things, like trees and such and often it’s devastating to see them torn down and such.
Britt was trying to interpret an engine into what kids can relate to and if it means sacrificing some of the train laws, then sometimes the end justifies the means. A casual viewer may not be as interested in the story if Henry wanted to look at trees and his driver said “No, that would break Railway Rule 55” or whatever it might be.
Furthermore, such stories as Heroes and Edward, Trevor and the Really Useful Party may appear to have convoluted storylines (where it appears that more than one story is going on and not flowing in the classic way of many Awdry stories), however they do have simple moralistic messages that appear frequently in children’s programming and stories – from Aesops Fables to Rocko’s Modern Life – about acting heroically and by helping out others.
They’ve simply been translated into wonderful little tales about engines on the Island of Sodor. Stories in this season blended quite well with each other and unless you had read all The Railway Series stories before hand, you couldn’t really distinguish between which were “real” Thomas stories of which were designed specifically for the season – I for one, couldn’t and at the time the idea of that didn’t faze me.
The stories lead us into a world of fantasy and make believe. Thomas allowed children not to worry about cleaning your teeth and not running with scissors – they were seeing engine forms of themselves, looking at things and marvelling at things that they do themselves – a train ‘mirror’ almost.
Perhaps this is also a reason why Chris Awdry’s stories may not have been suited for the series. Terrific as they were, Chris’ stories were realistic, filled with detailed facts about railways and frankly, the television stories were not wanting to go in that direction. As cruel as it might sound, which story would interest kids more: Better Late than Never or Percy, James and the Fruitful Day?
Earlier, awkwardness was described of the decision to have Narrow Gauge engines dominate the fourth series. Additionally, Awdry had complained of the produces “shunting” Thomas into situations he otherwise wouldn’t have. If lots of new engines were put in, the show would end up being more of “and Friends” rather than “Thomas the Tank Engine”. Furthermore, considering the title, Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends, it wouldn’t be good to have several stories about James all of a sudden.
It would be as the producers of Doctor Who did half a season all about the companion minus the Doctor. Although using his stories is terrific and as it should be, to be honest children really don’t mind who features in the story, as long as Thomas, their hero, is in it. Ask any child watching Thomas if they would like to see more: Different Engines they’ve never seen before or lots more Thomas? More often than not, you’d probably get the latter option as the main response.
Having covered all this ground, I can say that I dislike most of Season 5 onwards. Silly crashes and awful moralistic rubbish dominate the program that used to be so wonderful. Seasons 1 and 2 may have been terrific, but think about Season 3 – it was bold, it was action packed, it was enjoyable.
Wonderful characters such as Oliver and Mavis were introduced into the TV world at that time, some wonderful character developments were made and most of all it was entertaining. When we look at what we get now from the franchise, think back to the simpler times – where we kids were just wanting to be entertained by our favourite character. Was the little season that could, Series 3 all that bad? I think it was Really Useful.