SODOR ISLAND Essay Annex

Changing Face

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This is one of two Essays I wrote regarding the changing of the tides in the Thomas Sea.  Written for a competition on Martin Clutterbuck's website, I give you...

Thomas the tank engine has proved to be a very popular and profitable character throughout his time in existence.  The type of writing Awdry used has never stood still; there was always evolution throughout the series, from the light hearted side in the early days to a more dark approach in the latter books.  The early books were gentle and very light hearted, with the illustrations of C Reginald Dalby reinforcing this fact.  The main problems the engines faced were being punished, but always being allowed to continue on as they were.  The first instance of anything to the contrary came in The Twin Engines when we saw Donald and Douglas trying to escape scrapping.  Prior to this everything seemed to be well in the world.  Sodor is seen as being a bright, happy place in the gem-like coloured illustrations of C Reginald Dalby; all of a sudden, faced with a terrifying conflict.

The theme of Dieselisation continued from there on in, but with the introduction of characters such as Daisy and Rusty, the hint of any danger was merely subtle.  The true extent of the danger was realised in Stepney the Bluebell Engine, where we found that more and more steam engines had to find sanctuary in order to survive the mass cull of locomotives.  However, the peak was found to be in Enterprising Engines, the darkest of all the Awdry books.  This book confirmed to Gordon that all but one of his Doncaster brothers had gone and Douglas having to save an engine on the run from the Scrap yard.

This serious writing style was not carried on through to Christopher Awdry’s continuation of the series.  Christopher made the series very much his own, taking different approaches to the happenings on the Railway to his father.  He chose to take a more informative view in some of his stories, with much more railway technicality in the stories.  Examples of this include fire bars collapsing, cooling systems and injectors failing!  However, the success of his books meant that by the time he had written his fifth – Gordon the High Speed Engine – he was able to retire from his own job at the Inland Revenue and pursue writing full time.  However, the series by now was being heavily influenced by the publishers who wished to see the character of Thomas pushed into the limelight much more, using the Railway Series as a front for the acclaimed TV series.  One such book that suffered as a result of this pig-headedness was the unreleased Barry the Rescue Engine due to be book 39.   This was overthrown in favour of another Thomas related book and the fact that the publishers didn’t want to bring in a new character to the books.

The evolution of the series didn’t just exist within the writing either, it existed within the sociology of the characters.  To begin with, the engines were all based in Tidmouth.  But as the series progressed, some of the characters were found to be based elsewhere.  Thomas’ branch line soon played host to Toby, Percy, Daisy and Mavis; Edward’s to Bill, Ben and Boco; Duck’s to Oliver, Donald and Douglas, leaving Gordon, Henry, James and Bear where they always were on the Main line.  It almost represents a family image with the evolution from being nuclear to extended family.  The engines were represented more as being cousins who only meet one another on occasion, the meetings at the junction acting as that sense of family togetherness and the Fat Controller portraying the Grandfather figure that kept his family together in the smooth running of his Railway network.  

And with this moving around, some of the characters seemed to evolve too in personality.  Thomas particularly was shown as maturing from a cheeky little shunting engine to learning and feeling responsibility on his own branch line, but with still that hint of mischief left in him.  Duncan on the Little Railway also seemed to calm down and behave slightly better after a while also, most notably in Great Little Engines.  Though these were natural changes, Awdry took shock therapy to change certain characters such as Lord Harry, who learned responsibility through saving a life.  However, some classic characters such as Gordon, James, Henry and Sir Handel were never changed, being perfect as they already were!  Some characters introduced toward to the end of the series such as Oliver and Ivo Hugh were never really given a chance to evolve like the others.  This was mainly down to the publisher’s control in the Christopher Awdry era, which saw characters such as Oliver overlooked in favour of Thomas’ Branch Line.  Ivo Hugh was introduced in Book 40 from which there has been no continuation, so his personality was never established at all.

However, there could have been hope for these characters, had it not been for the actions of a new publisher, Egmont, who were given the rights for the entire Thomas print range when Allcroft acquired the rights to the Railway Series characters.  Egmont took the entire series out of print in its original form and planned to release a certain number of titles over a certain period until the series was restored in a new format.  This plan fell through and the Awdry family were left behind whilst the television series took over, largely ignoring it’s roots by using original stories written for the purpose of television broadcast.  Manuscripts for prospective Railway Series books were requested back from the publishers when it was found they had no interest in continuing the series, which now stands at a lowly 14 books still in print, however, in the new format.  The original format books are now found to be very rare, with the latter books by Christopher Awdry found to be the scarcest and being the ones which fetch the most money due to their rarity, only having been through at least one print run unlike the others which have been through many more and can be found from different eras, particularly under the Rev Awdry’s name. 

The relations between the family and Britt Allcroft have not always been so strained either.  In the early days of the Television series, a meeting between early narrator Ringo Starr and the Rev Awdry was documented in the Mail on Sunday.  The two were said to get on well with one another, however, Ringo’s wife Barbara Bach was said to be in a state of “catatonic boredom” by the time they left!  The Railway Series didn’t only play an important part as being the basis for the television series in the early days, it was found to be a requirement.  A contractual constraint was that the stories used in the television series had to be in print form first.  In a rare act of co-operation between Britt Allcroft and Christopher Awdry, he was asked to write some new stories for Series 2, hence the reason why three of the stories from “More about Thomas the Tank Engine” made it into production in the same year as publication, as well as Thomas and the Missing Christmas Tree.  There was even an instance where Awdry took a story by Mitton and Allcroft and rewrote it for his own, Thomas’ Christmas Party.  Christopher was also called upon to write the Thomas Annuals to coincide with the new television series also, for which he provided both stories and introductions from the characters. 

Cracks appeared largely in their relationship when their Series 3 was broadcast with the Rev. Awdry being critical of the producers for “writing his stories for him” after thirteen original stories were written to coincide with the thirteen Railway Series ones.  The main point of his anger lay with the episode - “Henry’s Forest”.  Awdry questioned why Henry would have a fondness for scenery and pointed out that idling was against Rule 55 of the Railway Practices.  Allcroft did express her hurt at what Wilbert had said, “When I read Wilbert's criticisms of me, I was so hurt, but I wasn’t going to have a slanging match. I knew it would blow over. I coped by thinking he was more than 80.”

However, despite the cracks, when the Rev Awdry passed away, Allcroft was present at the funeral, and Christopher Awdry commended her for it by saying, “But when my father died Britt, was genuinely upset at the funeral. She wouldn't have come otherwise."

How and ever, the era of the Railway Series for now has ceased, with Media giants HIT Entertainment steering the path Thomas now takes, which is one largely away from its original roots, and ignoring the Awdry family, who are no longer taken into the company’s confidence.  The writing for the stories is now done by individual writers, who are largely writing for the benefit of younger children, and not aiming for the universal appeal that the programme once had when under the Railway Series.  Issues over gender are also being addressed, by bringing “boardroom manufactured” female character Emily to the forefront along with the seven original Railway Series characters used in Series 1 in HIT Entertainment’s latest series of Thomas the Tank Engine.  Obviously a move to please the politically correct amongst our society who have objected in the past to what the Railway Series portrayed, which to quote was the image of “male engines pushing around female coaches”, an image that saw the books banned from some modern nurseries on account of it. 

But this cuddly, friendly image is not the one that Christopher Awdry himself believes that Thomas should be giving off.  He has said previously he would much prefer it if the realities of Railways were presented in the television more and emphasise more that “Trains are big hard things that can kill you!  That way, children would be more wary of trying to step onto the tracks and be killed, and an emphasis on rail safety.  An attempt at trying to convey the dangers of Railways in Railway Series Book 35 – Thomas and the Great Railway Show were quashed by the publishers who watered it down until the meaning was gone, but he has managed to get his point across more directly in another two special publications featuring Thomas and Friends in a book release designed especially for schools.

I don't believe the Awdrys will go unacknowledged completely in their association with Thomas any time soon, “Based on the Railway Series by the Rev. W. Awdry” is emblazoned on every product/book etc. in relation to the series, but the original co-operation between the two sides seen in the 1980s has long since been overlooked, possibly because the TV series has drawn its own entity and shuffled off the need to have the Railway Series behind it.  Allcroft herself did mention once that she was a creative person, and that was what she respected most in Wilbert.  Her drive and ambition brought his stories to life, and showcased them to a modern generation.  I do hope that the Railway Series will one day be able to return to a full print run, and in Wilbert’s own vision and words outlive “Thomas’ evil TV twin”, and finally in the case of the co-operation of yesteryear, to quote Diana Awdry herself – “If only it could have continued like that!