Thomas the Tank Engine is the most widely known fictional locomotive in the world. For 60 years, Thomas and his friends have been delighting children and adults alike with stories of exploration and imagination. With his slightly "cheeky" attitude and can-do outlook, Thomas leads his friends and kids everywhere on adventures that teach timeless lessons such as discovery, friendship, and cooperation.
With the help of Britt Allcroft, the producer who created the Thomas the Tank Engine television, film, and licensing franchise, we take a look inside Thomas the Tank Engine -- his fascinating history, his cross-continental television series, and his cast of characters, all as we find out what's in store for the future.
"Thomas is a blue tank engine who lives at a big station on the Island of Sodor. He's a cheeky little engine with six small wheels, a short, stumpy funnel, a short, stumpy boiler, and a short, stumpy dome." So goes the Storyteller's introduction in the very first episode of "Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends" for television.
But let's go back to the beginning and uncover the origins of the world's favorite little engine. Thomas the Tank Engine is a "true blue" engine who proudly wears "#1" on his side. He and his railway friends have been working the railways on the Island of Sodor for more than 60 years. Thomas is a Really Useful Engine -- which is the highest compliment that the railway director, the Fat Controller (a.k.a. Sir Topham Hatt), offers to an engine -- and though he sometimes gets into trouble, he always comes out on top. He usually learns a really useful lesson in the process.
But did you know Thomas wasn't the very first train in the "Thomas & Friends" stories? It's true. The English television series and its U.S. counterpart are based on "The Railway Series" books by the Reverend Wilbert Awdry (1911-1997). The first book by Rev. Awdry followed the stories of three engines: Edward, Gordon, and Henry. Thomas didn't even exist until two years later.
The late Rev. Awdry was a lifelong railroad enthusiast and an Anglican clergyman. He was inspired to create "The Railway Series" stories by the steam engines he had grown up around. Awdry said, as quoted on the official Awdry Family Website, "I, along with my brother George, inherited our father's love of railways, and after moving to Box, Wiltshire, in 1917, our house was within sight and sound of the Great Western Railway's main line near Middle Hill. I used to lie in bed at night, listening to the engines struggling up the hill to Box tunnel, and imagining that they were talking to themselves."
In 1942, Awdry's young son Christopher came down with a bad case of the measles. Awdry amused his son with original stories and rhymes during the long days of his recovery. His tales of the trains of Sodor proved to be Christopher's favorites.
As chronicled in Wikipedia's entry on "The Railway Series," the first of these stories to be written down was called "Edward's Day Out," about a little old engine named Edward who hadn't been out of the yard and on the rails for a long time. Awdry wrote another story featuring Edward that also introduced Gordon, a proud and boastful engine who eventually got his comeuppance. A third tale, titled "The Sad Story of Henry," was about a silly engine who thinks the rain will spoil his lovely paint. He won't come out of a tunnel and ends up bricked up inside it. This story also introduced the Fat Controller.
Awdry decided it was time to commit the stories to print after Christopher kept correcting his father during his frequent retellings. Awdry drew simple companion illustrations as well -- pictures of the engines with human faces on them -- each with a different expression.
Encouraged by his wife to "do something" with his stories, Awdry sent them to various children's publishers. After many rejection letters, he finally found a publisher willing to take the stories to print. At the publisher's request, Awdry wrote a fourth short story, "Edward, Gordon, and Henry," which brought the three engines together and released Henry from imprisonment in the tunnel. These were published in one volume, "The Three Railway Engines," in 1945.
Shortly after the first stories were finished, Awdry began the idea for a new engine. Christmas 1942 saw the birth of the character that would become the favorite locomotive of many children and adults. Awdry constructed a toy tank engine for Christopher as a Christmas gift, which he named "Thomas." Of course, stories about Thomas soon followed, and were eventually collected and published in 1946 as "Thomas the Tank Engine."
One important and fascinating element of the stories is their basis in fact. Awdry always felt it was important to model his fictional stories and characters around real-life trains and events as much as possible. A few examples of actual incidents recreated in "The Railway Series" include: an engine slipping on excess leaves on the track, a newspaper and bootlaces being used to repair a leaking brake pipe, a cow and her calf charging a moving train, and the inspiration for very first Thomas story -- in which an over-eager Thomas heads out of the station without being coupled to any train cars.
Awdry looked to real life for his trains, too. An obscure 0-6-0T Class E2 shunting engine built for the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway was the model for Thomas. Gordon was based on a Gresley A3 Pacific from the London and North Eastern Railway. Percy was pattered after an old Avonside locomotive, and the Scottish Twins, Donald and Douglas, are based on members of the 812 Caledonian class of 1899. (A meticulous accounting of the connections between "Railway Series" stories and real events is maintained at the Real Stories Website.)
The Reverand Awdry continued to write a new book nearly every year until he retired in 1972. His son Christopher -- now grown and with a son of his own -- took up the writing of the series soon after. He followed the template his father had used before him. He wrote three short stories (this time about Thomas, Percy, and Duck) and then brought them all together in a final story. His first book was titled "Really Useful Engines."
The younger Awdry wrote an additional 40 stories and was instrumental in bringing the popular series to the small screen. Like his father before him, Christopher was also quite adamant that his stories be set in real time and based in real-life events. Consequently, his stories introduced "The Railway Series" readers to more modern machines with the high-speed trains Pip and Emma, and Harold the Helicopter.
Interestingly, neither Rev. Awdry nor his son Christopher ever envisioned Thomas as the star of the books. In fact, at the time the television series began, there had only been two books named after Thomas specifically. Rather, the Awdrys treated the characters in the books as an ensemble and wrote about many different characters, some recurring and others appearing only in one or two stories. Encouragement from fans and pressure from publishers and producers eager to capitalize on the tank engine's fame convinced the Awdrys to focus the spotlight on Thomas. The result is the worldwide phenomenon we know today.
Sadly for Thomas fans, the original "Railway Series" books are currently out of print, but copies may be found online and at used booksellers. The good news is, Thomas and his friends are as close as your television. In the next section, we'll look into Thomas's very popular television show.
Thomas the Tank Engine and TV
Thomas the Tank Engine's television debut didn't come in the popular British television series "Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends," as most believe. Rather, Thomas' humble beginnings date back to 1953 and the BBC. A small-budget production using standard model trains was broadcast live on a Sunday evening. But as can happen with live television, something went wrong. The locomotive portraying Henry came off the tracks, and a human hand had to come down into the shot and place him back on the track again. The show was cancelled, with author Reverend Wilbert Awdry calling it "unprofessional."
Years later, Thomas would get his big break. A British television producer named Britt Allcroft met the Awdry while filming a five-minute railroad documentary. She had read up on Awdry's books as a preparation to their interview but found herself fascinated by the characters and situations Awdry had created. Allcroft believed the stories would make a successful children's television series. "There was something in the stories that I felt I could develop that would connect with children," Allcroft says. "I saw a strong emotional content that would carry with little children's experiences with life."
Allcroft convinced Awdry and eventually bought the television rights from the book publishers for 50,000 pounds (about $95,000 in today's money). She spent several years trying to raise the money to produce the series herself, so as to retain creative control, even putting a second mortgage on her home to raise the capital. The show finally began production in 1981 and was first broadcast in the U.K. in 1984.
From the beginning, Allcroft envisioned using a storyteller to narrate the films in an intimate fashion, but she was having trouble finding the right voice. The solution came via a British "chat" show. "The family had the television on and I was not in the room, but I heard this voice and thought, 'That's the voice for Thomas! Who's that?'" Allcroft recalls. The speaker turned out to be former Beatle Ringo Starr. Allcroft contacted Starr, and he responded favorably, becoming Thomas's first Storyteller.
Called "Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends," the show focused on the characters of Thomas, Edward, Henry, Gordon, James, Percy, and Toby. It also stuck very closely to the stories from the first eight books of "The Railway Series." The second series, which followed in 1986, was patterned on the books of son Christopher Awdry. Christopher was also asked by Allcroft to write some new stories specifically for the TV show.
With the Thomas show a commercial and critical success, Allcroft and her production company turned their eyes to the American market. She struck a deal with television station PBS and in 1989 created a half-hour children's program called "Shining Time Station." This version would use Thomas in two five-minute segments within the show, with a live action story in between. In later seasons, the Thomas stories were cut to one per episode.
But before Thomas could make the leap from British to American audiences, certain changes were in order, including parts of the scripts and episodes titles. For example, the U.K. episode "Thomas & Gordon" was given the more descriptive title "Thomas Gets Tricked" in the U.S. For the American audience, "trucks" became "freight cars" and "points" became "switches." And in one of the more noticeable changes, The Fat Controller officially became Sir Topham Hatt in the Americanized series.
In his article "Thomas in America: Analyzing the American Success," "Railway Series" historian Ryan Healy gives an example of how the dialogue was changed from the British to U.S. versions:
U.K. script: "He went home very slowly, and made sure never to be cheeky to Gordon again."
U.S. script: '''Maybe I don't have to tease Gordon to be really useful,' he thought to himself. And he puffed slowly home."
If the word "cheeky" is used less in the U.S. version, the personality of Thomas has likewise become less cheeky. To make him more appealing to a young American audience, his impudence and self-importance have been diminished somewhat, and he now shows a bit more kindness in his dealings with Sir Topham Hatt and the other engines. The stories in general now focus less on railway action and more on teaching the values of friendship and cooperation.
Other requests for changes were resisted, according to Allcroft. "There was a suggestion that Edward become 'Alice' to have more female characters," she says. Even though Edward remained Edward, accusations of sexism -- most of the railway cars are portrayed as male -- continued to swirl around "Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends." Some years later, a female engine named Emily was added to the cast.
The fictional "Shining Time Station" resides on the Indian Valley Railroad and is run by Stacy Jones and engineer Billy Twofeathers (Harry Cupper in the first season). It is often visited by children named Becky, Dan, Matt, and Tanya, and Kara. The character Schemer adds slapstick humor, while Mr. Conductor provides the intro for the Thomas episodes and generally ties the stories together with a valuable lesson or two.
Ringo Starr continued his association with the "Thomas" series by taking the on-camera part of Mr. Conductor in addition to his narration duties. He remained with the show until 1991. He was replaced by comedian George Carlin, a performer usually not associated with children's entertainment. But as Allcroft notes: "I've always loved not playing by the rules, and again, it was [the case of] George's voice -- a great, great voice."
"Shining Time Station" left the air in 1993, but the adventures continued in the U.S. under the original title "Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends." Carlin also continued as the narrator until 1998, when he was replaced by actor Alec Baldwin. Baldwin starred in the 2000 feature film "Thomas and the Magic Railroad," which merged the two mythologies of Sodor and Indian Valley.
Starting with the show's fifth season, the writers of the show came up with original stories, which increasingly began to spotlight Thomas as the main star and focused less on the ensemble cast. Also, the strict adherence to railway realism that Rev. Awdry had always prided himself on in the stories, such as maintaining individual branch lines for each engine, began to ebb away. During the sixth season, a new set of characters called "The Pack," consisting of construction machines, were introduced. Some saw this as an attempt to capitalize on the success of "Bob the Builder," another property developed by HIT Enteratainment, which produces "Thomas."
More changes were in store for the seventh season (2004), including a new narrator, actor Michael Brandon, who replaced Baldwin. (In Britain, Michael Angelis has been the longtime Storyteller.) The episode length was increased from five to seven minutes, a new theme song was composed, and the series title was shortened to simply "Thomas & Friends."
By then, Allcroft was no longer with the series. In 2002, HIT Entertainment bought out her Gullane Productions, though she remained on board for another year before leaving. (British newspaper The Guardian on October 6, 2003 reported power struggles between Allcroft and HIT, though her actual resignation was ascribed to "pressure of her other business commitments.") Despite her separation from the current owners of the property, she still considers herself "Thomas' mum."
Today, the adventures of Thomas and his friends are seen in 121 countries around the world and are in more than 20 languages, including Norwegian, Korean, Welsh, and Estonian. In the U.S. and U.K., episodes can still be seen on channels such as the Fox Family Channel, The Cartoon Network, and Nick Jr.
But before anyone can see a Thomas episode, it has to be created. In the next section, we conisider how his creators bring him to life on-screen.
How Thomas the Tank Engine Is Created
Now that we've learned about the history and background of Thomas the Tank Engine and his friends, let's take an inside look into how the trains for the television series and movies are created.
The term coined for the production of "Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends" is "live action model animation," and Shepperton Studios, located on the outskirts of London, England, is where the show is brought to life. The train characters are models built to a 1:32 scale, known in the model railway world as "1" Scale. Because very small model trains are filmed moving in real time, it is a complex production that requires a great deal of intense focus. "For anybody who visited the set, what would strike them would be the absolute silence and the concentration," says producer Britt Allcroft.
As related by Michael Edwards in his article "The Making of Thomas the Tank Engine," which appeared in the April 1993 issue of "Model Railroader Magazine," the production studio is the size of an aircraft hangar, and filled with a collection of more than 70 16-by-20-foot sets.
To create the characters of Thomas, Henry, Percy, Gordon, and the gang, model-makers start with Marklin model train chassis and then modify the bodies to represent the various characters. Under a train's body shell lies the mechanism for moving the engine's eyes -- up, down, sideways, or 'round and 'round -- by radio control. In addition, there is a diaphragm pump and smoke unit to blow the specially formulated "smoke."
But what really brings each engine to life is the faces. Each character has its own basic face, which is first sculpted in clay. Then a rubber mold is made, and several copies are cast in a mixture of resin and auto-body filler. Each replica is reworked into different expressions, from which a final silicone casting is taken.
The characters' faces are changed between shooting sequences and are held in place with nothing more sophisticated than double-sided adhesive tape. Thomas alone has more than 40 faces cast for him, while the other engines have five or six each.
Models are constructed entirely from scratch by a team of three full-time model makers and two part-time freelancers, working under the art director. Actual movement of the locomotives along the tracks is by conventional two-rail electrification using standard Marklin equipment.
For years, "Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends" was filmed with a 35mm camera using a "periscope" lens, which was able to get very close to the model trains while maintaining a wide depth-of-field behind them. According to Allcroft, this was done "so we could get a real sense of reality about their world on the island of Sodor." For the first several seasons the show was edited on film as well, but as computer technology became more advanced, a digital editing system was introduced.
Thomas is now CG animated and is no longer filmed in live action. The CG animation is by Nitrogen Studios in Vancouver, Canada.
In the next section, we'll look at the educational aspects of the "Thomas" tales.
Learning With Thomas the Tank Engine
While not an educational children's program in the way that, say, "Sesame Street" is, "Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends" still falls squarely into the categories of pro-social and learning-friendly. The difference is that instead of concentrating on ABCs and 1-2-3s, the show teaches young viewers lessons in cooperation and friendship.
"I had a mission and that was these stories would absolutely entertain, but they would do more," says producer Britt Allcroft. "They would help support children emotionally in the early years of their life, when they're learning about being human beings and experiencing all that goes with making friends or losing friends."
She adds, however, that teachers do use the numbers and the varied colors that adorn each character as teaching tools.
Through its official Thomas Web site, www.thomasandfriends.com, HIT Entertainment continues to promote the show's dedication to teaching "a strong community ethos and a willingness to embrace good manners, hard work, and a desire to be 'Really Useful.'" Interestingly, it also promotes a benefit of the series to a particular segment of its audience: boys. "You'll discover that Thomas & Friends is the ideal vehicle to help keep boys on track and channel their energy and behavior in a really useful and productive manner," the promo reads.
The puns are, of course, completely intentional.
As charming as Thomas is, he's surrounded by an equally charming cast of co-workers and friends. In the next section, we'll look into Gordon, James, Sir Topham Hatt, and more.
'Thomas & Friends' Characters
The star of "Thomas & Friends" is, of course, Thomas, but even he knows he wouldn't be the famous engine he is today if it weren't for his friends. Here is a look at some of the Really Useful characters in "Thomas & Friends":
Thomas the Tank Engine
Thomas the Tank Engine can be described as a cheeky, true blue engine who proudly wears the #1 on his side as he makes tracks to great destinations on the Island of Sodor and beyond. Thomas is a Really Useful Engine, though he sometimes gets into scrapes -- usually by being overeager to do things that are best left to bigger and more sensible engines. But Thomas is soon bustling about again, playing his part in the yard and on his very own branch line, of which he is extremely proud.
Sir Topham Hatt
Sir Topham Hatt is the Director of the Railway and is responsible for making sure that the engines are always Right on Time and Really Useful. Once known only as the Fat Director, he has a firm but kind manner in dealing with the engines and staff.
James is a medium-size engine. His six driving wheels are not as big as Gordon's and not as small as Thomas'. He has a fine scarlet coat and a brass dome, and likes to think of himself as a Really Splendid Engine. This can occasionally lead to high-falutin' ideas that land James into trouble.
Percy is the junior member of the team of engines. He is a happy little chap who's normally quite content puffing around the yard with no particular desire for adventure in the great world outside. He is always keen to oblige, a trait of which the other engines sometimes take advantage.
Henry is a long, fast engine. He has a thoroughbred look and, like all thoroughbreds, tends to be somewhat highly strung and prone to problems. But when sympathetically driven, he'll give any engine a run for its money.
Toby is old-fashioned, both in looks and outlook. Every engine, no matter how old, wants to be Really Useful, and having once nearly been scrapped, Toby is always happy to work.
Gordon is the senior member of the engine family, the fastest and most powerful of Sir Topham Hatt's line -- and he knows it. He's goodhearted, though, and always willing to use his superior strength to help smaller engines out of trouble.
Edward, one of the older engines, is good-willed and kind. When the other engines misbehave, Sir Topham Hatt turns to Edward in order to calm everyone down and restore order.
Emily is a beautiful engine with shiny paintwork and gleaming brass fittings. After she rescued Oliver and Toad when they were stuck on the tracks, Sir Topham Hatt rewarded her with a brand new pair of coaches.
Mavis is a feisty young diesel engine who works at the quarry. She is full of her own ideas and doesn't take kindly to advice. She has a lot to learn about the Troublesome Trucks, but she is learning to be a Really Useful Engine.
Bertie the Bus
Bertie has a great deal in common with Thomas. Ever since their Great Race, they have been the firmest of friends. Bertie wants the engines to admit that -- just sometimes -- roads have their uses as well as rails.
Cranky the Crane
Like all cranes, Cranky has a high-and-mighty attitude that often annoys the engines. But Cranky knows that if he ever gets too big for his crane hook, the engines have ways of getting back at him.
Harold the Helicopter
Harold is a welcome and lively addition to the quiet landscape of Sodor whenever he appears, and even if the noise he makes is occasionally wearing, the engines are always pleased to see him.
Iron 'Arry & Iron Bert
Iron 'Arry & Iron Bert
Iron 'Arry and his brother Iron Bert are diesel engines that work down in the scrap yards and smelters' shed. As with most diesel engines, Iron Bert and 'Arry feel that diesel engines are much superior to steam engines and would really like to melt down Stepney and Oliver if given the chance.
Terence the Tractor
Terence is an honest and hardworking tractor who has often been the subject of teasing from the younger engines because of his caterpillar treads. He takes it all in stride, though, and always gets the job done.
Trevor the Tractor
Trevor is an old tractor who enjoys dozing in the sun but dislikes being left outside for too long. He loves to show that he's still very useful and capable of a good day's work.
The Troublesome Trucks take great delight in causing trouble for whichever engine has to pull them. Noisy and silly, they talk a lot and do not attend to what they are doing.
Salty, The Dockside Diesel, is a hardworking engine who loves to tell tales of his life by the sea. Salty is a little rough around the edges but has a great big heart and will always rush to aid any engine, be it steam or fellow diesel.
Harvey is a good-natured crane engine. Sir Topham Hatt brought him to the Island to help with the loading and unloading of freight. No job is too big for him.
Elizabeth is a beautifully restored vintage steamwagon who, like all trucks on the Island, believes that roads are much better than rails. She tends to wear a scowl and is quick to correct the engines who comment on her age, by exclaiming, "I'm not old -- I'm vintage!"
Would you believe that there have been nearly 300 "Thomas" episodes produced in the past decade? Read the list on the next page -- you might be surprised how many you've seen.
Thomas the Tank Engine Episode Guide
Part of what makes "Thomas & Friends" so successful is that children delight in watching the shows over, and over -- and over again. There are nearly 300 of them, and we hit on some of the highlights on this page. Download our "Thomas" episode guide for a complete listing of all of the episodes.
Here are some highlights from the 2006-2007 season:
Episode 235: "Follow that Flour"
Jealous that James gets to collect flour for the cakes for a children's party, Thomas bumps James' rail car and the flour spills out, forcing Thomas to find a replacement car.
Episode 236: "A Smooth Ride"
Really Useful Engine Sir Handel, who has been away, returns and is assigned the job of transporting apples, but he immediately begins to have trouble traveling up hill, and seeks help from Peter Sam -- help he is reluctant to admit needing.
Episode 237: "Thomas & the Jet Plane"
Episode 237: "Thomas & the Jet Plane"
Thomas feels that Jeremy the Jet Plane is too boastful to bother with until Jeremy helps him and his load of children, en route to the Sodor Summer Picnic, avert a brewing storm.
Episode 238: "Percy & the Funfair"
Episode 238: "Percy & the Funfair"
Percy would much rather be helping out as an attraction at the carnival than mundanely pulling a load of coal. He decides to join his friends at the expense of his duties, and learns an important lesson about responsibility.
Episode 239: "The Green Controller"
Percy, entrusted to hand out the work assignments to the other engines, refuses Thomas' help in doing so and ends up giving his friends seriously wrong instructions.
Episode 240: "Duncan Drops a Clanger"
While transporting the clock tower bell, Duncan becomes so enamored of its sound that he forgets the foreman's advice to travel slowly. He only recalls it after the bell has flown off the flatbed and becomes stuck in a tree.
Episode 241: "Thomas's Tricky Tree"
Thomas is assigned to pick up a Christmas tree, but his friends tease him, saying he does not know what one looks like. Peeved, Thomas sets off to prove them wrong, but in his haste and anger he only proves them right.
Episode 242: "Toby's Afternoon Off"
Busy Toby juggles three assignments to try and finish in time in order to take the afternoon off to visit the farmyard. He thinks his plan has worked, but it is not quite as successful as he had hoped.
Episode 243: "It's Good To Be Gordon"
Hoping to break his Express record, Gordon stays silent when he accidentally receives Henry's special coal instead of his own regular coal. While Gordon relishes the extra power, he learns that Henry can no longer function with regular coal, and trades back at the expense of his record.
Episode 244: "Seeing the Sights"
In trying to be as speedy as Gordon, Thomas races through his station stops, leaving his passengers behind. It is up to Bertie the Bus to come to their transportation rescue.
With such an interesting past, Thomas must have a fascinating future ahead of him. On the next page, we look into what's next for Thomas and his Friends.
The Future of Thomas the Tank Engine
Thomas the Tank Engine's adventures are broadcast daily, available on videos and DVDs, and his likeness appears on everything from toys to books to clothing. So what does the future have in store for Thomas?
Thomas fans have the chance to enter the real-life world of Thomas the Tank Engine in the nationwide "Day Out With Thomas Ride-the-Rails Tour," sponsored by HIT Entertainment in partnership with local railroads. The events provide an opportunity for kids to ride on board a train led by Thomas and have their pictures taken with him and Sir Topham Hatt.
The line of products built around Thomas the Tank Engine has expanded, with Thomas-themed furniture, bedding, room decor, and wallpaper products, through partnerships with The Betesh Group, York Wallcoverings, Dan River, Spin Master Ltd., and the Little Tikes Company.
An interactive games-on-demand TV network, TVHead, has developed the first-ever iTV games based on "Thomas & Friends." The games will offer children a range of activities; focusing on navigation, early math skills, and problem solving. The project is expected to launch in the last quarter of 2006.
Thomas, and Thomas-lovers everywhere, have lots of fun and learning to look forward to for years to come.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS:
Natalie Walker Whitlock is the author of more than 500 articles and 13 books, including A Parents Guide to the Internet. She lives with her husband and seven children in Arizona.
Michael Mallory is an internationally recognized authority on animation and the author of the books Hanna-Barbera Cartoons and X-Men: The Characters and Their Universe.