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.