70 years of Thomas
In 1942, the Reverend Wilbert Awdry made a toy train as a Christmas present for his two year old son, Christopher. Christopher asked his father to make up stories about the train. When his father did so, he could not have imagined how these simple tales would fire the imagination of children across the world for generations to come. Inventively built from a section of broom handle, a metal tube and some re-shaped carpet pins, Christopher’s humble plaything would give rise to a multimillion pound retail business.
The train became Thomas the Tank Engine.
Today, a Thomas and Friends toy is sold somewhere in the world every two seconds. The television series is currently broadcast to more than a billion households in 300 regions each week. Annual global sales reached £615 million in 2011. When the ex-Beatles drummer, Ringo Starr began doing voice-overs for a Thomas based television series in 1984, broadcasters from all over the world queued up to buy.
In the interview below promoting the first Thomas the Tank Engine episode Ringo mentions that he would have liked to have been more than just a voice in the show.
A few years later he got that chance when he played ‘Mr Conductor’ in an American children’s series based on the stories which incorporated sequences from Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends called Shining Time Station.
In recent years, underlying messages in the scripts have come under close scrutiny, leading some parents to prohibit their children from watching the programme altogether.
Why the fuss?
The dictatorial, faintly British colonial character of the Fat Controller in his top hat (Can you imagine getting away with calling any character ‘fat’ nowadays?) concerns some critics. He ruled over the trains – fairly autocratically – issuing tasks on a whim and punishing Thomas and friends when they failed to do his bidding or meet his standards.
There was trouble on gender issues too. Of the many characters created for the series, few were female. In one story, Emily is shunned by all the other trains for carrying out a task without Thomas’s permission! In other episodes, Emily ignores Thomas’s advice and gets into trouble. She later redeems herself by taking advice and getting the job done. An unkind interpretation of the underlying message here might be that female disobedience of male ‘commands’ is not permissible; that such transgressions should be punishable by mockery and ill treatment.
The Fat Controller’s cruelty wasn’t reserved solely for female characters. In yet another story, a male train is ridiculed and bullied for driving around painted pink and in ‘The Sad Story of Henry‘ an engine who refuses to leave a tunnel because he doesn’t want to have his paintwork spoiled by the weather is bricked in(!)
Eventually even the fat controller gave up ‘we shall take away your rails’ he said ‘and leave you here for always and always and always’ they took up the old rails and built a wall in front of him so that Henry couldn’t get out of the tunnel any more.
(Happily Henry does get a chance to redeem himself in the following episode but it leaves the show in quite a dark place until then).
I loved Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends and watched it happily and was, I am sure, totally oblivious to any dark undercurrents in the stories. Children have no awareness of the messages in the programmes they watch. The world is simpler for them – they either like something or they don’t. So, despite these concerns, they continue to watch and enjoy Thomas in their millions.
Whether or not you buy into any of the ‘underlying messages’ argument depends on the degree to which you believe children’s attitudes are formed by what they see on television. This is a debate that has come up regularly over the years. Were children in the sixties more aggressive because they regularly watched Jerry drop a flat iron on Tom’s head? Similarly, does watching Thomas the Tank Engine expose our children to unwelcome attitudes? You decide.