TV

Thomaspotting: The latest, international adventures of Thomas the Tank Engine

Imagine a railway where there are no strikes by staff, signalling faults or overheated, overcrowded coaches. As fanciful as that seems, that place really exists (sort of)

Thomas the Tank Engine first pulled into the station in 1946, in the second book in The Railway Series by the Rev W Awdry. From the beginning, Awdry based his stories on real trains and adhered to the rules of the railway, which the programme-makers stayed true to in the enormously popular Ringo Starr-narrated TV series of the 1980s. And they have kept on track ever since.

Supervising producer Ian McCue recognises that the core audience is toddlers but is aware of a vocal fanbase who complain about the programme’s technical mistakes.

“When I first came on board Thomas, it was during the first CGI batch and at that point, fans were up in arms because the trains didn’t have brake vans at the back of a long line of trucks,” McCue remembers. “There’s no way you could have a train like that out on a line without a break van – it’s just against the rules.

“Our three or four-year-old fans are not going to know that but it was a bit lazy of us to be honest, a quick fix that doesn’t cause us any trouble and suddenly the fans are happy. Our core audience of toddlers are really just looking to be entertained, but we know there is this great army of Thomas fans that we really respect. If not for them, Thomas would not have lasted so they’re very important to us and we always try to ensure we’re doing the right thing.

“I do often get caught up reading some of the Sodor Island forums, various notes on YouTube, and I know at one point there were engines crisscrossing tracks – again that’s an easy fix. Slowly we started listening to what the fans were saying.

“But there’s only so much we can do,” McCue adds. “If fans want to go and watch a show about a real railway, they’re better off watching Michael Portillo’s journeys around the world, but it’s not going to be as fun and entertaining.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jZWVSFz05J0

Has McCue not seen Portillo’s intriguingly vibrant wardrobe? “We are always looking to make colourful engines,” McCue says, “So we’ll take some of his shirt patterns into account.”

In his latest adventure, Thomas takes a leaf out of the Bradshaw’s Guide beloved by Portillo and decides to become the first train to travel around the world after being inspired by a flash race car called Ace, voiced by Peter Andre.

As insania as it sounds, Thomas is not getting ideas above his station. In the age of steam, British-made engines were exported globally. McCue explains: “We always keep in mind what Rev Awdry was thinking when he wrote the original stories, and if you go back to the introduction of Thomas the first line is about the little tank engine who wants to come out of his yard and see the world. It felt right that after 70 years we should make it happen.”

Thomas leaves the Isle of Sodor for Africa, before chuffing through the Americas and Asia. The production crew also went places, travelling to New York for meetings at the UN headquarters to see how they could collaborate.

“We had a series of workshops and meetings with the UN,” says fellow producer Micaela Winter. “They spoke to us a lot about their Sustainable Development Goals and it became clear to us that a lot of the issues they were talking about were really important to us as well.

“Thomas is going around the world and seeing things,” Winter continues.  “He is a little child for us, the eyes of innocence, and he’s experiencing things that he begins to question. Our hope is children will go away and start to talk about these things with their parents.”

The Fat Controller was right. Thomas is a really useful engine.

The Real Thomas

Thomas is based on the E2 class of engine (below) built by Brighton Works between 1913-1916. All were scrapped by the mid-1960s.

“The real Thomas would have been used for shunting and short-distance freight, which is similar to what Thomas does in the series,” explains producer Micaela Winter. “We’re very careful not to have tender engines shunting because that’s not what they’d have done in reality. In that sense, the show is pretty realistic.”

original
Image: Thomas was based on a version of the E2 engine

All of the characters in the stories are similarly based on real locomotives, including recent arrivals. Out in Africa, Thomas couples up with Nia. She is modelled on the KUR ED1 class, built by the Vulcan Foundry in Lancashire, which really did operate on lines between Kenya and Uganda from the 1920s.

The Isle of Sodor

Although fictional, Thomas’s home of Sodor has a detailed history and geography. It is approximately 3,000 square miles, sitting in the Irish Sea between Barrow-in-Furness and the Isle of Man. It has its own flag and even a patron saint. Sodor is (fortunately) self-sufficient when it comes to coal, allowing it to have unbeatable transport connections.

Sodor_embed

Staying on Time

The current state of train services can make us nostalgic for the past.

“For Thomas’ setting we have a timeless bubble that sits between 1940 to sort of the early 1970s,” McCue says. “We fear that if we were to take Thomas out of that era we could make him feel very old and very dated.”

There are no plans to fully electrify the island yet, but Thomas’s creators do have advice for those in the real world running real railways.

“Avoid confusion and delay at all costs,” Winter says. “That’s a direct quote from the Fat Controller.”

Thomas & Friends: Big World! Big Adventures! The Movie is out in cinemas from July 20.

Image: ITV/Shutterstock

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