Do you ever take a look back at the shows you used to watch as a small kid? Just to see if they hold or if you’ve been remembering them through rose-tinted spectacles?
I did a while back with the character and TV series that was my constant companion in my early childhood. Thomas The Tank Engine, created as part of The Railway Series by the Rev. W. Awdry. Whenever it was my turn to choose the video we got to watch (and it was an old-fashioned VHS, I am that old), it was Thomas The Tank Engine I put into the player. I’m sure it drove my family mad, but there was just something about this show that, like so many children around the world, got me hooked.
Britt Allcroft wasn’t the first person to try and adapt the stories of the Railway Series into a TV show. In fact, there had already been a show based on one of the stories broadcast on the BBC in 1953, with plans for another. But the live broadcast did not go well, and the second show was first postponed and then cancelled. Twenty years later, fan of the series and musical theatre overlord Andrew Lloyd Webber attempted to get an animated musical TV show off the ground. But there were disputes between Webber and Awdry, as well as doubts from the studio. They doubted that the popularity of the stories outside of the UK was big enough to justify the expense of actually producing the show. There was a pilot episode made but nothing more came of it.
It was TV producer Britt Allcroft who was able to make it work. Like the BBC production in the 50s, she went with using models to animate the engines. With the right creative team, they found a formula that worked. So much so that Christopher Awdry, for whom the stories had been written in the first place, started writing new stories, some of which were adapted by the TV show. Allcroft immediately grasped the nature of Awdry’s stories and how their emotional content appealed to children. When it came to actually telling the stories, they kept it very simple. There was no enormous cast voicing every single character. There was one narrator. It felt like someone was reading the stories to you but with the added attraction of watching the stories act themselves out. The choice of narrator was inspired. While many have raised an eyebrow at one of the most famous musicians in the world agreeing to narrate a children’s TV show about talking trains, Ringo Starr did a truly fantastic job. Despite being from Liverpool, Starr had a voice that was very well suited to read the material. His slightly laid-back approach meant that younger children could keep up with what he was saying. Michael Angelis was also extremely good, hence why he continued in the role for over 20 years. I somewhat prefer Starr to Angelis simply because he didn’t feel the need to give individual voices to each character and I just prefer that approach to these stories.
What is clear from the classic episodes is the passion that went into it. From the work on the models to make what were essentially custom-built toy trains not unlike a giant Hornby set feel like real, living, breathing characters to the people who did the sets and the specialised camera rigs. The entire production team pulled out all the stops, and they came up with something very special. It also didn’t over stay it’s welcome. Each episode was only about five minutes long, before being extended to seven minutes a few years later. There is always something to be said for entertainment that gets in, does its thing and gets out. That was simply another point that worked in the show’s favour. There was always some moral to learn in each story as well, perhaps not surprising given the creator of the series was a clergyman.
That same passion has long since gone from those behind the TV series now. The models and stop-motion animation were abandoned long ago for an entirely CGI approach. That has now also been dropped for an entirely new approach that would have the Rev. W. Awdry spinning in his grave. Never forget that while he wrote these stories for children, Awdry was a serious railway enthusiast. He got into arguments with two illustrators about the lack of accuracy in their drawings.
To me, the original TV series still holds up. It tells fantastic stories brilliantly in a way that both honours and expands upon Awdry’s original work. It may seem ridiculous for a grown man to admit he still likes a show like this but I do. I really do.