Media Essays: Me And A Little Blue Tank Engine
Written by Captain Conroy
Everyone has their number one character/franchise that means so much to them – if you’ll pardon the pun given what today’s subject is about. I too can relate to this as I’ve been in and out of many different franchises, but there’s one particular one that has always stuck with me. One I have never been out of, one franchise where its main character is more to me than a fictional character, but a dear old friend and the world he lives in is one where I just keep coming back. And that, would be Thomas the Tank Engine.
People may dismiss it as just a “kid’s franchise” and being solely for babies. However, what people are ignorant to is that a common trait with autistic people is that no matter how old they are, they’ll fondly love somethings that can be considered kid’s properties. They also don’t know how much realism actually goes into these stories. My own fondness for Thomas goes very deep and I’ll do my best to tell you all about it. So, all aboard and show me your tickets because here we go!
It naturally began when I was very young. I can’t remember how young I was when I was first introduced, but I’ve known Thomas and his Friends for as long as I can remember. It was also natural to begin with the classics. For context the show began in 1984 and I was born in 1996, and we had plenty of videos at that time as this was before DVDs came in. It was an immediate hit from there from the charming models, to Ringo Starr’s classical narration.
I really love this picture. He practically made it what it was for me what with Awdry’s words and his voice. It was perfect for someone of my age at that time as the stories were never long and they were simple, yet effective. Interestingly enough however, Ringo only did it for two series and at the time I was born, it would have been his replacement narrating Thomas at the time and his replacement was one Michael Angelis.
While Ringo had the storyteller’s charisma, Michael had that, plus a form of energy he added. He also made up a few definitive voices for some of the characters such as Sir Topham Hatt. I remember my introduction to Angelis was one video I owned where half of the episodes on that video were narrated by Ringo and then halfway through, episodes narrated by Michael took to the stage. As far as I was concerned though at that time, Thomas with either Ringo or Michael narrating, back then life was perfect.
Would it stop with the series however? No, of course it wouldn’t. There were the magazines I’d love to get and what kid would be complete without toys? The particular toys I am referring to are the die cast ones made by a company called ERTL. Oh boy these guys! I had a whole lot of them, most of them would have been Christmas and birthday presents no doubt and they were even sold at Wonderland, a theme park which everyone will now know as Wheelgate.
By 2000, I was four and something truly awesome happened for Thomas fans. Thomas got a cinematic outing, and it would be called Thomas and the Magic Railroad. This is a movie I truly hold close to my heart for many reasons with the main one being this: I’m 99% sure that this was THE very first movie I had ever seen in the cinema. Sadly the film itself was a failure but of course at this time, I was living in blissful ignorance about it and even to this day, I don’t care. I hold it close to my heart, it gives me great nostalgic joy and it gave me a definitive voice for Thomas in the form of Eddie Glen. And as of 2020, the movie became 20 years old so I re-watched it to celebrate its 20th anniversary and to honour the late great Peter Fonda and Russel Means who had participated in the movie.
Moving on up to Primary School, Thomas would still stick with me of course and it was at this time when I started getting a hold of the Motor Road and Rail merchandise of Thomas, or Tomica as I called it, courtesy of a video that was pretty much made to promote these toys called Tomica World. I had a HUGE collection of these. I would by them with my own pocket money, I would get them for my birthday and they were most certainly a Christmas must. And it was one Christmas were for a Thomas fan like me, I got the gift of a life time.
It was even that same box too, but that’s not the subject. Basically Hornby, who are a renowned company in the U.K for manufacturing model trains and they did a Thomas and Friends range which had sadly been discontinued as of 2018. But luckily for those who may want them, they’re still widely available on the internet. But this was the ultimate gift a Thomas fan like me could get.
The days out with Thomas events also have to be mentioned as they were around and I recall visits to the Midland Railway to see our favourite little train. It was another engine masquerading as Thomas however as I’ll elaborate on a little later. Events like this were always fun and great to attend.
I still kept Thomas close to me during my teen years with the exception of school as my secondary school was one of those nasty sorts where being different made you an easy target for bullies. So naturally I kept my Thomas love to myself out of fear of ridicule and bullying. By the time I left that school in 2012 and started a new one there were a few Thomas fans there so it was O.K to be open about it. However as I hadn’t actually watched it on TV and kept to the internet and DVD’s, it was around this time when I found out that Thomas had transitioned in CGI as far back as 2009. I was not happy about this when I first found out but after giving it a chance some years later I came to accept it as the animation was smooth and it didn’t look half bad. 2012 also saw another big change as Michael Angelis had left after 21 years as the narrator in the U.K, thus making him the longest serving narrator. With him gone, the responsibility of narrating it would go to Mark Moraghan who would narrate until 2017.
By that time I would still continue to reminisce on Thomas and watch episodes I already knew and some I had never seen before. But come the next year in 2018, came a huge turn in my life which Thomas had largely influenced and inspired. I was going to create a spin-off to it. It would feature my own engines on their own railway and it would be connected to the Island of Sodor. It was more or less born on the spot. By this time, LEGO were releasing a brand new Harry Potter range and one of the sets was the Hogwarts Express.
And there it was, this would be my starring engine! But what about the name? That was very easy, Haydn. After one of the staff members at Space Inclusive, my day centre I go to, whom I greatly respected.
I even told him so and he was quite honoured. And the engine would hold the name very dear when Haydn sadly passed away in 2019. But at this time, the basis for the engine and the name were decided, but because I love to imagine so, what about the voice? After all, to me a definitive Thomas voice is Eddie Glen, so who would I get as THE one definitive voice for Haydn the engine? Simple, the Doctor Who fan in me would leave that to the fabulously talented David Tennant.
I would also make up other engines naturally, some took time, some just came and some I made up around names similar to what Awdry had done when making up some of his engines. Reginald and Godfrey were two such names to pop out of my head. And speaking of what Awdry had done, people may still wonder how come I never dismiss Thomas as just a simple kid’s product? The answer is clear, as I grew older I found more and more reasons to appreciate Thomas than just nostalgia. The story of how it came to be when Awdry was entertaining his sick son, Christopher when he had measles would be one thing to appreciate for example.
Then courtesy of a rhyme about little engines standing in a row, he drew engines and put faces on them and Christopher took note of a sad one and asked the engine’s name. The answer Awdry gave: Edward. Then along came two more engines, Gordon and Henry and thus the first book, written in 1943 and took til 1945 to get published, The Three Railway Engines.
So there you have it, Thomas wasn’t the first engine created, it was Edward. However, Thomas’ debut would come the next year in 1946 when Awdry made Christopher a model train as a Christmas present and it was Christopher who would call this engine the one name immortalized in the world of fictional steam engines forever: Thomas.
Shows how deep the origin story is. Another thing to appreciate as I got older was the realism of the stories. As fantastical as talking trains were, what most people don’t know is that some of the accidents and crashes are based on things that happened in real life and the engines themselves are based on real engines. The Skarloey Gang in particular are based on real engines you can see on the Talyllyn Railway in Wales, and I have been there myself and if you love trains, you should go, it’s lovely up there. I miss the place so much already and would love to go again.
Thomas himself was based on a London, Brighton and South Coast Railway Class E2 Tank Engine with extended side tanks.
Like so. And that was what I meant by a different engine masquerading as Thomas earlier on. Because it would be easy to assume that they’d just paint an E2, stick on a face and call it Thomas, but there’s one glaring problem with that… there aren’t any E2s left, they were all scrapped.
“Poor Thomas was so sad, he nearly cried.”
Cheer up Thomas, there’s still plenty left to talk about why you’re awesome.
That’s better. Despite this setback, they’d still come pretty close in terms of finding similar locomotives. As I mentioned earlier, I hold Thomas and The Magic Railroad close to my heart and still love the film very much. However, one thing nobody would have been able to tell by watching it as kids is that Thomas and The Magic Railroad was going to be a VERY different movie. Early stages included that the villain Diesel 10 was going to be a secondary antagonist whilst the main antagonist was going to be one P.T Boomer. Characters such as Stacy Jones and Billy Twofeathers were going to have much more screen time and in hindsight, for something that was supposed to be about Thomas, it would have mostly been about the other characters.
All that is enough to give you a whole new perspective of things and although the director’s cut of the film would actually have been pretty cool, I’m still quite happy with what we got as its sweet nostalgia and at the end of the day, just a very charming, simple kids film.
Sadly as of writing this, I don’t have much of my original Thomas merchandise left, this would be due to passing them down to other family members and we naturally ditched videos in favour of DVDs and we had a couple of computer games back in the day, but we got rid of them a while ago and I highly doubt they’d be compatible with today’s computers. I do however have my original Thomas library which contains all original 26 books written by Awdry.
And I hope to get the stories written by his son Christopher at some point in the future. But I think this may be my ONLY piece of original Thomas merchandise I have left. However, as of now, I have myself a model railway with an ever-expanding collection of the Bachmann Thomas and Friends range.
(You can check out this image on my Instagram and in one of my YouTube videos)
Bachmann is to the Americans what Hornby is to us – only difference is that they’re actually still making their range to this day and while they’re probably not as high quality as Hornby’s, they’re all still very good models and certainly the best thing you can go far as Bachmann have made more characters and although they’re mainly sold across the pond, it’s still possible to get them in the U.K and they’ve made more characters than Hornby did. And what’s nicer still is that they’re still making them in the original model and CGI styles and they said on Twitter I believe that their line won’t be affected by the reboot. (A bit more on that later on.)
Another way Thomas positively impacted my life was that according to my Mum, it was down to the show by teaching me colours and numbers. Seriously, who needs school? If you want to learn colours and numbers, just leave it to Thomas and his Friends.
But now sadly we have to come to a few dark points within my history of Thomas, because come 2020, a childhood voice of many, including me was silenced. Michael Angelis had passed away due to a heart attack. He was either 68 or 76 as people can’t seem to make up their minds when he was born.
But things sadly haven’t gotten any better because now the CGI has going bye-bye and now what we got was is this.
And I remember when I saw the trailer for it and needless to say I was not impressed. Thomas’s voice is not very good, the cartoony style does not work for Thomas the Tank Engine and gone is the charming sense of realism and here is more of a generic kid’s cartoon. And the reception of this has been absolutely slammed. Even I don’t wish to end this essay on a negative note though so I’ll move back on to positive stuff.
Despite this, I am not giving up on this franchise. I’m sticking to what I love about the franchise. I’ll still re-watch my favourite episodes and Magic Railroad many times more. And now that I have a little nephew and niece, I have an opportunity to share this passion just as I had done with my niece who is the daughter of my half-sister.
As you may have been able to tell throughout the whole of this that Thomas is my favourite character. So I’ll take a moment to elaborate on this and talk about any other favourite characters of mine. I love all the engines naturally but Thomas is my favourite but I do have other favourites as well. Henry has always been a favourite engine of mine.
I don’t know what it is about Henry I particularly like, but I’ve always had a soft spot for him. He certainly has one of my favourite basis’ for a Thomas engine, a Stanier Black 5. Oliver is another engine I have always been very fond of.
He has another favourite basis of mine in the form of a GWR 14xx.
Moving back onto how I’m not giving up because the franchise still has lots to offer. The fans are truly amazing people. I have come across some of the most amazing fan stories on YouTube. Some of my favourites are written by one Richard Jordan, I’m convinced he should become a writer for the show and some of his stories should be made into episodes.
I myself am concepting and writing fan stories about Thomas and his Friends. Some of which are sequels to Magic Railroad and Thomas even appears in some of my stories about Haydn as to me it was inevitable that the main man himself would show up given it was a spin off.
Fans also like to crossover Thomas with another famous engine in the form of Ivor the Engine, like so. And I will admit I’ve jumped on this band wagon as well as Ivor also appears in my Haydn stories and I have a LEGO model of Ivor under construction.
And one of my passion projects features Thomas where he along with Percy and James will crossover with myself and some other of my childhood favourites. These being Postman Pat, Fireman Sam, Bob the Builder, Percy the Park Keeper and Balamory. I call it My Friends Thomas, Percy and James. I use these three in particular as they’re commonly featured in promotional materials and the three of them were the main characters in the Thomas special: King of the Railway.
Like so. The three of them do look very good side by side I do have to admit though.
And it doesn’t end with fan stories in order for fans to show their talents. It can even be done through singing as Thomas and Friends has produced many great songs over the years, some of which are even better than half the tripe you get on the radio these days. Every Cloud Is Silver Lined, Thomas’ Anthem and Really Useful Engine have always been favourites of mine. Some fans have produced their own covers and even doing their own spin on classic Thomas songs. One of them goes by the username Headmaster Hastings.
And let me tell you there is no end to this man’s talent. He can play instruments, he can sing and his spin on classic Thomas songs are incredible. He can make them sound really good and he’ll sometimes do them in the style of 60’s pop and one particular one had a very Elvis like vibe going on with it. If you’re a Thomas fan reading this, I highly recommend checking him out as soon as you’ve finished reading.
And now we are caught up and are completely up to date. So, what’s next from here? Well I’m going to finish my model railway by giving scenery and for my YouTube page – I shall be making my own Thomas series which I am greatly excited to get started on – I already have a few scripts ready and still more to write, I can also really work on My Friends Thomas, Percy and James, and keep Haydn and Friends going for as long as I can.
I’m also going to keep re-watching what I love and watch new episodes and specials I have not yet seen as I could NEVER give up on this franchise as it means so much to me and nothing is ever going to change that. After all, these sorts of things are all about you and what you like. It doesn’t matter what other people think.
This franchise has positively influenced my life in ways I will be eternally grateful for and Thomas may be a fictional character, as are all his friends but they are much more to me than fictional characters. They are friends to me, dear old friends and it’s always a pleasure seeing them.
I don’t know how many people would consider this sort of thing a hobby with the stories I write around Thomas and my own world about trains or a phase of being into this franchise. But to me, it’s a passion that’s been with me since childhood that I could never let go of and to me, let’s just say that I think that hobbies and phases only last so long. Passions last forever.
This essay is dedicated to the following:
Reverend Wilbert Awdry, Michael Angelis and Haydn Bridgeland
If you like what you read here: please feel free to check out my Instagram at: captain_conroy
And my YouTube at: Doctor Conroy