How Thomas the Tank Engine became a runaway money-making machine

Linda J. Dodson

Sitting opposite me now, in a decidedly unflashy outfit of crew-neck sweater, checked shirt, blue chinos and loafers, Christopher admits, ‘Without Father we wouldn’t have the lifestyle we now enjoy.’ But the Awdrys – Wilbert, Margaret, Christopher and his two younger sisters, Hilary and Veronica – never lived like celebrities. ‘Life didn’t change dramatically when Thomas took off,’ he says. ‘I suppose the only difference was that, in 1956, for instance, we bought a new car for the very first time. And in 1955 we had our first proper holiday. Up until then our family holidays had been on an exchange basis: we would exchange his parish with a parish in Preston or wherever it might be. But in ’55 we had our first proper non-exchange holiday.’

It wasn’t exactly the Caribbean though; they went to a boarding house in Scarborough.

But the truth of the matter is, it is probably the vicar’s genuine concern for his readers, rather than the health of his own bank account, that explains Thomas’s success. ‘In marketing these days the most overused word is “authenticity’”, Nicola Kemp, the head of features at Marketing magazine, says. ‘At every brand strategy meeting, every conference, everyone talks about the authenticity of the brand, and Thomas has that.’

Throughout his writing career, the primary concern of Awdry, who died in 1997 aged 85, was to infuse children with his own love of steam trains and entertain them with stories about friendship, responsibility, resilience and loyalty. ‘They all deal with kindness and being a good citizen and doing good things in your community and to each other,’ says the actor Pierce Brosnan, who enjoyed a brief stint as narrator of the television series in 2008. ‘It also allows you, as an actor, to have a whale of a time hamming it up. You had to play it with a generous heart. You can’t demean it in any way.’

Alec Baldwin, another former narrator, agrees. (The series has a habit of hiring surprisingly starry names – after winning the best actor Oscar this year, Eddie Redmayne announced he would be voicing Ryan in the Thomas the Tank Engine animated feature film Sodor’s Legend of the Lost Treasure.) ‘I think that innate sweetness and kindness is central,’ Baldwin says, over email. ‘Perhaps the show captures children right before they, and especially boys, begin to obsess about power and, therefore, violent games and such. The Thomas programming really serves children while they still want to laugh and smile and snuggle, rather than chop someone with a sword.’

And what about the criticisms that it is moralistic and stuck in the past?

Sigman points out that Sodor has many of the elements children like to see within their own homes and communities. ‘It’s a relatively safe world where there is camaraderie, natural justice, routine and structure. The trains go from A to B along a track. It’s a linear progression, and although there are hindrances, they are always resolved. These are easy concepts for children to understand.’

And, of course, children, especially boys, love trains. ‘It reminds me of something Douglas Adams once said,’ Kemp says. ‘“The reason sharks aren’t extinct is because nothing is better at being a shark than a shark.” And the same goes for Thomas. One of the reasons Thomas isn’t extinct is because nobody is better at being a train than Thomas.’

Christopher adds, ‘In a survey a few years ago, children were asked to draw a train, and 95 per cent of them drew a steam train. It’s something to do with the steam. You can see them working. They feel alive. It’s the nearest mechanical thing to a human being there is.’



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