June 5, 2010


Thomas the Tank Engine: 65 and still running: As 'Thomas the Tank Engine' celebrates his 65th anniversary, a box of documents sheds new light on the train’s origins (Lorna Bradbury, 04 Jun 2010, Daily Telegraph)

Recently unearthed in the offices of the production company that makes the TV series, the box contains Awdry's original sketches, drawn on the back of old parish circulars in late 1944 or early 1945. He produced the sketches to guide the illustrators of his first book of stories, The Three Railway Engines. Wilbert, a railway obsessive and a stickler for accuracy, tried out two illustrators until one, E Reginald Dalby, finally found his approval. We can clearly see notes in what would seem to be Wilbert's hand stuck over the writing on the back of these sketches. "3 R Engines. Story 4. Page 5," reads one. "Fat Director [he became the Fat Controller in the third book] orders Henry to be released from tunnel," reads another.

There is the original manuscript of Edward's Day Out, the first story in the first book, in which Awdry's text appears on the left-hand pages and his sketches on the right. There are various promotional postcards, including one for the fifth book, Troublesome Engines (1950), by which time Thomas was a best-seller and a household name. And there are some early pop-ups, illustrated by Clive Spong, with paper engineering by Roy Laming, including the story Henry and the Elephant from Troublesome Engines.

Christopher Awdry, now 69, the measles-afflicted child for whom the stories were first conceived, is surprised at the contents of the box. [...]

Wilbert passed on his enthusiasm for storytelling to his son, who carried on the series from 1983, with his father's blessing, shortly after his own son was born. And Wilbert also passed on a deep love for the railways. Theirs is a family in which the mystery of steam trains looms large. Christopher's grandfather was a clergyman and a railway enthusiast, like Wilbert, whose interest in trains grew out of his visits to parishioners who worked on the railways. Christopher is a railway historian first and foremost, and both he and his father have always been keen that their stories remain accurate in railway terms.

Christopher says that neither he nor his father were surprised that children identify so strongly with the series. "A steam engine is the nearest thing to a human being that has actually been created by man," he says. "You can see all the moving parts. You can see all the smoke. In a way, it's more logical to give a steam train a name than an animal." These stories carry on appealing to fresh generations of children, despite the fact that they are so much of their time. They convey a safe, structured, deeply moralistic world, which may explain why autistic children particularly love them.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 5, 2010 6:57 AM
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