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admin 24.04.2016

The Three Railway Engines, the first book in the Thomas series, was published in 1945, making this the 65th anniversary of the little blue engine.
But, although Thomas is still with us - a new run of his televised adventures starts on Channel Five this month - I can't help feeling that the new stories have strayed too far from Awdry's great books. Their essential Englishness has been lost, with nods towards multi-culturalism in the form of engines from Japan and Cuba, and the lovingly crafted models have been replaced with computer-generated glitz. At the core of the problem is the fact that Thomas's world is now a deeply unfashionable one - at least with the adults in charge of children's books and TV programmes. At the top is the Fat Controller, who is often thought to be a God-like figure - although he was, in fact, intended as a satire on bureaucrats who churned out directives but did nothing to realise them. Others, meanwhile, made fortunes by treating Thomas as a commercial property, to be milked for all the cash it could produce.
The TV series, for example, introduced him to another world - one which he said sought to 'cash in on the books' success', changing them for ever in the process. I first met Awdry (the initials stand for Wilbert Vere) when producing The Thomas The Tank Engine Man, a BBC 2 documentary shown in 1995.
They needed an engine to push from behind to tackle the gradient to the local tunnel, designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Christopher loved his father's tales of talking trains - but noticed if the details of any story changed when retold. One must lead on to the next, while the scenery and locations should stay the same from one book to the next. In 1983, his son Christopher took over his mantle - just as the story took a surprise turn.

In 1984, Thomas The Tank Engine And Friends hit our screens, narrated by former Beatles drummer Ringo Starr, and was an instant success. She is a truly outstanding TV producer, but by the time I met Wilbert there was - he said - 'a certain coldness' between them. He'd liked the first two Thomas series because they stuck faithfully to his stories, but then the producers started writing their own. The feeling was mutual: I cannot write here what Awdry was called at the PR company engaged by the producers to handle Thomas The Tank Engine. I'd guess authorship had earned him useful thousands by the mid-Sixties, enough for him to retire from a full-time ministry. By 1995, Thomas The Tank Engine was annually grossing hundreds of millions of pounds around the globe in TV and video sales, books and merchandising that ranged from pasta shapes to slippers. Yet, for all the millions still being made out of Thomas, the original books - and the vision of England they preserve - are being forgotten, and that's a crying shame.
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I've asked for The Three Railway Engines, the first of many books written by the Reverend W.V.
There, tucked away, I find one copy - next to Awdry's more instantly recognisable second book, Thomas The Tank Engine. The big engines are like senior boys in the playground - Gordon was named after the bossy son of Awdry's neighbour - while cheeky smaller ones such as Thomas are the younger children. His is a poignant story: an innocent, financially naive man who cared only about entertaining children and who earned little money from the books.

His father, shattered by the death of his older son Carol in the Great War, had retired to Box in Wiltshire and, at night, young Wilbert could hear the goods trains from his bedroom window. When World War II came, the memory of his brother's death was too painful: Wilbert took a pacifist line.
He decided to create bedside stories about steam engines, sketching pictures of them with faces. His daughter, Veronica, recalls having high tea with him reading out new stories to her and her sister Hilary, when Christopher was away at school.
As a child, my favourite had been book ten, Four Little Engines, set on a mountain railway. Wilbert had created a cosy, reassuring world of characters and settings that had been there for me each bedtime, in books whose storylines and images I retained unconsciously all my life.
I doubt that today's TV-driven story books, aimed at pre-school children, will hold their readers' affections into later life. In our security-obsessed age, it's odd to remember that their world was one where gentlemen enthusiasts would climb into locomotives to quiz their drivers on the finer points of the railway system. Reading it again was uncanny: decades later, I could still recall the next picture coming before I even turned the page.

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