By Debra Kaufman
When the Rev. Wilbert Awdry put pen to paper in the early 1940s, he had no idea what he had started. Sixty years later millions of children around the world have thrilled to the tales of Thomas, the eager, busy little train engine, and his adventures on the railroad.
When Wilbert Awdry fell in love with trains as a little boy in Wiltshire, England, his father built his son a model railroad and left it at that. But after the Rev. Awdry began improvising tales of little trains with a very human spirit for his son, he ended up-pushed by his wife, Margaret-turning his detailed scribbles into a manuscript, including drawings of a train engine with a face.
“The Three Railway Engines,” published in 1945, told the adventures of Edward, Henry and Gordon. Thomas first came to life as a wooden toy that the Rev. Awdry built for his son, who named it Thomas and urged his father to embellish the toy with stories. “Thomas the Tank” came out the following year, this time situated in the make-believe island of Sodor. The Rev. Awdry wrote a “Thomas the Tank” book every year for the next 26 years, until the last in 1972.
These stories have always been the tales of a father to his child, imbued with passion and parental love. In 1983 son Christopher took up the mantle of his semi-retired father and wrote 14 additional books. The Rev. Awdry died in March 1997.
The series segued naturally to television when producer Britt Allcroft remembered her childhood love of the books. “Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends” debuted on ITV television in Britain in October 1984 and was a smash success, attracting 8.5 million viewers after just a few months on the air.
“Thomas & Friends,” from HIT Entertainment, chugged across the pond in 1989 on PBS, and in Canada on YTV. Within a short time, the doughty engine had also choo-choo’ed his way to Japan (1991), then Germany (1997) and now to 130 countries around the world. Thomas starred in a feature film, “Thomas and the Magic Railroad,” in 2000, is the subject of a theme park in Japan and is emblazoned on hundreds of T-shirts, toys and games.
Each visit to the island of Sodor begins with a lively theme song introducing the half-hour episodes of the “Thomas & Friends” series. On the island of Sodor, the firm but kind Sir Topham Hatt is the director of the railway, in charge of making sure that the engines do two very important things: be always Right On Time and be Really Useful.
Each of the three adventures that make up a half-hour episode focuses on one of the engines embarking on an adventure, encountering an obstacle and learning what it is to be a Really Useful Engine. In Thomas’ idyllic world, good manners, hard work, responsibility and helping are just some of the social themes explored. The ultimate steam engine praise is to be Really Useful-a constant theme interwoven into stories about the joy of accomplishment and the value of encouragement.
“Thomas & Friends” has some pals in high places. Celebrity narrators include Ringo Starr, who jumped on board in 1985, and Alec Baldwin, who got involved in 2002. Sir Topham Hatt was awarded a knighthood for his services to the railway industry, and an inflatable Thomas the Tank bobbed just outside the London Transport Museum in 1998.
“Thomas & Friends” broke out from the small screen in other ways: The 60th anniversary sparked the Day Out with Thomas 2005 Celebration Tour. In almost 40 cities across the U.S., this family experience stopped at regional heritage railroads for festive events. Preschoolers and their parents rode a train pulled by Thomas the Tank Engine, had their picture taken with Sir Topham Hatt and celebrated the little engine with storytelling, video viewing and live music.
Also touring across the country, Driver Daniel-“Thomas & Friends'” first official storyteller-made appearances at libraries, retail outlets and 60th anniversary events.
With all this steam behind “Thomas & Friends,” it seems a good bet this beloved children’s entertainment franchise will be Really Useful and Right On Time for new generations over many more decades.