Steaming ahead for six decades

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IT ALL started because little Christopher Awdry had measles. Rev Wilbert Awdry, stuck with a two-year-old too poorly to play - but well enough to be bored - started to tell him stories to keep him amused. Stories about a little blue engine called Thomas.

After being corrected on the details once too often by his small son in the months that followed, Awdry wrote some of his stories down. His wife Margaret encouraged him to send them off to a publisher. The rest is history. Thomas the Tank Engine was born.

This month marks the 60th anniversary of the publication of Awdry’s first book, The Three Railway Engines. He would write a further 25, and Christopher, who later took over the engine controls himself, wrote another 14. There has been a television series - narrated in the US by Alec Baldwin - a theme park in Japan and some 80 million books. The associated merchandising is estimated to be worth 1.2billion a year, and even has the royal seal of approval. On his first day at school, Prince William carried a Thomas the Tank Engine lunch box.

HIT Entertainment, which owns the rights to Thomas, will host an official birthday party at Hatfield House, Hertfordshire, on 4 June. Meanwhile, the publisher of the Thomas books, Egmont, promises a stack of new titles and events in bookshops up and down the country. An exhibition of prints from the television series is also planned at the Animation Art Gallery in London to mark the anniversary.

But it’s not easy being a little engine which has become multi-million pound brand. The rights to Thomas are moving into the hands of ever larger companies, driven by strongly commercial agendas. The Awdry family is concerned that in the competitive world of children’s publishing, Thomas is growing new ranges of educational and TV spin-off material, but many of volumes in the original Railway Series are out of print.

First, though, the story. The real beginning goes back nearly 100 years to Box in Wiltshire, where little Wilbert Awdry lay awake at night listening to the steam trains on the Great Western Railway. As they chugged up the hill, he believed they might be talking to each other.

From there, it wasn’t difficult to conceive personalities: cheeky Thomas, cheerful Percy, moody James, boastful Gordon. But he never thought for a moment that he was creating a publishing phenomenon. Brian Sibley, author of Rev Awdry’s biography, The Thomas The Tank Engine Man says: "He had no intention of publishing his stories. I don’t think he ever thought of himself as a children’s writer. He was primarily a vicar, that was his calling. The writing was something he enjoyed doing, and he took pleasure from the fact that it brought pleasure to others."

When Sibley met Awdry he was in his eighties and had seen his books sell millions of copies all over the world: "He was a very modest, unassuming man. For him, it was just a matter-of-fact thing that he had written these stories. He was quite reserved and shy until you got to know him, but then you discovered that he had this wonderful, twinkly sense of humour, and was great fun."

Although Awdry viewed his success as accidental, Sibley says that he showed unusual clearsightedness in allowing the Thomas phenomenon to grow while watching carefully over its integrity: "I think he saw - and it’s very hard for a writer to see this - that his stories had entered the realm of myth, they had an existence that was bigger than the actual creator. When that’s the case, the creator has to let them go, rather like letting children go. It’s quite hard, and he did it very well.

"That said, he was very particular about how they were presented and illustrated. He had endless run-ins with illustrators who took artistic license. If a locomotive engine had the wrong number of wheels, or the smoke stack was in the wrong place, he’d be on to them.

"When Johnny Morris started recording the stories on gramophone records, he went along to a recording and gave him a few hints. He embraced the TV series. That didn’t mean he didn’t have the odd quibble and complaint but he enjoyed the fact that his engines had come to life in a physical way."

Awdry’s last book was published in 1972. Ten years later, Christopher Awdry started reading the stories to his own two-year-old son. When he had exhausted his father’s books, he started making up his own stories, and when Awdry read them, he suggested Christopher send them to the publisher, even offering to write a covering letter.

Christopher’s first book, Really Useful Engines, was published in 1983, taking advantage of the progress made in publishing technology to make the books bolder and brighter, bringing them alive for a new generation of children.

Sibley says: "Christopher gave the stories a new lease of life. He captured extremely well the characters and the style of his father’s writing, at the same time bringing them up to date."

It was also at this time that former Blue Peter producer Britt Allcroft acquired the rights to make a Thomas television show, narrated by Ringo Starr. She mortgaged her house to finance the first series which became an instant hit, attracting millions of viewers. It went on to be shown in 130 countries.

Thomas’s success endures despite the fact that today’s children have never seen a steam train. Lindsey Fraser, who is a partner in Fraser Ross Associates literary agency and one of the national co-ordinators of the Read Together campaign - says: "Small children seem to love any sort of vehicle. And the trains are children, they are competitive, grumpy and they get dirty and bad tempered - they have all the emotions that a child would recognise. The TV series was also important. When I was in the book trade, we would have little boys coming into the shop looking at the pictures and telling the stories in Ringo Starr accents."

Gill Macdonald, children’s department manager at Ottakar’s on George Street, Edinburgh, said that Thomas was still one of their most important children’s characters: "They sell better than a lot of the newer things, including Bob the Builder. I had little boys myself and they loved the characters. One of my sons learned his colours from the Thomas books, they weren’t "green", "blue" and "red", they were "Percy", "Thomas" and "James". We still get little boys coming in asking when the next one will be coming out."

The little train’s popularity is assured, despite clashes with the political correctness police: some feminists, for example, complained that the carriages, Annie and Clarabel, were nothing but chatterboxes ordered around by the male engines; and two years ago a psychologist announced his concerns that the TV series contained so many train crashes it could leave children terrified of travelling by rail.

However, for the Awdry family, the major concern is that many of the original books - 14 of Wilbert Awdry’s and 12 of Christopher’s - remain out of print. They say that the problems began in 1995 when the publisher, then Heinemann Young Books, decided to republish the Railway Series in a new format, against their advice. The following year, the division was sold and Britt Allcroft bought the copyright and licensed the publishing to Egmont.

Christopher Awdry’s wife, Diana, says: "However, instead of letting the books go out of print gradually as they were re-formatted, they withdrew the whole series. As predicted, there was considerable public reluctance to accept the new format and the project was abandoned after only 14 books. In spite of holding two new manuscripts by Christopher Awdry, they refused to produce any new books in the series.

"The Awdry family are very upset that in this anniversary year no effort has been made to get all 40 books of the Railway Series back into print [though Wilbert Awdry’s books are available as a boxed set, and will be re-released in a special 60th anniversary edition bound volume]. In spite of representations to both Egmont and HIT Entertainment no improvement in this situation seems likely." The family website asks all Thomas fans to sign their petition requesting the original Railway Series to be republished. No one from Egmont Books was available for comment.

Christopher Awdry now publishes railway stories for children (with new characters) through his own company, Sodor Enterprises, and will publish a background book about the Thomas series, Sodor: Reading Between The Lines, for the anniversary. HIT Entertainment, which also owns Barney and Bob the Builder, acquired the overall rights to the character and stories when it took over Britt Allcroft’s company in 2002. However, reports suggest that HIT itself may be about to be taken over, putting a bigger question mark over how the Thomas brand will be used in years to come.

Sibley says: "I do find it ironic that in this anniversary year, you can’t go into a shop and buy all the original books, or all of Christopher’s books. It is a pity that in this particular year we’re not able to fully celebrate and enjoy Thomas. However, things which endure will always be rediscovered. They have survived 60 years and that is worth celebrating. I don’t think Thomas is ever going to go away."

• For more information on Sodor: Reading Between The Lines, see An exhibition of prints from the television series will be at the Animation Art Gallery in London, 11-20 June.