Children’s programme Thomas And Friends is to introduce an “inclusive” gender-balanced, multicultural set of characters as part of a revamp.
The new series of the animated show about Thomas the Tank Engine and his Steam Team will see the beloved locomotive leave his home in Sodor to travel the world for the first time.
Now called Thomas And Friends: Big World! Big Adventures!, the new series also marks the first collaboration between a children’s TV programme and the United Nations to promote the Sustainable Development Goals.
The changes to Thomas And Friends, the biggest relaunch the brand has had in its 73-year history with the aim of appealing to a wider global audience, were unveiled at a premiere at Bafta’s headquarters in London.
There will also be a new theme tune for the show, a faster-paced format, increased humour and music and fantasy elements and dream sequences.
For the first time in the series’ history, Thomas will discover new countries and cultures by travelling to China, India and Australia.
The Steam Team, the core group of trains on the fictional island of Sodor, will now comprise three male and three female characters.
Long-running favourites Percy, Gordon, James and Emily will be joined by additions Nia and Rebecca, along with Thomas.
The changes were made to represent the female viewership of the series, which is thought to be more than 40%, and send a strong message of gender equality to the young audience.
In addition to these, the series will feature new characters from around the world, including Ashima from India, Yong Bao from China and Shane from Australia.
New female characters, described by show bosses as “strong girl characters”, include Isla, an Australian flying doctor plane, Noor Jehan, a royal express engine from India, Hong-Mei, a number one blue tank engine from China, and female railway controller Charubala, from India.
Another first for the show will see Thomas talk directly to the audience to narrate it himself.
The programme’s redevelopment included a collaboration with the UN Department of Public Information’s Creative Community Outreach Initiative to develop content inspired by the Sustainable Development Goals appropriate for a pre-school audience while in keeping with the Thomas And Friends brand.
Ian McCue, senior producer at Thomas And Friends, said: “The show has undergone an evolution to remain relevant for the next generation of parents and children by opening up the world of Thomas And Friends so children can discover the world around them while being entertained.
“The changes and new additions of characters and geographies will make the show more entertaining, inclusive and global - whilst ensuring all the favourite characters and storylines that fans around the world love remain at the heart of the action.”
Thomas the Tank Engine was created more than 70 years ago by Reverend Wilbert Awdry as part of his Railway Series of books, which have become a global brand including TV programmes, films, toys and live attractions.
Awdry’s granddaughter, Claire Chambers, welcomed the changes to the franchise, saying she thinks he would be “very happy” with them.
“If the gender-balanced Steam Team encourages more girls to maintain an interest then that can only be a good thing,” she said.
Thomas And Friends will air daily from September 3 at 7am on Channel 5’s Milkshake.