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From the Island of Sodor to Television Screens: Celebrating 40 Years of Thomas the Tank Engine

The story of a little tank engine who went from bedtime story to global icon

2024 marks the 40th anniversary of Thomas the Tank Engine, one of the most iconic children’s entertainment shows in history. The massive franchise dates back over 80 years ago to 1942. In the United Kingdom, Reverend Wilbert Awdry was struggling to keep his son, Christopher, entertained during wartime. His boy had come down with a case of measles, so in order to cheer him up, Awdry created stories about talking trains. 

Once the war was over, Awdry’s wife insisted he take his stories to be published. Little did the Reverend realize that his tender stories would evolve into a cultural phenomenon, captivating generations of audiences with its timeless charm and endearing characters. Awdry’s books entered the mainstream and “The Railway Series” soon proved to be a monumental moment in the history of children’s entertainment.

Rev W. Awdry and his son, Christopher, pictured with several engines.

Before the primary television series was picked up, there was an attempt to adapt the Railway Series books into a televised program by the British Broadcast Corporation (BBC) in 1953. This failed miserably as the production came with many setbacks. The show was aired live, the trains derailed and had to be put back on track by workers on set which completely broke the immersive experience. 

Awdry was devastated and swore to not let his vision be subject to any more scrutiny and embarrassment. His standards were now incredibly high, and if anyone wanted to attempt to bring his characters to screens again, Awdry knew they had to be prepared and he knew they had to care deeply about his work. 

In 1979, Britt Allcroft, a British television producer, was working on a documentary about the Bluebell Railway in Sussex. During her research, Allcroft discovered The Railway Series books and was inspired by the stories. She recognized a potential to translate these stories into a television show that could resonate with children, noting the emotional depth that could connect with young audiences.

Allcroft was determined to bring Awdry’s tales to life on screen, so she agreed with Awdry to sell her the television rights, securing them for £50,000 ($74,000 USD at the time). However, financing the production proved to be a challenge. Despite her passion for the project, Allcroft insisted on maintaining creative control which made things difficult during the funding process.

Years went by searching for financial backing and even resorting to a second mortgage on her home. In no time, Allcroft successfully raised the necessary funds to launch the show. She assembled a team, including producer and director David Mitton, founder of Clearwater Features Ltd., American-born producer Robert D. Cardona and composers Mike O’Donnell and Junior Campbell. 

After much consideration, Awdry agreed and after a successful pitch and pilot in 1983, Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends was greenlit for 26 episodes and aired its first season on Oct. 9th, 1984 with Allcroft acting as creator, producer and writer. 

Rev. W Awdry, David Mitton and Britt Allcroft setting up the scene for an episode of Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends in 1984.  (Mattel)

Ratings for the show came back and one thing was certain, Thomas was a hit. Families around the world would tune in every week for new episodes about their favorite characters. From Percy the Small Engine racing a helicopter or Gordon the Big Engine thundering by with the express, these characters became global icons, teaching children lessons about friendship, working together, trust and honesty.

Many children’s shows can boast their popularity due to their celebrity involvement, and Thomas is no exception. Right from the beginning, Britt Allcroft knew having a celebrity narrator would get her show off the ground and she found a needle in a haystack as famous Beatles singer, Ringo Starr, joined the cast and narrated the first two seasons for the UK audience, while stand-up comedian George Carlin was cast as narrator for the first four seasons of the show for the American audience. With one hundred and four episodes recorded during his tenure, Carlin praised the series for its morals aimed for children.

“The morals of these stories were never jammed down the kid’s throat, they weren’t blatant. They weren’t in capital letters. They were gently massaged into the framework of the show.” – George Carlin, late stand-up comedian.

When questioned about his participation in the show, Carlin expressed how his capacity to shift between provocative comedy and children’s programming showcased his versatility and skill as a performer. Carlin, known primarily for his sharp-edged stand-up comedy, found a new avenue in working on Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends, enabling him to transcend his mature reputation and emerge as a positive influence and mentor for a new generation.

Britt Allcroft and George Carlin in the recording booth reading for Thomas’ sister series, Shining Time Station.

With 42 books written by father and son, to over 500 episodes throughout its run spanning several decades, Thomas the Tank Engine continues to play a pivotal role in the history of pop culture. What began as a simple bedtime story became one of the most iconic and heartwarming series in today’s day and age. One thing is for certain, this little engine can do big things. 

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About the Contributor
Stillman Blaylock
Stillman Blaylock, Staff Editor
Hi there! My name is Stillman Blaylock and I am a Junior at the University of North Georgia. I am currently majoring in Communications with a focus in Multimedia Journalism in hopes of working in the entertainment/gaming journalism industry. Outside of my studies, I enjoy writing, cooking, programming, and spending time with my loved ones.
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  • E

    Eric BlaylockApr 23, 2024 at 8:09 pm

    Man, do I remember how much you love Thomas. You always had a Thomas toy in your hands. So proud of you and this article!!!

  • H

    HarriettApr 22, 2024 at 12:51 am

    Awesome article! So proud of you!!! Much love.