It Mitre Be Good

Bowyer (left) and Burgoin (right)

My assault on the Eventbrite buffet continues with Crosiers, and Mitres, and Tiaras, Oh My: A Gamboling Journey Through Ecclesiastical Heraldry by David Bowyer. The session was hosted by Jason Burgoin, president of the Toronto Branch of the Royal Canadian Heraldry Society.

Logging on was difficult: I had expected the meeting to begin at 7pm as listed on the advertisement but then it became apparent that this was Toronto time, so for attendees from the British Isles it would actually be taking place from midnight. The first few minutes were a little tense as the audio quality was very poor and an unknown person let out several primal-sounding screeches that left the rest of us confused. Burgoin, pleading that “We are not IT folks.” advised us that the bandwidth would be conserved and quality improved if everybody not presenting would turn off their cameras and microphones, and indeed there was some improvement. When Bowyer began his presentation he was swiftly interrupted by a notice that the screen share feature was not on.

Bowyer’s presentation eventually got moving. There were 119 PowerPoint slides, each showing an illustration of the titular ecclesiastical objects either in real life or represented in heraldry. He explained the history and symbolism of all the different kinds of hats that could be placed above a clergyman’s arms and the other embellishments that could be placed behind.

After nearly two hours the talk concluded and Burgoin resumed the screen to announce other upcoming events. He was conscious that many overseas viewers had been forced to stay up very late and was keen to answer any questions before they started logging off en masse. There was some time left over for idle chitchat, with one Englishwoman commenting that she had never used Eventbrite before signing up to this two months ago, and that it wasn’t a problem for Brits be up past midnight but she didn’t expect it to go on until 2am. I, in my first verbal interjection to any virtual conference, remarked that one of the advantages of the virtual format was the ability to attend from in bed. Lyon then told us how annoyed he was that the College of Arms in England had granted arms to Bishop Seabury of Connecticut* even though he had been consecrated in Aberdeen. He then announced that he had recently granted arms to the Principal Presbyterian Theological College. They had requested that their supporters be “one man, one woman, one white, one black, one in one academic gown, one in another academic gown” and that “when I described it in the blazon they decided it wasn’t gender-neutral enough so I had to go back and look at new language to be able to express what the students’ aspirations were for the supporters which I managed to do.” I then asked how long the blazon ended up being, expecting that the effort to account for every demographic permutation would have consumed reams of parchment. Instead he replied “Very short, I ended up just blazoning it “two human figures one wearing X one wearing Y representative of inclusion” and they can do what they like with it after that as far as I’m concerned.” and then departed saying he had to preach in the morning. I noted after he had gone that I now had an unusual claim to fame – very few can say that they spoke to Scotland’s chief herald from in bed at 2am. Another member said “We’ll just have to invite Garter to one of these.” and indeed I have often wondered when I will get to see any representatives of the English college on Zoom.

I recognised some of the names, faces and avatars from earlier conferences – such as Liam Devlin. Alexandra Fol, David G. Scott, Richard d’Apice, Brian Abel Ragen and Douglas Anderson were also among the names, though I cannot be certain that they were the ones I have linked.

There are plenty more heraldry conferences to come, as well as plenty on other topics – such as Lady Hale of Richmond discussing her 2019 prorogation judgement. All in good time.

*It wasn’t clear from context if he meant Seabury’s personal arms or the official arms of the diocese.

Documenting Scottish Armory

 

Last year I noted that the Lyon Court was putting out an online crash course in Scottish heraldry. A major component of this was the list of all the blazons of defunct local councils. Yesterday I decided to take this ready-made armorial and convert it into a Wikipedia page. I intended this to complement the page that already existed on English counties, begun almost sixteen years ago.

The vast majority of the arms concerned had not already been illustrated, and for that matter the municipal corporations themselves did not have biographies to the level of their English counterparts – if at all. Fortunately there is a much greater degree of standardisation among the heraldry of Scottish local government, especially the regional councils of which all but one had the same background and differed only in their central charges, and so to create and upload a large number of emblazonments to fill the gaps was a relatively rapid process. There is a long way still to go, however, especially in finding blazons for present-day institutions.

On a partly-related note, earlier today I discovered a YouTube channel dedicated to Scottish Heraldry – Abarone’s Armorial by Ethan L. MacDonald, Herald of Clan MacKinnon USA. Though I had not seen the channel before I recognised the man’s face and voice from some of the virtual heraldic conferences I have attended over the past few months. MacDonald also managed to arrange a one-on-one interview with Lyon. By and large his content is not original – much like A Royal Heraldry it mainly reiterates the information already known to anyone who has read the relevant Wikipedia pages and the images are the familiar ones from the Commons. In particular I found it a little suspicious that he put out a video on heraldry from Tolkien’s Legendarium just a few months after I initiated the article on it. Still, it is nice to see more coverage of the subject in video form, as until a few years ago there was very little, and what did exist was overwhelmingly focused on the rudiments of heraldry from the middle ages or from the perspective of fantasists and reenactors, with precious little about the modern era. That Scottish heraldry is so much more likely than English to be documented on YouTube is also a bit of a mystery.

Sentamu Returns

It was not the norm for bishops to retire. They could be translated to another – preferably more senior – diocese, but one they reached the upper ranks they would expect to serve until death*.

Change began in 1928 when the octogenarian Randall Davidson, Archbishop of Canterbury since 1903, decided to step down. He had been one of the Lords Spiritual since his appointment as Bishop of Winchester in 1895 and two days after retirement was reintroduced to the upper house among the Lords Temporal (Baron Davidson of Lambeth, of Lambeth in the County of London). His successor, Cosmo Gordon Lang, retired in 1942 and was likewise ennobled. There was a break in the new trend when William Temple died suddenly in 1944**, but after that the next six (Fisher, Ramsay, Coggan, Runcie, Carey and Williams) were granted baronies after stepping down. The Ecclesiastical Offices (Age Limit) Measure 1975 imposed an obligation for each bishop to retire upon his seventieth birthday. Justin Welby must therefore relinquish his post on 6th January 1926.

The first Archbishop of York to resign voluntarily was William Maclagan in 1908. He died two years later as a commoner. Four of the next five Archbishops were translated from that office to Canterbury, three of them being ennobled as already mentioned. The exception was Cyril Garbett (1942-1955) who died forty-seven weeks after retirement, having accepted the offer of a peerage (reportedly Baron Garbett of Tongham) but not seen the patent sealed. Later Archbishops Stuart Blanch (1975-1983), John Habgood (1983-1995) and David Hope (1995-2005) were all ennobled shortly after the ends of their tenures.

John Sentamu‘s timeline was rather more drawn out. His retirement was announced on 1st October 2018 but did not take effect until 7th June 2020. When the dual honours lists were announced on 31st July there was some consternation that he had not been included. The list released on 22nd December did include him, but it was not until 27th this April that his barony was conferred. Today, nearly a year after leaving the house he was finally introduced. I had expected him to have other former bishops as his supporters (e.g. Carey of Clifton and Chartres) but instead he chose Lady Hale of Richmond and Lord Popat.

Two things struck me about the ceremony. First was the presence of Thomas Woodcock as Garter King of Arms, which surprised me as the College of Arms also has a retirement age of seventy and his is thus five days overdue. The second was that Sentamu, along with so many other peers introduced this year and last, got a little too close to the Lord Privy Seal.

Long before the pandemic it was the norm for the front benches on either side of the chamber to be left empty during an introduction ceremony. I presume this is to reduce the risk of the robed newcomer tripping over other peers’ legs. Ministers tend to wait by the doorway at the right of the throne (leading to the Content lobby) and greet the new peer as he leaves the chamber. This I have seen taking place at a great many introduction ceremonies and I find it quite alarming that often the new member gets right up to the leader of the house’s face without either wearing a mask and in many cases they even shake hands. That nobody else apparently notices this glaring breach of COVID-safety protocol is a real headscratcher.

*There have been rare cases of bishops being deposed for political reasons.
**He was the son of Frederick Temple, Davidson’s predecessor and thus the last in the regular line of those dying incumbent.

The Arms Business

Two days ago I was contacted by Charles Matthews, former Wikimedian in Residence for the Betty & Gordon Moore Library at Cambridge, saying that Karl Wilcox, developer of DrawShield, wanted volunteers to assist with the next stage. Matthews contacted me because I was, in his mind, “certainly adept with heraldry software”. It was with a heavy heart that I told him the less glamorous truth: I do all of my heraldic art on PowerPoint and Paint. He said it was still interesting to know my methods, so I put together a video of the process by which I make each piece.

For those unfamiliar, blazon is heraldry’s own language, and DrawShield is an attempt at a translator tool. The software allows you to type a blazon into a small box, for which it then generates an illustration of the shield, comprising charges drawn from a bank from Wikimedia Commons. As anyone who has had to use an online translator will know, the subtleties of even an apparently-simple phrase can be difficult to teach to a machine. Drawshield occasionally has difficulty when sentences are factorised for word economy (e.g. noting the tincture at the end of a list of multiple charges, rather than separately for each one) or when it is asked to illustrate a charge not encountered before. Syntax also tends to be a difficulty as blazons are generally written with as little punctuation as possible and attempts to break up the long run-on sentences can drastically change the meaning.

It seems, based on the snippets given to me, that Matthews and Wilcox are attempting to rectify exactly these problems, with the former showing me a list of new charges sought for inclusion. He also boasts a substantial gallery of those he has already made.

More troubling, though, is the artistic element: To depict an aesthetically-pleasing shield requires careful consideration of the relative sizes of elements within the escutcheon. Sometimes the same charge may be depicted in different ways within the same emblazonment, tapering or stretching to fit the curves of the shield. Furthermore an asymmetric charge may have a centre of gravity which is distinct from its centre of width, requiring careful spacing. These decisions are too fine and too subjective for the computer, which instead drops out coats with a lot of empty background and charges too small to properly see. The end result is often an image that is technically correct but looks subjectively cheap and inauthentic. The main advantage, of course, is speed – even my relatively crude pictures take 20-40 minutes depending on complexity while those of Sodacan or RS-Nourse must take a far longer time, but DrawShield can spit out multiple coats of arms in a minute. It would therefore be a very useful tool in filling any gaps or catching up on backlogs in instances where blazons are known but images have not yet been added. I would not, however, recommend it as a permanent solution for the arms of anyone whose page is viewed with a serious degree of regularity. Matthews says “It would be great to work on a reference collection for heraldry that was uniform.” but compared to the works that already exist I fear such uniformity would represent a levelling-down rather than up.

Henry and the Trackside Trees

Euan Roger (left) John Varley (right)

This week I got a little carried away with Eventbrite, and consequently this afternoon I attended two virtual talks in rapid succession – both on Teams rather than Zoom.

The first was All aboard a railway for people and wildlife by Women in Sustainable Rail. The session began less than formally with John Varley (Estate Director of Clinton Devon Estates) and Dr Neil Strong (Biodiversity Strategy Manager for Network Rail) getting carried away in a conversation about beavers. Varley spoke about the review he had done in 2018 for the Department of Transport, commissioned by then-minister Jo Johnson.  Varley concluded that the review was about nature and not just trees. He stated that in the 1950s there were fewer trees immediately bordering Britain’s railways than today, yet there was greater overall biodiversity. He noted that people tend to have a spiritual relationship with trees that is not extended to other plants. He delightedly recalled one day being given his own train in the North of England to go around inspecting the ground and interviewing the locals. He urged Network Rail to treat nature as an asset equal with its man-made infrastructure. The next speaker was Jane Dodds, Portfolio Head of Project at the Rail Safety & Standards Board. She told of the negative public perception surrounding Network Rail’s approach to managing vegetation around the lines. Strong then recounted the story of the implementation of the review. He showed photographs of a pilot scheme in Kent where a large row of trees was cut down from the side of the line, with the intention to plant a meadow there instead. He presented a long list of organisations with which he liaised over the course of the scheme. There was a question & answer session at the end which concluded in a similarly awkward fashion with the host offering to send slides and asking anyone still listening to email further questions. I couldn’t think of anything to ask (and wasn’t sure if my microphone worked) to ask so logged off sheepishly.

The second was event Readeption and Revenge: The final years of Henry VI by the National Archives. This detailed the later life of the last monarch from the House of Lancaster, though the lecturer Euan Roger included a brief overview of his early life, when he inherited the throne at aged nine months and was ruled by regents until coming of age. He founded Eton College and King’s College Cambridge, and was said to be overly generous with petitions, even granting the same estate to two people on the same day, to the point where his ministers began screening documents before the King was allowed to see them. The people perceived that senior officials were enriching themselves at the crown’s expense and that profligate royal pardons were undermining the rule of law. Henry’s reign took a serious turn for the worse in 1453 when his mental illness first appeared. He was barely lucid for much of the time, so unable to carry out duties of state. When he recovered he dedicated his life to religious pursuits instead of administrative or military ones. Roger noted, though, that reports of infirmity could have been exaggerated by those seeking political advantage. Without wishing to tell the whole story of the Wars of the Roses again, Henry was deposed by Edward IV in 1461. The new king eventually captured the old, but his imprisonment was relatively comfortable by the standards of the time. Contemporary documents referred to him as “Henry of Windsor” or “late by fact but not by right King of England”. One calls him “Henry Beaufort”, which Rogers suggested could be an attempt by the Yorkists to reframe his ancestry. A fall-out within Edward IV’s court saw the Duke of Clarence and Earl of Warwick depose him, restoring Henry to the throne as a puppet under their joint protection. The readeption only lasted six months before Edward IV had taken the throne again, and weeks later Henry died, officially of natural illness but more probably through blunt head injuries. Henry was buried at Chertsey Abbey, but in 1484 was relocated to St George’s Chapel, Windsor. For this lecture questions were asked in the chat box, but I waited too long to ask mine and so the session ran out of time to answer it.

EXTERNAL LINKS

I had wished to know why the Yorkists had killed Henry in such an obviously violent manner rather than poisoning him or denying him food, so that it would have been more plausible to claim that his death had been peaceful. Even Philippa Gregory’s version of events had him suffocated with pillows instead of beaten.

The Gunpowder Plotters – Gentlemen all

Earlier this evening I attended yet another virtual lecture, this time by Martin Goldstraw for the Yorkshire Heraldry Society. As the title implies, the lecture concerned the attempt by a group of Catholic conspirators on 5th November 1605 to thirty-six barrels of gunpowder beneath the Palace of Westminster while James I was performing the state opening of Parliament, then provoke a revolution which would install his daughter Elizabeth (later Queen consort of Bohemia) as a pro-papist successor to the throne.

Goldstraw spoke at length about each conspirator in turn, giving not just the blazon of each man’s armorial bearings but also background details of the lineages through which he acquired them. He had digitally illustrated a great many of their shields himself and for this was lauded by many in attendance, but confessed that there were many other artists of ability far beyond his. I tried to plug my own uploads for Wikimedia Commons though I’m not sure if anyone noticed.

After the presentation had finished there was the usual question & answer session. This included some joking about whether Bridlington (where Goldstraw’s sister lived) was part of Yorkshire or “North Humberside”, which prompted Malcolm Lobley (Honorary Treasurer) to talk about the East Yorkshire signs being put up by residents sick of the Humberside name. That the transition took place twenty-five years ago appeared to have slipped his mind.

The College of Arms usually publishes quarterly newsletters in January, April, July and October. Last year it was just January and October. When they didn’t publish an April edition this year either I asked if if this represented a permanent change, but the York Herald (Peter O’Donoghue) reassured me that the college intended to revert to normal after the COVID setbacks of passed. Now, perhaphs for the first time ever, a May edition has been released. Usually my primary interest when reading these is to find an exemplification and blazon for at least one person who has a Wikipedia page. The star in this latest edition is Sir Ciarán Devane, chief executive of the British Council since 2015. Also mentioned, though frustratingly not elaborated, were grants of arms to the Baroness Stuart of Edgbaston and Lord Justice Leveson.

The head of the college is the Garter Principal King of Arms, an office held since 1st April 2010 by Thomas Woodcock, who must retire upon his seventieth birthday tomorrow. His successor has not yet been named. The two assistant kings of arms have also retired recently, as noted in the newsletter.

EXTERNAL LINKS

Ahead of Yourself

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/0/03/George_Hayter_-_The_Marriage_of_Queen_Victoria%2C_10_February_1840_-_WGA11229.jpg/640px-George_Hayter_-_The_Marriage_of_Queen_Victoria%2C_10_February_1840_-_WGA11229.jpg

To the extent that most people have heard of heraldry at all, they conceive it as the study and management of coats of arms. Certainly that is what the majority of my posts on the topic have discussed. That is not a herald’s only concern, however, for armory tends to intersect with other interests. Genealogy, vexillology and phaleristics are the obvious ones, but also within orbit are matters of ceremony and protocol, which often centre heavily on precedence.

Orders of precedence determine the seating plans of formal dinners and the sequencing of parades or processions. Certain institutions whether public or private may have their own specific orders of precedence, and even unaffiliated civilians may be required to adopt them for their extended families at weddings and funerals. What tends to concern heralds and heraldists, though, is the general order of precedence for an entire country.

The order of precedence for England & Wales (though that distinction is a recent one) can be documented descriptively as early as 1399, but the earliest extant prescriptions are the House of Lords Precedence Act 1539 and an ordinance issued by commissioners of the office of Earl Marshal in 1595 (itself based largely on the Lord Chamberlain’s order from 1520). It arranges the royal family and the grades of the aristocracy (peers, knights, esquires, gentlemen and their offspring) as well as the holders of important government, judicial and ecclesiastical offices. The sequence reflects the relative importance of certain jobs in Tudor times and earlier, which is often rather different to the level of power they exercise today. The Lord President of the Council and the Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal – now sinecures given to the leaders of the houses of Parliament – rank just below the royal family while the secretaries of state who make up the bulk of the cabinet rank just below barons and the Chancellor of the Exchequer has a redundant setting below the privy council.

The bulk of the scale has remained intact to the present day – and been repeated at the start of each edition of Burke’s and Debrett’s, though royal warrants have been issued on occasion to make small updates, such as the insertion of new orders of chivalry or of offices not formerly recognised.

The Lord High Treasurer was once a great officer of state*, but when it was put into commission the commissioners had no precedence, even after it became convention for the First Lord of the Treasury to be the de facto head of government. Victoria’s prime ministers would frequently walk into formal gatherings behind barons of their own nomination. The job of Prime Minister was at last given formal recognition by a warrant in December 1905 placing him in the position his grandfather office would have conferred. The Speaker of the House of Commons ranked rather low until a warrant in 1919 put him just after the Lord President. Other offices have fallen away over time, such as the Vice-Regent in Spirituals, the Lord High Steward and the Lord High Constable.

As with so many such matters, the situation in Scotland is less well documented. The earliest extant prescription is Edward VII’s royal warrant from February 1905. Indeed, that may be the earliest ever such instrument, for the preamble admits “a Scale of Precedence in Scotland has not been defined with due authority” and “doubts and a diversity of practice have arisen in consequence”. The order within the royal family is much the same as for England, with the exception that the Lord High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland during the sitting of the General Assembly outranks everyone except the sovereign – including the Duke of Rothesay. The office is currently held by Prince William, who thus temporarily precedes his own father. Following the nephews of the sovereign – cousins are mysteriously omitted – there is a complicated insertion explaining that the Lord Lieutenants, Lord Provosts and Sheriffs Principal rank above the Lord Chancellor within their own jurisdictions. Following the Lord Chancellor the other Scottish high officers are listed, then the ranks of the peerage and orders of chivalry in a manner near-identical to the English version. The Church of Scotland is rather different in status and structure to the Church of England so there are no bishops listed for the Scottish scale. Senators of the College of Justice are ranked similarly to High Court judges and Lords Justices of Appeal, though other senior Scottish judicial figures are ranked above the viscounts whereas their English counterparts are below barons. I note that the position for Secretaries of State is not defined in the Scottish scale either.

Small amendments have been made to the scale in subsequent years – most prominently in 1999 to clarify the positions of office-holders in the devolved administration. Even so, there are some glaring omissions:

A series of constitutional reforms in the latter noughties saw the duties of the Lord Chancellor carved up: His administrative role in the English & Welsh judiciary was devolved to the Lord Chief Justice, his executive powers to the Secretary of State and his presidency of the upper house of Parliament to the elected Lord Speaker. Plans to abolish the chancery altogether were dropped and the incumbent’s ceremonial precedence was not pushed down, but it was deemed necessary for the others to be raised up. The Lord Speaker was given precedence immediately after the Speaker of the House of Commons. It is curious that the upper house was not given ceremonial priority here, though that could be in recognition of the superior vintage of the latter office as well as the greater degree of power he has within his institution. The Lord Chief Justice had previously been placed below the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, similarly redundant as all holders in nearly three centuries had been privy councillors and/or peers. A warrant in 2007 promoted him to just below the Lord Speaker, as well as moving the Master of the Rolls (still usually commoners) to just below the barons.

The Lords of Appeal in Ordinary previously ranked solely by their necessary peerages. Upon their reconstitution as a separate Supreme Court, the justices (who from then on would not be ennobled) were placed immediately below the Master of the Rolls, while the President was placed immediately below the Lord Speaker – and thus above the Lord Chief Justice. A difficulty arises here because the Supreme Court is a UK-wide institution while the Master of the Rolls only exists in England & Wales. The precedence of non-baronial Supreme Court justices in Scotland is thus undefined – though all at least are members of the Privy Council. The President also has this problem, although it may be masked by the complexity of the incremental insertions – Scotland had its own privy council prior to the Acts of Union, with its own Lord President whose responsibilities and status were comparable to those of his English counterpart. Logically the Lord President for Great Britain (and later the United Kingdom) would continue to have the same precedence as his provincial predecessors, but the Scottish scale from 1905 makes no reference to the post. This in turn means that the Speaker of the House of Commons, the Lord Speaker and the President of the Supreme Court are all without a defined rank in Scotland. Even the Prime Minister is left without a place, since the Archbishop of York is England-only**. It is no wonder that the Scottish scale was described by one contributor in 2011 as “a bit of a mess” and by another as “complete horlicks”.

Northern Ireland is an even worse story – there is no scale properly defined, and the Wikipedia article uses an unofficial, descriptive list from Burke’s 106th edition in 1999, which tellingly says “as in England” rather frequently.

A common feature of all three is that men and women are listed separately***. The bishoprics and various public offices are exclusively listed in the male scale. There were insertions into the women’s for dames of various orders of chivalry (outranking wives of knights of the same), but subsequent warrants regarding ministers and judges do not bother to specify which list they are altering. A convention has developed among Wikipedians (and probably everyone else who has to mind these matters) that any office held by a woman is temporarily transposed to the female scale, but without authoritative guidance we cannot be certain.

Another curiosity is that the general scale is formally headed by “The Sovereign” while the ladies’ scale is headed by “The Queen”, such that a queen regnant is technically first man as well as first woman, and while a king’s wife is a queen consort a queen’s husband is nothing at all until a special warrant is issued for his benefit. While we’re on the subject of the royal family, our attention should turn to the four – soon five – grandchildren of the Prince of Wales.

It is unusual for an heir apparent to be a grandfather before his accession to the throne. George IV (as regent) almost managed it in 1817 when his daughter Princess Charlotte of Wales was pregnant but she and the baby predeceased him. Edward VII had quite a few – Lady Alexandra Duff (later Duchess of Fife) in 1891, Lady Maud Duff (later Countess of Southesk) in 1893, Prince Edward of York (later Edward VIII) in 1894, Prince Albert of York (later George VI) in 1985, Princess Mary of York (later Princess Royal), Prince Henry of York (later Duke of Gloucester) in 1900. The first two were through a daughter so don’t really count for these purposes and the latter four were still small children when Victoria died, which means it was never necessary to define their place at state functions, though their titles and styles were subject to some dispute. Prince George of Cambridge is now older than Edward VIII was at his great-grandmother’s death and could be into adulthood – or at least adolescence – by the time of the next demise of the crown. Without any specific place for them within the royal family section, Wikipedians have determined that George and his cousin Archie rank as eldest sons of dukes of the blood royal. This status is below the non-royal dukes, who in turn are below the great officers already described****. Charlotte, as the daughter of a royal duke, similarly ranks below the duchesses. This makes sense if you consider royal dukes to be an unofficial sixth extra rank of the peerage above the normal dukes. By extension one would expect Prince Louis, as younger son of a royal duke, to rank immediately below the eldest sons of normal dukes who in turn are just below the marquesses. Instead his place is just below the earls but above the eldest sons of marquesses. This placement is rather confusing as it breaks the otherwise-consistent pattern by which children of peers are stationed. I don’t think there were any royal dukes in England with children of their own in 1520 and there certainly weren’t any in 1595, so the logic behind the original decision eludes me.

EXTERNAL LINKS

*The great officers of state (Lord High whatever) in ancient times are not to be confused with the great offices of state (Prime Minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary).

**Whether any of the Church of England’s officials should have precedence in Wales is questionable after 1920.

***Bizarrely, in the Scottish warrant from 1905 these were called “The Scale of General Precedence” and “The Scale of Precedence for Ladies”. The ladies are therefore special, one logically presumes.

****One must wonder if the current Lord President of the Council has ever sought a bow from the prince – only to follow protocol, of course.

The Significance of the Royal Engine

Is this the end of the line?

EDWARD scolded the twins severely, but Gordon told him it served him right. Gordon was furious.

Err, what?

Almost twenty years ago my mother read Edward’s Exploit by my bedside. She stopped in confusion after the first sentence, for the story appeared to start in media res, with little way to find out the cause of Gordon’s fury nor the twins being scolded.

Other than Gordon the Big Engine (1953) my family doesn’t own any of The Railway Series individually. My main source was a 2001 print of Thomas The Tank Engine Collection. The A4 book contained fifty-six of Wilbert Awdry’s one hundred and five stories*. Instead of order of original publication the individual stories were grouped according to protagonist. Very early on I read the long list of “first published” notes on the copyright page, but I do not recall at what point I ultimately pieced together that Edward’s Exploit (page 139) came immediately after Wrong Road (page 167) and that the twins are being scolded for having threatened to dump Gordon in the sea.

Thomas’s section had ten stories, Percy’s eleven, Toby’s, Edward’s and Gordon’s seven each, Henry’s nine and James’s five. No section could have had fewer than four since each of those engines had at least one dedicated book. The time jumps in the collection are interesting as an indication of each character’s importance. Thomas is the star (and gets his name in the title) for eight of the first sixteen stories (1946-49) but then not again until The Fat Controller’s Engines (1957) and Thomas Comes to Breakfast (1961).  Percy’s lumps are more spread out. He is introduced with Trouble in the Sheds and Percy Runs Away (1950), then the bizarre** minisode Percy & the Trousers (1951), but doesn’t his dedicated volume until 1956, which is followed up by Percy Takes the Plunge (1957), then there is small lull before Percy’s Predicament (1961) and a much larger lull until Ghost Train and Woolly Bear (1972). Toby’s introduction is with his namesake book in 1952, but his next prominent appearance is not until Double Header (1957), then his stuck in secondary status until Mavis and Toby’s Tightrope (1972), right at the end of Wilbert’s tenure. Gordon and Edward were the introduced at the very start of the series but didn’t get their dedicated volumes until 1953 and 1954 respectively, with only four chapters between them thereafter. They don’t exactly disappear, though, as they are prominent supporting characters in a lot of other stories throughout the series. Henry’s character arc (overcoming his poor health and hypochondria) is the most obvious and most complicated in the first five books – he gets a two part story in the 1945 premier, then a revisit in Henry & the Elephant (1950), then finally his own book in 1951, but after that he fades from view and doesn’t get the spotlight again until Tenders for Henry and Super Rescue (1968)***. James is seemingly the least interesting of the lot, for though he gets his volume in early (1948) his only subsequent story is Buzz Buzz in 1966.

The chronology matters little to those who just want to pick stories at random and read them individually, but with so many stories missing**** and the rest so jumbled up it is hard to appreciate the serialised aspects of the books and the longer-term themes that Awdry wanted to portray. Of course, this was hardly the only instance of that problem.

Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends premiered on 9th October 1984, produced by Britt Allcroft and by David Mitton with music composed by Mike O’Donnell and Junior Campbell. These people would remain associated with the series until the end of the seventh season in 2003. That period is thus considered the Classic era, in contrast to what followed. The first season sticks closely to the first eight of Awdry’s books, adapting most of the stories word-for-word and in mostly the right order: Thomas & Gordon gets moved to the beginning. Henry & the Elephant, Percy & the Trousers, Leaves and Paint Pots & Queens all get delayed until the third and fourth seasons. Edward’s Day Out gets merged with Edward & Gordon, as does James & the Top Hat with James & the Bootlace and Gordon’s Whistle with Henry’s Sneeze. Mrs Kyndley’s Christmas is replaced with Thomas’s Christmas Party, written by Allcroft & Mitton.

Already in the second season there are some major deviations: If it had stuck as closely as the first then it would have adapted the next eight books – Cows! (1954) through to Percy’s Predicament (1961). This, however, would prove to be too expensive a course, for books 10 and 14 were about the narrow-gauge engines of the Skarloey Railway – adapting those would require a big investment in a separate lot of sets and props at a much smaller scale. Those adaptations were all postponed until the necessary money was available. Cost concerns led to many other episodes being dropped – Gordon Goes Foreign would have required new sets for St. Pancras and Barrow-in-Furness as well as Henry’s model to be modified for the big city engine. Domeless Engines would have required a new model for City of Truro. The Missing Coach became the Shada of this series, abandoned mid-production when Allcroft decided the plot was too complicated. A few other stories were also delayed, as will be detailed in later paragraphs. To fill the gaps later stories were brought forward – three from 1966 and two from 1972. Sometimes existing characters were given additional roles to avoid introducing new ones – Bill & Ben instead of Jinty & Pug, for instance. Brand new material was then devised, with Christopher Awdry was encouraged to write and publish More About Thomas the Tank Engine at short notice purely to have more stories featuring the title character as well as Bertie and Harold. Christopher also wrote the one-off stories Thomas & Trevor and the season finale Thomas & the Missing Christmas Tree. Even with all these changes the second season still represents a major expansion of the scope of the programme as there are multiple new sets built (including the very large wet set for Brendam Docks) and more new characters than old ones (Duck, Donald, Douglas, Diesel, Daisy, Bill, Ben, BoCo).

The third season did not arrive until 1992 and featured a noticeable visual adjustment as well as new narration (the late Michael Angelis replacing Ringo Starr) and updated scores. No whole books are adapted this time, but three chapters each are done from Enterprising Engines (1968) and Oliver the Western Engine (1969). The rest of the adaptations were from books that the previous seasons had begun but not completed – Percy & the Trousers, Leaves, Percy’s Promise, Double Header, Domeless Engines, Buzz Buzz, Mavis and Toby’s Tightrope all being filled in. More controversially this season incorporated a lot of episodes that were adapted from Andrew Brenner’s magazine stories rather than the Awdrys’ own material, including the clerically-detested Henry’s Forest. This was again motivated by a desire to have more stories focused on Thomas and other familiar characters instead of having to build new ones.

The fourth season came in 1995, and saw something of a return to form with only one Allcroft-written story and even that still an augmentation of one of Awdry’s. The narrow-gauge stories finally got their moment, with the first half of the season given over to adapting Duke the Lost Engine (1970), Four Little Engines (1955), The Little Old Engine (1958) and Gallant Old Engine (1962) en bloc with their chronology mostly intact^. Stepney the Bluebell Engine (1963) is adapted with some modification^^. The last eight episodes are a bit of a hodgepodge, with five catching up what the earlier seasons missed out – Henry & the Elephant, Toad Stands By (1969), Bulls Eyes (1961), The Fat Controller’s Engines, Paint Pots & Queens and Fish. The final three push forward into Christopher’s stories again, adapting from Really Useful Engines (1983) and Toby, Trucks & Trouble (1988). The reasoning for choosing these stories is not exactly clear – they may well have been picked at random.

Readers who have made it through the last few paragraphs may wonder if the order of the stories is that important. I think it helps in understanding the characters’ motivations in any particular story if you know what they’ve experienced up to that point. Many of Awdry’s engines, and the relationships between them, grow and evolve over the course of his books and many simpler earlier stories are necessary foundations for later more complex ones. Chopping and shuffling breaks the connections and perverts the arcs so that characters who seemed to mature in one episode then regress in another. The jettisoning of peripheral characters or locations also results in much of Awdry’s wider mythology being lost in translation – Tenders for Henry has Gordon lamenting that his brothers have been scrapped in the dieselisation of the British mainland, and the Fat Controller bringing Scotsman over to cheer him up. The adaptation couldn’t afford to build Scotsman (strange, really, given that the engine is so famous you’d think they could buy one off the shelf and slap on one of Gordon’s spare faces) so instead there are just two tenders jutting out from behind a station, said to belong to “a visitor”. Bluebells of England has some graphic accounts and illustrations of engine scrapping which Rusty to the Rescue, though suitably spooky, cannot really match. The nature of “the other railway” is also left unclear, becoming “a faraway part of the island” of Sodor instead of Great Britain.

Furthermore there are certain episodes that just don’t make sense out of context: Henry has no particular motivation to strike after Tenders & Turntables, not yet being whooshed by an elephant. The Trouble with Mud doesn’t really explain how Gordon got to be so filthy. Percy boasts about his trek through a flooded valley years before it happens. The same engine is delighted to be reassigned to the Ffarquhar branch line in Duck Takes Charge, but was already working there in Thomas, Percy & the Coal.

When I originally watched most of these episodes it was on VHS tape rather than television broadcast. The episodes chosen for each tape were sometimes sequential blocks, other times chosen by a particular theme. There would be certain episodes of which I had more than one copy, with subtly different packaging. I do not recall them being labelled according to season or year, but it was usually possible to make an educated guess at which came earlier and which later on account of the technical details (narrator, lighting, colour balance, title sequence typeface) and also the narrative ones (how many characters were present and references to prior events). The one that left me confused was always Paint Pots & Queens, which still pretended to follow directly on from Down the Mine despite being three seasons later – with all the stylistic changes that entailed. Gordon and Thomas commence the episode rolling buffer-to-buffer, the former still wearing the winch on his footplate. Dialogue continues to suggest that their misbehaviour still awaits forgiveness with the Fat Controller, despite both of them interacting normally with him many times in the intervening years. One might advise to simply assume that this episode is set in its original position whatever the order of production, but Duck’s presence at the big station renders that impossible. Plus, placing this episode after with Thomas & the Special Letter feels like overkill – two celebration episodes back-to-back, the engines making a grand visit to London and the next day receiving one. Since each is the final chapter of its respective book it would have worked better to have either of them as the season finale rather than the low-key Mind That Bike!

The fifth season came in 1998, by which time Wilbert Awdry himself had died. Allcroft, harbouring ambitions of a theatrical film, decided to break away from the books entirely and write new stories herself, although she maintained the tradition of using real railway anecdotes for inspiration. The new episodes focused more heavily on action, especially crashes. Furthermore, where early seasons had limited the numbers of new characters to save model costs, subsequent ones added new engines for the purpose of being able to sell more toys.

Those theatrical ambitions eventually manifested in 2000 as Thomas & the Magic Railroad, a crossover between the normal series and its American framing device Shining Time Station. The film featured a mix of model animation and live action, with separate voice actors for each of the engines and a star-studded cast for the humans. Thomas the Tank Engine had been a huge international success up to this point, but this was the first real sign of failure: The film is largely regarded as an embarrassing flop, with an over-complicated story, poor visual effects, mismatched acting and an ill-conceived premise. Allcroft herself complained in 2007 about how many major changes were made between her original script and the finished film, including the editing out of the main antagonist P. T. Boomer because test audiences found him too scary. Mara Wilson, who had played Lily, retired from acting for twelve years afterwards. She later commented that she enjoyed working on the film but was disappointed at how much of her part was cut out. Furthermore many of the models were damaged in transit across the North Atlantic. The film’s failure was a blow to Allcroft’s career and she stepped down as company director, remaining only as executive producer. The Britt Allcroft Company was then renamed Gullane Entertainment.

Season 6 aired in 2002. The series was filmed in 16:9 rather than 4:3 for the first time and a new title sequence montage was created. In addition to the twenty-six episode of the season, Allcroft planned a spin-off series called Jack & the Pack. Its first season was also supposed to have twenty-six episodes but only thirteen were ever filmed, partly due to money issues and partly due to Gullane being bought that year by HiT Entertainment, who also produced Bob the Builder and deemed the two programmes too similar.

Season 7 aired in 2003. A change of name took effect at this point, with “Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends” shortened to “Thomas & Friends”. The original title sequence was restored (albeit cropped, and with the new logo superimposed over the old one). Allcroft was by then further relegated to non-executive director. This series is notable for the introductions of Emily, a Stirling Single and Spencer, based on Mallard. After production Allcroft, Mitton and a host of other important figures decided to leave the series, thus ending what would later be dubbed the Classic era.

Even though they had already purchased the series before 2003, Season 8 (2004) is seen as the beginning of the HiT era, for it was a this stage that their signature changes were implemented. A major artistic and technical retool of the series saw BetaCam videotape replace 35mm film, an entirely new musical score and credits sequence, episodes lengthened from 270 to 420 seconds each and animated “Learning Segments” inserted between the episodes themselves. The large locomotive ensemble cast that had built up over the previous twenty years was compressed to an octet of the most important characters while the rest were demoted to minor supporting roles or excluded altogether. The composition of the “Steam Team” was itself controversial as HiT’s desire for a female character in the main cast saw Emily promoted at the expense of Duck. A change to broadcast schedule also occurred at this point, with two episodes airing per week instead of one per day.

2005 was the franchise’s 60th anniversary year, and HiT commemorated it with Calling All Engines! The hour-long home video special was released alongside the airing of season 9 and depicted an escalating conflict between the steam and diesel engines, as well as the rebuilding of Tidmouth Sheds to include a seventh berth. HiT insisted that Lady and Diesel 10 be included in the plot, for their merchandise had sold well despite the 2000 film’s failure. The characters were this time depicted without any magical qualities and the writers did not consider the special to be a sequel.^^^

In 2008, between the eleventh and twelfth seasons, another special was released: The Great Discovery. This was the last to rely solely on physical models with resin faces. By this point new brass models had been built for the main characters to replace the ageing perspex ones. Season 12 used CG animated faces for the vehicles and fully CG models for the humans, meaning that characters’ lips could move for the first time. This was also the time that Sharon Miller, already script editor since season 9, became the head writer for the series, hence the next few seasons sometimes being called the Miller era. Episodes from this period are characterised by lots of rhyming and alliterative narration and plots built on the “rule of three” formula. Tonally they were aimed at very young children and visually they portray the vehicle characters moving and stopping with unrealistic agility.

2009 was an off-year for the franchise with no new episodes released, but it did see the debut of the third special Hero of the Rails in which the Japanese engine Hiro is found and restored. This special also introduced the Sodor Steamworks, with narrow-gauge tank engine Victor and mobile crane Kevin. This was initially conceived as another hybrid production, but budget cuts meant it would be unfeasible to keep maintaining the existing physical sets and models as well as building the new ones the story required. HiT therefore decided to abandon the physical models entirely and switch the series permanently to full CG animation. Also from here on all characters would have individual voice actors instead of the narrator reading their lines. The standard length of an episode was further increased to ten minutes.

Series 13, produced at the same time as the special, aired in early 2010. From this point on, much like Top Gear, there would be a special to accompany each season. Here the chronology problem rears its head again: Frequently the special would introduce a new character to be either the protagonist or antagonist for that story, and then said character would appear in supporting roles for multiple episodes of the accompanying season, often then fading into obscurity as the next new character was then brought in, though rarely explicitly leaving the cast.^^^^ It was sometimes the case, though, that the DVD of the special wouldn’t be released until after the corresponding season had already aired, which then made the character’s introduction redundant. A more general problem is common to a lot of programming, especially animated – the time taken to produce a block of episodes may well be greater than the time between blocks airing, with the result that multiple seasons are overlapping from a creative standpoint. Individual stories may be delayed or accelerated to broadcast for whatever reason and TV networks in different countries will make different decisions as to the broadcast schedule, with the end result that the orders in which stories are made, set, and shown may be drastically misaligned. This is especially the case with Christmas and other holiday specials, which obviously have to go out at the right time of year even if the rest of the season can be delayed indefinitely.

Another retool occurred in 2012 with Brenner replacing Miller as head writer and Arc Productions replacing Nitrogen Studios as the animators. Mark Moraghan replaced Michael Angelis as narrator, though the difference between their voices is much less noticeable than with Starr’s. The narrator’s role was significantly reduced to allow the characters’ speech and movements to carry the story more naturally. Plots in seasons 17-20 (sometimes called the “Brennaissance”) tended to be more sophisticated than those before and the new format allowed for finer subtleties in the interactions between characters, for purposes both comedic or dramatic`. A lot of neglected classic characters were also returned to the main cast during this period and other parts of Awdry’s lore were incorporated – namely Ulfstead Castle and the Norramby family. The franchise also went another change of ownership this year, with HiT Entertainment bought up by the American toy company Mattel.

2015 was the seventieth anniversary of the franchise, which was celebrated with The Adventure Begins, a special that remade the first seven episodes of the series and re-adapted the first two books. Notable is that many details are presented differently to how they were in season 1, correcting some adaptation errors (James has his black livery this time) but creating others (Henry is in his new shape from the beginning). This overwriting led many to conclude that seasons 1-7 effectively exist in a separate continuity from season 13 onward, though nobody is quite sure which side of the boundary seasons 8-12 should fall. Another special, Sodor’s Legend of the Lost Treasure, was released that summer. Produced at some point in 2014, it starred John Hurt“ as the antagonist Sailor John, and introduced the miniature Arlesdale Railway and the Thin Clergyman (an avatar for Wilbert Awdry himself) to the TV series for the first time. This special was noted for its rather darker tone as John (essentially a second attempt at the PT Boomer character) engages in physical combat and even attempts to kill Thomas with dynamite.

Mattel took over as producer in 2016, and then some further changes were seen in 2017, with the twenty-first season and the special Journey Beyond Sodor: Edward moved out of Tidmouth sheds“` with the others ominously wondering who might take his place. More elaborate animation was used for jokes and for fantasy sequences, and the engines gained the ability to bounce their bodies around on their chassis to emphasise emotions – probably inspired by Chuggington. This season was only eighteen episodes long, with a further eight having been cancelled to make way for the next project. Five of them were eventually included in the next three seasons. Two Christmas episodes were released on DVD after season 21 that were produced as part of season 20.

Behind the scenes the franchise was running into difficulty, with all-important toy sales in decline“` and Thomas losing viewers to newer shows like Paw Patrol. Market research brought back an anecdote about a child they interviewed, who told them “Trains can go places but Thomas never goes anywhere.” In 2018 the company implemented yet another retool, under the brand of Big World! Big Adventures. This was to be the banner of both the 2018 special and seasons 22-24. The special features Thomas going on a trip all around the world so that through him the viewers can learn about other cultures. The ensuing series are split between standard episodes set on Sodor and episodes set internationally, with Thomas in-character narrating stories about what happened on his travels. By and large the latter stories follow the same formula (characters get lost, things go wrong, stuff breaks, shout at each other) but with multiple exotic locations as backdrops rather than just a small part of Britain. Again, it’s a lot like Top Gear. Yet another new theme song and title sequence was deployed, and the physics moved further away from realism with a lot more energetic and cartoonish movement by the locomotive cast, as well as at least one fantasy sequence in almost every episode. On the other hand, there was greater realism in the character designs, with the inclusion of rivets and other details that had long been omitted.““ Running alongside this is a trend towards having the specials and even some of the normal episodes written and advertised around more general ideas of what would excite children – castles, dinosaurs, pirates – with the railways themselves being a sideshow, which Mattel did not start but did compound with many scenes where locomotives dream of being anything else.

The “Steam Team” was reshuffled again in these years with Kenyan ED1 engine replacing Edward and Light Pacific Rebecca replacing Henry in a push for closer gender-balance. Toby was also demoted from the main cast though without much ceremony nor any replacement.

Following the production of season 24, a double-length (though not feature-length) special was commissioned for the franchise’s 75th anniversary. Entitled Thomas & the Royal Engine, it featured Thomas meeting Her Majesty again, this time with her son Prince Charles in tow. His son Prince Harry recorded a live-action introduction in January, shortly before he stepped aside from royal duties. The special aired on 2nd May 2020 (ten days before the actual anniversary), and was shortly followed by the last nine episodes of season 23. Season 24 then aired in three chunks from September 2020 to January 2021.

On 12th October 2020 Mattel announced some changes for the next season, which would arrive in autumn 2021. This in itself was not much of a surprise given that the series had been retooled several times already (indeed, I can’t think of any other series besides Doctor Who that gets changed so much so often). This one, however, was rather more drastic: the series was changing to 2D animation. This on its own was a more radical change than any that had been imposed before, but more was to come. On 27th January 2021, just six days after season 24 finished airing, another announcement was made: there would be no season 25, the supposed retool was actually a reboot. Thomas & Friends as made from 1984 to 2020 had ended, and in its place was a completely new series called All Engines Go! with a drastically reduced cast (including no engine crews at all) and a complete break of continuity. Also on this day a trailer for the new series was leaked online, which was much derided by all who saw it prior to its swift takedown. Whereas Big World! Big Adventures! had included so much extra detailing on the models, All Engines Go! swings the other way with extremely crude drawings that omit cab doors and coupling rods. To make matters worse it doubles down on the wacky animation, with engines now hopping about the screen like caffeinated squirrels. There have also been hints that Sodor will be made to feel like “every island” so as to be accessible to children of all nationalities. The new production will therefore lack any distinctive British identity. On top of all this the new animation style means another change of animation team, with Nelvana (again Canadian) taking over from Arc. There are a few personnel who had roles in Shining Time Station and ‘Magic Railroad, but from what I can find it appears that the vast majority of the former creative team has been made redundant.

The reaction to the new imagery was overwhelmingly negative, with parents reporting their children’s disgust at the sight and even Britt Allcroft herself commiserating with fans on Facebook.

Now, having spent four thousand words building up to this point, it is time to answer to initial question – why is The Royal Engine so significant? Well, although there still dozens of other episodes to be released, this was the last in production order and thus, with the reboot pending, effectively becomes the finale not just for season 24 but for the entirety of Thomas & Friends on television for the last thirty-six years. In hindsight, the birthday is made a funeral.

By comparison to the rest of late stage T&F, this special is surprisingly low-key. Too low, perhaps? There are no dream sequences and, though the bouncing is still present, no blatant physics-breaking either. The bombastic BWBA intro starts up but then fades away in a manner that almost feels like a subversive rebuke to the style of the last three seasons. Instead we have the Duke of Sussex sitting calmly in an armchair reading holding open the book (whose covers are very carefully styled to resemble those from The Railway Series, though the internal illustrations are just screenshots from the episode) and talking us briefly through the premise. This then fades back into the episode proper, with Percy hurriedly delivering a delayed letter to Knapford. It turns out to be a letter from Queen Elizabeth. She invites Sir Topham to Buckingham Palace the next day to receive a special award for services to the railway and says that Prince Charles has specifically requested Thomas be the engine to bring him. There is a morning montage of Hatt putting on his finest suit and Thomas being specially decorated. Of course, nothing goes to plan, with the bulk of the runtime being dedicated to them getting lost, scratched, and splattered with mud. The title character is Duchess of Loughborough, based on the Coronation-class Duchess of Sutherland. She breaks down and Thomas has to push her to the station, then it turns out she was pulling the royal train. The ceremony is then performed on the platform, Elizabeth (voiced by Miller) gifts Hatt an ornate clock and Charles lays a medal*^ on Thomas’s left wheel arch. The Queen dubs him a “royally useful engine”, the crowd cheers, the camera pans out until a large Union Flag flops in front of it and then the credits roll.

Of all the other TV finales I’ve seen, I’d say that that The Royal Engine is structurally most similar to Meanwhile, the 2013 ending of Futurama. Rather than being a grand epic that ties up everything in one go, the episode focuses on just two of the main characters and is paced rather sedately. Other character arcs are given smaller individual closures in the episodes leading up to it (Zoidberg finding love, Emily getting an official number*`) so that the finale is not overloaded. Indeed, the other main characters only have brief cameos in the first five minutes. Of course, there is still time to chuck in a great many references to earlier episodes. There is even a last-minute canonisation of Gordon Goes Foreign, with Henry teasing him for getting London stations mixed up.^`

There are parts of it that feel a little rushed – the route to London is surprisingly quiet, with Victoria station and the space around it being almost deserted but for a few dozen cheerers. There is some irony that this episode, finished shortly before the pandemic hit and set vaguely in the 1960s, predicts the eerie emptiness of public space under lockdown and the barely-quorate versions of public ceremonies thereafter. I also think that the royal characters don’t look or sound much like the real ones, and that Charles’s lines about Thomas’s travels around the world and environmental efforts feel a bit shoehorned – appropriate for the real Charles as an adult but really nothing to with the stories Awdry wrote.

Futurama was cancelled and uncancelled many times, with the result that there are several episodes intended to serve as finales in case it didn’t come back. The Thomas franchise never had that problem, but there are several episodes that finales for each section of the series before the next retool hit: The Classic era closes with Three Cheers for Thomas, essentially a remake of the much-beloved Thomas & Bertie. HiT’s model series closed out with Best Friends which, while not really referencing much, evaluates the way two main characters relate to each other. Sharon Miller as writer and Nitrogen as animator finish on either Happy Birthday Sir! (by production) or The Christmas Tree Express (by broadcast). The former has some character stuff for the Fat Controller, the latter is a cavalcade of elements introduced during Miller’s tenure including the final appearance of Misty Island and the logging locos. It’s hard to judge where season 21 properly ends due to all the shuffling, but A Shed for Edward was the last made and it effectively retires the character from the main cast.

Thomas’s Animal Friends, the last to be aired, has no qualities that mark it out as the conclusion of anything larger than itself. The Royal Engine, on the other hand, harks back to Paint Pots & Queens by Her Majesty’s presence as well as The Fat Controller’s Engines by Thomas getting damaged on a trip to the mainland and only just arriving in time. Prince Charles’s inclusion is symbolically very important here, for he delivered the closing line in Centenary, Christopher Awdry’s very last chapter of the books.

All in all, I think that this special does an okay if imperfect job of finishing off this enormously successful and beloved series. It wasn’t as big as The Adventure Begins or any others in that line, but adequate for its intended purpose and many other shows have ended on worse. That being said, I have nothing but pessimistic dread for what is to follow.

First, on the animation: Wilbert Awdry had been keen for all his characters to closely resemble real locomotives, to the point of occasionally writing whole stories (e.g. The Flying Kipper, Thomas Comes to Breakfast) solely to explain changes in their appearances. He had disputes with at least two of his illustrators due to what he perceived to be their negligence of railway realism. Early attempts at adaptations were rejected – a live BBC airing of The Sad Story of Henry was condemned due to Henry derailing and a human hand needing to come into shot to right him. An approach by Andrew Lloyd Webber in 1973 was rejected because he wanted too much control of the franchise in order to secure American investment, to which Awdry said “Once the Americans get hold of it the whole series would be vulgarised and ruined!”.

It wasn’t until 1979 that Britt Allcroft proposed her series to him, and then 1981 that she was able to put it into production. Cell animation and stop motion were both turned down, eventually settling on live action with moving railway models. All of the lines and narration were done by the same voice, evoking a parent reading the story to their children. There was little else like it before or since. Scenes were shot with a specially-designed camera using the same quality film as was used for cinemas. The music was also drastically different to that normally used for children’s programming. The Classic series was especially popular among autistic children, even beyond their fascination with locomotion more generally. The static faces which changed between shots to represent discrete emotional states allowed them to process the scene far more easily than with most other media, while the genteel pace of the action (with movement on predictable patterns) and stillness of the scenery avoided the sensory overload they would suffer from faster, flashier programming. All that being said the early episodes were never flat – characters were capable of witty, often snarky, conversation and could call on broad vocabularies when the situation demanded it.

Of course, HiT’s takeover removed much of the cinematic quality in both the visuals and the music, then the switch to CG inevitably changed the nature of how characters expressed themselves. Still, Nitrogen and Arc clearly put a great effort into ensuring that their digital models resembled the old physical ones as closely as possible. Mattel, by contrast, have spent the last four years engaging in a race to the bottom which has now culminated in obnoxious, low-grade, hyperactive baby crack indistinguishable from any other children’s television. Press releases have said that two seasons have already been commissioned, each consisting of fifty-two 11-minute episodes and a 60-minute special, twice the output rate of the previous series. At that speed, it’s unlikely that artistic quality will see much attention.

Second, on the characters: The Railway Series was always an ensemble piece. Thomas was not even first among equals, having the number 1 on his side only because Awdry found it the easiest numeral to draw.^* He was not the first character in the franchise, nor the one with the most detailed backstory, and plenty of books do not feature him – or any of the “steam team” – at all. For whatever reason he quickly proved to be the engine that most resonated with audiences, and so publishers pestered the author to put out more stories about him rather than the other engines, even to the extent of slapping his name in the titles of books which were really about other characters. The naming of the TV series shows the extent to which the general public recognised him individually rather than the stories as a whole. As the episodes diverged from the books the “& Friends” part of the title lost accuracy as writing attention increasingly focused on Thomas himself to the exclusion of many others, and in this too the Mattel reboot goes even further with plans to make him the main character of all 104 episodes.

It’s worth drawing attention at this point to the online community: Awdry’s stories and Allcroft’s adaptation have a combination of complex mythology with simple movements which render them abnormally well-suited for fan films. TRAINZ railroad simulator and various other virtual model software (sometimes even real model trains) have been a boon wishing to see and show others their take on the tales, from adaptations of stories Allcroft couldn’t afford or never reached, to originals in the same style, vast expansions of old stories’ details, new takes on the premise, deconstructive parody, and dystopian horror, alternative backstory and things beyond description. The writing quality of these has long been superior to that on the official TV series, and the visuals were steadily catching up as well. It’s nice to know that there is so vast a community dedicated to keeping the fire of the franchise alive even if the current owners are desperate to put it out.

Before I go it’s worth saying that there is a film underway by Quantum of Solace director Marc Forster. It is supposed to be a four-quadrant film with a mix of animation and live action to tell the railway story in a “modern and unexpected way”. I’m cautious about getting excited though, for it sounds suspiciously similar to a different film that was pitched more than a decade ago which was delayed several times and then quietly cancelled. For a very long time all the information we got about it was a few lines of synopsis and a poster that proclaimed “Arriving Soon” – about as accurate for the film as for anything else involving British trains. Also in the pipeline is An Unlikely Fandom by independent filmmaker Brannon Carty, though his own Twitter feed contradicts itself as to whether the release is in summer or fall.

When I began writing this article it was only meant to be a quick aside but it has turned out to be probably the longest blog post I have ever done. The effort to keep typing has taxed me for four days, but Thomas is so prestigious and has been so foundational in my life that I think he deserves it. Don’t you?

EXTERNAL LINKS

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*None from Christopher.

**Bizarre because it’s an unrelated Percy story in what is otherwise Henry’s book. Consequently Henry the Green Engine is the only instalment to have five chapters instead of the usual four. The silver lining is that, unlike with most of the other examples, delaying this episode until the third season doesn’t affect anything continuity-wise.

***This is noticeable in the Classic TV series as well – Henry’s story takes up a lot of the first season but in the second he never has a scene to himself, appearing only as part of a trio with Gordon and James. In the third season he gets Henry’s Forest (a magazine story that Awdry disliked) and Tender Engines but no Super Rescue (probably the two diesel models would have been too expensive). In the fourth series he gets Henry & the Elephant (a first season holdover) and Fish (one of Christopher’s stories).

****Those stories which are not about any one character in particular (e.g. Tenders & Turntables) or whose protagonist is not one of the seven chosen for this book (e.g. Oliver, Stepney or any narrow-gauge engines).

^Duke the Lost Engine is essentially a prequel to the other three. The adaptation moves its stories ahead of the others, with the framing device of Thomas telling a story in the sheds. Skarloey Remembers and Old Faithful are merged into one episode. Little Old Twins is omitted.

^^Bluebells of England and Stepney’s Special are merged together as Thomas & Stepney. Rusty to the Rescue is inserted before them to give an altered account of Stepney’s rescue.

^^^Indeed the events of Thomas & the Magic Railroad are never treated as canonical to any prior or subsequent instalment of the franchise.

^^^^There is a potential analogy here with peers who were only ennobled so that they could be ministers, often with tenures only lasting a year or two.

`That said, there are plenty of scenes that could have been written by Seth McFarlane.

“He was Gazetted as a knight bachelor, for services to drama, in the 2015 New Year Honours. He received his accolade at Windsor Castle on the day of the special’s release.

“`Of course, the episodes are still being played out of sequence so he appears to return there a few times afterwards.

““This was the same year that Mattel made the preposterous decision to slash costs by releasing a new toy line in which half of the wood was unpainted, though I do not know which caused the other.

““The visual update is particularly noticeable when there are flashback sequences to earlier events. Scenes from seasons 13-20 just use the stock footage straight from those episodes, but those from the model series are recreated from scratch with the newer designs and animation.

*^The Queen calls it a crest for some reason. The ribbon resembles that for the Conspicuous Gallantry Cross.

*`The “12” can be glimpsed on her tender in the Knapford scene of the special, making clear that it takes place after that episode.

^`Actually the station used for this special is not Euston, Paddington, King’s Cross or St. Pancras, but Victoria in Westminster. This was probably chosen for its architectural similarity to Vicarstown, avoiding having to build a new virtual set. Similarly the other mainland locations shown are probably those already made for Journey Beyond Sodor or else minor redresses of existing Sudrian sets.

^*Awdry eventually explained the engines’ numbers as representing the order in which they were formally purchased by the North Western Railway. Funnily enough the reboot art still shows Gordon, James and Percy having the numbers 4, 5 and 6 despite Edward and Henry not featuring anymore.