Aren’t You Sitting A Bit Close?

This ought to date well.

Once again I find myself in one of the bits between, specifically the annual Christmas post-script that occurs in the final week of each calendar. It is an awkward limbo, in which the climax of the year has been reached and passes but normality has not yet resumed.

Christmas has always felt like something of a world unto itself, somehow separated from the rest of reality. For almost a whole month (much longer if you work in retail) websites are redesigned, new dress codes are imposed, all manner of buildings are redecorated and new song rotations are adopted for radio stations. We don’t normally treat Easter this way, nor indeed Halloween. In particular, an awful lot of radio and television series are insistent upon doing the annual Christmas special, which is broadcast (and possibly filmed) separately from the regular run, with the holiday often dominating the story, and sometimes even an altered title sequence – with snow effects superimposed over the visuals and bells added to the music.

There are quite a few franchises that carry on getting Christmas specials even when they are stood down as regular series. Mrs Brown’s Boys, for instance, ended its last full series in February 2013 but continues to get double bills at Christmas and New Year with the result that “special” installments now outnumber regular ones. Miranda likewise had three series of six episodes each. Oddly the second series ended on 20th December 2010 and the third series premiered 366 days later. This meant there were two Christmas episodes consecutively but they were not specials as such. The third series ended with a cliffhanger on 28th January 2013, which was not resolved until a similar special double in 2014-15. Not Going Out had its finale in 2014 (aired on Christmas Eve, but the episode was not seasonal), yet came back for a Christmas special in 2015 which then essentially became the pilot for a revival and retool in 2017.

Paradoxically, the saviour’s birthday is also a way of nailing down the timeline within a fictional story – most episodes of a fictional series could be set at any time of year – especially if it’s a studio show with no opportunity to check the leaves on the trees – and it isn’t always clear how much time is supposed to elapse between them. If there are at least two episodes set at Christmas with at least one non-Christmas episode in between, then this establishes that at least one diagetic year has gone by. This occasionally leads to problems with the series’ setting. Dad’s Army is a story about the Second World War, but more specifically the Home Guard. That institution was established on 14th May 1940 and deactivated on 3rd December 1944 (although not formally dissolved until New Year’s Eve 1945), which means that only three Christmases occurred during its period of operation. I was not able to binge the entire series again to check, but from the brief summaries I read online it appears that there were at least four episodes released at this time of year (one as part of a normal series, three as specials), although only two were necessarily set at Christmas so perhaps the chronology is preserved. The Simpsons, Family Guy and American Dad all famously operate on a floating timeline – where the external year changes but the main characters never physically age or progress to different life stages. All have annual Christmas episodes year on year without acknowledging the implications. The latter is especially bizarre as the Christmas stories form an ongoing series in themselves which often involves traveling through time and warping reality.

Thomas & Friends** is a franchise in which time never progresses either externally or internally. Sir Topham Hatt’s grandchildren Bridget & Stephen never grow up, nor does the technology level (or indeed the clothing) move beyond the early 1960s. This is despite the inclusion of at least one Christmas (or at any rate wintertime) episode in each series, and indeed quite a few series in which the year apparently cycles around several times. For a long time the only real human (as opposed to real locomotives, such as City of Turo, Flying Scotsman or Rocket) to be written in the franchise was, quite aptly, our immortal sovereign. From Paint Pots & Queens until the start of this year, I think I counted forty-two separate winters on the island, which means that new episodes cannot logically be taking place any earlier than 1994. Her Majesty returned to the franchise in the 75th anniversary special Thomas & the Royal Engine, this time accompanied by her eldest son. Charles is dressed in what vaguely resembles his Gordonstoun uniform, which would place the episode in the period of 1962-1967, but his height and voice would suggest an earlier date.

This year’s coronavirus pandemic has made it painfully apparent which “new” television content is actually new and which was filmed months or even years in advance. The example most prominent for me is Channel 4’s long running panel show 8 Out of 10 Cats, whose Christmas special this year was apparently recorded back in January (i.e. just after the previous such holiday had finished). The studio had a full live audience and plenty of physical interaction between the panelists. The spin-off series, 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown, was even worse.

Already the programme had been subject to some creative scheduling in 2019 due to Rachel Riley’s pregnancy. Riley announced her condition on 24th May, and gave birth on 15th December. In scripted series this might have been hidden by careful framing or an oversized labcoat, but this was probably not feasible with a studio audience. The bump is not seen during the eighteenth season (26th July-6th September), but appears prominently in that year’s Christmas special (broadcast 23rd December), during which Carr decides to stake his reputation on the joke “Rachel is heavily pregnant, so let’s get a move on before someone unexpectedly slides down her chimney.”, as well as throughout the nineteenth season (9th January-14th February 2020).

The twentieth season ran from 31st July to 28th August, by which point the pandemic was well underway, and consists entirely of leftover material from earlier years. Episodes 1 and 2 were filmed in “late 2019” and show Riley still pregnant. Episode 3 was filmed in “early 2019” and includes references to Richard Ayoade’s role in the “recent” LEGO Movie 2, which premiered over eighteen months prior. Episodes 4 and 5 were not new material, but “Best Bits” compilations assembled in 2018 (for confirmation, look at the title slides at the end of the closing credits to see the little “MMXVIII” and “MMXIX” notices). Quite why these episodes were released in so obviously the wrong order is anyone’s guess. There was something of a Funny Aneurysm Moment in episode 2 when Jon Richardson got “Corona” as his word and the other panelists didn’t really react.

From what has been said on Twitter by people claiming to have been in the audience, the 2020 Christmas special was actually filmed in February 2019. That may initially seem crazy, but on closer inspection it is reasonable, as Riley is clearly not pregnant, yet it cannot have been filmed after the birth as the title card still says “MMXIX” not “MMXX”*, so it must have been filmed before the foetus grew to noticeable size, which realistically means no later than July. Why the 2020 Christmas special was filmed before the 2019 one is, again, a question for the ages.

An example of this effect in fiction is the BBC sitcom Ghosts, whose second season was released on 21st September, having been filmed in January and February. Episode 2 has an eerily subplot about how one of the medieval peasant ghosts returned from a holiday outside his village and accidentally gave all of his neighbours the plague, which was originally planned to be much more graphic. This season also includes a Christmas special (released on 23rd December) in which, once again, there is no acknowledgement of the pandemic.

It would be pertinent to ask whether this really matters: current-affairs programming such as Have I Got News For You? or Mock the Week need to be filmed at short-notice, but non-topical material can be stored for any time without the quality being affected. I would say that it does matter at least a little, for all works are a product of their times even if that is not their intention – each new entry being on some level a reaction to what existed before. The longer in advance a program is made, the more those in it must hedge their bets with respect to topical references, social commentary or even acknowledgement of personal circumstances, with the result that a product which should feel fresh and contemporary is instead rendered oddly generic and distant. Furthermore a game show of any kind relies on the audience being invested in the competition while a fictional piece often strives for hype regarding story arcs and major plot developments, but the tension is inevitably dulled if it is obvious that the events on-screen are all in the past.

This year, of course, adds another dimension to this problem. When the general public have spent nine months largely stuck at home, deprived of social interaction and encased in protective clothing, it can be quite jarring – perhaps even a little cruel – to see people on television apparently carrying on as if nothing has happened. Charlie Brooker in his Antiviral Wipe said “many shows which would normally seem cozy and harmless suddenly look freakishly irresponsible” and many online discussions of recent media have comments to the effect that it was like staring into a parallel universe.

*UK Maternity leave is mandatory for two weeks and then optional for up to fifty more. Riley giving birth on 15th December means, that there would only be three remaining days in the year 2019 in which she could have returned to film the special, one of them a Sunday and another New Year’s Eve. It doesn’t seem very likely.

**This paragraph solely concerns Thomas & Friends on television. The Railway Series in print does not have these problems.

UPDATE (January 2021)

Another season of Cats Countdown has been launched. The end card still says MMXIX and Riley is still not pregnant so presumably this was filmed around the same time as the recent special. One wonders just how many advance episodes they could have banked in 2019 – especially given that the previous season already appeared heavily padded.

Scrapped

There are two ways of doing things – the Great Wikipedian Way or the wrong way.

On Thursday I rolled past 12,000 edits to the English Wikipedia, allowing me to upgrade to the rank of Veteran Editor II or Grand Tutnum. This feat, especially during the last few months, was helped by the appointment of the new life peers: Their pages all needed updating to reflect their new identities, and even in some cases moving to new names as well as creating redirects and expanding various lists. I also embarked on a project to add succession boxes to all existing life peers – well, the males at least – showing their place in the order of precedence. So far the contributions I have described still stand, and are likely to do so for the foreseeable future. Others are not so lucky.

Early in 2018 I came looked across the numerous articles relating to The Railway Series and its television adaptation Thomas & Friends. In particular I noticed that the images used to illustrate character pages, especially the secondary characters, had been uploaded about a decade ago and were of rather poor quality – low resolution and harshly cropped. I set about replacing them with higher-clarity screenshots from videos I found online. I did this for Annie & Clarabel (both in one picture), Bertie, Diesel, Duck, Harold, Oliver, Peter Sam, Rheneas, Rusty, Salty, Sir Handel, Sir Topham Hatt, Terence and Trevor. Now, thirteen of those fourteen are gone.

This summer I noticed a string of alerts on my Talk page saying that my images were no longer being used in any articles and so would soon be deleted (because, as screenshots of a copyrighted TV series, they could only be uploaded under fair use, not Creative Commons). My first thought was that a different editor had uploaded images of their own to displace mine, or even that they had meanly decided any illustration would be too extravagant. Instead I discovered that the articles themselves were being deleted. Editors more powerful than I have determined that these pages were mere fancruft, and therefore unworthy of inclusion. At the time of writing only the “Steam Team”, Donald & Douglas and The Fat Controller above the waterline, with enough citations from outside the franchise itself to keep them on – though even these often sport multiple error boxes and tags for improvement. The secondary characters have been relegated to brief snippets in list articles. These lists themselves are being eyed up for deletion (in the words of one editor ” Combining two or more bad articles still produces a bad article that needs to be deleted in the end.“), so they may end up disappearing altogether. It should be noted that articles about the series itself outside of the fourth wall – whether in print or on television – are not threatened, rather it is the diegetic detail that tends to be in the crosshairs.

Some series fare better than others at this – the Doctor Who, Harry Potter, Star Trek and Star Wars franchises among others have hundreds upon hundreds of pages about characters, locations and species which do not seem to be in any immediate danger of purging. Tolkien’s Legendarium, of course, has been subject to plenty of discussion by formal academic publications and other secondary sources to solidify its presence. These franchises (along with many other detailed specific topics) also have their own independent wikis (often at fandom.com, formerly wikia.com) which can be tailored to focus on them individually and not limited by conformity to the standards of the vast Wikipedia project. In the case of Awdrey’s work, the community is rather small and has been barely active for a long time. The majority of the dedicated article-builders decided it was a more productive strategy to give up the main line and plough all of their efforts into the branch.

This is not the only area where such attitudes are encountered. Moving closer to my usual areas of interest, Wikipedia has a large number articles about royal pretenders – i.e. members of deposed dynasties. A few years ago the majority of these articles had the same formatting and templates as did those of still-enthroned royals, and even described subjects by the titles and styles they would enjoy under their respective monarchies. The talk pages of these articles often sported angry outbursts by those who deemed the prince-pretenders non-notable, or at least insisted that their “real” names should be used instead of their traditional titles (thought that itself would be a matter of some difficulty, as members of these families often have presences in multiple countries, and different countries afford differing levels of recognition to these people’s titles, such that they have different legal identities depending on location). Recently I have noticed that several of these articles have undergone significant revisions to decrease the level of perceived fluff around their styles and honours.

Sometimes this has affected things that I have personally created. Two years ago I made a navbox for the husbands of British suo jure princesses, seeing as we already had ones for the princesses themselves, the princes, and their wives (and equivalents for other countries of course). The template was swiftly deleted. I also spent a great deal of time putting together a navbox for all of Britain’s then-living life peers, in the style of those on the pages of their hereditary counterparts. That too was canned almost immediately.

I will not go into the wider issue of inclusionism and deletionism. My intention here is simply to highlight how easy it is for a person – or even many people – to dedicate a great deal of time and effort to a cause which is ultimately defeated, and its fruits at a whim obliterated, such that all their toil has been for nothing. This is a fact of life that long predates Wikipedia, and will likely never be escaped.

 

Train Breeds Musical Geniuses

An interesting – if perhaps slightly hyperbolic – video by classical and film music enthusiast Inside the Score, whose works include an appreciative analysis of the score for The Lord of the Rings and a scathing one for Harry Potter.

This short piece posits that the musical complexity of the music from Series 1-7 of Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends – unusual for children’s programming – formed the inspiration for the most talented musicians of the generation watching it.

Co-composer Mike O’Donnell has his own channel, and there are quite a few channels dedicated to the classic series’ music alone, to say nothing of the hundreds pumping out the fanfics:

A Shield For Wilbert

Wilbert Awdry, so far is I know, was not armigerous. As a belated part of The Railway Series‘s anniversary celebrations, I have toyed with the medieval practice of heraldic attribution.

Escutcheon: Azure two sections of railroad track between four steam whistles Or.

Crest: Issuant from a funnel Sable a cloud of smoke Argent.

Motto: I Can And I Will.

Badge: A wheel Azure surmounted by a bar Gules thereon a goat statant Argent horned Or hooved Sable holding in its mouth a top hat of the last.

A crest is included for the sake of completeness, though Awdry as a priest likely would have used a galero-type hat instead. Also in place is the medal of an Officer of the Order of the British Empire, to which he was appointed in 1995. The motto is based on James’s refrain when hauling a troublesome goods train up Gordon’s hill. The more familiar “Really Useful” did not quite feel appropriate for a personal motto. The badge is, of course, a parody of the “cycling lion” once used by British Rail.

I had originally hoped to include more references to Awdry’s ecclesiastical career, perhaps by taking charges from the arms of parishes he served, but what little heraldic material I could find didn’t really seem to fit. By happy coincidence I discovered afterwards that the real-life municipal crest of Barrow-in-Furness includes a ram’s head with golden horns, though of course its mouth is empty. For those wondering how to tell the difference between the two caprines, a goat’s horns tend to be short and straight while a ram’s tend to curl back.

Since the previous post compared Awdry’s world to that of J. R. R. Tolkien, it is worth taking a brief look at him here, too. While Tolkien designed a lot of heraldic devices for the cultures of Middle Earth, his own armigerous status is uncertain. This article is the only one I can find going into detail.

FURTHER READING

http://www.northernvicar.co.uk/2018/10/26/upwell-norfolk-st-peter/

UPDATE: JULY 2020

The franchise itself, both in print and on television, features a smattering of characters who would grace the pages of Burke and Debrett. Among them is Robert Norramby, Earl of Sodor, manager of Ulfstead Castle. The man himself is an invention of the television series – introduced in the 2013 special King of the Railway – but his family and their seat were established in The Island of Sodor: Its People, History and Railways in 1987.

sodor_achievementThe Earl’s coat of arms is seen a few times on parts of his home, as well as on the cab of his private engine Millie.

My best guess for the blazon of the shield would be Azure a pale Argent over all issuant from the base a representation of the guard house of Ulfstead Castle Proper atop each of the two turrets a flagstaff erect flying therefrom to the sinister a pennant Or. The supporters are much easier – on either side a lion rampant Or. The absence of a crest or motto is intriguing, as is the use of what resembles a colourfully-jewelled Eastern crown instead of the standard coronet of an Earl.

The Duke of Boxford often sports a vaugely-heraldic image on the left breast of his suit jacket, though the detail is too poor for me to blazon it properly. Curiously the Hatt baronets themselves are never indicated to be armigerous.

Rails Go Ever Ever On

Illustration of “Edward’s Day Out” by William Middleton

The Reverend Wilbert Vere Awdry’s The Three Railway Engines, first instalment in what would become the world famous Railway Series, was originally published seventy-five years before today. After his death, the franchise he created was carried on by his son Christopher. That can, of course, be said of another great English writer, though sadly his Christopher’s own demise came earlier this year. Present circumstances impede me from coming up with a more comprehensive tribute, but perhaps this could be the basis for a joint effort between Clamavi de Profundis and The Tuggster Intensifies one day:

Rails go ever ever on,
Over rock and under tree.
By tunnels where no sun has shone,
Canals that never find the sea;
Ploughed through snow by winter sown,
And past the merry flowers of June,
Over sleepers lain on stone,
And viaducts o’er valleys hewn.

Rails go ever ever on,
Under cloud and under star.
Yet wheels that thundering have gone
Roll at last to home afar.
Eyes that fire and smoke have seen,
And horror in the smelter’s place
Look at last on buffer clean,
In cosy sheds they longed to face.

The track goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the line has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with weary wheels,
Until it joins some larger way,
Where many points and switches meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

The track goes ever on and on
Out from the yard where it began.
Now far ahead the line has gone.
Let others follow, if they can!
Let them a journey new begin.
But I at last with pistons worn
To silent sidings will crawl in,
To down for night and sleep ’till dawn.

Still ’round the next bend there may wait
A new branch or secret gate;
And though I long have roamed this isle,
I never could lose cause to smile
Upon the realm my line does span
West of Barrow, East of Mann.

Adapted from The Road Goes Ever On by J. R. R. Tolkien, circa 1937.

UPDATE (22nd October)

Search engine results show that at least one other has thought of this connection before I did – EndlessWire94 on DeviantArt.