Thanks to my Supporters

Early this morning I made another virtual visit to the Toronto Branch of the Royal Heraldry Society of Canada.This time the speaker was D’Arcy Boulton, Emeritus Professor of History & Medieval Studies at the University of Notre Dame, and the topic was The Development of the Forms and Uses of Supporters by the Peers of England to 1580, as shown in the Earliest Armorials of the Peerage.

The session opened with a fair amount of technological fumbling. Eventually Boulton got his slideshow going and warned us that we would be seeing a lot of manuscripts, which would be identified by collection numbers instead of by names.

We were shown a rapid succession of medieval and Tudor armorials. That by Gelre (1370-1395) was the first to display crests, followed by Shirley’s roll (c. 1450) which still mainly restricted them to foreign kings. Supporters, Boulton said, played a very small role below the level of princes prior to the late sixteenth century. There were many attempts in that era to produce books which contained a full account of the arms of the English peerage, though each omitted at least a few peers for whatever reason. It was further observed that during this time specialised helmets and coronets for peers began appearing in the records. An interesting phenomenon is the solidification of supporters as indicating noble rank, for until the seventeenth century they were not formally restricted to peers and garter knights but examples of usage by lesser knights and gentlemen were still rare.

Later in his talk, our guest discussed some statistics about peers’ supporters. Among seventy-four distinct achievements found by the middle of Charles I’s reign, he found that twenty-four used identical pairs and fifty used non-identical, making one hundred and twenty-four distinct supporters in total. Different peers used the same supporter only if they were agnates of the same lineage or co-heirs of a split peerage. He also identified four fundamental types of supporter: Human, wholly natural beast (eighteen species), semi-natural beast (three species) and imaginary beast or monster (thirteen species). He saw that human supporters were much less popular among English peers of the time than among their Scottish and continental contemporaries.

At the end of the lecture there was time for questions. I asked if he knew anything about the emergence of supporters in corporate heraldry (as opposed to the personal heraldry he had so far covered). He said that corporations began to acquire supporters at a relatively early stage, including all of the greater livery companies of the City of London.

It is often the case that the discussion after the lecture is as blog-worthy as the event proper. On this occasion most of the conversation – punctuated with some very long silences – was between Darrel Kennedy and Sean in New Zealand, the latter showing off his newborn son Arthur. This was the first time I had known anyone bring a baby to a Zoom conference. He joked about being able to blazon infants’ clothes – Argent semé of Blue Whales Proper.

Charles Veale asked if a grant had yet been made to Mary Simon, the new Governor-General. Kennedy said that nothing was yet known but “it’s coming eventually”. I asked about the process behind the heraldic badge granted some months ago to Canada’s Supreme Court. Kennedy said it had started some years ago under Claire Bodreau. He said there seemed to be a fad for every court to have its own arms. I relayed the story of our own Supreme Court’s logo, whose launch in 2009 had met with some public dismay.

Sean then wondered aloud how the supporters of post-1958 life peers differed from those of the pre-modern hereditaries. I recounted my anecdotal experience of nearly-1000 Wikimedia heraldic illustrations that the proportion of peers seeking arms at all is much lower now. I also noted that from about 1800 onwards human supporters appeared more frequently – and are a pain to illustrate. I speculated that life peers might be more disposed to them as non-hereditary supporters could afford to be more personalised. He asked if, in the age of identity politics, human supporters could prove inordinately troublesome. I concurred that there were various heraldic elements – such as Saracen heads, savages and cartoonish African garments – that could be liable to spark outrage among certain circles, and that undoing the damage would be very difficult as coats of arms are not supposed to be redesigned in the manner of corporate logos. Sean recalled speaking to a herald about the design of the old coat of arms of Toronto. There were some First Nations individuals who even volunteered to model for the drawing of the supporters, but wanted to be depicted in Armani suits with mobile phones. I brought up the precedent from the Victorian era that inclusion of modern technology in heraldic achievements tends not to date well. There seemed to be a consensus among the group that one was better off sticking to abstract animal figures.

Moira Scott then asked if any remaining participants could identify the supporters on her clan chief’s arms, but we were none-the-wiser and could make no more profound an observation than that the dark brown women were probably not from Scotland. She noted the resemblance of the feathers to those of the Prince of Wales and wondered if she could incorporate something similar into her own arms without incurring his wrath.

After 01:50 the conversation had reached the point where we were talking about our domestic pets and Arthur’s “deposit”, and it became clear that the session needed to adjourn.

As a coda, I will return to the Sudrian realm. We are not far from the official US debut of All Engines Go and already some Spanish editions have been released. The general reaction from those who have seen them is that they are nowhere near as bad as implied by the trailers and leaked test footage, but still fall short of being good as art in their own right or a worthy successor to the franchise’s legacy.

In aid of that latter goal, I looked for armorial opportunities. Already I have invented arms for the Thin Clergyman himself and illustrated those of the Norrambys, but institutional heraldry has not been covered before. Its People, History and Railways gives two examples of heraldry: The badge of the Sodor regiment is actually blazoned Sable two gloves Argent saltirewise charged in fess with the Rose of Lancaster Proper. The shield of arms of Suddery – the capital city – is not truly blazoned but described as “St Luoc arrayed as a bishop standing in a coracle and holding his crozier” with the motto “Luoc Sodoris Lux”,  St Luoc being a legendary Irish missionary of the fifth century. I have illustrated the regimental badge for Wikipedia but the city arms are impossible without knowing the tinctures, or indeed what Luoc looked like.

The island as a whole is not said to have any armorial bearings nor a civic flag. The latter was invented by the television series, roughly blazonable as Azure a fess Argent fimbriated Or, though it could equally be Tenné.

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

______________________________________________________________

*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.

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 passed 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 – 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 consisted 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.

UPDATE (May 2021)

The Unlucky Tug has made a video attempting to construct a diagetic timeline for the CG section of Thomas & Friends, with particular reference to the implausibility of a middle-aged Queen Elizabeth appearing with a prepubescent Prince Charles. He also notes, as I neglected, that The Royal Engine, the last of season 24 to be produced (though Thomas’s Animal Friends was the last released) is effectively the finale of this section of the franchise, which will be completely rebooted as All Engines Go! this October.

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:

UPDATE (June 2021)

Mike O’Donnell has given a two-part interview to a fan channel about his work on the series and his new CD releases.

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 might 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.


UPDATE (February 2021)
In wandering around the wider WordPress community I have found two blog posts discussing Awdry’s clerical career. St Edmund’s Church in Emneth, Norfolk has a stained glass window dedicated to him. Instead of a coat of arms (and on a feminine lozenge instead of a shield) is an image of Thomas in steam. Elsworth church in Cambridgeshire (the inspiration for the fictional Wellsworth) has Thomas embroidered into the stole, where heraldic emblems have occasionally appeared.

UPDATE (August 2021)
Rev Wilbert Awdry (Elsworth Stole)
Series 13 episode 1 of Great Canal Journeys has Gyles Brandreth and Sheila Hancock visiting Emneth and meeting Veronica Awdry. It’s a nice piece, although some of the images shown on screen don’t quite match the dialogue.

UPDATE (September 2021)

This Unlucky Tug video on Skarloey sang the praises of Luke Ryan of the Talyllyn Railway, saying “he pretty often posts interesting facts and tidbits from Awdry’s notes none of us knew before”, and shown on screen at that point is a quartet of heraldic sketches for places on the Island of Sodor, accompanied by written blazons. I have not yet found the particular video in which those were featured, but hopefully you can.

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.