Some months ago I discovered a weekly podcast entitled The Benji & Nick Show. It mainly reviews old Doctor Who, but also branches out into lots of other old television. The hosts are Nicholas Briggs (voice of the Daleks) and Benji Clifford (of 5WF fame, later sound designer for Big Finish). They speak in a candid but reasoned manner about a wide range of media. Sadly, they announced some weeks ago that their series will come to an end in September.
Still going is The Delta Flyers, which started last spring but which I only discovered a week ago. It is an episode-by-episode commentary on Star Trek: Voyager by two of its principal cast – Robert Duncan McNeil (Lieutenant Tom Paris) and Garrett Wang (Ensign Harry Kim). Their discussions include personal recollections from the time as well as insights from their later careers. There’s even a bit of poetry thrown in. Currently they have just finished the third season, which means with one episode per week they should finish exactly two years from now.
EDWARD scolded the twins severely, but Gordon told him it served him right. Gordon was furious.
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?
*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.
It was always difficult to work out the exact year in which a given episode of Victoria was taking place, given the series’ sloppiness with chronology. Series 2 ended with “Luxury & Conscience” in which Sir Robert Peel resigns as prime minister following the murder of his personal secretary Edward Drummond – events which actually took place three years apart. Series 3 picks up with “Uneasy Lies the Head that Wears the Crown”, which covers the revolutions of 1848 and features Lord John Russell in charge. Dialogue indicates that the return of the Whigs to government is a recent development. In between these installments is the 2017 Christmas special “Comfort & Joy”, set in 1846 and showing, among other things, the adoption of Sarah Forbes Bonetta (which happened in 1850). The curious thing about the Christmas special is the absence of the political side of things. In real life Russell’s ministry had already been in place for six months but, in the series’ uncertain timeline, the political situation is simply ignored. This is almost certainly deliberate, as the intention is for the holiday special to be a purely family affair. Plus, with more than a year’s gap between the series it’s entirely possible that the later story arcs hadn’t yet been planned out, nor the relevant characters cast.
Flash forward to 2021: The Duke of Edinburgh had wished for a low-key funeral (well, by royal standards at any rate), and the pandemic meant that something on the scale of the Queen Mother’s funeral in 2002 or even Lady Thatcher’s in 2013 would not be possible. Instead Philip’s coffin was driven a short distance within the bounds of Windsor Castle and then lowered into the vault. Hundreds of soldiers were still present outside, but COVID regulations forbade more than thirty attendees. Ordinarily it would be expected that prime ministers and other senior officials would attend, but Boris Johnson (and, presumably, any others concerned) relinquished his place to make room for more of the deceased’s family. The resulting guest list included eighteen descendants of King George V, eight spouses thereof, three other descendants of Queen Victoria and one spouse thereof. I had wondered if the family or the press would have sought to orchestrate a photograph of Prince George of Cambridge saluting the coffin à la John Kennedy, but it was decided that the great-grandchildren were too young to be involved.
While the masks and social distancing ought to be obvious giveaways, I actually found that the reduced attendance gave the ceremony a strangely timeless quality – it was effectively a bottle show. Other than Mssrs Mozzia and Brooksbank all the people there were the same people one would have expected to see there at had this happened at any point in the last ten years – admittedly Viscount Severn and Lady Louise would have been smaller. Justin Welby might be considered a semi-political figure and he took office in 2013, but as St George’s Chapel is a royal peculiar he played a minor role compared to David Conner, who has been Dean since 1998. Thomas Woodcock as Garter King of Arms could also be considered vaguely political given his role introducing new members of the House of Lords, with that office the public tend to remember the uniform rather than the face. The sounds of the past week, too, were those you’d expect to hear: steady footsteps, military orders, cannon blasts, church bells, and, from the studio, the interminable wittering of Gyles Brandreth. Now the burbling of a Land Rover TD5 has been added to the mix. Even that adds to the timeless effect, since the Defender was in production for a third of a century and without a number plate even I – a subscriber to Land Rover Enthusiast for a few years – could not guess at a glance the decade in which this one was constructed.
Those who have studied British political history know that long ago the House of Commons met in St Stephen’s Chapel, with the Speaker’s chair on the altar steps and the members facing each other in the choir stalls – an arrangement which has been maintained in subsequent legislative chambers in Britain and around the world. As a consequence today’s proceedings – with only a few dozen people carefully spaced apart – resembled a session of the hybrid house, or perhaps even the failed 1am prorogation in 2019. Hopefully on this occasion the ceremony won’t have to be repeated a month later.
Having already done a piece about television scheduling in light of COVID, it would be pertinent to review it in relation to the royal death. Of course major newspapers and broadcasters have documentaries and obituaries prepared years in advance of the event – not just for the Duke of Edinburgh but for a wide range of prominent public figures. Eye 1545 page 18 notes how, in the build up to his centenary on 10th June, contributors often had to do each interview twice – the first speaking in present tense wearing light suits, the second in past tense wearing black ones. It was also noted that, in addition to different networks’ documentaries often – and unavoidably – using the same stock footage and delivering the same story as each other, there were some instances of companies recycling interview footage from their own documentaries in 2011 or even 2007, with talking heads who nowadays are visibly much older or even who themselves have died in the intervening years.
On other occasions this temporal tangle would be cause for disdain, but to commemorate a man who has been “a constant” for longer than most of the world can remember, somehow it feels oddly appropriate.
UPDATE (20th April)
The video I originally embedded (from the firm’s own YouTube channel) has now been set to private. The BBC’s has also disappeared. I have replaced it with the Teletrece version.
UPDATE (1st May)
That one has gone as well. I’m now using the one from 6abc Philadelphia.
It is often remarked that one cannot appreciate what one has until it is gone. The twenty-tweens are a good example of this in that few people at the time would have thought them a golden age, yet they can appear as such by comparison to 2016-19, let alone the pandemic era. Aesthetically that period is a little strange as well, being part of the transition from an analogue world to a fully digital one. Most of the major social media were well-established by then by then but had not yet achieved their current level of cultural dominance. High Definition video was widely available but still far from universally receivable, and web design was a few steps away from its current incarnation – photographs and videos shown online were much fewer in number and lower in resolution compared to 2014-ish and onwards when multiple large graphics can be chucked into every page with little care for data capacity.
The particular event to be covered in this article is BBC School Report 2011. Preparations at our school began weeks in advance when we were shown a promotional video by Huw Edwards. A letter was also sent out to parents on 15th February announcing a BBC Hull project called “Life on the Docks – The People’s Archive” for which they wanted pupils to look through old newspapers and interview elderly acquaintances. Most pupils would be completing the project at school, but four delegates would be picked to visit the BBC in person. News and journalism became the topic of our English lessons for most of that month. We were set a homework task on 9th March of watching and taking notes on that night’s broadcast news to then discuss in the lesson the next day. On 16th March my parents received another letter telling them that I had been picked as one of the four delegates.
That morning I was driven from school in a minibus with the three other pupils who were chosen. Along the way the conversation turned to television more generally and somehow we wound up singing the Family Guy theme song. We parked the van in an area of the city where the buildings were in a state of decay and the tarmac rather worn. I remarked on the general dinginess of the place only for one of my comrades to tell me I would get myself shot. When we arrived at the BBC building we were reshuffled into groups with pupils from other schools who had come. I was put into the television group because it was otherwise all-female. The two girls who had come with me were put into the online team and would stay at the office all day. The other boy was put in the radio team who would be walking around with the TV team for most of the morning.
From the way this has been set up you would be forgiven for thinking that we then devised a television segment for ourselves. Certainly that is what we thought going in, but we were a little disappointed to find that the script had already been written and the stock montages composed before we arrived – we were just going through the motions.
The location shoots were fairly close by so the groups traveled on foot. In what I think was the Hull Maritime Museum we interviewed an old man (called Jim in the script) about what the elder days. Amusingly there was a bit of a mix-up at this point and Jim was interviewed by one of the pupils assigned to the radio group, who didn’t realise until later that day that she was on television as well.
We also had to record short teaser sections, including one standing by the railings on the marina. I recall a couple of interesting moments during this time – one was that we were supposed to reference the Cod Wars of the 1970s only to find that the script had said 19070s instead, another was a discussion between our guides as to whether it would cause continuity problems if I took off my blue coat between shots. Early in the day I asked about the technical details of the production and was surprised to be told that news footage was still captured on videotape rather than digital cameras.
After we had finished the shoot we returned to the centre for lunch. It happened also to be the birthday of someone in the office and we enjoyed an excess of chocolate cake in addition to the packed lunches we had brought, which made it a little difficult to move around that afternoon. I also remember at this point getting a little lost on the way back from the toilet. It was also at this point in the day that I realised I had left a bundle of papers on a side table. These were the research notes than I and my classmates had been assembling over the past few weeks to take on the excursion, only for me to completely forget about them. Obviously my group didn’t actually need them, though the online team probably would have appreciated their availability.
All of thus were subsequently treated to a tour of the complex, including the Look North studio itself where I briefly sat in Peter Levy’s chair. My recollections of the end of that day’s events are a little hazy. I think I and some other children – not the ones who had been with me earlier – were seated around a boardroom table strewn with recent newspaper cuttings and we had a group discussion on journalistic ethics. The only piece of conversation I retain now is one woman – not sure if teacher or BBC staff – bringing up an anecdote of a struggling mother being interviewed for the news and saying she sometimes thought her children were worse off than third world kids. This was used an example of where reporters have to tread sensitively around things which their interviewees sincerely believe but which objectively are absurd – oddly prescient of the Brexit era.
We went back to school grabbing as many freebies as possible (I even stuffed post-it notes into my socks.) and arrived just in time for the big bus home. My segment was on local news later that night though my mother complains to this day that she was out at the time and never saw it.
Ten years later it is hard to find much record of our contribution online as even now iPlayer tends not to retain local news very long. The BBC even has a webpage listing all of the schools taking part in the event from which mine is mysteriously omitted. I didn’t take a personal camera with me and nor, to my memory, did any of the others. Until late last year I still had the flimsily-laminated BBC pass hanging on my bedroom wall, but now even that has disappeared. Happily I have been able to find the script we used for that day as well as many of the notes and research from the preceding weeks. I do not have any of them in digital form so will need to scan or photograph them (or, God forbid, type them out again) to show them here. Perhaps the bulk of the material would be better suited to the remit of Homework Direct, but recent experience with Monty on the Green has reminded me what a pain it is to update Wix, so I am reluctant to add anything more to that site without a major redesign.
I was a little amused, five years later, when ITV Calendar came to Wilberforce for a debate about the EU Referendum and once again I was scripted to ask about Hull’s fishing industry. Not wanting to be caught out by follow-up questions, I did a lot of hurried online research for that one as well, but that also proved entirely redundant.
I was not aware of Deutschland 83 when it first came out, only seeing it on 4OD in 2017, shortly after taking up residence at Ferens Hall. The plot of the first series is, in retrospect comparatively simple: Martin Raunch is recruited from East Germany to spy on West Germany and has to convince his home government that Operation Able Archer is not a real missile strike.
At Lambert Hall two years ago I watched Deutschland 86, set three year’s later when the GDR is facing bankruptcy and the Stasi must concoct wild schemes to acquire worthwhile currency. This includes selling weapons to both Iran and Iraq while they are at war with each other, as well as Botha’s government in South Africa whose policies and ideology are in sharp opposition to their own. Alongside this is the ongoing AIDS crisis, which is itself a money-grabbing opportunity as the East can sell its citizens’ blood to the West, as well as use them in less-than-ethical trials for potential cures. All the while Martin is desperately trying to get back home and see his toddler son Max.
This final series begins at the fall of the Berlin wall and the realisation that the entire Second World is in its death throes. The Stasi disbands and shreds its documents for fear of upcoming revolution. Martin is by now working for (and simultaneously against) three countries’ intelligence services and fleeing around Europe to avoid himself or his son being kidnapped or killed.
That summary barely scratches the surface of the convolution of the storyline, with a large recurring cast and constant switching of sides. Helpfully last autumn a promotional montage was released with Jonas Nay narrating (in English) a recap of everything that happened in the first two series in anticipation of the third’s release.
The series was more popular in Britain than its home country, with the highest ratings of any foreign-language drama in the history of British television. It was of particular appeal to me as much of my history course for both GCSE and AS-Level had been about communism, German division and the Cold War. My only real problem was that upon seeing Martin for the first time I was struck by his resemblance to Wesley Crusher. This thought never fully left me throughout the run.
The United Kingdom itself does not play a significant role in the series, bar the odd mention of Thatcher opposing reunification. The finale caps of with a rapid flash forward through international politics since 1990, including clips of Merkel, Farage and – of course – Donald Trump waxing lyrical about his southern border wall. Obviously that last part may have lost a little significance as Trump was voted out of office shortly after the series aired and construction of the wall has been halted. Obviously the franchise was launched long before the EU referendum, and even before the one on Scottish Independence, but watching it now from a British perspective the tale of a former superpower facing an increasingly-ungovernable population, looming threats of dissolution and a forsaking of its entire national constitutional philosophy makes for a rather uncomfortable omen.
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.
I was born a year and a half too late to see the original Spitting Image when it aired on television. My first encounter with the series was, if I recall correctly, in late 2013 when I discovered clips from it on YouTube (a great many of which have recently been purged). Occasionally a clip show would include snippets of it, or there would be a nostalgic documentary, but watching the series properly was unfeasible.
Over my lifetime there have been a few attempts to provide a spiritual successor, but none had the staying power – or indeed the cultural weight – of the original. 2DTV (2001-2004) with its crude animation, was eventually cancelled due to low viewing figures. Headcases (2008) ran for just eight episodes. Newzoids, which used physical puppets with CG faces, appeared in advance of the 2015 general election and returned for a second series in late 2016, but then unceremoniously faded away.
Just over a year ago news broke that Spitting Image itself would be returning. Three weeks ago, it finally did. However, as before, I haven’t actually seen it. As with so many new productions, the creators have opted to bypass standard television and go directly to a streaming service. In this instance, the satirical puppet show will be the first original commission on BritBox, which was set up in 2017. It seems that Spitting Image is intended to be the “flagship” of the service which will tempt new viewers aboard. From what I have seen on various forums, there is some skepticism of this approach, with many expressing fatigue at having to juggle so many online subscriptions to get what they previously would have done from broadcast television.
The upshot of all this is that, as with the classic series, I must rely on the clips that are steadily dribbled out on the series’ YouTube channel. I had mixed views about the first few clips – while the visual design was on form, many of the vocal impressions felt lackluster and forgettable, with the action and dialogue not quite having the energy of the original. Still, it was nice to see a few nods to the older series, such as the giant portrait of Margaret Thatcher, Priti Patel reprising Edwina Currie’s role vampire portrayal, or Mike Pence copying John Major’s grey face aesthetic.
Many question now whether political satire is even possible nowadays, when public figures are rarely granted any dignity in the first place and various sectors of society are so offense-prone that any seriously biting comedy is liable to be swiftly shut down. We will have to wait and see whether this franchise is able to weather that storm. Already there is one instance of a sketch being withdrawn – whereas the original dropped a parody of “Tomorrow Belongs To Me” from its 1987 election special, the new one has quickly removed a Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious parody about Jacinda Ardern because the sketch ended with her decapitating a COVID patient, shortly before a real beheading took place in France. A similar incident befell the Doctor Who episode Robot of Sherwood due to the murders of James Foley and Steven Sotloff.
Can the new Spitting Image succeed? Only time will tell.
Recently I watched the new BBC drama series Roadkill, starring Hugh Laurie as ambitious but morally-unsound cabinet minister Peter Laurence. Many have wondered how it would be possible to set political fiction in the 2016-2020 era without Brexit, Trump and now Coronavirus (although this series was filmed a little to early to know of that last one) completely dominating every character’s every thought, or indeed without those certain real names and faces with whom such events are so intimately intertwined. This series has the innovative solution of moving an unspecified time into the future, by which point these issues have supposedly been resolved and everything is back to normal. That alone would surely make it a utopian invention, but the purpose of this post is not to review the series on a dramatic basis. Instead, I wish to draw attention to the ways in which government location and insignia – including the royal arms – are depicted in television.
Television program-makers have to tread very carefully when depicting real life brand names, trademarks, uniforms or other insignia. This often leads to them creating slightly off-model versions for their fictional purposes, in the hope that the result will be different enough to avoid legal liability but similar enough for viewers to understand.
In Roadkill there are multiple shots in this miniseries of the grand staircase at 10 Downing Street, with its display of the portraits of former prime ministers. Exactly when the political history of this work diverges from real life is unknown, but the most recent leader seen on the stairs is Margaret Thatcher (whose premiership is likewise something of a fixed point in time). Comparisons to virtual tours of the real staircase (both taken during Cameron’s tenure) reveal that the portraits on set were from different photographs. They are also quite literally larger than life, as the real portraits from Baldwin onwards are seen to be rather diminutive within their frames.
Laurence begins the episode as Minister of Transport, and there is a shot of him pulling up outside his headquarters, with “Ministry of Transport” on plaques either side of the main entrance. In real life Britain last had an organisation by that name in 1970. Since 2002 it has been called the Department for Transport, though the initialism MOT is still used for vehicle safety tests. Later in the episode Laurence is moved to Justice. In his meeting with the Prime Minister she refers to “the Ministry of Justice” which is what it has been called in real life since 2007, yet later when we see our protagonist at his new desk his screensaver says “Department of Justice” instead. For the rest of the series he is called “Minister” rather than “Secretary of State” and there is no mention of him holding the office of Lord Chancellor. What’s striking about these examples is the subtlety of the change – the typeface doesn’t look any different, nor does the coat of arms, only the arrangement of the arms to the left of the text instead of above.
The current template for government letterheads debuted in 2012, alongside the rolling out of GOV.UK, in a drive to rationalise the costly and confusing sprawl of departmental websites and logos which had emerged over the past twenty years. Prior to that there was no consistency in branding – while some departments did use the royal arms, others just put their names in stylised lettering, or had some other unrelated imagery. While this looked rather poor for the real life institutions, it probably made things easier for creators of political fiction, who could plausibly make up just about any title design for their invented offices without having to carefully alter the official insignia. The DoSAC logo as used in The Thick of It, for example, is perfectly believable as part of the Whitehall lineup of that period.
A long time ago there was a Doctor Who episode called The Aliens of London, in which much of the action takes place at Number 10. There was an attempt at recreating the grand staircase – in this version the helical staircase ascends anticlockwise and the walls are red, with the portraits few and far between. A coat of arms can be seen printed on the window, but too distant for much clarity. A later scene shows a conference room in which the royal arms appear on a backlit screen. The crown, motto, garter circlet and shield are correct (albeit the tinctures are changed), but the supporters are swapped around so that the unicorn stands to the dexter of the shield and the lion to the sinister – as if in the Scottish version. The lion is chained this time while the unicorn wears the crown of Scotland. The unicorn is still gorged with a circlet at the neck.
I also have a distant recollection of a scene in Torchwood series 3 or 4 in which a much worse state emblem is seen – the supporters and motto of the royal arms but the shield just shown the Parliamentary portcullis badge. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to track down a screencap in order to check.
One of the more interesting phenomena to emerge since the start of the pandemic has been the proliferation of makeshift online productions by those who previously would have been on mainstream television. The gap between amateur and professional has been noticeable diminished as a result of the virus, as actors and presenters have been deprived of their studious, props and make-up artists.
Only this year did I discover the radio sitcom Cabin Pressure. In March the writer John Finnemore launched the online video shorts entitled Cabin Fever. In April David Walliams and Matt Lucas performed a Little Britain compilation with improvised costumes. This was warmly received despite the main show having ended thirteen years ago and despite an ongoing controversy about some of its content. On the same night Dawn French released a “Parish Update” based on The Vicar of Dibley.
Especially notable about these online substitutes is the extent to which their creators are open to public contributions for ideas. Earlier examples included Jimmy Carr’s Little Tiny Quiz of the Lockdown. After a while he began asking viewers to suggest questions. I sent in a whole slideshow’s worth, but got no acknowledgement. The latest one – actually three months ago but I only just found it – was on the Sid City channel, a fan channel for actor Alexander Siddig. He played Lt. Dr. Julian Bashir on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine from 1993 to 1999. Although the series ended twenty-one years ago the fanbase goes strong. Fans writing their own stories about characters from their favoured franchise is hardly uncommon, but convincing the cast themselves to perform it is vanishingly rare. The circumstances obviously prohibit the cast from physically interacting, so the stories are formatted as futuristic epistolary novels in which the characters interact through video link. The premise of Alone Together is very topical, of course, being that Cardassia has been closed off due to the spread of a disease – though this one attacks its victims’ thought processes rather than their respiration. A later story, Curse from the Prophets, is even more on-point in its commentary about immigration.
It will be interesting to see which franchise is next to have this treatment – perhaps The Thick of It, as virtual conferences are now so dominant in real-life politics, although Iannucci has said that his satire is redundant now, and how many of the main cast in 2012 would have survived to 2020 is far from certain.