The Thomas the Tank Engine tv shows have been running for years now. I didn’t really know anything about the show till my son was born, 20 years ago. Within weeks Thomas had cut his right-of-way through our imaginations, blasting the landscape as he went, very much in the same way as actual railroads did in the 19th century. My path is fixed with iron rails, Ahab says in Moby Dick: “Over unsounded gorges, through the rifled hearts of mountains, under torrents’ beds, unerringly I rush! Naught’s an obstacle, naught’s an angle to the iron way!” And so Thomas the Tank Engine’s media empire worked its way into my family’s life.
And so too with our daughter, just turned six. Though she’s been starved to the point of cruelty of television and video, she claims, yet there’s Thomas–in books and toys inherited from older brother, in videos seen at friend’s houses. If you’re a parent, you’ve experienced Thomas: his legendary “cheekiness” only barely masking a groveling subservience and eagerness to please.
In the Thomas universe authority is always respected, duty dutifully done and the nail that sticks up driven briskly down. Thomas labors on the fictional island of Sodor, on the railway owned by “Sir Topham Hatt.” There are numerous other engines; there are freight cars and passenger coaches and there are other forms of transportation–buses, tractors, a helicopter.
Here is the standard Thomas plot: one of the engines gets out of his place–by boasting, or trying some job above his station, or not listening Sir Topham Hatt–and gets smacked down by A: another engine B: Sir Topham Hatt, or C: coincidence, which works for Sir Topham Hatt as well.
A classic, seared in the memories of children all over the world, involves the neurotic green engine Henry, who seems to suffer from chronic fatigue syndrome but is also unacceptably vain about his “lovely green paint and red stripes.” Henry refuses to run in the rain, because it might spoil his paint. He stops in a tunnel and won’t come out. Sir Topham Hatt summons his masons and, Cask of Amontillado style, walls him up in the tunnel. Poor Henry sits staring idle for an unspecified term: his paint gradually ruined by soot and dirt. Other engines taunt him as they race by. Finally he has “learned his lesson,” and he’s freed to carry out the prime Sodor directive, serve and obey.1
The series is full of British oddities, first among them the deadly fear of “cheekiness,” which must be stamped out because of the whiff it bears of non-conformity to rigid class stratification.
Class rigidity is the most striking thing about the Thomas series, to Americans. There’s Sir Topham Hatt, to whom all defer: there are the steam engines, who jockey for his favor like pageant queens, and the freight cars: incorrigibly undisciplined and truculent, they often seem to be drunk. The freight cars are dirty and ignorant: they mock the engines and at their worst commit acts of labor sabotage, breaking equipment and causing accidents and embarrassing the locomotives. They sometimes speak in English working class accents, much in the way the bad characters in J. R. R. Tolkien’s universe tend to have cockney accents.
The locomotives never associate with the freight cars; never speak to them–they treat them with rough contempt. On the other hand they almost literally swoon when Sir Topham Hatt pays his highest complement: “X, you’re a really useful engine.”
The whole series perfectly restates a classic theory about British labor history, in which the skilled workers–the steam engines–betray the unskilled workers (the freight cars) to curry favor with the ruling classes. It’s a line of analysis associated with Eric Hobsbawn and Gareth Stedman Jones, and it needs no better demonstration than Thomas the Tank Engine, in which the skilled engines preen and compete for the praise of the capitalist while beating up the lowly freight cars.
For comparison, think of the classic American cartons, like Bugs Bunny–anarchic, subversive, disrespectful at their core, they make “cheekiness” a virtue. The Thomas series reads like, well the creation of middle aged Oxford educated Anglican vicar, which is exactly what it started as.
Though I’ve read dozens of “thomas” books to my children, or perhaps hundreds, I’ve never been able to find copies of the original. Rev. W. Audrey stories. Apparently they have some nasty racial bits in them: also Sir Topham Hatt is called “the fat controller,” which promises a degree of subversive class contempt the TV show never delivers, but which probably would not go over well in the US. It’s hard to understand why they aren’t in print, given the breathtaking range and scope of Thomas merchandising.
The series has its charms-the little railway dioramas are nicely crafted; for children it offers moral certainty and inflexible rules and encourages them to live for their parent’s praise, a useful thing indeed for parents. Over the years they have added some actual female characters–initially there were only Annie and Clarabelle, two passenger coaches who trundled along behind Thomas clucking nervously or scolding. But my daughter is playing with “Mavis” and “Emily,” two locomotives who demonstrate that gender need be no barrier to subservience to authority or contempt for the lower classes.
Would I want the Thomas the Tank Engine series to restate the inevitability of class conflict? Well no, but wouldn’t it be possible to imagine a universe where the freight cars weren’t dirty, dangerous and moronic? Where initiative might be prized, instead of scorned, and where the praise of your superiors was accepted with a smidgen of irony; where preachiness isn’t the default position.
But mostly it’d be nice to not have contempt for the underclass drive the plot.
- Later Henry has an accident, and goes to the works for some unspecified major surgery that cures his weakness but not his neurosis. ↩