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The little engine that could… for 75 years

The little engine that could… for 75 years

As Thomas & Friends celebrates a monumental anniversary, we speak to creative producer Ian McCue on the enduring brand

Go loco for locomotives as we celebrate a very special birthday…

By Laura Rutkowski, Staff Writer

When Reverend Wilbert Awdry’s son Christopher came down with the measles in 1942, his father told him stories about a tank engine named Thomas. The rest, as they say, is history. This year, Thomas & Friends celebrates its 75th anniversary. Not bad for a bedtime story.


We spoke to creative producer Ian McCue, who’s worked on the series since 2010 and just wrapped up on season 24. Here’s the self-confessed “big kid” and all-round fount of Thomas knowledge, in his own words, on the little engine that could…

Ringo Starr with Reverend Wilbert Awdry, inventor of Thomas The Tank Engine

Ian McCue is responsible for modernising Thomas & Friends and for taking the steam engines out of the fictional island of Sodor for the very first time to travel the world!

“There’s a real railway realism to Thomas that was set out by Reverend Awdry when he wrote the first stories. It was about a working railway and everything was accurate with what these engines were doing. When I first came on board in 2010, one of the first things I did was bring in a railway consultant. Fans will always happily tell us when we get things wrong, like when an engine is pulling the wrong cargo or is on the wrong side of the track.


Young children seem to be fascinated by trains – the scale, the size, the noises. We have over 160 engines, and that’s not including the likes of Bertie the Bus, Bulgy the Bus and Harold the Helicopter. When we created season 22, we wanted to bring in a more diverse team and get a better gender balance of the characters that we refer to as the Steam Team. We learnt that 40% of our audience is girls.


Of the seven engines, there were six boys and Emily was the only female engine, so we introduced Rebecca, who is this wonderful, big, sunshine yellow, tender engine, who’s as big and strong as Gordon, and Nia, who is a lovely orange engine that came from Kenya.


Thomas & Friends trains

Full steam ahead, friends!

We decided to move out Edward and Henry, who were two of the very first characters that Reverend Awdry created. Adult fans were not happy about that and I constantly had to remind people that they’ve not gone, we just relocated them.


Thomas, Gordon and Edward were all blue and Henry and Percy were both green, so for the young audience members, that was really confusing. It’s like a rainbow of colour now, where kids can identify the characters very easily. 


The way Thomas has evolved since 1945 is how we tell some of the stories, how we show some of the interactions between the characters, because if you look at the original books, there are lots of grumpy engines and meanness. Over time, we’ve tried to soften that.


Poor Percy gets himself in a spot of trouble…

The Fat Controller, for instance, was likened to a dictator, because he was the man that was going around telling engines, “You must do this and you must do that and if you don’t do it, I’m going to brick you up like I did with Henry.”


Poor old Henry [from 1984’s season 1, episode 3, “The Sad Story of Henry”, adapted from 1945’s The Three Railway Engines] was worried about getting rain on his paintwork and wouldn’t come out of a tunnel, so they bricked him up and left him there. You watch it now and go, “Oh my god, I can’t believe they did that,” but these stories were written back in the 40s. It was a very different time.

Reverend Wilbert Awdry (left) and Britt Allcroft (right), who created the series, check out the first live action shot in 1981. The show converted to CGI animation in 2008.

When you work on such an iconic show as Thomas, there’s something quite lovely about just bumping into people, maybe it’s a family and the child has a Thomas backpack. I want to run up and say, “Hey, I work on the show!” and share my knowledge.


On the train, I met a man whose son loved Thomas. His son was called Stanley and there was a character called Stanley. He was a very hard [toy] engine to get hold of, but I did a bit of searching and eventually managed to find a Stanley. I put it together with some other bits and wrote a letter to Stanley from The Fat Controller, saying Stanley is a really useful engine.


I posted it to the family and the parents emailed me some pictures of little Stanley playing with the engines. When you see how children react and what they get from Thomas when they’re so young, it makes everything worthwhile. This is what makes me proud of working on a show like Thomas.


Thomas has led the way, with “no confusion, no delay”, for 75 years!

We try to keep Thomas relatable and relevant to our young audience, but we never forget where he came from. Steam railways themselves are specialist. It’s not something kids are seeing everyday – it tends to be a special day out or weekend away – so perhaps it’s Thomas that’s keeping that steam railway alive. Then, when a child goes, they feel like they’re seeing Thomas & Friends for real.


You’ll always have that young audience fascination with engines and I think there will always be that adult fan base keeping Thomas alive as well, so there’s no reason why Thomas can’t go on for another 75 years.”

When is Channel 5’s Thomas & Friends on TV?

Thomas & Friends airs on Channel 5/HD (CH 154/105) on weekdays at 7am and weekends at 6.45am. It is also available for 30 days in Catch Up > Channels > Channel 5. 

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