The Beauty of Transport has been going for a little over five years now, looking at the transport industry’s impact on design, arts, culture and architecture. In all that time it’s still managed to avoid an article on the Rev Awdry’s Railway Series, featuring Thomas the Tank Engine, surely the most famous collection of transport stories ever written. It’s a run that’s not coming to an end this week either, as we take a look instead at my favourite fictional steam locomotive of them all, Ivor the Engine.
Though the Thomas juggernaut has all but obliterated the stories of his rivals from the public consciousness, there have been a surprising number of pretenders to Thomas’s throne; a veritable bevy of stories about anthropomorphic transport vehicles. I can’t think of a single other industry which has resulted in such a degree of literary inspiration.
The Rev Awdry’s Railway Series was first published by Edmund Ward in 1945. Feeling the need to get in on the talking trains gravy train (a talking gravy train? Is that a thing?) a few years later, specialist transport publisher Ian Allan issued the first of Eileen Gibb’s Sammy The Shunter books in 1949. To modern sensibilities, Gibb’s books might seem like a thinly disguised Thomas rip-off. But if you want to get into an argument about who came up with the concept in the first place, you might note that Awdry himself owed something of a debt to none other than Rudyard Kipling. Kipling’s short story .007 was published as early as 1897 and features talking locomotives with individual characters. It details the induction of .007 into the Amalgamated Brotherhood of Locomotives, having rendered assistance to a derailed freight train. Or, as Awdry would have put it, been a Really Useful Engine.
Kipling is not the only ‘adult’ author to have dabbled in the world of anthropomorphic trains. While also churning out classics like Brighton Rock (1938) and Our Man in Havana (1958), Graham Greene also wrote The Little Train (1946), in which a small locomotive makes his escape from Little Snoreing and heads for the big city, only to find it an experience more frightening than exciting. And then Greene followed it up with The Little Fire Engine (1950) and The Little Horse Bus (1952).
The idea that Kipling and Greene wrote stories about anthropomorphic trains is, surely, akin to finding out that Hillary Mantel has knocked out Mabel the Metrocar and the Lost Unicorn on the quiet, between volumes of her Booker Prize-winning Thomas Cromwell trilogy.
Well, why not? Anthropomorphic transport vehicles are the gift that just keeps on giving. The producers of the TV version of Awdry’s Thomas the Tank Engine books tried to spin off the concept into the short-lived and often overlooked TV series Tugs, which to me appeared to draw heavily on another classic of children’s literature, Pip the Tug Boat. If I popped into the children’s library at work, within a minute or two I could find you a stack of children’s books featuring talking vehicles of one sort or another.
But Ivor the Engine stands head and shoulders above the rest of the pack chasing the all-conquering Thomas the Tank Engine and his friends, by dint of character, style, literary merit and music.
Ivor’s full name is Locomotive of the Merioneth and Llantisilly Rail Traction Company Limited, but that’s considered too long for everyday use. He is a small, green, 0-4-0 tank locomotive, who works on the Merioneth and Llantisilly Railway, which is to be found in “the top left-hand corner of Wales”. He was a TV character first, rather than a literary one, although several books based on his TV adventures were subsequently published. He first appeared on ITV in the 1950s, in three black and white series, but is best remembered today for the BBC colour remakes of the mid-1970s, which added some new stories too. I am afraid to admit (because my Welsh godfather reads this website and will, I suspect, be horrified) that the BBC broadcasts of Ivor the Engine in the 1970s and early 1980s single-handedly formed my understanding of the nature of Wales and the characteristics of Welsh society.
Ivor is driven by his driver, Jones the Steam (we’re off to a good start, as you can see). His track is signalled by Owen the Signal while Dai Station, the stationmaster, attempts to exert some wider control over operations. Ivor spends his days delivering tiny goods traffic consignments up and down the M&LRTCL, including such cargoes as coal, donkeys, potatoes and boots. From time to time he also meets other members of the local community including Mrs Porty (eccentric, rich, likes hats, eventually becomes owner of the M&LRTCL) and Mr Dinwiddy, a miner (eccentric, has a mine full of gold). Perhaps most famously, on one occasion Jones the Steam finds a dragon egg in Smoke Hill, an extinct volcano (oh, okay then). Placed for safe-keeping in Ivor’s firebox, it subsequently hatches into a small red-hot dragon called Idris, who causes trouble by igniting the wicker basket in which Dai Station insists the regulations dictate Idris must be transported.
There is, in this employment of Celtic mythology and Welsh song, an attempt to capture something of the spirit of folk music and folk tales long pre-dating the invention of television. As such, Ivor the Engine sets the scene for Noggin the Nog, a later series by the same production company, which delved more completely into this world, and very successfully so, exploring sort-of Norse mythology. I was transfixed by that, too.
Being Welsh, there is of course a choir involved in Ivor the Engine. The Grumbly and District Choral Society is led by Evans the Song (naturally) but has a unique member in the shape of Ivor himself. Ivor has three pipes from a fairground organ fitted in place of a more conventional whistle, and this allows him to sing First Bass. “It’s not at all usual… even in Wales,” as the narration explains. The circumstances of this whistle transplant are explained in one of the black and white episodes which wasn’t remade in colour, leaving this vital piece of exposition missing from the colour versions, and creating something of a puzzle for viewers as to how Ivor gained his place in the choir in the first place. Idris is also an accomplished singer of a Welsh choral music.
All this is to say that Ivor the Engine is very very Welsh. Except it’s not. At all.
Ivor the Engine was produced by Smallfilms, which was later responsible not only for Noggin the Nog, but other television classics like The Clangers and Bagpuss. It was led by Oliver Postgate as writer/narrator and Peter Firmin as illustrator/model maker. Both were English, and Smallfilms itself was based on a farm in Kent. In fact, as Postgate later explained, Dylan Thomas was one of his great heroes, and Ivor the Engine, “is entirely bogus as far as Wales is concerned – it’s built entirely on a picture of Wales given by Dylan Thomas!” But it turned out that Postgate (as would also be proved in Noggin the Nog) was a dab hand at replicating the sort of folky, celtic style that Thomas employed in Under Milk Wood, a copy of which Postgate used to carry around in his pocket. There is thus much about the narration of Ivor’s stories that tends towards the lyrical.
The music is equally accomplished. When it’s not Welsh choirs belting out something from the Methodist tradition, the score is often played on a bassoon; an unusual choice for a lead instrument, melancholic and properly musical. It is quite unlike the ghastly roll call song of the later series of Thomas and Friends, Ivor the Engine itself being ultimately a poetically wistful requiem for a lost world and a vanished way of life. Ivor operates on a branch line which unites the local community Ivor himself plays a part in. Everyone along the line knows each other’s names (and business…) in the way we all imagine pre-Beeching rural railways to have done, and if the whole operation is woefully inefficient, well then, that is part of its charm. It was the loss of such community links that was arguably one of the greatest wounds inflicted by Beeching’s The Reshaping of British Railways, cutting village off from village, farmers from their markets and local populations from jobs, services and amenities.
As well as Postgate’s story-telling skills – the charm of which entirely overshadows the fact that not very much of any consequence ever really happens along the M&LRTCL – Firmin’s illustrations are beautifully drawn. Caricatured, but not unkindly, there is a real human warmth to the people of Grumbly and District. There is genuine artistry in the watercolours which illustrate the Ivor the Engine episodes. The animation uses cardboard cut-outs filmed in a stop-motion technique. The various parts of characters were held in place at their articulation points by Blu-tack, allowing controllable degrees of movement. The end result is something with unusual charm, though hard to classify. It’s not really a cartoon, but it’s not stop-motion models either. It looks for all the world like the illustrations of a picture book, come to life, which I rather suspect is what Firmin and Postgate were aiming for.
Although anthropomorphised, Ivor is lightly so. He has no Thomas-style face on his smokebox door, and he doesn’t speak as such. Rather, he uses only his whistle, though Jones the Steam understands what Ivor is saying. It’s an altogether more satisfactory approach than Awdry’s with Thomas the Tank Engine. There are plenty of people out there who find themselves half-believing that steam locomotives have their own animus, but don’t want to go to the extreme of depicting trains with facial expressions on their smokebox doors or cab fronts.
Yet perhaps that’s one of the reasons why Ivor Days at preserved/heritage railways have never caught on in the quite the same way as Thomas Days. Thomas, certainly as a television programme if less so in the original books, is squarely aimed at children. The high level of anthropomorphism makes it easy to relate to him and his friends. But there’s not a lot in the Thomas TV series for an adult audience (and I know quite a few adults who think even the original books are boring; philistines). But Ivor the Engine is different altogether, watchable as an adult for the charm and eccentricity of its well-developed characters. It has less focus on Ivor as a character as the Thomas and Friends TV series does on its engines. Ivor is one part of a wider ensemble, and the series gives viewers a chance to invest in the stories of Ivor the Engine’s human characters. Some of the storylines are spread out over consecutive episodes, with little concession given if you’ve missed a preceding installment, unlike the way Thomas’s TV adventures are neatly tied up within each episode’s running time. Ivor the Engine, you might say, set the scene for much contemporary adult television, which also develops its storylines across multiple episodes.
That’s not to say that Ivor Days on preserved railways are completely unknown. One standard gauge tank engine has been modified to resemble Ivor (though the M&LRTCL banner is the wrong way up on the smokebox door – grrrrrr), and it makes appearances at preserved railways for Ivor events. The narrow-gauge Sittingbourne and Kemsley Light Railway, not too far from Smallfilms’ original studio, holds regular Ivor events too.
Ivor (the animated version) made a triumphant return to the small screen in 2004:
Looking for a Welsh icon to star in a series of trailers for new Welsh digital television channel BBC 2W, the BBC chose the small green locomotive. To be selected in this way only goes to show just how very very Welsh Ivor is. Even though he isn’t.
And that’s it for 2017!
The Beauty of Transport is off for its Christmas and New Year break. All things being equal, normal service will resume 10th January 2018.
Bibliography and Further Reading
Go and watch Ivor the Engine on DVD. You won’t regret it.
The Smallfilms Treasury, here
The Kipling Society’s page on .007, here
…and anything linked to in the text above.