I have a two year old son obsessed with the children’s program, Thomas the Tank Engine. This means by default, I am also a Thomas the Tank Engine Fanatic – because it is constantly on! To my surprise watching Thomas the Tank Engine has been an engaging experience – I am shocked and a little disturbed by the profound cultural layers this show possesses. (I know, I know, I have to get out more). I must admit I do like the little models, and the island where the engines live seems so peaceful and scenic I’d actually love to go for a visit (bloody hell, I do have to get out more!).
There are four types of characters in the show: humans, trains, carriages and trucks. I want to describe each one before I get into the meat of the subtexts that I perceive.
Humans. The main human is a character called the Fat Controller. He is in fact, fat - the only person represented as so in the show – and is in complete control of the island. Whenever anything goes wrong the engines shudder in fear at the potential reprimand of the paternalistic fat controller, who manages the engines with a firm but friendly hand. The other humans are drivers, signalmen and quarrymen (yes, all men). They are all dressed according to their rank. The drivers have ties on, the signalmen have overalls, the quarrymen have work clothes (except the foreman who has a suit on). The fat controller wears a top hat and tails!
Trains. There are two types of trains. The good trains are the steam engines. Their only purpose in life is to be called a ‘Really Useful Engine’ by the fat controller. They are incredibly grumpy much of the time (except Thomas who is usually happy). They are always telling each other off, tricking each other and can be vain. The other thing they share in common is a loathing of the diesel engines who are threatening to take over the role of the steam engines. The diesels are represented by a black engine (yes, black!) called diesel who is a conniving, back-stabbing villain. The rest of the diesels are women. The women diesels are nicer than the black Diesel, and look constantly toward the steam engines for guidance.
Carriages. The only thing to be said about the carriages is that they are all placid, subservient and female. All the steam engines are, you guessed it, male. The females are pulled around by the males and told what to do. They hate to be apart. If a steam engine has to be apart from his female carriages he gets very upset indeed.
Trucks. The engines are constantly shunting trucks, getting them in order for the quarry or the harbour. They are a faceless mass who are intent on causing trouble for the engines and therefore for the island society in general. Every wise engine knows they have to treat the trucks harshly to keep them in line.
You may well have picked up on a number of sub-texts in the program from what you have read. Basically this program is the most class-ridden, old fashioned, conservative program ever made for children – I’m sure of it. And although written originally in the 1940′s it first aired on television in the 1980s. This is well after the cultural revolution of the 60s.
Now for my sub-text rave! Essentially the steam engines represent the middle class who are subservient to the upper class as represented by the fat controller (who is corpulent, representing wealth and luxury). Their only purpose is to serve him and be loved by him. If not, they are potential scrap. The trucks represent the Proletariat or the working class who have to be kept under control in case of some kind of Marxist insurrection, in which the ‘natural’ order of the island would be disturbed. The trucks are constantly trying to create disorder but are bullied violently into submission by the engines, all with the blessing of the fat controller. Women are either docile subservient creatures who follow their men dutifully around or are represented as diesels, who threaten to overthrow the steam engines, possibly a nod to the feminist movements challenge to the patriarchal order. And as for blacks, they are represented solely in the evil Diesel who intends to overthrow the Steam Engines, perhaps a nod to West Indian immigration into the UK mid 20th century. Finally, the program is obviously some kind of nostalgic reflection on a ‘lost’ Britain where everyone, in a class based society, knew their place. In this show all is well and peaceful when everything is in its correct place (unless of course you don’t fit in, in which case, like the trucks, you are brutalised).
I tried explaining all this to my son but he would not have a bar of it. He simply said ‘Move Daddy’ because I was blocking his way. When I tried to put ‘Communism for kids’ on he simply screamed at me till I put Thomas back on, then he demanded I leave the room - what on earth am I going to do? OK, OK if these subtext are in any way correct I greatly doubt that Rev Awdry, who originally wrote the stories for his children, had all this in mind. But it sure as hell stands out to me!
Note: I have two confessions to make: 1/. I don’t really own a DVD called Communism for Kids and do not want to own a DVD called Communism for Kids! 2/. I have based this blog on the classic series. No doubt the newest series is more politically correct – but then again maybe not. Anyone know?