WHILE some might consider the critical evaluation of children’s stories laughable, it is a worthwhile endeavour. The stories and media we consume in our youth influence us throughout our entire lives. If we expose ourselves to enough media telling us the same thing – especially as children at our most developmental – whatever is said has the potential to root itself in the depths of our subconscious. This need not be negative, as stated in a 2010 study “Health Effects of Media on Children and Adolescents” for the journal Pediatrics: “media can be powerfully prosocial and educational. Children and teenagers can learn anti-violence attitudes, empathy, and tolerance toward people of other races and ethnicities”. Audiovisual media can be an essential learning tool for children, whether establishing explicit morals or through a more subtle, repeated depiction of a specific issue.
Few children’s programmes have such staying power and influence as THOMAS THE TANK ENGINE & FRIENDS (ITV 1984-), but is it as harmless as it first appears, the blue locomotive has come under fire for its apparent authoritarian, conservative messages. In 2009, Shauna Wilton, a professor of political sciences, highlighted “the class divide which sees the downtrodden workers in the form of Thomas and his friends at the bottom of the social ladder and the wealthy Fat Controller at the top”. Similarly, in a 2011 Slate article titled “Thomas the Imperialist Tank Engine”, Jessica Roake notes that “Within the engine ranks, the trains enforce clear hierarchies and mirror the class rigidity of their aristocratic masters”. At first, it may seem a stretch to apply concepts of class to a series about sentient trains, but once you break the series down, it makes sense. What is the Fat Controller if not a stern boss? What are the engines if not his labour force? With this in mind, is the THOMAS franchise’s political outlook wholly a conservative one, or are there more progressive undertones than for which dissenters give the programme credit?
IS THOMAS THE TANK ENGINE AS HARMLESS AS IT FIRST APPEARS?
It is worth starting with the title character: Thomas. In the first episode, we are told he is “a little engine, always pulling coaches about for big engines to take on journeys. And when trains come in, he pulls the empty coaches away so that the big engines can rest”. From the get-go we get a sense of Sodor’s (the series’ fictional island setting) political hierarchy – with Thomas at the bottom. The others outsize him and his role is to provide his services for them. “I’m tired of pushing coaches! I want to see the world!” he yearns. The antagonistic engines react with mockery. Our most sympathetic character is an attendant sick of his social situation and the programme makes it clear to its pre-school audience that this hierarchy is inherently unjust. Thomas’s situation mirrors what Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels state are the struggles of history in the opening passage of their 1848 publication THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO: “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another”. THOMAS & FRIENDS explicitly makes its protagonist, whose cheery mug has covered lunch boxes and backpacks for decades, a disgruntled proletarian.
THOMAS & FRIENDS EXPLICITLY MAKES ITS PROTAGONIST A DISGRUNTLED PROLETARIAN.
The programme’s ruling class characters are frequently made antagonists. In the second episode, we are introduced to Edward and Gordon. Edward is another small engine, also coded as working class. “The Driver won’t choose you again”, the pompous Gordon tells him, “he wants strong engines like us”. Despite his physical weakness, however, Edward proves himself equally as capable of pulling coaches – traditional notions of physical strength are rejected as a benchmark of worth. Later, Gordon says, “you watch me, little Edward, as I rush through with the express. That shall be a splendid sight”. Gordon’s designated role is pulling the express - a prestigious passenger train - and whenever his pride in this job is emphasised, the moral ends up being “pride before the fall”, with Gordon humiliated. Gordon is explicitly codified as a privileged character. As sociologist and philosopher Zygmunt Bauman states in his 2004 study WORK, CONSUMERISM AND THE NEW POOR: “work that is rich in gratifying experience, as the source of pride, self-esteem and deference in notoriety has become the privilege of the few; a distinctive mark of the elite, a way of life the rest may watch in awe, admire and contemplate at a distance only”. Gordon invokes this, telling Edward to watch his gratifying work from a distance. Gordon’s elitism is vilified, while Edward, much like Thomas, invites sympathy.
In “Tenders and Turntables”, Gordon expresses disgust at the notion of fetching his own coaches: “You don’t understand, little Thomas, we tender engines have a position to keep up. It doesn’t matter where you go, but we are important”. For his snobbery, Gordon is humiliated; unable to rotate on a turntable due to his tender’s weight, he is made to pull trains backwards. “If you were a nice tank engine, you’d be alright”, his driver explains. Gordon is mocked by Thomas for “playing tank engine”. Gordon, self-appointed champion of the elite “tender engines”, is demeaned for his snobbery. The fallout from this incident causes Gordon and the other tender engines to go on strike, carrying into the episode “Trouble in the Shed”.
This is where the class politics of THOMAS & FRIENDS get a touch inconsistent. The year the episode aired - 1984 - was during Margaret Thatcher’s tenure as Prime Minister. Crucially, this coincides with the UK Miners’ Strike, which lasted from March 1984 to March 1985. “Trouble in the Shed” first broadcast eight months into the strike. Read as THOMAS & FRIENDS’ take on the strike, the episode presents an unsympathetic response to the protestors when the tender engines refuse to work and are punished. “Engines on my railway do as they are told!” the Fat Controller sternly tells Gordon, while Edward is appraised for working during the strike. The episode appears sympathetic towards Thatcher’s government, rendering it a conservative text and vindicating concerns of the programme’s critics.
THE EPISODE APPEARS SYMPATHETIC TOWARDS THATCHER'S GOVERNMENT.
However, the episode’s politics are muddled. While the Fat Controller’s stance is indeed authoritarian, the three engines’ demands are also conservative. Gordon tells him they “won’t shunt like common tank engines! That’s Thomas’ job. We are important tender engines. Tender engines don’t shunt”. While the Miners’ Strike was a response to the loss of thousands of jobs and inequitable treatment, the three engines’ concerns instead arise from being treated the same as Thomas. The engines’ strike is born of upper-class anxieties and contempt for the lower class and it is this attitude the episode antagonises, more so than a refusal to comply with authority. In spite of this, the decision to make the antagonists of the episode strikers in the first place is inherently conservative, meaning it is difficult to declare one way or the other where the episode’s politics lie.
Dialect plays a crucial role in THOMAS & FRIENDS’ class politics. All three narrators for the UK recordings of the programme – Ringo Starr, Michael Angelis and Mark Moraghan – are Liverpudlian, and use their Scouse accents when narrating the show, accents that bare working class connotations. For such a long-lasting piece of British popular culture to not feature a central voice speaking with Received Pronunciation is unconventional and emblematic of the THOMAS & FRIENDS’ general relation with the working class. While the plot is chronicled in Scouse, the storytellers also fulfil the duty of providing the characters with their voices, using different accents accordingly. Ringo Starr’s rendition of the tender engines uses the Queen’s English, giving them a pompous air and solidifying their upper-class status while retaining his Scouse accent for the smaller engines. Ringo provides the character Duck, a Great Western tank engine, with a rural West Country accent. Duck’s introduction is the first example of a character in the programme having a clear cultural and geographical identity. Ringo notes Duck is “very proud of being Great Western. He talks endlessly about it”, a character trait that irritates the tender engines. Duck, like Thomas and Edward, is sympathetic and while the other two rely on coding and inference to be read as working-class characters, Duck is explicitly so.
Ultimately, while stories for pre-schoolers can and should be critically examined, the results will never produce as wholly coherent a reading as works aimed at older audiences. There are instances of THOMAS & FRIENDS dabbling in some authoritarian politics – meaning such an interpretation is not wholly unjustified – the programme also champions and sympathises with its working-class characters while antagonising its privileged ones. Progressive parents need not fear THOMAS THE TANK ENGINE & FRIENDS as a show that will teach children to obey plutocratic authority without question. As long as they engage with their children on the lessons their bedtimes stories teach, they may find the small blue engine imparts lessons of equality instead.