The economics and politics of Thomas the Tank Engine
Duncan Weldon

This appears to me to be a pretty sound interpretation of the work in question. However, Weldon obviously misses the fact that Thomas the Tank Engine, particularly in its later televisual incarnations, is clearly a scathing political satire. This should be obvious to even a casual observer — one simply needs to look at the date of its publication.

Thomas the Tank Engine was published in 1946. It is surely no coincidence that the publication of the work coincides with the end of the Second World War and the sea change in British public opinion that followed it. Awdry presents a transportation system in dire need of reform: the cosy cabal of the Controllers (Fat and Thin) locks out Bertie the Bus from any meaningful economic contribution. Real political power rests with Sir Topham, who pays lip service to a sham democracy (the Mayor) presided over by a toothless aristocracy (the Duke). If Atlee’s ‘spirit of 1945’ ever needed a literary justification, Awdry surely provides it.

Let us therefore fast forward to the television show, which surely reaffirmed the work’s status as a masterpiece within the genre of British childrens’ political satire. For Thomas the Tank Engine was commissioned for television in 1979 — the year of Margaret Thatcher’s first election vistory. Thirty three years after the publication of the initial work of literature which presaged the reforming zeal of the Atlee administration, television producer Britt Allcroft surely underlines how the spirit of 1945 has met its final demise. Where once Awdry presented a society in desperate need of progressive political and economic reform, Allcroft presents a society which is curiously unchanged. The controllers’ cabals, the mayoral corruption, the crony capitalism: all is laid bear before us. With a wry smile, Allcroft shows us the devastating impact of this economic torpor — for Sodor’s trains still run on steam. Modernity has passed Sodor by. Society has not moved on.

And with whom does the fault lie? Who is responsible for this complete lack of economic and political development? Where is the spirit of ’45? With a final flourish Allcroft provides the answer. The fault lies with those who ignore the corrupt economic forces laying waste to Sodorian society. The fault lies with those who instead just want to be ‘really useful engines’. The fault lies with the citizenry. The fault lies, in short, with us.

Where Awdry once looked, Allcroft now laughs. And, with a bittersweet sigh, the audience has little choice but to join in.

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