Wednesday, April 09, 2008

I was chatting to good friend Andrew earlier - had planned to be at McDermott gig tonight but is somewhere in Wales running the Thomas the Tank Engine tour (you may laugh - as I did originally - but it is playing to sold out major venues. He mentioned an article in yesterday's Guardian that I should read. So Thomas for Greenbelt this year?

The link is here

No doubting Thomas
A children's story about friendly tank engines has become something of a religious experience

Giles Foden The Guardian,
Tuesday April 8 2008

Easter being so early has caused many children either to be at home when they should be at school or, depending on the institution and region, at school when they should be at home. Such havoc would not please Sir Topham Hatt, of Thomas the Tank Engine fame, confusion being one of "his least favourite things". So Sir Topham, aka the Fat Controller, tells us in the current touring production of Thomas and Friends, a live stage performance already more or less sold out across the country. In the show, Thomas and his friends, James, Percy and Gordon, share a story that encourages life lessons such as discovery, friendship and cooperation.

Along with thousands of other children, as my enemies might put it, I attended a recent performance of Thomas and Friends at London's Hammersmith Apollo. The experience was a salutary lesson in strong branding and the pulling power of Thomas, whose name was with terrifying fervour chanted by the waiting audience. No wonder. The deep structure of the stage narrative reveals Thomas to be nothing less than the new incarnation of our Blessed Master.

The characterisation of Thomas as Christ is focused in an advent song: "He's the one, he's the one, he's the really useful engine we adore, he's the one, he's the one, he's the number one, Thomas the Tank Engine!" It's also demonstrated in the pattern of the story itself. Thomas is the saviour. Banishing the confusion and delay abhorred by the Fat Controller he saves the day.

Fellow engine Percy is stuck in a quarry, subject to the snide comments of a Troublesome Truck. He is due on the other side of the island of Sodor (the site, roughly based on the Isle of Man, of the Reverend Thomas Awdry's original tales dating from 1945). His belatedness, along with the failure of the lighthouse that will guide overseas visitors, mean that Sodor's annual Festival of the Magic Lanterns may not occur. Then along comes Thomas to rescue Percy, overcoming adversity and the negativity of the Troublesome Truck.

As a bonus Thomas and Percy discover an old diamond mine, from where they secure a boulder-sized diamond, with which to replace the lighthouse's missing bulb (the idea being that the diamond will reflect the lights of incoming ships). Light is restored and time is redeemed, pleasing the Fat Controller. All in all it proves "the coming of para-religion" as David McKie termed it in these pages, in a 1997 piece referring to the surge of quasi-Marian idolatry which followed Princess Diana's death. A decade later, enviromentalism might be seen as another example.

For all its holistic, boundary-crossing appeal, the green movement could borrow some of the brand extending qualities of Thomas. Over the years he has appeared in Meccano, Lego, and various wooden models, as a Commodore, Nintendo, and Playstation game, and many other forms of merchandise, some of which is for sale in the Apollo's foyer. It is a remarkable apotheosis for a character who was just one of many engines in Awdry's original Railway Series.

Like God's being, Thomas is a sign of contradiction: a cross, as it were. As the brand has extended horizontally across categories and integrated vertically between media (the stage show borrowing techniques from the computer game), Thomas himself has become singular, more special than ever. He is risen, he is real, witnessed by wondrous crowds. They are gazing into the sky above Hammersmith after the show. The object of their reverence, a helium-filled Thomas. Released, he floats defiantly, if a little uncertainly, above the howling flyover.

ยท Giles Foden is the author of The Last King of Scotland and professor of creative writing at the University of East Anglia.

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