How the BBC missed its big chance to make Thomas the Tank Engine

·3 min read
Thomas the Tank Engine was a big hit for ITV, but it could have been a BBC programme - Terry Permane/Destination Films/Eyevine
Thomas the Tank Engine was a big hit for ITV, but it could have been a BBC programme - Terry Permane/Destination Films/Eyevine

For generations of children, Thomas the Tank Engine is a colourful cartoon with Ringo Starr providing the gentle narration.

But a newly unearthed letter from the Rev Wilbert Awdry, Thomas’ creator, has provided a reminder that the BBC once produced a very different version - one that ended in disaster and the author hated.

In 1953, 31 years before the ITV version that children know and love, the BBC attempted to adapt one of Rev Awdry’s stories, The Sad Story of Henry, as the pilot episode for a series.

It was made using a model railway and the results were comical. The live broadcast was a disaster, with the engine derailing and a crew member’s hand lurching into the frame to set it back on track.

Rev Awdry received a letter from a viewer, Mrs Adams, dismayed by the programme. His letter of reply is now being offered at auction.

He voiced some sympathy for the narrator of the programme - thought to be either Noelle Middleton, one of the BBC’s first television announcers, or Julia Lang, a presenter of Listen with Mother.

Rev Wilbert Awdry shared many of the frustrated viewer's concerns - Chris Ridley/Radio Times/Getty Images
Rev Wilbert Awdry shared many of the frustrated viewer's concerns - Chris Ridley/Radio Times/Getty Images

Rev Awdry wrote: “I agree with you that the narrator was much too BBC in the tone of voice, but she must, poor girl, have had rather a trying time.

“When things went wrong, she tried bravely to adapt the script to suit what was happening - but events were too much for her in the end!

"The fundamental trouble was that the BBC thought that it is child’s play to operate a model railway and did not allow enough time before programme day for the models (a) to be made and tested properly and (b) for very careful rehearsal of their programme.

“However they have assured me that this will be done next time.”

The letter from Rev Wilbert Awdry, the creator of Thomas the Tank Engine, to a viewer about the disastrous BBC pilot episode - Bellmans/BNPS
The letter from Rev Wilbert Awdry, the creator of Thomas the Tank Engine, to a viewer about the disastrous BBC pilot episode - Bellmans/BNPS

In fact, the series was dropped after the pilot episode, when Rev Awdry told the BBC that he would not allow another episode to be broadcast unless the corporation could guarantee there would be no repeat of the mistakes.

A BBC spokesman apologised at the time, saying: “We should have had a child in the studio to keep the electric trains running.”

No footage is thought to survive, as the BBC routinely taped over its programmes. The stories did not appear on television again until ITV adapted them in 1984, first with Ringo Starr as narrator and then with Michael Angelis, a fellow Liverpudlian.

The letter was discovered in a charity shop and will be offered for sale by Bellman’s Auctioneers of Wisborough Green, West Sussex, on July 14, with an estimate of £300.

Nicholas Worskett, specialist at the auction house, said: “There is such a wonderful and charming story behind this letter.

“Right at the beginning of children’s television, the BBC broadcast a live adaptation of The Sad Story of Henry, a title which proved prophetic.

“Since it was a live broadcast, pre-dating TV recording devices, the original programme is now considered irretrievably lost. It is well-known to aficionados of TV history as a part of entertainment folklore.”

Mr Worskett added: “The majority of letters by Rev Awdry come from much later during the period of the TV show in the 1980s. This one is therefore unique and difficult to estimate.

“The letter was handed in to a charity shop, we believe by a relative of Mrs Adams.”

The letter comes with an illustrated copy of Rev Wilbert Awdry's children's book, Thomas the Tank Engine - Bellmans/BNPS
The letter comes with an illustrated copy of Rev Wilbert Awdry's children's book, Thomas the Tank Engine - Bellmans/BNPS

Rev Awdry created the stories in 1943 to amuse his son, Christopher, during a bout of measles. The television show is still going strong today as Thomas and Friends on Channel 5.

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