On December 25, 1942, a two-year-old boy named Christopher received a model steam locomotive for Christmas. Handmade by his father, the Reverend Wilbert Awdry, the blue-painted train incorporated a sawn-off broomstick for the boiler, a tube of metal for the chimney and flattened-out carpet pins for wheels. On its side, Awdry had inscribed a gold number 1 and the letters NW, a little joke to himself (the engine was not part of any railway company and the letters stood for "nowhere").
"I played with it for a while," Christopher Awdry, now 74, says, "and at some point, apparently, I said, 'Can you tell me a story about my engine?'" His father, who had been inventing stories about steam engines to keep him amused during a recent bout of measles, said, "Yes, I can make up a story, but before I do, it has to have a name. Why don't we call it Thomas the Tank Engine?"
Two and a half years later, the opening instalment in a collection of children's books called The Railway Series made its first appearance on British high streets. And, 70 years after that, versions of that same train, now manufactured in China on behalf of Mattel, the world's second-largest toy company, sell in their millions everywhere from Tokyo to Mexico City. In Britain alone, where Awdry wrote 26 Railway Series books before retiring in 1972, there are now about 1,600 Thomas & Friends products - from lunchboxes and yogurts to puzzles, duvet covers, walkie-talkies, potties and iPad apps.
A toy engine of some description - whether it's Thomas or one of his many "friends", puffed-up Gordon, say, or the "dockside diesel" Salty - is sold every two seconds somewhere in the world, and the television series is currently broadcast to more than a billion households in 300 territories each week. When Mattel bought British company Hit Entertainment, which owned Thomas, in 2011, annual global sales stood at an astonishing £615 million (HK$7.4 billion). But such was the devotion of successive generations of children to the character, the company told The New York Times the following year, it was possible this figure could be doubled with the right stewardship.
And yet, if you ask parents what the appeal of the stories is, many will shake their heads in bewilderment. Compared with other, more recent children's creations, the Thomas & Friends books and television programmes seem hopelessly anachronistic. The central characters are steam trains, after all, a form of transport that had its heyday in the mid-19th century. The fictitious Island of Sodor, where the stories are set, feels like a world untouched by post-colonial history, and the dialogue itself is repetitious, insufferably earnest and freighted with outdated language. (I often hear my two-year-old son, a Thomas nut, muttering Gordon's pompous catchphrase, "Oh, the indignity!" as he pushes one of his wooden trains around his toy track.) There are certainly none of the subtle jokes and winking references for adults in which other programmes, such as Peppa Pig, specialise.
What's more, Thomas doesn't seem to chime with modern concepts of parenting. The Island of Sodor is a hierarchical society, in which the Fat Controller (the father figure) rules unopposed and the engines (his "children") are punished whenever they step out of line. To many liberal parents it seems to hark back to an age when children were seen but not heard. But far from being an unfortunate hangover from the 1940s world into which Thomas was born, it is this very unfashionableness that may be the key to its success.
"There is something traditional about Thomas the Tank Engine," says Dr Aric Sigman, a psychologist who has researched the impact of television on children and who has published several books, including the parenting manual The Spoilt Generation. "But whether that's a bad thing or not is open to debate. I see a lot of young children and they like rules. Not to be treated in an authoritarian way, not at all, but children feel comfortable when there are boundaries and there is a construct. It makes them feel relaxed and it's very important for child development."
Reverend Awdry knew this instinctively. An unabashed trainspotter who had grown up next to the Great Western Railway in the village of Box, Wiltshire, he took both his hobby and his ministry extremely seriously, often pointing out the parallels between the Christian faith and the rules of the railway. Like man, trains must follow a straight and narrow path, he told his biographer, Brian Sibley; if they go off the rails they will pay the price.
But, high-minded as he was, Awdry also had a childlike imagination, and The Railway Series was inspired by memories of nights lying in bed aged nine, listening to various trains passing through Box station. As he told Sibley years later, the gradient on the approach to Box tunnel was so steep that a tank engine was employed to help heavy freight trains up the incline.
"There was no doubt in my mind that steam engines all had definite personalities," he said. "I would hear in the puffings and pantings of the two engines the conversation they were having with one another: 'I can't do it! I can't do it! I can't do it!' 'Yes, you can! Yes, you can! Yes, you can!'"
Twenty-two years later, steam trains had lost none of those human qualities as far as the vicar was concerned and, when Christopher contracted measles, a story about anthropomorphised engines seemed like a good way to entertain him. (The first locomotive Awdry invented was Edward, followed by proud Gordon and disobedient Henry. Thomas made his debut that Christmas.)
"I must have been feeling very sorry for myself, with nothing much to do, and he made up the stories," Christopher says, when I meet him on a bright spring morning in the sitting room of a country-house hotel in Dorset. "Of course, if you're telling a story out of your head, it doesn't come out the same every time and after a while he got so fed up with me saying, 'Well, no, that's not how you said it last time, Dad,' that he thought, 'Blow this, I'll write them down and that way I can be sure I'm giving the same version each time and I shan't get any questions from this blasted child.'"
The vicar scribbled the stories down on the back of old parish circulars, next to his own rudimentary sketches of engines with big eyes and round, expressive faces. And there they would most likely have stayed had it not been for Awdry's wife, Margaret, who returned from a shopping trip one afternoon and, frustrated with the limited choice of books for children, urged her husband to send his stories to a publisher.
At first there was little interest. The wartime shortage of paper was making all publishers cautious, and both Chatto & Windus and Faber & Faber turned Awdry down. But then, after six months, the vicar received word from Edmund Ward, a former director of De Montfort Press, who had spotted the same gap in the market as Margaret. He was keen to collect Awdry's stories (there were three at the time) and publish them in a book titled The Three Railway Engines.
When it eventually appeared, four days after VE (Victory in Europe) Day, on May 12, 1945, it was a great success. Ward had suspected the stories would do well and had printed 25,000 copies, but even he was surprised when, after six weeks, every copy had been sold.
From then on, Awdry turned out a book almost every year. The Three Railway Engines was followed by Thomas the Tank Engine, James the Red Engine, Henry the Green Engine and Toby the Tram Engine and, like their titles, the books stuck closely to a strict formula.
The character at the centre of the story would face a problem or get into trouble, usually due to some character flaw such as selfishness or vanity, a lesson would be learnt, the issue would be resolved and the engine would then be forgiven by the Fat Controller (or Fat Director, as Awdry originally had it) and given another opportunity to become a "really useful engine".
The obvious moral tone of the stories, together with the meticulously recreated world of the steam engine, struck a chord with children and adults alike.
Sales continued to soar, thanks in part to BBC radio show Listen with Mother, which featured Awdry's tales, and, in 1957, the first press-out model book appeared, priced at two shillings and sixpence, and aimed at young followers of Reverend Awdry's famous Railway Series who wished to assemble their own cardboard versions of Thomas, Percy, Gordon and James.
The merchandising of Thomas had begun. The following year, Ward's catalogue advertised a gramophone record of "the Rev W Awdry in his own voice telling two of the railway stories with the background effects of real engines", and, in 1966, the first working model of one of the characters - Percy - was produced by Hornby.
But the character reached new levels of fame in 1984, when the stories were adapted for television. The stop-motion films of model locomotives, complete with interchangeable "faces", on a mini Island of Sodor were an instant hit - thanks partly to the participation of the Beatles drummer Ringo Starr, who first narrated the adventures. Within a few years the number of spin-off goods had increased 100-fold and broadcasting deals were signed with scores of countries, including, crucially, America (a feat rarely achieved by British children's programmes at the time).
The expansion made Britt Allcroft, the producer who had bought the television rights, a multimillionaire. But it is far from clear how much money Awdry himself ever made from his creation. Uncomplicated, unambitious and unworldly, he sold the copyright in 1943 to Ward for an outright fee of only £25, a ludicrously small amount considering the colossus Thomas eventually became. His percentage of the profits from merchandise sales is thought to have been minuscule, too. Nevertheless, the Awdry family admitted in 1995 that it had up to then earned about £4 million from the brand (including income from book royalties), and an unidentified "senior executive" at the publisher Reed told a newspaper he suspected it was "far more than that".
Sitting opposite me now, in a decidedly unflashy outfit of crew-neck jumper, checked shirt, blue chinos and loafers, Christopher admits, "Without Father, we wouldn't have the lifestyle we now enjoy." But the Awdrys - Wilbert, Margaret, Christopher and his two younger sisters, Hilary and Veronica - never lived like celebrities.
"Life didn't change dramatically when Thomas took off," he says. "I suppose the only difference was that, in 1956, for instance, we bought a new car for the very first time. And, in 1955, we had our first proper holiday. Up until then our family holidays had been on an exchange basis: we would exchange his parish with a parish in Preston [northern England] or wherever it might be. But in 55 we had our first proper non-exchange holiday."
It wasn't exactly the Caribbean, though; they went to a boarding house in the British seaside town of Scarborough.
But the truth of the matter is, it is probably the vicar's genuine concern for his readers, rather than the health of his own bank account, that explains Thomas' success.
"In marketing these days, the most overused word is 'authenticity'," says Nicola Kemp, the head of features at Marketing magazine. "At every brand strategy meeting, every conference, everyone talks about the authenticity of the brand, and Thomas has that."
Throughout his writing career, the primary concern of Awdry, who died in 1997 aged 85, was to infuse children with his own love of steam trains and entertain them with stories about friendship, responsibility, resilience and loyalty.
"They all deal with kindness and being a good citizen and doing good things in your community and to each other," says actor Pierce Brosnan, who enjoyed a brief stint as narrator of the television series in 2008. "It also allows you, as an actor, to have a whale of a time hamming it up. You had to play it with a generous heart. You can't demean it in any way."
Alec Baldwin, another former narrator, agrees. (The series has a habit of hiring surprisingly starry names - after winning the best actor Oscar this year, Eddie Redmayne announced he would be voicing Ryan in the Thomas the Tank Engine animated feature film Sodor's Legend of the Lost Treasure.)
"I think that innate sweetness and kindness is central," Baldwin says, by email. "Perhaps the show captures children right before they, and especially boys, begin to obsess about power and, therefore, violent games and such. The Thomas programming really serves children while they still want to laugh and smile and snuggle, rather than chop someone with a sword."
And what about the criticisms that it is moralistic and stuck in the past?
Sigman points out that Sodor has many of the elements children like to see within their own homes and communities. "It's a relatively safe world where there is camaraderie, natural justice, routine and structure. The trains go from A to B along a track. It's a linear pro-gression and, although there are hindrances, they are always resolved. These are easy concepts for children to understand."
And, of course, children, especially boys, love trains.
"It reminds me of something [ The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy author] Douglas Adams once said," Kemp says. "'The reason sharks aren't extinct is because nothing is better at being a shark than a shark.' And the same goes for Thomas. One of the reasons Thomas isn't extinct is because nobody is better at being a train than Thomas."
Christopher adds, "In a survey a few years ago, children were asked to draw a train, and 95 per cent of them drew a steam train. It's something to do with the steam. You can see them working. They feel alive.
"It's the nearest mechanical thing to a human being there is."
The Daily Telegraph UK