Thomas the Tank Engine stole my son

Was the Rev W. Awdry related to L. Ron Hubbard? Those little engines are not just part of a harmless children's story, they're part of a cult. And it's taken over my family
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My two-year-old son likes "facey trains", trains, that is, that have a face on the front. Whenever he sees a train that doesn't have a face on the front, which, unfortunately, is most trains, he gets irritated. "Why doesn't that train have a face?", he'll ask indignantly, and the terrible reply, never on any account to be uttered, looms in my mind: "Because trains are not living creatures; they are dead lumps of metal."

My son's fixation stems from his obsession with the late Reverend Awdry's creation of 1942, Thomas the Tank Engine. He likes all of Reverend Awdry's characters: the arrogant express train Gordon; the puckish saddle tank engine, Percy; the under-confident Toby (he's a tram engine, you see - no funnel). My son will flirt with all of these, even going so far, if he's in a good mood, to eat a cheese triangle depicting one of them on its label. But if he's feeling glum, that cheese triangle had jolly well better have the naive, mischievous-yet lovable Thomas on it, or there'll be trouble. For Thomas is the primus inter pares.

My son drinks "fizzy" (his favourite tipple of mineral water and apple juice) from a Thomas the Tank Engine cup, and it just doesn't seem to taste the same for him in any other. He carries his sandwiches, and much else besides, in a Thomas the Tank Engine lunchbox. He writes - although that's putting it a bit strongly with Thomas the Tank Engine pencils from a Thomas the Tank Engine pencil case. He has a Thomas the Tank Engine train set, and takes a model of Thomas to bed. He has all the Thomas videos and most of the Thomas books.

The early stories are simple and charming morality tales, A typical plot? Thomas and Bertie the bus are suspicious of one another, but agree to have a race; they both have a great time and make friends but, after a mild bollocking from the Fat Controller, they promise not to do it again.

The later ones, however, are more complicated, and sometimes slightly disturbing to an adult mind. The character of the Thin Controller is introduced, and the man looks seriously ill; Thomas struggles to come to terms with new technology (see, for example, Thomas and the Evil Diesel), or he goes off - in one shockingly Post-modernist episode - to become a temporary exhibit at the National Railway Museum in York.

None of this matters to my son, though. Whatever Thomas does is OK by him, and he is, of course, not alone in his fixation. A year after the death of Reverend Awdry, the Tank Engine has never been more popular. Forty new Thomas toys were launched this year, and the first Thomas theme park, Thomas World, was opened. (Fortunately it's at Mount Fuji in Japan, otherwise I would have to be there every weekend).

This year saw the launch of a the 96-ft-long Thomas-the-Tank-Engine-shaped hot-air balloon, and by the end of December Thomas will have appeared in person, or "in train", at more than 100 British locations. (A tank engine in Thomas livery, with a plastic Thomas face fixed on the front, turns up at a preserved railway line. The expression on the face is, naturally, a little glassy, and until the train moves the lack of animation is total. So the parent has a problem: whether to say that this is the real Thomas in all his glory or just a stand-in. Personally I go for the latter.)

Thomas food-wise, the cheese triangles, 20 tons of which descend into little stomachs each week, were supplemented in Easter by the arrival of a Thomas maize snack. The Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends animated series is currently broadcasting in 121 countries, and is translated into nine languages including Korean, Norwegian, Welsh and Estonian. Twenty- six new Thomas stories were filmed this summer with narration, on the American versions, by the heartthrob megastar Alec Baldwin.

The catalyst here - who has parlayed the creation of an almost parodically vicar-like English vicar into the second mostwidely recognised children's character, after Barbie and Mickey Mouse - is a middle-aged English woman called Britt Allcroft.

Allcroft met the Reverend Awdry in 1979 while producing a TV documentary. In 1982 she acquired the world-wide licensing rights to his books for a limited period, and the following year work began on the first series of Thomas The Tank Engine and Friends. The Britt Allcroft Company was floated in 1996, and last year acquired the rights to Thomas the Tank Engine in perpetuity from the publishers Reed Elsevier at a cost of pounds 13.5m. Allcroft is an unlikely bearer of the torch of Thomas, but then almost any business person would be. Awdry was a quiet, unworldly, fogeyish vicar, son of another such. He began writing his stories not for money, but because his son had measles. He didn't complain when people called him the "puff puff parson", though that denigrated the two things most dear to him: trains and God. He was accused of political incorrectness because Thomas's coaches, Annie and Clarabel, are frankly not very bright. Britt Allcroft, by contrast, is forward-looking, has a superb business brain and a punkish hairdo, and calls herself "Ms". Yet she makes much of the fact that she sticks to the vision of Awdry: a gentle, bucolic world in which trains go off the rails but always come right in the end. "In a world in which a lot of life is nasty and there's so much technology that we're got to struggle to understand," says Allcroft, "we need something that's about love and affection and goodness and comfort."

But I wasn't convinced. For one thing, Thomas is enormous in America, yet most American children never go on a real train. We discussed the appeal of an extinct type of humble British steam train to the children of the world, and she suggesting that part of the appeal of Thomas is that his appeal can't be explained.

My two-year-old would agree. "Why do you like Thomas?", I ask, and he replies, a trifle impatiently, "Because I just do."

It is obvious, really. Children like Thomas because they know him, and they know him because of the marketing. The real dynamo for Ms Allcroft has been the broadcasting of Thomas The Tank Engine and Friends on satellite TV channels for children.

But the roots of Thomas's deeper, inherent appeal are more mysterious, and I can offer only some personal thoughts. Thomas may represent a gentler, slower paced world to my son, but there is no nostalgia in this. Steam trains abolished 30 years before he was born; but he also doesn't properly grasp the idea of "yesterday", let alone "the past".

On the other hand, I do like the nostalgic aspect of Thomas. I also read and enjoyed the Thomas books in my youth, in the days before Awdry's little train had conquered the world. These facts lead directly to my wife's thesis about our son's monomania: "He likes Thomas because you do." A scary thought.

Another possibility is that my two-year-old appreciates the subtle relationships within the Thomas stories, and the fact that Christian kindness ultimately wins out. But I can't help noticing that he likes the crashes best, and he's fascinated by the mechanics of Thomas. He knows what distinguishes a tank engine from one with a tender, for example, which maybe most 30- year-olds don't.

We once spoke to a psychologist about my son's obsession - informally (we're not that worried) and his theory was that little boys like trains because they represent the masculine power and capability to which they aspire. My own observation, incidentally, is that Thomas is primarily a boy's toy, but Ms Allcroft denied this emphatically. More confusion.

But two things, at least, are becoming clear to me. First: while by no means tacky, the Britt-Allcroft-marketed Thomas is a slightly dumbed-down version of Awdry's, and he's aimed at younger children. Second: the ubiquity of Thomas means that children quickly go in and out of their periods of fandom. They eat, sleep and drink Thomas -and then they get bored. My eldest son, who's four - two years younger than I was when my own love- affair with Thomas began, has been cooling towards the Tank Engine for some time, and the other day he finally came out with it. "I don't like Thomas," he said. His younger brother, of course, started bawling at this heresy, but I must admit that I cackled in sheer delight.