Friday A/V Club: That Time Thomas the Tank Engine Was a Scab

The most right-wing project any Beatle was ever involved with


The early episodes of Thomas the Tank Engine have got to be the most right-wing project any Beatle was ever involved with. Take the story arc where some of the engines go on strike. The opening installment, narrated by Ringo Starr in his usual jolly fashion, is embedded below; if you want to skip straight to the strike part, go to 3:53:

Here's part two, where Thomas and two of his pals save the day for the employing class by stepping in as scabs:

By 4:20, the striking engines are "cold, lonely, and miserable. They wished now they hadn't been so silly." They sheepishly come back to work in the opening minute of the next episode, which you can watch here.

This first aired in 1984, which, as those of you who remember the Thatcher years will recall, was a time of fiercely fought strikes in Great Britain. (The story was based on the book Troublesome Engines, published in 1950. Someone better versed in British labor history than I will have to tell me whether there's a comparable social context then.) But there's nothing in the Thomas show about wages or layoffs or railway closures; the story basically boils down to some engines getting too big for their britches. ("No engine on my railway is too important for small jobs," Sir Topham Hatt says disapprovingly.) In the end we are informed that the strikers have been "naughty," but the boss tells them they can come back "if you promise to work hard," which they eagerly do.

Conclusion #1: if you overlay the paternalistic tone of a show for kids atop an industry where actual grown-ups work, the results are pretty creepy. 

Conclusion #2: It's still more watchable than the formulaic Thomas tales that my two-year-old sees on Sprout today.

Bonus video: Speaking of creepy early Thomas episodes, this one has a dark ending reminiscent of Poe:

NEXT: What School Start Times Say About the Stifling Strictures of Public Education

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  1. RIP George Carlin. Best Thomas narrator ever.

    1. You are a horrible person. Ringo was amazing at this.

      1. But you are the worst.

      2. I actually went to Meet Thomas at the railroad museum here in Colorado. Pretty fun for the munchkin except she wanted a balloon…of Thomas…for EIGHT DOLLARS!!!! A FUCKING BALLOON!!!!

        p.s. Deflated before car door even close to go home…i cried.

        1. Haha, my son is going through a dinosaur phase right now so every time he sees anything with a dinosaur (or a reptile) he starts shouting “Dido! Dido! Dido!!!!!”

          1. I read “Dido!” as “Dildo!” for some reason. I am quite sure I am not the only one.

            1. I thought about that cruel Aeneas.

          2. Now I have that song in my head. And I want to thank you…

        2. I understand the cost to truck Thomas to the local railroad tourist attraction is so damn high that the only way to cover the cost is to sell merchandise at highly inflated prices.
          You’ll probably find Disneyworld doesn’t break even on admissions but only when the umpteenth million set of mouse ears is sold to your yammering tyke.

        3. Go on a Saturday when they bust out the Galloping Goose for rides.

    2. Interestingly, as an adult (ostensibly), watching Thomas with Carlin and Doc McStuffins with Dennis Farina (RIP also) is so incongruent it is entertaining. I keep expecting Thomas to say “Fuck You, My tracks!” and the dump truck to say “Let’s take a trip downtown.”

  2. Thomas the Tank Engine could never be right wing because the very idea of a talking locomotive is blasphemous.

    1. Look, we accept you a reasonable extension of reality, so really, anything is possible.

  3. Between George Carlin, Peter Fonda, Alec Baldwin, Ringo Starr where did we get the notion that Thomas is, in any way right-wing? I mean if Thomas and Percy’s relationship got any more gay, the show wouldn’t be appropriate for children.


      “If I got lost Percy, I’d puff three times too. Once for luck, once for me, and once for you.”

      1. They never actually hooked up.

    2. You have to be an idiot to think stuff like that, even though I find nothing wrong with homosexuality. Engines can’t love each other romantically, they’re machines, this is different to Disney. Thomas and Percy share a close friendship they are best friends.

  4. Jesse, I look forward to your social-political commentary on the ‘Veggie Tales’.

  5. Actually, I always thought of Thomas the Tank engine as being a paean to the Post war English Socialism:

    Sir Topham Hatt is a nobleman and the railroad’s controller (the assumption being that he is a civil servant who is the CEO of the railroad).

    The trains are like parodies of unionized labor with disputes over seniority and work rules dominating the plots. There is a huge focus on old machines and how sad it is when they are discarded – and the joy when some new bit of make work is created to make them useful again.

    Which is why Alec Baldwin lept for the chance to be the conductor for the movie.

    1. Actually, I always thought of Thomas the Tank engine as being a paean to the Post war English Socialism

      Agreed, it’s hard not to be bludgeoned by the “Really Useful Engine” (caps theirs) culture/ethos/mentality.

  6. This is idiotic twattle. I think the editors that assigned this story to Jesse were pranking him – and it worked! A stupid article, probably even far more stupid thant the pranksters hoped.

    It’s a kid’s show about trains. A lot of little boys love trains. And. That’s. All. It. Is.

    1. It’s a kid’s show about trains. A lot of little boys love trains. And. That’s. All. It. Is.

      Yeah, parents should just park their kids in front of the TV and pay no attention to what’s on it!

      I agree with the other point though, It’s almost like Jesse lost a bet or something.

      1. I read the entire book of collected stories to my son at least three times and watched all the shows and movies with him. Never found it creepy. Never found it ‘steering’ in one political direction or another. Could there be political and/or social overtones that reflect the period it was written in? Sure. But to suggest it is bordering on some kind of covert propaganda effort is a stretch.

        If you want to see a blatant display of propaganda, watch Iron Giant.

        1. Almost all children’s programming is propaganda, but it’s usually of the “be a good citizen who follows the rules” kind.

  7. Jessica Roake at Slate has a very nice take on the Tory, class-society flavor of TTE. Sorry that I can’t give you a short link.

    The series also reflects a bit of social history in that it is biased against diesel engines, which are regarded as dirty and smelly, while steam engines are glorious and mighty. European nations held onto steam long after the U.S. quit. Europe had lots of coal but no oil, and coal miners were the ultimate working-class “heroes.” Maintaining steam (which is, of course, incredibly polluting and inefficient) was a subtle way of subsidizing workers and improving the balance of payments. Both class conscious and socialist, TTE was probably the least libertarian program ever!

    1. Yeah but Diesel 10 was badass and everyone wanted to be him.

      1. Not only could he pull a heavy load, he had that hydraulic pinching/digging rig!

        1. Don’t forget how that steamie killed everybody at the end of Atlas Shrugged Part I. Rand reminds us that Diesels do have their place.

    2. Rev.W.Awdry, the man who created the stories was a railway enthusiast who grew up in the time of steam. When diesel came in, like many people who grew up in the time when steam was king, they despised the diesels, but in the stories that he created he had created some nice ones show casing that they’re not all bad (e.g – BoCo, Rusty, Mavis, Daisy, Bear, these are from a known series as The Railway Series) later on his son had made James the last of all the steam engines, to respect diesel equally ‘James and the Diesel Engine’ (RWS No.28)

      There’s never any political view about diesels, it was written at a different time when Dr. Beeching had axed Britain’s railways to make it more cheaper in 1963 and many people who grew up in the time of steam didn’t like the new changes of dieselisation, which is why steam preservation was made.

  8. My toddler son loves Thomas & Friends–especially that jaunty theme song. But then, he’s currently fascinated by anything with wheels on it.

    1. Maybe you should steer him toward Top Gear instead of the propaganda-filled, right-wing and Obviously-Kochtopus-Funded! covert Libertarian indoctination vehicle that Thomas & Friends so blatantly is…

  9. Thomas the Tank Engine is one of those kids shows that can become downright horrifying if you think about the premise too much:…..TankEngine

  10. Frankly, I see this more as a harbinger of the dangers of artificial intelligence that we face, as our machines becomes more and more capable.


    1. Some of us were kept alive… to work… stoking boilers. The coal units ran night and day. We were that close to going out forever. But there was one man who taught us to fight, to storm the wire of the camps, to smash those steam motherfuckers into junk.

      1. Warty Hugeman?

  11. Also, the Thomas the Tank Engine crash compilation:

  12. Man you just have to roll over the hil land see what is next, thats all.

  13. “By 4:20, the striking engines are “cold, lonely, and miserable.””

    So, nobody’s going to take that bait?

    “The engines decided to cheer themselves up. Puff, puff, puff…”

  14. My kid loved Thomas, starting with DVDs of the original, Newer stuff got so shitty with lessons about sharing and caring that not even a young child could stomach them anymore.

  15. The story was written around the time when Britain was struggling back after the war, six years later and the story that this idiot is referring too is set in the 1920’s during the nationalisation period of Britain’s railways, yes the stories were set in the 1920’s as the author, Rev.W.Awdry made it in a timeline. If you want to know here’s a person’s view of it:…..tabase_by_ knuckles_v1.pdf

    I grew up watching the show when I was a kid and I read the Railway Series stories and I didn’t turn into a right winged political dimwit who ‘thinks deeply’ into a kids show. If I were you Jesse I research this stuff more clearly rather then just writing things that just come into mind.

    1. The story was written around the time when Britain was struggling back after the war, six years later

      Five years later, actually. As I said in the post, which you do not seem to have read very carefully before writing your not-entirely-coherent comment, the book was published in 1950.

      If I were you Jesse I research this stuff more clearly rather then just writing things that just come into mind.

      Is there an error in the post that this research would have uncovered? If so, please let me know what it is, and I’ll add a correction.

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