Since its creation in 1946 by British clergyman Wilbert Audry, Thomas the Tank Engine has charmed generations of children, imparting gentle wisdom while keeping alive the romantic nostalgia of British railways.
But even the Island of Sodor cannot remain in aspic forever, and owners Mattel have announced that the sleepy setting is to be shaken up by an influx of foreign characters.
In a nod to the realities of cultural diversity in modern life, Thomas is to make 14 new friends from countries like India, Brazil, China and Mexico.
"If the trains are only defined by cultural stereotypes, the result will be a calculated, and destructive, nod to diversity and inclusivity”
Tracey Van Slyke
It is the latest effort by toy giant Mattel to expand the reach of the franchise which already brings in more than £500 million in annual retail sales, one of the largest of any toy range in the world.
However the announcement of the new cast has led to fears that the ambience of the programme could be lost. There are also worries about cultural stereotyping.
Raul of Brazil is described as ‘feisty, ‘strong’ and ‘agile’ while Yong Bao of China is ‘driven to achieve’ and ‘make progress.’
Ashima of India is ‘happy to help out’ while Carlos of Mexico is ‘proud’ and ‘always wearing a smile’ as well as having the type of eyebrows last seen on Frida Khalo.
Ashima of India with Thomas in The Great Race
Tracey Van Slyke, a researcher in social justice and pop culture of the Citizen Engagement Lab, has previously accused the programme of sending out ‘pretty twisted, anachronistic messages’ because the engines are forced to perform tasks ‘dictated by their imperious, little white boss.’
Speaking of the new characters she said: “I applaud the idea, but am concerned about execution.
“There is a danger in reducing very complex countries and peoples to singular characteristics. If the trains are only defined by cultural stereotypes, the result will be a calculated, and destructive, nod to diversity and inclusivity”.
Yong Bao of China
There are also fears that the traditional feel of the programme could be lost forever.
Psychologist Dr Aric Signman said one of the attractions of the show was its slow-paced nature and the small cast of characters which helped children’s development.
“Children do not benefit from a lot of variety,” he said. “If there are going to be a lot of new characters then it will be more difficult for children to invest in the narrative and to feel connected to the story.
“One of the great things about Thomas the Tank Engine is it has a fairly slow narrative and slow editing speed which is much better for children.”
Rev Awdry, a vicar in the parish of St Nicholas, in Kings Norton, Birmingham, wrote his first story about an anthropomorphised train in 1942 to entertain his son Christopher who was ill in bed with measles.
The following year, having written two further stories, he was encouraged by his wife, Margaret, to send them to publishers.
The resulting book, The Three Railway Engines, was published on May 12 1945 and was an instant success. Rev Awdry, who died in 1997, went on to write 26 Railway books and see his creation turn into one of the world’s most successful children’s brands.
Raul of Brazil
Veronica Chambers, the daughter of Rev W Audry, said: “I think they have tried to expand Thomas cultural outlook.”
Asked whether her father would have approved she added: “What he would have been pleased about was to think that Thomas is still bringing such joy and pleasure to grown-ups all over the world.
“And in everything Matell have done they have strictly adhered to the right railway practice. All the new characters, introduced are based as far as possible on actual locomotives.”
It is not the first time that Thomas the Tank Engine has welcomed international characters. Hiro the Japanese engine has been a frequent visitor to Sodor.
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But the books and subsequent series have been frequently criticised for their lack of diversity.
The critic Jessica Roake wrote an article for the American online magazine Slate – titled Thomas the Imperialist Tank Engine – in which she branded the series ‘sinister.’
“Something about Thomas & Friends gives liberal parents the creeps,” she added.
Mattel has been keen to move the children’s programme forward since buying its production company in 2012.
The characters, will be introduced in a new film called ‘The Great Race’ which will be released in cinemas in May in Britain and globally on DVD in August.
Yet just four of the new trains are female which will do little to appease parents who criticise the over use of male engines.