The Three Railway Engines (lost live BBC broadcast adaptation of "The Railway Series" books; 1953)

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1953 James.png

A recently discovered photograph of James from this lost broadcast. Courtesy of the BBC's website.

Status: Lost

Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends is by now one of the world's most iconic and beloved children’s TV shows. Originally adapted from the Reverend Wilbert Awdry and his son Christopher Awdry’s Railway Series stories, the TV series began airing in 1984 and has continued in some form or another through to the 2020s. While this is certainly the most famous adaptation of the Awdrys' anthropomorphic train tales, it was not the first, having been preceded by a live BBC broadcast in 1953. Unfortunately, the technical difficulties associated with this adaptation would prevent a full series from being commissioned for the intervening thirty years.


In mid-1953, the BBC approached The Railway Series editor Eric Marriott and inquired about the possibility of adapting at least two stories to television. Marriott and Rev. Awdry approved the proposal on the condition that the adaptation be as faithful as possible, in particular to the authentic technical details. Thus the broadcast was to be done using specially-modified 00 Gauge Hornby models of the actual engines pictured in the books, with a track layout and painted backdrops likewise designed to ensure maximum faithfulness to the original illustrations. The script however was 'freely adapted', in order to fit the alotted ten-minute timeslot. It was to be broadcast live from Lime Grove Studios on Sunday, June 14th, 1953.

Live Broadcast

For this initial attempt, the BBC had chosen to adapt "The Sad Story of Henry", a suitably dramatic tale of the titular engine being bricked up in a tunnel after he refuses to leave it for fear of rain spoiling his new paint. The live adaptation (now renamed to "The Three Railway Engines", presumably for viewers unfamiliar with the books) had to be put together within a month, with the custom model train setup not arriving in the studio until the final rehearsals. Not ideal for what was already a notably complex production for the time, also including superimposed rain and other effects overlaid by music and narration by Julia Lang.

On the day of the broadcast, the model movement was still said to be a bit jerky, but all started off well... until one of the engines derailed, the train set operator having missed switching the points before the engine arrived at them. To the great surprise of viewers - including Marriott and Rev. Awdry - a human hand picked up the errant engine and put it back on the rails instead. It was noted that narrator Lang 'struggled to improvise' around the incident, but unfortunately her actual words are not recorded.


The broadcast went on without further incident, but the derailment and its unexpected resolution attracted notice from several national newspapers. Rev. Awdry is recorded therein as being disappointed with many aspects of the adaptation, including the script changes (which added characters that were not in the original story) the jerky model movement and above all the 'elementary mistake' of the incorrectly set points. BBC Controller (head) of Programmes Cecil McGivern evidently agreed with the criticisms, issuing a furious memo in which he called the whole effort 'pathetic'.[1]

Awdry demanded guarantees that a similar blunder would not happen in the second broadcast, scheduled for June 28th. Instead, presumably thanks to the official scorn, it was put on hold and later cancelled. Although numerous attempts were made to revive the Railway Series for television, all were unsuccessful until the current series began production three full decades later.


As the show was broadcast live, the chances of it surviving are very very low. Even if the BBC by some odd chance did record the broadcast, it is very unlikely that the recording survived long, given their track record of wiping their archives. Since home recording was non-existent at the time, it is highly improbable that any of the public who viewed the broadcast recorded it themselves unless one had a video camera. Any claims or clips to the contrary floating about online are either re-creations or proven incorrect recollections.

However, in more recent years the BBC has developed a sense of humour about the incident. A brochure produced for their 100th anniversary highlighted numerous related documents preserved in their Written Archives, including the Controller's memo, Awdry's letters and at least one contemporary image, showing James' model - ironically, the character Awdry objected to most strongly as not in the original - sitting on the track layout. [1] [2]

A higher quality version of this photograph, several letters relating to the program directed to the BBC and the Rev W Awdry, along with the pilot's camera script, would later be publicly displayed at the Talyllyn Railway's third annual Awdry Extravaganza event on July 22nd, 2023. The script confirms that elements of "Edward's Day Out" and "Edward, Gordon and Henry" were implemented into the episode as a way of extending its length. Additionally, a first-hand account was provided by a volunteer at the Talyllyn Railway who saw the episode as a child. It is possible that there are more photo's of the set out there.




ClickClackTrack's video on the subject, including Marriott's and Awdry's reactions.

Scribbles to Screen's video mentioning the 1953 adaptation (0:42-3:43).

Scribbles to Screen's follow up video on the subject.

See Also

BBC Wiped Programs Media

Thomas & Friends

Thomas the Tank Engine


External Links