Thomas on audio

Celebrating Thomas and The Railway Series books as they were committed to audio recordings

As the Railway Series began to grow and achieve a level of notoriety, it was natural that other means of exploiting the sales of the books could be made.  In 1957, the Reverend Awdry made a recording of two stories – Edward’s Day Out and Edward & Gordon – on the Chiltern Records label. 

Railway Stories read by the Rev. Awdry in 1957

The recording was released at a 7” vinyl, however, examples of this have become a very rare collector’s item today.  However, during an interview on Desert Island Discs, Awdry mentioned that he would love to take a recording of Edward and Gordon with him - but not of his own storytelling... that honour fell to the first storyteller of The Railway Stories.

The Railway Stories - Volume 4

In 1962, the first of Awdry’s stories were committed to audio recordings by Delyse Records, under the moniker of The Railway Stories. These were brought to life by Johnny Morris, a popular broadcaster of the time who had won the hearts of children with his television persona – 'The Hot Chestnut Man. However, like Ringo Starr would be in years to come with Britt Allcroft’s television adaptation, Johnny was unsure if he wanted to assume the role of the storyteller. Johnny is quoted in The Thomas The Tank Engine Man biography, "I was not all that mad about them (The Railway Series books). They were all right but..."

Johnny Morris - Railway Stories Vol 1 Cassettes

Isabella Wallich, the founder and manager of Delyse Records argued against his pessimism, and insisted that the sales of the Railway Series books (nearing 2 million by this point) would lend themselves well to record sales, and that Johnny was the most credible person in terms of bringing the engine characters to life. Suitably convinced, Johnny took up the reigns as the first storyteller.

Johnny met the job with great enthusiasm and provided a wide and diverse voice range for the numerous characters and individual personalities.  Johnny even went as far to provide his own scripts for the recordings, which were found to be sometimes edited, but sharpened versions of the Reverend Awdry’s work. Johnny also built on the repetition used by the author and used it to enhance the storytelling as he implemented his own unique range of whistles, puffings, chugging and bursts of steam to build the recording up.

Johnny Morris & Delyse Records

One of Johnny's lost recordings

The Reverend Awdry approved of Johnny’s storytelling style, and “seemed contented with the way his stories were interpreted”.  Most importantly the audience did as well, and the format proved very successful.  Johnny recorded eleven of the Awdry books from The Three Railway Engines to Percy the Small Engine.  The first eight books were committed to audio cassette as well as vinyl, however, the remaining three were left in their double-sided two-story release format – however were released on audio cassette when re-recorded by Johnny’s successor...

Willie Rushton - Album

More Railway Stories - Told by William Rushton

Delyse Records were later bought out by Decca Records, and given the success of Johnny Morris’s work, Decca were keen to make more recordings of the Reverend Awdry’s work through their Argo Records arm, which specialised in spoken-word recordings.  However, by the time they came to producing a set of follow-ups, Johnny was unavailable to record them as he had been before.  At this point, they turned to the cheerful, fruity tones of William Rushton – a cartoonist and comedian, who had received acclaim for his role as a storyteller on Jackanory, particularly for his treatment of Winnie the Pooh.

Willie did feel slightly un-easy about stepping in to the role, but mainly because he didn’t feel he could bring as much to the role in terms of individual voicing as Johnny had before him.  This didn’t prove much of a hindrance however, as the Reverend Awdry fully approved of Willie’s telling of his stories.  Despite finding the experience of voicing the characters exhausting, Willie remembered his working relationship with the Reverend Awdry to be a happy one, commenting that “He turned out to be a sweetie; we got on very well and I recall that he laughed a lot during the recordings.”

Further Railway Stories told by Willie Rushton

Willie Rushton went on to record all of the remaining Railway Series stories over several releases, from Edward the Blue Engine until Tramway Engines.  However, from the start of his tenure with the Railway Stories, a new format was introduced – with engine and railway (and occasionally cars and animals) noises being implemented at the beginning and end of the stories to add atmosphere.  Argo Records reissued the narratives done by Johnny Morris on audio cassette alongside the LP vinyl releases, and issued the work of Willie Rushton as The Railway Stories, More Railway Stories and Further Railway Stories, the latter being released in 1982 purely as an audio cassette compilation with no vinyl release.

After Willie Rushton had recorded his last set of Railway Stories in 1982, the series lay dormant, and for the most part, the recordings seemingly faded away.  The Railway Series received a resurgence of popularity in the 1980s with the advent of the television series, and Christopher Awdry’s choice to revive his father’s characters. 

Christopher Awdry's Railway Stories

In the mid 1990s, Christopher’s books were committed to audio as well through Tempo Reed and Egmont Books.  And again, in the spirit of his father’s work, they were done by a well-known personality of the time, Ted Robbins.  These releases were clearly aimed at young children that would be growing up with the television series.  This was indicated through the use of the Ken Stott artwork (often used for Christopher Awdry’s extraneous publications for younger children) as opposed to the artwork by Railway Series illustrator, Clive Spong, as the practice had been with his predecessors.

Ted’s storytelling was gentle, friendly and warm.  The format of the audios was changed again to allow for ‘conversation’ between storyteller and listener inbetween the stories, most likely to provide a more inviting and welcoming atmosphere.  And in a further change, unlike the preceding audio stories, these releases were given their own theme music which played at the beginning and end of each side of the cassette.  But as the cassette tape recordings were made in 1994, they only encompassed the twelve books that Christopher had written at this point.  No subsequent recordings were made for either Book 39 or 40.

From October 1981, The Railway Series also featured as part of The Noel Edmonds Show on BBC Radio One.  These were done by the accomplished and well versed actor, Sir John Geilgud.  According to Nicholas Jones (Producer of The Thomas the Tank Engine Man Documentary), Noel’s initial thinking behind this was to present the telling of the Railway Series stories as a slight spoof or joke, given Radio One’s continuing position as a station aimed at the trendy, young and current market. 

Sir John Geilgud Tells The Railway Stories

However, Sir John’s telling of the stories was enrapturing.  He read ‘with energy and attack, capturing all the fun and excitement’ and although refraining from the attempt of making different vocal characterisations of each character as Johnny Morris or Willie Rushton had attempted to before him, Sir John focussed upon recounting the stories with Brian Sibley considers to be ‘conspiratorial glee – as if sharing a series of rather splendid jokes’ – which we can only assume that both Noel Edmonds and The Reverend Awdry would have approved of!

The Railway Series recordings by Sir John went on for six months every Sunday between 1981 and 1982.  However, the stories found a new audience in the age of Digital Radio when they were played again the mid 2000s on a children’s radio station representing Thomas the Tank Engine.  The surviving recordings also found a place on The Thomas the Tank Engine Man Documentary where snippets of the stories were played throughout at intervals with the original C Reginald Dalby illustration as a backdrop.  Otherwise, we have no information as to an official release of Sir John’s Railway Series recordings at the time of their broadcast or later.

early Thomas Audio Cassette cover
Image credit:: cyril227ify

Following the broadcast of Britt Allcroft’s first TV Series in 1984, it was naturally accompanied with tie-ins for young fans. The first were cassettes that accompanied two specially published books by St Michael (Marks and Spencers)  featuring photographs with numerous images taken from the series by Terry Permane, David Mitton and Kenny MacArthur. The recorded audio had been taken direct from the first series episodes themselves told by Ringo Starr, with the inclusion of a page turning audio tone. Ringo however was to re-narrate a few of the same stories again in a whole new format that would eventually become more popular with listeners.
 
Ladybird Books produced a number of books for the first two TV Series, being released in 1985 and 1987, encompassing two and on occasion, three stories per book with numerous images taken from the time of production by Terry Permane, David Mitton and Kenny MacArthur. The text from the books would largely be an adapted version of the TV Series broadcast, with the only major additions being an explanation of previous events that hadn’t been chosen for adaptation to book format.

Ringo Starr reads the Ladybird Stories
With thanks to Callum Walker for preparing the initial mock-up image

These books were also accompanied by audio cassette recordings done by then storyteller, Ringo Starr, who would be reading from the corresponding text.  The format was similar to that of the Railway Series Recordings of old, opening and closing with the trademark theme music, but with no sound effects or theme music throughout.  These books and cassettes were aimed at children learning to read, and at the start of each tape, Ringo would be heard giving the advisory prompt, “When you hear Thomas whistle – Peep Peep! – Turn the Page!” so that the young readers would be able to keep track of the story and where they should be following. 

Thomas - Songs & Stories Tape (1993)
With thanks to Callum Walker for the cover art

Ladybird Books did not continue the format for the 3rd series of Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends, with the predominate tie-in books for this series falling to Buzz Books, who went on to produce around 50 individual titles based on the TV Series episodes.  However, none of these were accompanied by audio cassettes recorded by new storyteller, Michael Angelis.  Later audio cassette releases largely centred upon the newly introduced format of ‘Thomas Songs’ written and produced by Mike O’Donnell and Junior Campbell prior to the launch of the 4th series in 1993.  Two releases were made with a special story built around the numerous Thomas songs, the first - The Best Kept Station Competition - came in 1993, and was followed by Surprise Adventures around 1998.

A Cow on the Line audio cassette

Following Thomas’ introduction for North American audiences with Shining Time Station in 1989, Random House was to publish their own tie-in books for the TV series, these eventually were followed with book and audio cassette packs. However, as with the early St Michael releases of the UK, the audio tracks of Ringo Starr (later followed by Alec Baldwin and Michael Brandon) were taken from the US scripted episodes themselves rather than having their own recorded tracks, along with a audio tone sound effect to prompt page turning. The cassettes were eventually transferred to CD media, providing high quality stereo audio tracks (most notably the US Ringo Starr recordings) some of which have not yet been featured on current remastered video DVDs, or previous existing VHS tapes.

TV/Railway Series Spin-offs

Thomas Audio Mini-Book
Image credit: NWR1991

Throughout the 1990s after Christopher Awdry had taken over the Railway Series from where his father left off, he wrote a series of new Thomas stories aimed at the younger reader. These books were to feature the familiar “cartoon” illustrations of Ken Stott. Only for fans of Australia in 1998, ABC Kids and Redwood Audio produced a small series of mini book and tape packs of some of Christopher’s stories; these were to be narrated by Australian theatre and voice actor Ron Haddrick.
 
The start and end of the stories featured the familiar classic theme tune from the television series, although other composed music heard throughout the stories would have a brief thrilling, sad, or happy sting featured in-between the narration. As with the other regular Thomas Book/Audio releases, a page turning tone would be featured on one side of the cassette for the purpose of easy read-along.

Although the playing time for some of the stories were just over or under five minutes, two of Christopher’s books were to feature extended scripts, these being Thomas and The Birthday Party and Henry Goes to the Hospital

Thomas and the Dinosaur Audio Book

…as also were two additional titles written by Christopher. However, these stories were to be narrated by another famous name, Andrew Schas, best known for his voice work for several children’s animation including William’s Wish Wellingtons , along with his iconic role as the unfortunate Spanish waiter Manuel in the BBC sitcom, Fawlty Towers.
 
Schas' clear and distinct tones provided excellent narration for both Thomas and the Tiger and Thomas and the Dinosaur, both stories also were made available in the UK, but in limited quantities. Eventually, only all four extended stories were to be transferred to CD media in Australia.

Thomas Read-Along Storybook

Having only Audiobooks with audio taken direct from the television series, Random House decided in 2007 to adapt four of their own published storybooks (illustrated by Tommy Stubbs) into one compilation with an additional CD. Thomas’ Read-Along Storybook featured the voice of audiobook regular and voice-over, Simon Prebble. Surprisingly, among the stories chosen was an adaptation of the storybook for the feature film, Thomas and the Magic Railroad (2000). Although this was his only contribution to Thomas so far, Prebble's other works were to earn him several awards, including an Audie Award in 2010. This is currently the last Thomas audiobook for American audiences to date.

In 2006, BBC Audio Books released The Railway Stories Vol.1 – told by Michael Angelis.  Although by this point, the Railway Series books had fell somewhat out of favour with their new publishers at Egmont Books, who regard them as being ‘old fashioned’, the producers of the new Railway Stories CDs were keen to update the format through which the Reverend Awdry’s stories were told.

The Railway Stories Vol 1 - 2006

The CDs were made to be fun and appealing to modern children, whilst still harnessing the charm of the original Railway Series stories.  This was done through attempting to align the new Railway Stories CDs with the new TV Series format – and as such, Michael Angelis’s storytelling manner was done in very much the same gentle tone, accompanied at intervals – often throughout the stories themselves by songs from the Thomas TV Series by Ed Welch.  The alignment even stretched as far as using publicity shots from the Thomas TV Series for the CD artwork.

The Great Discovery CD

In addition to The Railway Stories CDs, BBC Audio Books have also released The Great Discovery - the 2008 Hour-Long Special told by Pierce Brosnan - as an Audio CD.  Unlike The Railway Stories told by Michael Angelis was not specially recorded, with the contents lifted directly from the DVD release itself with the score by Robert Hartshorne and songs by Ed Welch playing throughout.

Around five releases of The Railway Stories have been made by BBC Audio Books, with three Railway Series volumes of stories per CD.  In addition to these, Michael Angelis has also been the storyteller on CDs based on the My Thomas Story Library books, stories from which are quite often slight adaptations of the Railway Series / TV Series stories.

Railway Stories Vol.6 (2011)

The sixth volume of the Railway Stories was originally due out in July 2010, but for unknown  reasons - possibly due to a three-cd gift pack - the date was pushed back to June 2011, with an additional seventh volume in the works. BBC Audiobooks (now called AudioGo) re-issued all six volumes in a "complete" boxset, bringing thoughts of whether this series is set to continue following Michael Angelis' retirement from the TV Series. A few AudioGo Railway Series story Samples and full narrations can be listened to here.

In November of 2011 and throughout 2013, the online digital media store The Lost Noises office released  three Complete Railway Series books narrated by Johnny Morris in MP3 format for download,. These classic narrations have been proven to be popular with nostalgics who grew up listening to these stories, and also for a new generation of young fans of the Railway Series.

Fans were optimistic on the continuation of the Railway Stories when AudioGo stated their intention to continue the series. Hopes were dashed on October 22 2013 with the announcement that the company declared bankruptcy, resulting in job losses due to financial problems and no luck finding a buyer to save the company. A possible lifeline came with the announcement from  Random House Audio that they would take charge of distributing current audiobooks and producing new ones from 2014. This provides a glimmer of hope for the future releases of the series, but until then, the series remains at six volumes.

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