Ivor The Engine

Last updated: 11 February 2009

"Not very long ago, in the top left-hand corner of Wales, there was a railway. It wasn't a very long railway or a very important railway, but it was called The Merioneth and Llantisilly Rail Traction Company Limited, and it was all there was.

"And in a shed, in a siding at the end of the railway, lives the Locomotive of the Merioneth and Llantisilly Rail Traction Company Limited, which was a long name for a little engine so his friends just called him Ivor."

Ivor The Engine was a children's animation created by Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin's Smallfilms television company. It was made in black and white for Associated Rediffusion and first broadcast in 1959, but was remade in colour for the BBC in 1975.

It told the story of a sometimes disobedient small green locomotive who worked for the Merioneth and Llantisilly Rail Traction Company Limited, although he dreamed of singing with the Grumbley and District Choral Society. In time he became first bass of the choir and transported the members from place to place.

His driver was Edwin Jones, known as Jones the Steam, who enjoyed fishing and daydreaming. Ivor's other friends included stationmaster Dai Station, portly choirmaster Evans the Song, fellow chorister Idris the Dragon, and fairground owner Morgan the Roundabout. Mr Morgan gave Ivor some pipes from his steam calliope to allow him to sing in the choir.

Behind the scenes

Ivor The Engine was inspired by Welshman Denzyl Ellis, a former railwayman whom Postgate met shortly after World War Two. Ellis, a former fireman with the Royal Scot train, described how locomotives came to life in the mornings after the engine fires had been lit.

The programme was Smallfilms' first production. Although set in Wales, Ivor The Engine was actually made in Firmin's home in Blean near Canterbury, Kent, using stop-motion animation techniques. Cardboard cutouts painted with watercolours were used for the characters and backgrounds.

The programmes were written and narrated by Oliver Postgate and drawn and painted by Peter Firmin. Voices were performed by Oliver Postgate, Anthony Jackson and Olwen Griffiths - the only Welsh person involved in the production.

The distinctive puffing sound made as Ivor moved was voiced by Postgate, and the show's music was composed by Vernon Elliott. Ivor's 'voice' was mostly sounded by a bassoon.

Postgate described himself as having been "intoxicated by the work of Dylan Thomas, and used to carry Under Milk Wood around in my pocket". Wales was a logical setting for the tale, and became romanticised in Postgate's fictionalised world.

"Wales is where you have little railways going along the tops of hills, which is much less boring that hurtling up the slumbering Midlands plain in the middle of the night," he told science fiction enthusiast Clive Banks, "so we decided it would be nice to set it in Wales."

"Ivor The Engine is entirely bogus as far as Wales is concerned - it's built entirely on a picture of Wales given by Dylan Thomas! Then, literally in the bath, I came to realise what the story was: the engine wanted to sing in the choir, which is obviously what a Welsh engine would want, so from then on it fell into place.

Postgate and Firmin created a map of the top left corner of north Wales where Ivor lived. It included viaducts, bridges, tunnels, towns, a mine and gasworks, and was strictly adhered to by the show's creators.

The episodes

The original series comprised six episodes, and told the story of Ivor getting his pipes and joining the choir. They were followed by two further series of 13 episodes, all of which were in black and white. Each lasted 10 minutes.

The animations were shown regularly by Associated Rediffusion until the company folded in 1968. In 1975 Smallfilms were given back the rights to the stories and began remaking the second and third series in colour, with some minor changes to the stories.

40 colour episodes were made, each lasting just five minutes. They were shown often by the BBC until the mid 1980s.

Six story books were also published in the 1970s, along with an Ivor The Engine annual in 1978 and several audio recordings.

The Ivor revival

Ivor The Engine returned to television screens in 2004 to promote the BBC Wales digital channel 2W. Computer-animated rather than using Smallfilms' original stop-motion approach, three promos - each lasting less than a minute - were made.

In the three cartoons, Dai Station - a stickler for the rule book - was caught out watching BBC 2W when he should not be; Ivor himself refused to move further along the tracks when he is captivated by 2W in a TV shop, and there was trouble in the signal box when the signalman was glued to his TV set.

The promos were voiced by Oliver Postgate, with contributions from Anthony Jackson, the original voice of Dai Station, who replayed his part.

Oliver Postgate died on 8 December 2008 in Broadstairs, Kent.

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