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Western Animation / Ivor the Engine

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Not so 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, lived 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.
The Narrator, The Railway

Ivor the Engine, created by Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin, tells the story of a little green steam engine who runs on the Merioneth & Llantisilly Rail Traction Company Limited, located in the top left-hand corner of Wales. Ivor is rather unusual for a steam engine in that he is alive (though most engine drivers would believe that already), and his life is far from an ordinary one.

His debut in 1958 was a short series of black and white episodes for Associated Rediffusion, which told the story as to how Ivor wanted to sing in the choir, and how his whistle was replaced with steam organ pipes from the fairground organ on Mr Morgan's roundabout. There then followed two thirteen-episode series, also in black and white. These episodes were 10 minutes each.

In the 1970s, the two longer black and white series were re-made in color by Smallfilms, with some alterations to the stories, but they did not remake, or re-tell, the content of the original six. The color series consisted of 40 five-minute films. These would often each form part of a longer story, including, most notably, a family of Welsh Dragons and an escaped elephant from the circus.

The series was written, animated and narrated by Oliver Postgate with Peter Firmin providing the artwork. The sound effects were endearingly low-tech, with the sound of Ivor's puffing made vocally by Postgate himself. The music was composed by Vernon Elliott and predominantly featured a solo bassoon, to reflect the three notes of Ivor's whistle.

A classic of British television, Ivor the Engine, along with other Postgate creations like Bagpuss, The Clangers, Pogles' Wood & The Saga of Noggin the Nog, continues to stand out for its unique charm, narrative quality, excellent characterization, wit, and lack of condescension.

The series includes:

  • Agent Scully: Mrs. Griffith, chair-person of the Antiquarian Society, at first thinks Jones is a crackpot making up stories about dragons and sentient steam engines (which was an Indy ploy by Ivor to protect Idris from being found.) She is brought round when Jones and the dragons come to ask for the Society's help in heating the dragons, but ultimately turns against them after the dragons attack a statue of St. George, fearing that they are a risk to life and property.
  • All There in the Manual: The Merioneth and Llantisilly Rail Traction Company Limited had an official map designed by Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin to solidify in what order locations should appear as Ivor traveled along the line.
  • Apothecary Alligator: Mrs. Griffith's shop in Llanmad has one hanging from the ceiling.
  • Art Evolution: The series, though always low budget, went through quite the evolution from the black and white series to color. Character designs were refined, Ivor gained his distinct green livery, the animation was smoother (as Oliver Postgate had improved his techniques), and the backgrounds became evocative of the North Wales countryside.
  • Berserk Button: Gaian and Blodwen attack a statue of St. George standing in Llanmad village square because they think he is attacking a real dragon. Generally, dragons hate violence, especially against their own kind. Jones gets irritated whenever Ivor slams on his brakes without warning, usually giving him a bumped nose, and lectures Ivor when he's being disobedient.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Idris the dragon's new home in a geothermally heated cavern will keep him and his family warm, but he can never again show himself above ground publicly. Given that dragons value their privacy, Idris doesn't seem to mind, but Jones the Steam is still sad to see them go.
  • British Brevity: The original black and white stories (1958) were a series of 6 episodes, told like chapters in a continuing narrative. These told the story of Ivor becoming a member of The Grumbly and District Choral Society thanks to a new whistle made from a steam organ's pipes. The color series, released 1975-77, lasted for 40 episodes, each of them about 5 minutes per episode. Subsequent DVD releases tend to edit linking episodes together.
  • Cloudcuckoolander: Mrs. Porty and Mr. Dinwiddy are by far the kookiest (though Jones the Steam may seem odd to outsiders for talking to his engine).
  • Comic-Book Time: The commericals created to promote BBC 2W implies the series moved on with the times, but everyone is still exactly as they were.
  • Cool Old Lady: Mrs. Porty, a wealthy eccentric who lives in a mansion besides the railway may seem like she has more money than sense at times, but, at heart, she is a refined, kind-hearted woman who ultimately buys the railway wholesale to save it from being merged with the Welsh National Railway, which would have meant unwelcome changes all around.
  • Cool Train: Ivor himself. What other engine can drive itself, sing in a choir using its whistle, and have the honor of hatching a dragon egg in his firebox?
  • Disaster Dominoes: One winter episode, Ivor is enlisted to pull sledges (sleds) up a hill, but derails because he tries pulling up too many children. The Fire Brigade gets called in, but their rope snaps, and the fire engine also gets stuck in the snowbank. Finally, a crane from Pontypool Road tips over trying to rescue Ivor, but luckily, Bluebell summons Bani Moukerjee and his elephants to the rescue. Thanks to their efforts, everything is soon righted.
  • Five-Episode Pilot: More like six. The original six episodes were made to show how Ivor got his three-tone whistle and joining the choir.
  • Forgot to Pay the Bill: Smoke Hill gains a coin-operated gas meter to heat Idris the Dragon and his family, but, unfortunately, this is only a temporary solution, as half-crowns are becoming scarce due to the decimalization of British currency.
  • Friend to All Living Things: Ivor tends to make friends with animals, such as Bluebell the Donkey, and can actually call birds to him using his whistle. He and Jones make friends with Idris, a dragon, after he is hatched from Ivor's firebox, and Alice, an escaped circus elephant. Generally, Jones will talk to animals just like they were people, even if they can't answer back. Mrs. Porty herself treats Bluebell like a close friend, keeps several goldfish and a cat, and donates an old cuckoo clock to serve as a new home for a mother bird's nest.
  • Hates Being Touched: Idris and the other dragons don't like being touch, though this is because they are very hot, and if they touch anyone or anything, they would burn the person or object they come in contact. The only exceptions are ovens, caves and fireboxes.
  • Heroic Dog: Nell the Sheepdog, who runs to get help with Ivor when Jones gets trapped in a quarry after trying to rescue one of her sheep, and later the Fire Brigade when Ivor is derailed in the snow.
  • Honorable Elephant: Double Subverted. Alice, being a baby elephant in unfamiliar surroundings, is fussy and temperamental due to an injury on her foot that she won't let anyone treat. As soon as Bani Moukerjee, her keeper, tracks her down, he has her apologize for her behavior, and takes over her treatment with no further fuss. She and her fellow elephants are later able to come to the rescue when Ivor is derailed in the snow thanks to being used as a sledge pull.
  • In-Series Nickname: As the narrator points out in the page quote, Ivor is officially called "The Locomotive of the Merioneth and Llantisilly Rail Traction Limited." As this is such a long title for a little tank engine, his friends simply call him Ivor.
  • Just Train Wrong: Generally, Ivor does operate in a true-to-life manner, requiring a driver to maintain his fire, refill his coal and water, follow scheduled work, pull trains and so on. Of course, real locomotives don't drive themselves or sing in choirs, but Ivor is held accountable for violating railway regulations, so he can't just run about wherever he pleases.
  • Leitmotif: Ivor's leitmotif has a solo bassoon playing a jaunty ditty, which also serves as his whistle tone. Ivor's distinctive chuffing (Pssst-tchoff) is simply Oliver Postgate making the noise himself! The series has a soundtrack full of such leitmotifs, including one for Bluebell the Donkey.
  • Lemony Narrator: Oliver Postgate, the Series Creator, serves as this, generally breaking the fourth wall to explain Welsh culture or to comment on the action. Sometimes, he will even react in surprise to events as they unfold.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: The narrator states at the climax of "Retirement" that the dragons could be heard inside Ivor singing at the choir, but you can't be sure, can you?
  • The Magic Goes Away: Ultimately, the dragons, after being revealed to exist, return underground to escape being kept in heated cages at the National Museum. Idris does visit from time to time afterwards, but never reveals himself publicly to avoid capture.
  • Mundane Utility: Has the pilot light in your stove gone out? Why not use a dragon to relight it?
  • Mystical India: Bani Moukerjee, the elephant keeper, wears a turban and speaks with a stereotypical Indian accent. This ended up getting the book series banned thanks to political correctness authorities getting worried about offending ethnic minorities.
  • National Anthem: "Do you know 'Land of My Fathers'?" asks Idris when he first hatches from Ivor's firebox. The Grumbly and District Choral Society, delighted to see a real Welsh dragon, oblige by singing their national anthem, accompanied by Ivor and Idris.
  • No Mouth: Characters that have big mustaches like Dai Station, Eli the Baker and Byron Smith lack a mouth.
  • Ominous Pipe Organ: Averted: Ivor's whistle is made out of three pipes from a steam organ for a merry-go-round (called a roundabout in the series), and uses them to communicate and sing in the Grumbly and District Choral Society. He may have three notes, but he sings them beautifully.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: Technically every human character, given the Welsh nicknaming tradition of "Surname the Occupation." Jones the Steam's real name is actually Edwin Jones, but this is not always used.
  • Our Dragons Are Different: Idris the Dragon, his wife Olwen, and twins Gaian and Blodwen, are all red heraldic Welsh Dragons (like on Wales' flag). They are about the size of dogs, can fly, breathe fire, sing, and are hatched from eggs in extremely hot temperatures. In Idris' case, he was hatched in Ivor's firebox. Idris and other dragons of his kind cannot survive long outside of hot climates (which is why they prefer to live in volcanoes), and a subplot of the series has to do with keeping the dragons warm after Smoke Hill, their volcano, goes out. Compare it to another Postgate series Noggin the Nog, which features an ice dragon driven out of his cold cave by a bonfire.
  • Parents Know Their Children: Jones the Steam and Ivor have a very close bond after so many years working together, but Jones usually acts as a sort of parental figure for Ivor, who is good hearted if sometimes a little disobedient, like a child. Jones can usually guess at Ivor's moods quite easily.
  • Playing with Fire: Idris, naturally because he's a dragon. He can control his flames easily, and even concentrate it to relight pilot lights on gas-operated stoves.
  • The Professor: Prof. D. Longfellow of Observatory Villa, Llaniog, has his own personal telescope and is sometimes consulted for answers to problems. He wears Opaque Nerd Glasses.
  • Prospector: Mr. Dinwiddy the Gold Miner, who has already dug up most of the gold in his mine, but always puts it back again. He's a bit of a Cloudcuckoolander, and loves explosions and tinkering. He often has a need for new boots.
  • Re-Cut: Small episodes released on home video are edited together as one large episode, as they're connected to each other..
  • Secret-Keeper: Ivor, Jones the Steam, Dai Station, and Mr. Dinwiddy all vow to keep Idris' new underground heated cavern a secret at the end of the series.
  • Sentient Vehicle: Ivor is alive, and can drive himself, but, unlike Thomas the Tank Engine, does not have a face and relies on Jones the Steam to translate for him. How he gained sentience is never discussed, but according to Wordof God, Oliver Postgate was inspired by a Welsh railway fireman named Denzyl Ellis, who described to him how preparing a steam engine is like watching it come to life.
  • Single Tear: Ivor is capable of crying, but it manifests as large drops of water dripping from his cab windows.
  • Some Call Me "Tim": Ivor is only called such because his official name is "The Locomotive of the Merioneth and Llantisilly Rail Traction Limited." Quite a mouthful to say in one go!
  • The Speechless: Ivor can't talk like a human, but manages to communicate with Jones via his whistle and steam exhaust. Given Jones' reactions, Ivor can be quite a Deadpan Snarker at times!
  • Steam Never Dies: Justified. Though the M&L RT Co Ltd. is nearly merged with the Welsh National Railway due to rising costs, which means that Ivor would have been replaced with a diesel before long, the railway is saved by the intervention of Mrs. Porty, who buys the entire line to keep things as they are. When Ivor travels with Charlie Banger's Circus for a short time, Jones and Mr. Dinwiddy create a diesel engine out of a lorry, dubbing it "Juggernaut", but it soon proves to be an unreliable failure.
  • Stop Motion: The series was filmed using animated cardboard cut-outs painted with watercolors, a staple of Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin's Smallfilms Company. Though low budget, the quality of the artwork was never skimped on, and the backgrounds were very atmospheric.
  • Stubborn Mule: Averted. Bluebell, Mrs. Porty's pet and Ivor's friend, is a generally docile and helpful donkey, but tends to follow Exact Words if given careless instruction (demonstrated when she carries a wash bucket for miles to chase after Ivor, because Jones had told her to stand by Ivor and hold the bucket while he was cleaning him).
  • Switch to English: Not that we actually hear any Welsh spoken, but after the President of the Antiquarian Society makes "a fine speech, in Welsh of course" the crowd sings "Land of My Fathers" in English. This may actually be Translation Convention for the benefit of the viewers: most Welsh people would know their anthem in Welsh, but rather fewer would be fluent enough to understand the President's speech!
  • They Would Cut You Up: The reason that Idris and the other dragons fear national exposure by Mrs. Griffith's Antiquarian Society. The Society ends up declaring the dragons dangerous to the public, and wants them kept in heated cages at the National Museum.
  • Translator Buddy: Ivor can only talk using his whistle and steam pressure, so Jones the Steam interprets for everyone just what he is trying to express. How he achieved this skill is never discussed, but probably has to do with the close bond between a steam engine and its driver.
  • True Companions: Ivor and Jones the Steam – their bond is very much like a parent fussing over a child at times, but Jones trusts Ivor implicitly, and is always looking out for his beloved engine's happiness.
  • Unfazed Everyman: Jones the Steam, who accepts wholesale the idea that his steam engine is alive and dragons exist. In fact, most of the characters accept Ivor's sentience without question (save Mrs. Griffiths of the Antiquarian Society), but, given the general unusual events that tend to occur, Jones rarely loses his tranquility.
  • The Unmasqued World: The existence of dragons in Wales is covered up by everyone to protect Idris and his family from being disturbed, until their existence is threatened by their volcano lair becoming extinct. Afterwards, the Antiquarian Society pitches in funds to help reheat their home using a half-crown operated gas meter. When money goes decimal (see Old British Money), the Society declares the project uneconomical and the dragons dangerous, leading to them arranging for heated cages in the National Museum. To help them escape this, Mr. Dinwiddy the gold miner blasts open a spacious cavern in his mine that is naturally heated by a volcanic fault.
  • Unusually Uninteresting Sight: The top left-hand corner of Wales is utterly unusual – an engine drives itself and sings in the choir, dragons live in a volcano, animals in general have some degree of sentience – but no one minds in the slightest. Even the Narrator agrees that things are not at all usual, even for Wales!
  • Volcano Lair: Idris the Dragon and his family live in Smoke Hill, a former volcano that eventually becomes extinct. A major subplot in the series is about figuring out an alternative home to keep the dragons warm, as they cannot survive long in cold climates.
  • Wales: Where the series takes place, specifically the "Top Left-Hand" corner. Welsh naming traditions are used (Jones the Steam, Dai Station, Evans the Song), the Choir competes in eisteddfods (a Welsh festival of literature, music and performance) and Idris, Ivor's dragon friend, is specifically a red Welsh Dragon, which features on the flag. Really, the whole series is like a love letter for Welsh culture.
  • Weaksauce Weakness: Idris and the other dragons are vulnerable to water, which can be fatal if splashed on them in large amounts. Justified in that, as a creature dependent on hot temperatures to survive, the sudden shock of cold would kill them.
  • Wham Line: "Do you know 'Land of my Fathers'?" – There, looking out of Ivor's funnel was a dragon. Not one of your lumping great fairy-tale dragons, but a small, trim, heraldic Welsh dragon, glowing red hot and smiling.