Children’s stories have happy endings, right? Switch on Noddy In Toyland or Ben & Holly’s Little Kingdom on a Saturday morning and no matter what ridiculous situations the characters get themselves into, you can be pretty confident that there’ll be a nice and tidy ending that puts everything right and teaches everyone a sensible or moral lesson. That’s more or less what we’ve come to expect from kids’ TV – it’ll be gentle, reassuring, and mildly educational.
But it wasn’t always so, and you don’t have to go as far back as the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales to find a time when children’s stories could be incredibly dark and harrowing. Case in point: everything that happens to Henry the Green Engine in Thomas The Tank Engine And Friends.
First broadcast on ITV in the early ‘80s, Thomas The Tank Engine And Friends (later retitled Thomas And Friends) was an adaptation of Wilbert Awdry’s Railway Series. While it looked harmless enough, with its cast of smiley-faced steam trains, it could be bone-chillingly scary. Take, for example, the episode The Sad Story Of Henry.
If you’re lucky enough never to have seen it, here’s what happens. Henry, “an engine attached to a train”, drives into a tunnel, and stops. He’s afraid that the rain will damage his pristine green paint, so while other trains happily puff through the tunnel and come out on the other side, Henry gets under cover and stops. Guards blow their whistles at him, the driver tries to reason with him, but Henry just refuses to go anywhere.
Then the Fat Controller turns up, and tries to pull Henry out by force (well, technically, he gets other people to do it, because, he says, his doctor has warned him against trying to pull trains). When that doesn’t work, they try pushing Henry, but that doesn’t work either. Thomas eventually arrives and tries to force Henry through the tunnel, but even he can’t move him.
All of this is quite stressful, and Henry’s got quite a mean face, so I can imagine a child being scared already (by which I mean, as a child I’d actually hide behind the curtains in my living room to avoid catching sight of Henry, because I was so terrified of him). But it gets worse. When the Fat Controller realises nothing is going to get Henry out of the tunnel, he decides to give up. If Henry won’t come out, he decides, he’ll make sure he never comes out.
Yup. Seriously. “We shall take away your rails,” he tells Henry, “And leave you here for always and always and always.” Actually, he doesn’t just take away the rails – he also has Henry bricked into the tunnel, with just his eyes showing. Henry is doomed to sit in the tunnel, watching the other engines rushing by. Pompous blue engine Gordon even tells him it serves him right, because Gordon is the worst. Eventually, Henry’s paint is ruined by dirt from the tunnel, and the narrator tells us that Henry deserved his punishment. That’s how the episode ends, with poor Henry gazing out sadly from his prison.
It’s only about four minutes long, but it’s one of the most harrowing things I can remember ever seeing on television. I’ve referred to it over the years as one of the scariest things I’ve ever seen (the Fat Controller would’ve made a good candidate for our scariest TV characters of all-time list, thinking about it) and mostly been ridiculed for being a wuss, but come on. What lesson are kids meant to take from this horrorshow? ‘Never be afraid of anything, or we’ll build you your own personal prison and leave you there forever’? Why would you want to teach your kids that?!
In later adaptations of the Railway Series, the story gets softened a little bit. There’s a US series where the story gets condensed into a little cautionary tale that Edward tells Thomas about an engine who worries too much, but the episode doesn’t actually show Henry getting bricked up in the wall, and Edward makes sure to say that Henry eventually got let out. That implies that somewhere along the line, someone realised how awful the original story was.
But even when Henry does get forgiven for his terrible crime of being a bit scared and a bit vain, he’s still the show’s whipping boy. Having never quite recovered from watching Sodor’s answer to Edgar Allen Poe burying that poor old train alive in his own tunnel, I didn’t watch any of the rest of the series, but I spent a sobering hour reading through the TTE Wikia page on Henry.
There’s an episode where he, along with Gordon and James, suffer a series of humiliating moments and try to go on strike, only for the Fat Controller to lock them in the shed. Henry suffers ongoing health problems (or whatever the train equivalent is for trains) caused by his imprisonment, but receives no sympathy or treatment from anyone. Children drop stones on him from a bridge – a moment of senseless cruelty made all the more heartbreaking by the note that Henry had thought they were “rail fans” when he first saw them. The list goes on. It is horrible. And there’s never a happy ending.
Maybe Disney has made us all sentimental and useless with its neutered versions of fairy tales, but I’ve seen an awful lot of horror movies in my time, and still, nothing quite gives me the creeps as much as this one, short, throwaway story. I’m probably going to have nightmares about the red-cheeked, dead-eyed face of Sir Toppham Hat tonight – and every time I ever see a steam train, for the rest of my life.
Poor Henry. And poor us, the unsuspecting kids of the 80s, who didn’t have a Wise Old Elf on hand to make everything okay in the end.
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