Dan Snow’s Locomotion


I just finished watching Locomotion: Dan Snow’s History of Railways. It doesn’t air in the United States (nor is it on US iTunes), so you will need to use your special internet TV show finding powers to get it.
This three episode modern documentary series is a nice social history of trains in England for their first century (through World War I), looking at the both the standard history and some side notes relating railroads with other social changes (from trains for the dead to early soccer hooliganism). If you liked James Burke’s Connections, and you like trains, and you like Victorian England, and you like history, and you like British accents, this show is well worth watching.

Great (Isambard Kingdom Brunel) (1975) – IMDb


To avoid reading a biography, I was looking for a biopic about Isambard Kingdom Brunel (IKB), the second greatest Briton of all time. Bridge engineer, Railway director, Shipbuilder, and so on, he truly encapsulated the Victorian era. I had never seen a biopic, but figured the British must have done something. Indeed they did:

IMDB delivers this: Great (Isambard Kingdom Brunel) (1975): “An animated film about the British engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who spearheaded numerous engineering marvels of the early 19th century – including the Thames Tunnel, the Great Western Railway, and the Great Eastern steamship (for 40 years the world’s largest steamship). Various styles of animation are used to depict events in his colorful life. “

So going to the usual places, I found a copy of this and watched it this past weekend, twice. The description does not do justice. Imagine Terry Gilliam meets R. Crumb, with some Ralph Bakshi and Schoolhouse Rock thrown in.

The cartoon is offensive (well, if you are a human being, it is offensive, also if you are among certain non-human species). It is bizarre (you just don’t get to see too much animated Queen Victoria soft-core in the US, maybe this is more common in Britain). It is mostly about Brunel, but it is also telling of the state of the UK in the early 1970s. Something was clearly wrong that this was green-lighted. I can imagine the conversation.

Producer: We are going to make an animated history of the Great Engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

Network: Sounds great, we need more educational programming.

Producer: Um, Thanks, the budget will be 100,000 pounds.

Network: See our accountants.

And then many drugs were consumed no one supervised production. I don’t know when or if this aired, one imagines Saturday at 11 pm. One hopes not Saturday at 11 am. And because of this, no one else has since produced a Brunel biopic.

While generally historically accurate in the bits you would expect to be accurate, and pointing out stories I had not heard (the difficulty of launch for the Great Eastern, and the boiler explosion) (for lack of reading one more biography), it misses some of the best Brunel stories, like how he swallowed a coin in a failed magic trick, or how he nearly drowned in the Thames Tunnel. Still if you like animation, cheesy music (including a love song to the Great Western Railway), and can overlook what was barely acceptable racism in 1970s England, this is an interesting piece, telling you as much about the pre-punk, pre-Thatcher ethic as the Victorians.

For the record, IMDB records there were two other Brunel biopics, as well as some other documentary mentions, plus the very strange 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony, where he was portrayed by Kenneth Brannaugh. The other biopics:

  • ITV Play of the Week” – Engineer Extraordinary (1959) TV episode, Played by Peter Wyngarde
  • The Romance of a Railway: The History of Achievement (1935) Played by Carl Harbord

I have not seen these.

Oh, Dr. Beeching!

In the mid-2010s, I watched Oh, Dr. Beeching!, a British situation comedy from the mid-1990s describing life at a small railway station (Hatley) in the mid-1960s awaiting news about the Beeching Axe chopping away a line built in the mid-1860s.
Dr. Richard Beeching led the British Railways Board and prepared The Reshaping of British Railways which controversially rationalized the network by eliminating many routes and stations. He remains an off-screen character in the series, who is talked about, and rumored, but never seen.
One of the creators, Richard Spendlove, had worked his first career as a Station Manager, and so this show has a level of detail about the workplace that is far richer than anything else I have seen, including Thomas, the Tank Engine. It is a comedy, so the goings on in this small town (little more than a station and some railway cottages where the staff reside) are farcical. And it is a period piece, so you can examine elements of British culture, including high-quality culinary dishes, the Beatles, the Mods, short skirts, and references to Swinging London.
If you are looking for a way to spend 10 hours watching television about transportation, Series 1 and 2 of this show (Series 3 was never produced, leaving the fate of the station unclear) are entertaining. It is commercially available on Region 2 (UK) DVDs from BBC. I don’t believe it is commercially available to play on unhacked US DVD players (DVD player hacking is legal, just frowned upon by Hollywood).
It is un-commercially available elsewhere, one supposes.

Aunt Bee the Crusader

In memory of Andy Griffith:

Andy Griffith Show, Episode #111 (S4E15) “Aunt Bee the Crusader” Original Broadcast Jan 20, 1964. Aunt Bee champions the cause of a small farmer who has been forced to sell his farm to make way for a new highway. When Bee leads a group of ladies in a demonstration, Andy and Barney head out to break up the protest where they stumble over a group of six stills Farmer Frisbee has hidden away under his henhouse. — From the Mayberry Wikia

I loved the Andy Griffith show, it got me through my Master’s Thesis. Of course this episode comments on the Freeway Revolts and deals with the rights of the individual vs. the needs of society. But it cops out on the decision, since after the discovery of stills, the road inevitably goes through, though it should be an irrelevant factor. Surrendering the stills should not forfeit the farm.

The Automobile Anthropomorphic

Herbie the Love Bug appeared in quite a few films. While Herbie was good, Christine was less so, and is one of many possessed vehicles appearing in literature, film, and TV. The most famous is probably Butterfly Lightning McQueen. The headlights and radiator of the car are a natural anthropomorphizing feature as the eyes and mouth. Most such vehicles however lack the senses of smell and sound.
The movie Cars, and its knockoffs (e.g. Little Cars), and spin-offs (Cars Toons) dominate the animated genre. But they did not invent it.
Other shows with anthropomorphic vehicles include:

Sodor has a few off-track vehicles, mostly trucks and tractors, while Sir Topham Hatt’s car is not anthropomorphized. So nothing from the land of Thomas today.

Roary autobots LittleCars SpeedBuggy Cars Kitt Brum Herbie Christine

The Boat Anthropomorphic


We now move from air to water in our exploration of anthropomorphic vehicles.
TUGS is a British television series created by some of the David Mitton and Robert Cardona, who were heavily involved with Thomas and Friends.


This was succeeded by Theodore Tugboat, a Canadian series by Robert Cardona. While Ringo Starr narrated Thomas in its early years, Denny Doherty (of the Mamas and Papas) narrated Theodore.

Theodore Tugboat
Theodore Tugboat

A YouTube of TUGS (not available on DVD despite an earnest campaign (a similar problem faced by Shining Time Station) is below. I must say, if you are not British, the Tug Boat characters are hard to understand.
On Thomas itself, Bulstrode the Barge is an unfortunate character whose utility is destroyed by Percy and is turned into a playground.

The Plane Anthropomorphic


JayJay the Jet Plane
JayJay the Jet Plane

Anthropomorphic vehicles are now a common theme on the Transportationist. But I am not alone. Apparently this is an entire art form in Japan. Here we review a few popular anthropomorphic planes.
Jay Jay the Jet Plane, set in Tarrytown.

Jeremy the Jet Plane
Jeremy the Jet Plane
Airplane from the movie Planes
Airplane from the movie Planes

Unlike the original Thomas the Tank Engine, I am sure Jay Jay was created by committee. You can imagine the conversation. “Hey PBS is looking for a new kids show. Anthropomorphic Trains are popular. What do American kids like better than trains. Yes, airplanes. Let’s do that.” No TSA in Tarrytown.
[This of course is not as bad as the committee that developed Dinosaur Train (in which it is the dinosaurs, but not the trains, which were anthropomorphized). {To be fair, An article in the Post Gazette says “Series creator Craig Bartlett was inspired when he saw his son, now in college, playing with trains and dinosaurs together back when his son was in preschool.”, I remain dubious, it smells of committee.}]
Jeremy from Thomas the Tank Engine. You could see this coming from the new airport in Calling All Engines!, in which Jeremy did not appear.
Planes, a spinoff of Cars, coming soon Direct to DVD from Disney [a sure sign of quality].
Disney has explored this territory before, with the 1943 film Pedro!, in which “A small plane has to face the perils of delivering the mail over the treacherous Chilean Andes”. I do not know if they will revive (this now antique, and presumably much older and wiser airplane) for the above movie.
And of course this ad by smartskies.org