Psssh-ti-cooff, psssh-ti-cooff, psssh-ti-cooff…as you already know that’s the unmistakeable sound of Ivor the Engine making his way along the track as part of his job with the Merioneth and Llantisilly Rail Traction Company. A friendly little train, Ivor has the ability to think for himself, drive himself (often when he’s not supposed to) and speak using his whistle. He is an engine with dreams beyond his working day; he would love to sing with The Grumbley and District Choral Society. He gets the chance to do this one day when Morgan the Roundabout (the fairground owner) gives him three pipes from his old fairground organ. He swaps his whistle for them and Ivor the Engine becomes Ivor the First Bass.
Ivor is happy to run his passengers the length of his line, but what he really likes to do is go to the beach and visit his friends, both human and animal. He also comes in handy for anybody who is thirsty; Ivor is always willing to use the water from his boiler to make people tea.
Whilst Ivor is capable of pumping his pistons by himself, he does have a driver who shares most of his adventures with him. Edwin ‘Jones the Steam’ Jones (if I haven’t mentioned this before now, the programme is set in an imaginary landscape of North Wales…) enjoys the company of his eccentric engine and puts up with many of his daydreams. Jones is married and likes to go fishing during his time away from the railway.
Whilst the programme has plenty of characters, there are a few who are regulars or who stand out above the others. Dai Station is Llaniog’s Station Master. He likes to make sure that everybody on his railway knows the rules and regulations (something which Ivor does, and still quite often ignores) but will do what he can to help his friends if a situation arises.
Mr Dinwiddy the gold miner is clearly crackers, but he is by far the most interesting character in the show (sorry Ivor, you are loveable but an insane miner just pips you in the interesting stakes). In fact, I think he might be the most interesting character in the whole of Wales. Dinwiddy lives in the hills, and spends his time setting off explosions to help him mine the gold found there, although for some reason he always returns it to where he found it afterwards. He also invents strange contraptions. Ivor and Jones visit him from time to time and bring him new boots when he requires them (which is quite often as it goes).
Idris the Dragon has been Ivor’s friend from the day he was hatched; which happened to be on board the little train. Idris burst from his egg after being kept warm in Ivor’s firebox. Idris lives in Smoke Hill - an extinct volcano - in married bliss with his wife (yes, dragons can get married too apparently) Olwen and their twins Blodwyn and Gaian. As dragons need to stay hot to stay alive, when Smoke Hill cools down the family face a problem until Mr Dinwiddy invents a geo-thermally heated cave under the ground for them to stay in. Told you he was the best!
Ivor the Engine was the first programme to be created by the Smallfilms team of Peter Firmin and Oliver Postgate. Firmin was an illustrator and model maker, and Postgate a writer, animator and narrator – with possibly the most comforting voice ever heard on British television.
The pair had already produced Alexander the Mouse for ITV contractor (and Postgate’s then employer) Associated Rediffusion, and their success gave them the grounding to start their own production company.
Working from Firmin’s house (well actually, a shed within the grounds of his farm) they began working, concentrating solely on children’s animated shows. The idea for Ivor the Engine was formed in Postgate’s imagination after he met a Welsh railway locomotive fireman in 1948. The fireman mentioned to him how it seemed that the steam engines he tended to ‘came to life’ after being warmed up each morning and Postgate transformed this description into the show about the little green engine that we know and love today.
A Dylan Thomas enthusiast, Postgate then began to write scripts that paid homage to the Welsh poet which, when combined with Firmin’s beautiful watercolour stop motion animation, brought the gentle and magical world of Ivor to life. Postgate narrated the stories, with that now oh-so-familiar-to-generations calm and lyrical voice, including the aforementioned ‘psssh-ti-cooff’ sound of Ivor himself. Whilst Postgate provided most of the voices, two others added a few additional ones; Olwen Griffiths and Anthony Jackson, who became Dai Station, Evans the Song and the wonderfully eccentric Mr Dinwiddy.
The first series comprised six ten minute black and white episodes and began broadcasting in 1959. Following that up were two further series, still in black and white and still ten minutes long, but extended to thirteen episodes each. These two series were feared to have been lost after they’d gone out on air, but in 2010 they turned up at the back of a shed on Firmin’s farm.
The rights to these were originally owned, and the programmes shown, by Associated Rediffusion but in 1975 Smallfilms got the rights back, and set about revamping the last two series into colour. Some small changes to the storylines were made whilst this was done, and they were transformed into 40 five minute episodes that often carried a storyline from one to the next.
Smallfilms then went on to create some of the most loved children’s programmes of all time; that old cloth cat Bagpuss, kindly Viking King Noggin the Nog and whistling, space-dwelling mice the Clangers amongst others. All will be remembered and loved by generations to come, but there was something special about that little green engine of the Merioneth and Llantisilly Rail Traction Company. Psssh-ti-cuff.