On the track run by The Merioneth and Llantisilly Rail Traction Company Limited there was a little green engine with a lot of personality. His name was Ivor, and he was the subject of a series of animated stories that first appeared on British television in 1959.
The World of Ivor
The Merioneth and Llantisilly Rail Traction Company operates in the top left hand corner of Wales and is completely fictitious. It was created by Peter Firmin and Oliver Postgate's Smallfilms company, who also produced Bagpuss, Pingwings and Noggin the Nog. Although the rail company does not exist it was strangely familiar to many of those who saw it when it first came out because it drew on their collected memories of the small country railways that existed in all parts of the country before the Beeching Report did away with a lot of the little community stations and railways. The whole series is steeped in Welshness and gave its young viewers a romantic view of the very industrialist Welsh lifestyle the show portrayed.
The inspiration came from a meeting Postgate had with Denzil Ellis while he was at drama school. Ellis was a railwayman from Yorkshire who worked on the Royal Scot. He told Postgate how inspirational it was for him to go to work first thing at the engine yard. There after emptying the embers from the firebox and replacing any still lit firebars he would set about making a simple, ordinary fire which later on would be blazing as it hauled a heavy cargo or line of carriages across the country. The idea stuck with Postgate and a lot of Ivor's stories deal with the ordinariness of train life in and around the yard.
The shows were originally shown in black and white on Associated-Rediffusion before the company passed away in 1968. Smallfilms bought back the rights to the shows in 1975 and they started to become a staple on the BBC from then on. The usual slot for these five-minute vignettes was at the end of children's programming just before the news came on1. However, they could crop up elsewhere if programmes were cancelled, such as a washed out Wimbledon.
The little world in which Ivor's track passes includes many landmarks from an industrial landscape. Firstly, there are his tunnels and viaducts to help him navigate the valleys. Off the mainline between Llangubbin and Tewyn there are the miles of branch track that Ivor services. There is the Smoke Hill (the volcano home of Idris the dragon), the coalmine, gasworks, and chapel in the town of Grumbly and the village of Tan-y-Gwlch. The line even stretches as far as Tewyn by the sea to enable Ivor to take the workers away from the dark oppression of the industrial landscape for a nice day-trip to the coast. But home for Ivor is his shed on the outskirts of Llaniog.
There is a timetable, or sorts, but when you have a steam engine with a mind of its own and the demands of all the community - it is more like a taxi service at times. However, no one ever complains either to Ivor or his driver Jones the Steam. In fact they are just happy to still be served by such a workhorse at all.
Jones the Steam is a short, chubby, ginger-haired fellow, who is Ivor's driver. Having the title of the profession come after the name is common practice in Wales where there are so many Joneses, Evanses and Davises etc. There is nothing that Jones cannot cope with as long as Ivor is there to refresh him with a nice cuppa from his boiler.
Dai Station is the station master at Llaniog station. Unlike the Fat Controller from Thomas the Tank Engine his is tall and lean with a bushy moustache. He quite often gets upset with Ivor as the little engine is constantly deviating from the timetable and regulations that Dai holds so dear.
Evans the Song is choirmaster of Grumbly and District Choral Society. The choir is typical of the Welsh nation in their love and enthusiasm for song. When Ivor got his new pipes from Morgan's Roundabout organ he joined them as first bass even though he only sings three notes.
Mrs Porty is the aristocratic lady of these valleys. She enjoys the odd glass of port and has great affection for her donkey, Bluebell, who tends to occasionally get loose and play on the railway tracks (this is not advisable children). She lives in a large house outside Llaniog, which is right next to the railway.
Mr Dinwiddy is a prospector who lives out in the shadow of Smoke Hill looking for gold. In fact, he is finding so much of it he puts a lot of it back into the ground for a rainy day. He loves fireworks but not when his mountain appears to catch fire. He's also good at decorating cakes as he proves on the occasion of Ivor's birthday.
Idris the Dragon is a poor orphan whose egg was found by Jones the Steam when he noticed that the peak of Smoke Mountain was on fire. Mr Dinwiddy suggested that it just be put back but Ivor was running late for choir practice so it was placed in his fire box. During the practice Idris hatched and joined the choir in an enchanting soprano. He has since settled down with a nice lady dragon Olwen, and their twins, Gaian and Blodwen.
Mrs Griffiths is chairperson of the local Antiquarian Society. Sadly for a Welsh historian she does not believe in the existence of the national symbol, dragons, or in talking steam engines. She is convinced that Jones the Steam is mad2.
Eli the Baker is constantly keeping his oven warm, not just to supply the villagers with all sorts of bread, but also to occasionally shelter Idris.
Mr Hughes the Gasworks is an animal lover and keeps many budgerigars. However, when Ivor finds Alice the Elephant who has escaped from Banger's Circus he is one of the few people with the room at the gasworks to put up the new guest.
Charles Banger runs the circus from which Alice has escaped. Her keeper, Bani Moukerjee, is relieved to find her safe and well at the circus. And his employer puts on a free show for the town in gratitude to her safe return.
The Things People Remember
The style of animation was unusual. Basically the action took place largely on a painted backdrop with limited movements from the main characters when demanded. However, this action was a little choppy at times but children were lost in the story-telling ability of Postgate and barely noticed.
The various Welsh voices created by Postgate for the show were mostly of the young viewers' first and only reference to Wales. As a result, when a large section of the community at large need to do a Welsh impersonation in telling a joke or a story, they naturally adopt a very Oliver Postgate-like voice.
The sound that Postgate gave to Ivor's little steam engine is one of those noises that is remembered fondly even after all these years by many who saw the programme. Just saying it as Postgate said it provides instant recognition of the show and nostalgia for the age of steam.
'The Railway' - Not a lot happens, just life in a steam engine. An introduction of sorts.
'The Egg' - An egg is discovered in a volcano, but Ivor needs to get off to choir practice.
'The Proper Container' - Idris needs a new home but not in Ivor's box, the house hunt is on.
'The Alarm' - The chippy's oven is broken. Can a mythical creature come to the rescue?
'The Retreat' - Hide and seek in the valleys.
'The Hat' - Mrs Porty in trouble for her headgear.
'Old Nell' - Sheep dog comes to the rescue of sheep and engine driver.
'Mr Brangwyn's Pigeons' - The Pied Piper of Wales charms the pigeons down.
'The Visitor' - A large grey mammal turns up in town.
'The Invalid' - A heavy grey mammal needs a chiropodist.
'The Boot' - Special shoes are made to cure aching feet.
'Banger's Circus' - Reunited with the rest and a free show ensues.
'Unidentified Objects' - There be dragons - surely not! Must be the mad prospector.
'Mrs Porty's Foxes' - Foxes for beauty or protection.
'Bluebell' - The runaway donkey ran down the track.
'Dai and the Donkey' - Donkey on track, there's regulations about that.
'Gold' - Generosity from the man who has found much.
'Mrs Porty' - The railway is threatened but Bluebells needs her friend.
'Cold' - A family needs a larger home, hunting for a volcano.
'The Endowment' - Mrs Griffiths needs convincing of the historic importance of a volcano.
'Snowdrifts' - Need is the mother of invention as jelly babies supply runs low.
'Cold Sheep' - Drifting drifts and not all the white is snow.
'The Fire Engine' - Ivor assists another engine when it gets stuck.
'Sledging' - Ivor the ski lift.
'The Rescue' - A little bit of old-fashioned heave-ho.
'The Water Tower' - There is something wrong with the water.
'Mrs Bird' - Why she built her house there is anyone's guess.
'The Cuckoo-clock' - One broken clock provides sheltered accommodation.
'The Trumpet' - Or is it a dragon call?
'Time Off' - Time for a holiday.
'The Seaside' - No London bus just a Welsh steam train.
'The Lost Engine' - Where is Ivor? Who would steal him?
'The Outing' - Prepare to get wet to sort out this engineering problem.
'Half-Crowns' - Looking for ways to keep dragons warm and back to Mrs Griffiths.
'Sheep Herding' - One man and his engine? What's wrong with dogs?
'Juggernaut' - Ivor is gone, what can take his place?
'The Bird House' - Ivor offers a new home to the birds.
'Chickens' - Ivor the chicken coop.
'St. George' - Don't show a slayer to the dragons.
'Retirement' - The end of the line but a new life in store as a dragon's nest.