Case G & H: Ivor the Engine

Ivor the Engine is full of examples of dual audience appeal where child and adult audiences are addressed with equal care. We can see this quality in the episode ‘Unidentified Objects’, which begins with Ivor waiting at Llaniog station, and with Postgate’s narration stating: ‘Oh, I suppose there’s not a lot to do today, or he’d be somewhere with his little flat truck. I wonder where Jones the Steam and Dai Station are? Oh, sitting in deck chairs on the platform, look, having a cup of tea: there’s luxury now!’ This moment of relaxation prompts Jones to ruminate existentially: ‘I wonder sometimes, Dai, looking up in the sky, about, you know, life on other planets, and that’. To which Dai responds confidently, ‘Yes, there is, I’ve got a book about it’, before spotting a flying saucer in the sky at that very moment and thereby bringing their tea break to an abrupt end. There is considerable potential for dual appreciation in this sequence, with adult audiences likely recognising the all-to-fleeting moment of relaxation as a feature of adult working life, and the response of Dai Station, as the behaviour of a professional know-it-all. 

From a child’s perspective, it is likely to be equally relatable; readers of this book can surely recall moments from their childhood where they battled to rouse a grown-up from their moment of relaxation. While the mystery and excitement of aliens and flying saucers would surely capture the attention of a young mind. Yet, for an older viewer, watching this episode in 1976, the sudden appearance of UFOs could be taken as a reference to the escalating tensions of the Cold War – a dual reading that is made all the more potent given that Postgate’s personal archive contains a handwritten story breakdown for an Ivor the Engine print adaptation, circa 1977, which, on its reverse, we find a draft document concerning the subject of nuclear warfare. 

Fittingly, the episode first provokes a sense of trepidation, as Jones and Dai approach the source of the apparent alien invasion, hearing a seemingly distressed Mr. Dinwiddy in the midst of it all, before delivering a classic comic reversal. Rather than being an alien invasion, we discover that the UFOs are simply an armada of soap bubbles, generated by Mr. Dinwiddy, using a repurposed ‘blower from the old smelting oven’ powered by a lever- driven hammer. This comedic reversal is completed with Dinwiddy celebrating his achievement with the remark: ‘There you are, up it goes, a perfect soap bubble’. While Jones is similarly awestruck, Dai punctures the euphoria, injecting: ‘Silly, I call it, wasting time like that, blowing bubbles all day, you’re supposed to be a Gold Miner, not a Bubble Blower’. In itself, this moment offers broad appeal, by lampooning a grown-up (Dai) intent on quashing fun in favour of regulations, in this case insisting upon what job Dinwiddy should be doing, a moment that surely resonates with audiences young and old alike. 

Dr Chris Pallant
Reader, School of Creative Arts and Industries
Faculty Director of Enterprise (Arts, Humanities and Education)
Canterbury Christ Church University


Chapter 2: The Whimsical Authenticity of Smallfilms: Ivor the Engine (1959-1964; 1975-1977), in Chris Pallant, Beyond Bagpuss: A History of Smallfilms Animation Studio (London: BFI, 2022), pp X – X