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Big Train (1998-2002)

Couresy of FremantleTalkback

Main image of Big Train (1998-2002)
Talkback for BBC2, 9/11/1998-11/2/2002
12 x 30 min episodes in two series, colour
Created byGraham Linehan
 Arthur Mathews
Executive ProducersPeter Fincham
 Geoffrey Perkins
Written byGraham Linehan
 Arthur Mathews

Cast: Amelia Bullmore, Julia Davis, Kevin Eldon, Rebecca Front, Mark Heap, Simon Pegg, Catherine Tate, Tracy-Ann Oberman

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Cult sketch show from the creators of Father Ted.

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Following their success with the sitcom Father Ted (Channel 4, 1995-98), writing duo Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews, whose earlier credits included The All New Alexei Sayle Show (BBC, 1994), returned to sketch comedy with this underappreciated series.

Sandwiched chronologically between hugely popular sketch comedies The Fast Show (BBC, 1994-97), to which they also contributed, and Little Britain (BBC, 2003-06), Big Train was possibly too oblique for mainstream tastes. Eschewing catchphrases and recurring characters in favour of surreal sketches performed in an understated style, it felt like a more benign counterpart to the disturbing surrealism of Chris Morris's radio series Blue Jam and its TV spin-off Jam (Channel 4, 2000). Morris, in fact, not only directed the unaired Big Train pilot - sketches from which were scattered throughout series one - but employed virtually the entire original cast, plus Linehan and Mathews, for Blue Jam/Jam.

Aside from future stars Simon Pegg and Catherine Tate, the ensemble contained indispensable comic actors such as Kevin Eldon and Amelia Bullmore, who deftly embodied the necessary balance of nonsense and naturalism. This marriage of styles was corroborated by its filmed-on-location aesthetic and posthumous studio audience.

Many of the sketches (several written by outside contributors) revolved around the bizarre subversion of commonplace scenarios or pop culture figures, most memorably the western shoot-out between Chaka Khan and the Bee Gees and the mundane reality of Ming the Merciless's everyday existence. Always inventive, even its sole recurring - and arguably most famous - sketch, the animated Stare-Out Finals, continually developed its premise.

Linehan and Mathews' partnership split amicably after series one, but following a four-year gap Mathews seized control for a second and final run. A patchier effort, it featured Tate, Tracy-Ann Oberman and comedy stalwart Rebecca Front replacing Davis and Bullmore.

Nearly all concerned would go on to bigger things, but Big Train deserves more than footnote status.

Paul Whitelaw

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Video Clips
1. Do you speak English? (1:22)
2. Our moment of destiny (0:41)
3. Bee Gees vs Chaka Khan (3:10)
4. Show jumpers (4:27)
Complete first episode (29:10)
Fast Show, The (1994-2000)
Linehan, Graham (1968-)
Mathews, Arthur (1959-)
Pegg, Simon (1970-)