Big Train (BBC2, 1998-2002)
Writers Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews had worked on such great 90s comedy shows as The Day Today and Father Ted, and after that brilliant sitcom ended they decided to try something different and create a sketch show, so you knew that it was going to be something rather unusual. And indeed, that’s how it turned out.
Big Train was a strange show that had no recurring characters or catchphrases as such, but it did include a lot of memorably odd ideas that were performed by a terrific cast. Simon Pegg, Mark Heap and Kevin Eldon appeared in both series and were great all the way through, you can’t go wrong if you’ve got those three on board. In the first series they were joined by Julia Davis and Amelia Bullmore, who were replaced in series two by Rebecca Front, Catherine Tate and Tracy-Ann Oberman.
One of the most memorable sketches of the first series was coverage of the 43rd World Stare-Out Championship Finals, where Barry Davies and Phil Cornwell played the role of commentators who spoke about the contest as if it was a real competitive sport and test of endurance. During the contests Barry would often reminisce about the great competitors of the past including the remarkable Ted “The Head” Stead, undoubtedly one of the true greats of the game.
The second series was slightly different as Linehan had left the show, there were some cast changes and it was shown over three years after series one. One of my favourite sketches in this series is when some scientists play a prank on one another. One insists to the other that an important experiment has failed and this could lead to disastrous consequences. After a pause, he says it has worked really and then everyone can’t stop laughing. “It’s lucky I’ve got a sense of humour!”. But there loads of great ones really, most of them involving cakes and spoons, and lots of other creatively odd ideas.
Big Train wasn’t an enormous success in the ratings but it was great that BBC2 gave it a couple of series and all of the cast pleasingly went on to further success. The first series also won a British Comedy Award for the sketch show of the year and both series were released on DVD in 2004 which featured some good extras including lots of deleted scenes and a few sketches from the German version of the show.