British off-the-wall and under-the-carpet television sketch show.
UK sketch show from TalkBack Productions, written primarily by Father Ted writers Graham Linehan and Arthur Matthews and starring Amelia Bullmore, Julia Davis, Kevin Eldon, Mark Heap and Simon Pegg. Additional writing credits went to Adam Buxton and Joe Cornish.
"We couldn't think of an idea for a sitcom and we owed TalkBack, the production company, a sitcom for our office. TalkBack gave us an office so we wouldn't have to live together any more and we had to give them a sitcom in exchange. We were sitting there, torturing ourselves, trying to come up with an idea. We had half ideas, some of which were exciting and then we'd hit a wall and couldn't go any further. And suddenly we just said what we could do is a sketch show. We've got so many ideas for sketches and it's a form we really like."
- Graham Linehan. Source: www.house-of-hatch.com
When asked to explain the show's title, the writers' usual response was that Big Train wasn't big and nor was it a train which left a lot of people wondering exactly what it was. What it actually was was a collection of silly, surreal sketches in the same vein as Monty Python's Flying Circus with no running characters and no sketches based entirely around single catchphrases, hence the polar opposite to The Fast Show which was deemed by the UK public to be the cutting edge of comedy genius at the time.
We saw Chairman Mao (played by the actor Kevin Eldon) leaping from his deathbed to sing Virginia Plain, Sir George Martin telling non-stop Beatles anecdotes while being taken hostage by Middle Eastern terrorists and a glimpse into one of Adolf Hitler's after-show parties. Animated segments popped in and out in the form of line drawings showing coverage of the World Stare-Out Championships, created by Paul Hatcher which became the only running gag in the show but one that still kept a stock of surprises to be revealed throughout the series. In the world of Big Train, nothing was quite as it seemed.
The result? Vastly under-appreciated comedy that, while not being as good as Father Ted and, yes, patchy in areas, sank into obscurity while The Fast Show kept growing and growing in popularity. But then aren't most things in life always best when they're not hugely popular?
Six half-hour episodes were made and shown on BBC2 in 1998. A second series was promised but never materialised while Matthews returned to the genre of the sitcom with Hippies and Linehan assisting with the writing and direction of the Dylan Moran comedy Black Books.
"One of the freshest and funniest things in ages, this rises to Python heights in some moments of inspired daftness."
The second coming. Comedy without frontiers, sketches without ends.
- The Guardian
"It's nonsense. It's ridiculous. It's wonderful."
- The Mirror
"...I was looking forward to BBC2's Big Train - but I'm still waiting for it to pull out of the station. It is a collection of weak sketches stretched beyond breaking point, intermixed with ill-judged docu-soaps spoofs and surrealism that falls flat on it's face. And when the writers run out of ideas they drop in some swearing to get a cheap laugh. Hysterical. If this is the level of comedy the BBC is commissioning, I suspect there are many out there who think they could do better - and I'm sure they probably could."
- Jonathan Mock, letter to the Radio Times
during my time with usenet, jonathan mock contributed to the newsgroup alt.comedy.british and his hatred for the programme was so intense that he 'quickly' (so he said) wrote a sketch to what he considered was the standard of big train. to be honest with you, it was very funny and i doubt that he didn't have a chuckle to himself when he wrote it. i'll try and node it some time, but in the meantime search for 'big train sketch writing made easy' on deja.com.
The moderately-anticipated, will-they-won't-they second series began broadcasting on BBC2 weekly from the 7th January, 2002 with a slight change of line-up. Kevin Eldon, Simon Pegg and arguably the true star of the first series, Mark Heap stayed on, joined with Rebecca Front and Tracy-Ann Oberman.
For the most part, the series started well but by the time the third episode arrived it had started to go drastically downhill. Rather than present funny, surreal situations the comedy element was dropped leaving only a bunch of short films that made no sense whatsoever. Anti-comedy which was embarrassing to watch, I can only assume that Arthur Matthews and Graham Linehan's input to the series was either minimal or under duress to fill the BBC's all-important Monday Night Comedy schedules, the number of writers listed in the credits seems to suggest that maybe the BBC started to fall back on the sketch show submissions they recieve. I dunno, that's my theory. Still. At least there'll always be the first series.