In the late 1990s, a British TV sketch show called Big Train ran for two series. Created and written by Arthur Mathews and Graham Linehan (the latter of Father Ted fame), it gained a cult following.
But it’s notable for being a career launchpad for top comedy talent, particularly for Simon Pegg. It was very funny, though, as it covered the difficult line between surreal and black comedy rather well indeed.
Big Train’s Path to Sketch Show Surrealness
There’s no denying the influence of Monty Python’s Flying Circus on the show, most notably with how surreal everything was.
However, there were no Terry Gilliam styled animations to take it to the next level of bizarre (other than the staring contest animations—more on those later).
Plus, the stream of consciousness aspect wasn’t there.
We were very young when we watched the show, but it’s definitely been an influence on us. There are occasional remembrance pieces, like with a cult comedy that proved an early platform for top talent by The Guardian (2012):
“It was their talent, combined with the Father Ted creators’ brilliant writing, that helped to produce one of the most original and most consistently funny sketch shows in years. With its subversion of everyday situations by the surreal or macabre, the cast’s believable portrayals and evident chemistry put the comedy into a class of its own. But few could have predicted they would all go on to such stellar careers. Big Train’s impeccable casting looks visionary 10 years on.”
The writing refers to the genius skills of Graham Linehan. Sadly, over the last decade he’s embroiled himself in a bizarre anti-trans rights campaign that’s cost him his marriage. We really can’t understand what he’s doing and why he’s so fervent in his commitment to this, but it’s all he ever talks about.
Away from that, as the quote above explains the show starred a big array of young comedy actors, most of whom are still working away. Simon Pegg is the most notable, who soon produced his own show Spaced. Then went off to make films and be a big Hollywood star.
However, also notable are Mark Heap, Kevin Eldon, Julia David, Amelia Bullmore, Rebecca Front and Catherine Tate. This lot have been a mainstay in British comedy over the years, even if they’re often in minor roles.
The show ran at the same time as Smack the Pony, which was quite similar in structure but its three main stars were women. We’ll cover that one soon.
But Big Train was better than Smack the Pony, Fast Show, whatever else. Want proof? The famous jockeys in the wild sketch is very noteworthy, just for how bizarre it is.
It’s the relentlessly bizarre nature of the show that stood it out. Other sketch shows from the era, such as The Fast Show, simply couldn’t match the weird level of creativity.
It was also a breakout career opportunity for the cult icon Mark Heap (Jim in the below sketch), who went on to star in British shows such as Spaced, Green Wing, and Friday Night Dinner.
Heap isn’t a household name, but we think he deserves credit for maintaining that cult status with his ridiculous performances. He often portrays impossibly bizarre characters dreamt up from peculiar realms of the imagination.
Heap is also a fantastic juggler, which he got to demonstrate in the below clip.
This was a sketch about a shifty office manager who avoided blame about issues by distracting his employees.
Lots of love for Mr. Heap—massively underrated.
And the same for this show! Despite running for two series, it only attracted a small audience. Likely due to it being so odd.
But it was the launchpad show for many a comedy talent from the UK, for which we think it deserves a nod of recognition two decades later.
Big Train’s Staring Contest Animations
A running gag throughout Big Train remained with the Staring Contest, which was displayed through black and white animations.
Again with this show, all rather absurd and geared towards ramping up the concept all those people would turn up to see something like that.
Football commentator Barry Davies provided all the words. All rather silly and rather Python-esque in delivery. Rather!