A sketch-show starring Simon Pegg and Julia Davis sounds like a fantasy these days – but in 1998 they were just part of this hugely talented ensemble
When it first aired on BBC2, way back in 1998, Big Train was hailed as an impressively surreal and often hilarious sketch show. But today – thanks to the success subsequently achieved by its team, including Simon Pegg and Julia Davis – the show looks like a fantasy comedy lineup. To modern viewers, Pegg is by far the biggest name. Yet on the evidence of this box set, you wouldn't single him out as the one destined to rise above his peers, such is the quality of the ensemble cast.
The show sees Davis (Hunderby, Nighty Night) shine as a grief-stricken mother giving a police press conference that, when the camera pans out, turns out to be taking place on a theme-park ride. Meanwhile, Mark Heap (Spaced, Green Wing) shows his versatility, playing both a charmingly terrible gymnast, and a Ming the Merciless-style dictator enduring a home life that sees him having to Hoover the house between atrocities.
Like all of his co-stars, Kevin Eldon (Fist of Fun) has a writer's credit on Big Train – and brings the same refreshing and unpredictable brand of humour that is currently on display in his new show It's Kevin. Fans of that programme's Amish Sex Pistols and coked-up pharaohs will find similar joy in his portrayal of a keen cartoonist who draws deeply offensive caricatures of his co-workers.
Unafraid to take risks, Big Train covers a huge range of comedy styles – from a recurring animation featuring a staring contest (and the voice of BBC sports commentator Barry Davies), to one sketch in which a bunch of workers are told they are no longer allowed to masturbate in the office. An incredulous Pegg demands to know: "How well do we work when we can just wank at will?"
As well as boasting a stellar cast, Big Train was created by Graham Linehan and his Father Ted co-writer Arthur Matthews – and Chris Morris (The Day Today, Brass Eye) directed the pilot. Sadly, following the departure of Linehan and a number of cast changes, series two was less well regarded by comedy fans; a four-year gap between the two series didn't help, although the arrival of Catherine Tate and Rebecca Front did.
Like most sketch shows, Big Train is not without its misses, but as a breeding ground for comedy talent and a forefather to such modern-day hits as Little Britain and That Mitchell and Webb Look, it remains a gem, boasting some of the finest performances Pegg, Davis and the rest have ever delivered. And the spoof of Hitchcock's The Birds, in which a blonde Front finds herself trapped among an ever-increasing number of flat-capped tradesmen, is sublime.