Big Train at 20: Arthur Matthews and Graham Linehan on the stories behind the sketches

Mark Heap, Simon Pegg, Kevin Eldon, Julia Davis, and Amelia Bullmore in Big Train - BBC
Mark Heap, Simon Pegg, Kevin Eldon, Julia Davis, and Amelia Bullmore in Big Train - BBC

It’s been 20 years since Arthur Matthews and Graham Linehan’s sketch show Big Train made its debut on BBC Two. Packed with an impressive cast of now-Brit comedy big hitters – including Simon Pegg, Kevin Eldon, Julia Davis, Rebecca Front, Mark Heap, Amelia Bullmore, and Catherine Tate – it’s arguably the last great British sketch show, before the updated comedy formats of shows like The League of Gentleman and The Mighty Boosh made the traditional sketch show feel like a relic of a bygone comedy era.

But just as The Fast Show found its own niche by eliminating the set-up and jumping straight to the punchline, Big Train had its own approach to sketches: ludicrous “what if” concepts – what if a 40-year-old man entered a schoolgirls’ gymnastics contest? What if a woman fell in love with some temporary traffic lights? What if Jesus and Satan worked in the same office? – but played totally straight:

Mark Heap (Jesus) and Kevin Eldon (The Devil) in Big Train - BBC
Mark Heap (Jesus) and Kevin Eldon (The Devil) in Big Train - BBC

“We were very impressed by On The Hour and The Day Today,” says Linehan. “What they seemed to do was take ridiculous ideas and treat them extremely seriously. In such a way that you could say there were no gags. It was just very artfully done. We thought wondered if you could use the same tools for a sketch show.”

“This was high concept, mad ideas,” says Arthur Matthews. “We borrowed the Armando Iannucci super-realism thing. Stupid ideas but performed very naturalistically.”

Matthews and Linehan co-wrote the first series, which Linehan also directed. Linehan didn’t return for the second series in 2002, which was directed by Jonathan Gershfield. Across both series, Big Train retained another key principle: no returning characters or catchphrases.

“I like sketch shows that are constantly different, or if they have running characters they parcel them out sparingly, so you don’t get sick of them,” says Linehan. “I had a theory that the reason people like sketch shows is the novelty and excitement of what the next one’s going to be. Running characters can be relied on too heavily – often the same joke with tiny variations. When you use crutches like that it stops you from having as much fun as you possibly can. For me the fun was coming up with new ideas.”

Here’s a look back at 12 of the show’s best sketches and the stories behind them.

The 43rd World Stare Out Championship Finals

A (sort of) animation and the only running gag across episodes: a playground staring contest reimagined as the world’s biggest sports event, complete with bantering commentators and sporting drama (well, a fly landing on someone’s nose mid-stare out).

“It was actually based on a comic by Paul Hatcher,” says Graham Linehan. “I found the principal so funny. It was just the same panel again and again and again with different commentary beneath. We just came up with tiny variations. It’s actually a controversial one because a lot of people didn’t like it. But we always loved it, and loved the idea of animation that wasn’t animated.”

“We brought in Phil Cornwell and Barry Davies to do the commentary,” says Arthur Matthews. “In fact, I saw a documentary about Barry Davies recently and he mentioned it! I liked putting the sporting clichés over something stupid.”

Prince Hunting Jockeys

In a spoof of a David Attenborough-type wildlife documentary, The Artist Formerly Known As Prince stalks a herd of Jockeys on the wild plains of Africa.

“Prince stalking Jockeys, that’s all it is!” says Matthews. “It’s the jockeys’ innocence… they’re simple-minded and Prince is a devious animal. Jockeys are funny aren’t they? They’re small and dress in an unusual manner. You get the impression you could throw them around.

“The guy who played Prince was a lookalike. He kept asking us, ‘This doesn’t take the piss out of Prince does it?’ He’d read the script. What could we say? Was it disrespectful? It was just kind of mad. We didn’t hear from him again.”

The One-Man Charge

Simon Pegg leads an army of cavaliers. He makes an impassioned speech imploring his men to follow him into battle. “Listen carefully, this is the most important thing I will ever tell you, I shall not say it again,” before garbling his final words. No one follows.

“We had all these costumes,” says Linehan. “They cost money and so did the extras. So rather than just do one sketch with them we’d think of a few more. That’s why we did a few jockeys sketches, and another example was cavaliers and round heads.

“They were originally for a sketch that was a parody of Zulu with soldiers versus chickens. It was the kind of idea that read well but died on screen. But we had all these extras, so we thought we write a few sketches for these guys and that led to some of my favourite stuff, like when Simon makes this speech and runs towards enemy lines, but no one hears what he said. That’s what we had instead of running characters, things that popped up again and again. Also sketches with businessmen because we had offices we could shoot in for a few days.”

Ming The Merciless At Home

The evil intergalactic despot Ming (played by Mark Heap) on his day off, checking his answerphone, doing his chores, and watching Teletubbies. Later in the episode he’s in hospital, being visited by his mum and sister, after “slipping on the little mat that goes around the toilet.”

Mark Heap as Ming - BBC
Mark Heap as Ming - BBC

“It was just the idea that if you have someone who’s always ‘on’ like that,” says Linehan. “Maybe it would be funny to show him when he’s not on and just messing about at home.

“I tried to put in things that I do, like talking to myself and other weird crap I do at home. I said to Mark, ‘It’s just all that stuff you do when you’re on your own.’ Mark said, ‘Well I don’t talk to myself.’ I thought, ‘Oh, OK… that probably is a bit odd!”

Fear Of Spoons

Simon Pegg is the new office manager. His first meeting is off to a good start until he reveals he has a phobia… of spoons.

“And someone comes in and produces a spoon!” says Matthews. “That was one of Graham’s. It’s the simplest idea but unlike 90 per cent of Big Train sketches it actually has a punchline.”

“That might be my favoutite sketch ever,” says Linehan. “I wanted to make sure there was plenty of room for these accidents, these kinds of crazy ideas that came out of nowhere.”

Firefighting Show Jumpers

A troupe of fire brigade-obsessed show jumpers turn up to a fire and clumsily try to help. One fireman (played by Alan Partridge’s Geordie pal Michael AKA Simon Greenall) finally lets them have a go on the hose. The looks on their faces as they each have a turn – from excited and ecstatic to utterly terrified – are the real gag.

Simon Pegg
Simon Pegg

“There’s something about that I love,” says Linehan. “Simon especially, because he gets scared when he holds it. He wasn’t expecting it, that really makes me laugh.

“Sometimes I’m a little embarrassed at how easy some of the sketch ideas were. That sketch was like, ‘The show jumpers are vaguely wearing the same colour as firemen so they might want to do that?!’ We just kind of put these combinations together. Sometimes they were funny, sometimes they weren’t. Sometimes it was an instinctive thing.”

Bee Gees Vs Chaka Khan

Perhaps the ultimate “what if” style Big Train sketch. The Bee Gees and Chaka Khan (Llewella Gideon) are reimaged as wild west gunslingers and locked into a OK Corral-style shoot-out. Chaka blows away Maurice (Mark Heap) and Robin (Kevin Eldon) before the final duel with Barry (Simon Pegg).

“I don’t think he broke his ankle but I seem to remember Simon did himself a serious injury throwing himself around,” says Matthews.

“That one was directed Chris Morris,” says Linehan. “He also directed the jockeys. Those sketches were from the original pilot. But someone told me recently that the Bee Gees die in the correct order, which is a bit disturbing…”

New Office Rules

Probably the most infamous of all Big Train sketches. There’s no polite way to put it… masturbation is banned in the office. There’s uproar as Simon Pegg argues that it’s good for productivity, while Kevin Eldon argues it’s distracting and, well, disgusting.

“That’s just one of those ideas that is so simple and graspable,” says Linehan. “We set up the camera and I don’t think we even had a script. We just run it on Kevin and Simon. The instruction was always, ‘Don’t tell any jokes, nothing that’s a pun, just really argue for it in a logical way’. The only thing is I would have changed is the girls’ reactions. I don’t think girls would have been as interested in it as the boys. As Seinfeld said in the masturbation episode, ‘It’s different for men, it’s part of our lifestyle!’”

Sweary Florence Nightingale

Nightingale (Amelia Bullmore) pays the hospital manager a visit. She has the heart of a saint but the mouth of a hard-drinking sailor, and assaults the poor man’s ears with a tirade of (beeped out) profanity. “The Lady with the f_____g lamp” (as she describes herself) is eventually dragged out by security.

Amelia Bullmore 
Amelia Bullmore

“We’ve always been fans of beeping things,” says Linehan. “You get all the fun of the swearing but you don’t offend anyone. The kids don’t have to go to bed – they can keep watching it with their parents. The more beeping you have, you just think, ‘Wow, what on earth can she be saying?’”

The Working Class

A parody of Hitchcock’s The Birds, with Rebecca Front playing the Tippi Hedren role and salt-of-the-earth cockneys in place of the menacing birds. “Alright darlin’, alright luv…” they chirp as they appear behind her in alarming numbers and give chase.

“That was a Mitchell and Webb sketch, so well done them!” says Arthur Matthews. “It’s one that people remember. It’s just a stupid idea. Sometimes you have this idea that pops into your head, and three months later you’d find yourself in Suffolk somewhere shooting it.”

Hall and Oates On The Estate

The pop duo (played by Simon Pegg and Kevin Eldon) are sent to clean up a tough estate – scrubbing graffiti off the walls, picking human excrement out of the lifts, and getting tips from the Eurythmics. The residents are not amused by Hall and Oates’ efforts.

Hall and Oates
Hall and Oates

“We were very influenced by Vic and Bob,” says Linehan. “They would do things that had no logical or satirical explanation or no reason for being. But very, very funny. They made their own rules and stuck to those rules. That was very appealing to us. Our sketches did follow a number of rules that were key to a particular sketch. Once we agreed on those rules we were able to have fun within them.

“With Hall and Oates on the estate, the rule there was that Hall and Oates can be funny in their kind of useless way, but everyone else has to be legitimately angry that this idea has been introduced, because it so clearly doesn’t work. That was amusing to us because Hall and Oates on the estate is so obviously not a good idea.”

Status Quo Live

Two editors (Simon Pegg and Kevin Eldon) work on a film soundtrack, deciding how to score a heartbreaking scene of a father and son laying flowers on a grave. One of them suggests Status Quo’s Rocking All Over The World. “Studio?” asks Pegg. “No, no, live version, much better,” replies Eldon.

“I always liked that idea of people talking very seriously about things,” says Matthews. “You just change what they’re saying. I’m familiar with editing suites and that’s always how they speak, in that serious style. It’s just having a ridiculous idea and playing it straight and low-key. That was really the Armando Iannucci and Chris Morris style. They reinvented comedy really and we just put that form into a sketch show.” Watch it here