Big Train at 20: An interview with the show's co-creator Arthur Matthews

Arthur Matthews is a comedy writer whose name and writings are synonymous with many of the greatest British and Irish comedies of the last twenty five years.

Primarily known for his partnership with Graham Linehan, their Channel 4 series Father Ted won the best comedy Bafta's in 1996 and 1999 respectively. A three series comedy, they have announced a follow up musical adaptation entitled Pope Ted, written in collaboration with The Divine Comedy's Neil Hannon.

Matthews other credits include the comedy musical I, Keano; the esoteric Toast of London; the political Brass Eye; and cult favourite Black Books , credits he has finalized either with Linehan or with other writers. Following the success of Father Ted, Matthews and Linehan worked together on the 1998 surreal sketch show Big Train. It starred among its cast comedy regulars Simon Pegg, Mark Heap and Kevin Eldon before Rebecca Front and Catherine Tate joined the cast for the 2002 second series, which Matthews primarily wrote alone.

The Digital Fix caught up with Matthews to discuss the seminal sketch show on its twentieth anniversary.

Hello Arthur. Congratulations on twenty years of Big Train. How does it feel and what are your thoughts about the show?

I guess it is coming up to twenty years, I guess I hadn’t really thought about it, but it is. People like the show, they still watch the show, I enjoyed writing it, so absolutely no negative feelings about it at all.

How did the success of Father Ted influence the writing of Big Train?

It gave us bankability, I suppose and we were safe with Talkback. So, we’d done Hippies there, which was more narrative and we also did Big Train which was more sketch comedy, but surreal comedy, not mainstream comedy. We were writing for people like Graham and me, off beat humour, inspired by that Armando Ianucci-style to comedy. He’s influential; that [The] Death of Stalin film was tremendous.

I was very envious of Ian Martin writing that ensemble piece, I wish I could have written something like that! Great film.  We consciously moved away from narrative, I suppose. Sketch is a lot easier in some ways, because you don’t have to always think of plot, but you still have to come up with lots of different and funny ideas, so it's swings and all that kind of stuff.

I might be in a minority of people who likes Big Train over Father Ted. What was sketch comedy like in the nineties?

Oh, that’s nice, good to have variety. It was a good time for comedy in the nineties. People like Steve Coogan, Harry Enfield, Paul Whitehouse were out there. We did some sketch writing before Father Ted, stuff like The Fast Show, Ralph & Ted and things like that, but this show, we went more naturalistic, I guess. The Armando Iannuci style was to have a very stupid situation and to play it very naturally, which was a style we liked and we definitely went for.

Big Train paid homage to seventies pop culture; Apocalypse Now, Roxy Music, Keith Emerson- were the seventies an influence on your life?

More me than Graham for sure. I’m a bit older, he was born in 1968, so the eighties was more his decade, and I was born in 1959, so I was that bit more the seventies, I can remember the sixties even. There was Monty Python at that time. I liked every decade- except the eighties, which I thought was an awful decade. I can listen to chart shows of music from the sixties and seventies, but nothing from the eighties. Matt Berry’s new radio show is brilliant, where he’s splicing things in with people like Brian Eno. He’s just the funniest guy ever! So, that was me putting in the seventies stuff because it was around me growing up.

How did you include the cast as writers throughout the series?

Not much, not much as writers, I mean. But we used them a lot as improvisers, because they were very fine improvisers the lot of them and ideas came out of that. You know that infamous “Office Wanking Scene”? Well, that very much came out of the improvised environment. A very funny scene about wanking! And while the George Martin sketch was our idea, it definitely came from Kevin Eldon’s fantastic impression of him.

I really like The Beatles, going through a Beatles phase right now, the Cavendish “Rain” video is something and in the context of the Ed Sullivan show, with jugglers, they were fantastic. I got the Stones Sullivan Shows on Ebay for three quid!

The show proved a turning point for Simon Pegg, Mark Heap and Kevin Eldon in their careers. How did you get into contact with them?

All great actors and comedians, aren’t they? We knew them from Brass Eye and other things we worked on. We knew Simon from a comedy club where Jason Byrne played. He did Hippies too.  The rest we knew from other places. As for Julia Davis, she was recommended to us by someone, I can’t think right now who, and they said she was very good. Arabella Weir it was, she recommended Julia. And on the second series, Catherine Tate had an audition tape where she played something about traffic which I liked a lot and thought she was very funny.

On that note, I’d like to point, Linehan was less involved with series 2. How did this change the dynamic and are you at liberty to say why he left?

He just didn’t want to do it. I can’t remember why, he must have told me at the time, he must have. I don’t remember. I wanted to do it, so it meant having to write a lot more of it. Mitchell and Webb did stuff for it. Basically, it was to use up any old sketches I had. I would have loved a third series of Big Train, but we never got to make it in the end.

You know that sketch with the Amish people? The one where the Amish People act like the Sex Pistols? That was something I’d written years ago and I gave it to Harry Enfield and he said “I might do it, but I’m not sure if some of the others will”. So, he didn’t use it, we never used it in Big Train, so I sent it to Kevin Eldon’s show, but it really was meant for Big Train. I liked using up the old sketches and ideas I had to use for the show, a lot of them went back years and years.

There is something refreshingly pro feminist about Big Train. Was there a change in the gender landscapes and comedians?

I wish I could give you a definitive answer to that, but I think it all came around organically. If we were writing it today, we’d definitely give the women more to do. I suppose it was around the time of Smack The Pony, which was a show we really liked and they also used the Armando Iannuci methods. It wasn’t conscious, more of a coincidence. The nineties was a great time for comedy writing, a great change was happening.

What do you think was the enduring appeal of Big Train and can you tell The Digital Fix of any projects you are currently working on?

Again, it was for people who didn’t like mainstream comedy, this was more surreal and enjoyed being surreal. As for projects, as you’ve heard, there’s the Father Ted musical. I love working with Matt Berry and I’d love to do more Toast, maybe a fourth series, there’s an idea of Toast in America, but I wouldn’t hold your breath. I’ve got something about Brexit, I’ve written a pilot with Rob Delaney and there’s an idea of a business woman who goes mad with power. So, there’s some ideas.

We have much to look forward to. Thank you Arthur Matthews.

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