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The fast track to vintage laughs

It was the programme that finally answered a question which had troubled the finest scientific minds for decades: "Just what does Flash Gordon's arch-enemy Ming the Merciless do when he's not busy destroying planets and conquering galaxies?"

Answer: He checks his phone messages, does a spot of hoovering, makes a cup of tea and watches some television, Teletubbies mostly. Oh, and recuperates in hospital after a little slip on the bathroom mat temporarily puts him out of action.

It was the programme that introduced us to the brutal realities of the natural world, where herds of wild jockeys are stalked and attacked by that most lethal of predators, The Artist Formerly Known As Prince.

It was the programme that pitted funk queen Chaka Khan, sheriff of West Gulch, Wyoming, in a blood-spattered western-movie shootout against murderous outlaws The Bee Gees, who she held responsible for the deaths of Herbie Hancock, Al Jarreau and George Benson in the infamous "Sundown Studios Massacre".

It was, in case you haven't figured it out already, Big Train, the brilliantly surreal, wildly funny comedy sketch show written by Father Ted partnership Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews.

It's been 10 years since Big Train last shunted across our screens. Linehan and Mathews apparently wrote it as a stopgap between Ted and their next planned sitcom, which turned out to be the disappointing Hippies.

Yet, in spite of running for just two series on BBC2 between 1998 and 2002 (the second written by Mathews alone), Big Train left an indelible impression on anyone who watched it.

It also helped launch the careers of an impressive list of performers: Simon Pegg, Kevin Eldon, Julia Davis, Amelia Bulmore, Mark Heap, Nick Frost, Rebecca Front, Tracy-Ann Oberman and Catherine Tate. Any comedy producer today would give an arm to have a talent pool like that.

The trouble was, however, that not nearly enough people watched Big Train. Why it never developed the kind of following it deserved -- and it certainly deserved more than the tedious Little Britain, which stretched to four series and a live arena tour on the strength of a handful of catchphrases -- is one of the great television mysteries. Maybe it was a question of timing.

The Fast Show, for which Linehan and Mathews created the marvellous 'Ralph and Ted' sketches, had ended less than a year before Big Train rolled on to BBC2, so perhaps audiences had had their fill of sketch shows for the time being.

Despite its failure to click with a mass audience, Big Train holds up brilliantly after a decade. Other than the youthfulness of some of the faces (Pegg looks about 15), there's nothing at all to date it. The sketches are so fresh and funny they could have made last week. Because the first series was shot on 35mm film and the second on high-grade DigiBeta video, which provided film-stock quality at a lower cost, Big Train also looks fabulous.

But don't take my word for it. There's a huge selection of sketches available on YouTube, while both series are available in a DVD boxset. Hop aboard, you'll enjoy the ride.

>drama divide "Why do British TV dramas fail to match the imports?" wondered a journalist in a British broadsheet this week.

Gosh, that's a tough one. Let's see: America gave the world Homeland, starring Claire Danes, Damian Lewis and Morena Baccarin; Britain gave the world Spooks, starring Peter Firth and assorted lumps of teak in suits.

America gave us cop shows like The Wire and The Shield; Britain gave us The Bill and Midsomer Murders. America gave us the historical dramas Deadwood and Boardwalk Empire; Britain gave us Lark Rise to Candelford and Call the Midwife. Do you think there might be a clue buried in there?

>nostalgia overload Various excuses have been offered for the failure of the BBC1's remake of Upstairs Downstairs, which has been axed. So far cited are the low ratings (4.5m viewers); the perception that it was a cash-in on Downtown Abbey (even though it was planned before the latter hit screens), and the loss of stars and co-creators Jean Marsh (through illness) and Eileen Atkins. What hasn't been mentioned is the danger of trading too heavily on nostalgia. It can't be coincidence that BBC1's Young James Herriot, a prequel to, All Creatures Great and Small, is not being renewed either.

>OVER tHE MOON There's been a rumbling in certain critical quarters that The Savage Eye, which finished its third series this week, has lost its focus. Can't say I agree. This week's silent movie about what Henry Ford's cars might have looked like if he'd been born in Ireland was positively Milliganesque in its brilliance. If it's topical political satire rather than surreal comic lunacy you're looking for, might I suggest Oireachtas Report?


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