The second series of Big Train was made three or four years after the original, and suffers a little from the loss of Graham Linehan as co-writer and director. On the other hand, the sketches are a lot shorter and sharper, except where the awkward length is part of the joke. Bullmore and Davis have departed, and been replaced by the formidable trio of Rebecca Front, Tracy-Ann Oberman, and Catherine Tate. Front, of course, already had a string of impressive credits through her association with the Alan Partridge team… and later went on to star opposite Davis in Nighty Night, as her mousey, unwitting nemesis. Oberman was less well known at the time, although she’s since gone on to prominent roles in Eastenders and Doctor Who. She rather modestly describes her look as “Sarah Jessica Parker on steroids” in the DVD’s biog section, which is funny, but the truth is she’s a damn fine looking (and funny) woman in her own right. The real breakout star of the series, in terms of later success, has to be Tate, of course. She may not be quite as famous stateside as Simon Pegg is, but in Britland she’s a household name.
I was flicking through her unofficial biography in a shop yesterday, and it claimed she was partly cast in Big Train because of her skills as a Francophone. I’ve had a crush on her for a long time, from her early appearances in shows such as Barking and Attention Scum!, and seeing her speaking French in these sketches gives me quite a buzz. While the female cast members seem to enjoy more screen time than their predecessors, the chaps still claim the “lion’s share” of lead roles. Tate commands attention with her gorgeous red hair, and sturdy “Earth Mother” figure, but she makes so few appearances, it’s unlikely anyone could have predicted what lay in her future. Personally, I’m no fan of the extremely popular The Catherine Tate Show, which began in 2004, but I certainly don’t begrudge her the success and acclaim that it’s brought. I simply have an allergy to the repetition and catchphrases which have become the mainstay of sketch comedy in recent years.
Listening to the Big Train commentary, I admire the way they managed to milk locations and costumes for a variety of jokes, rather than simply repeating the same joke with slightly different wording. I’m no expert on financial management or television production, but I don’t see why it should cost more to be creative on the day, if you’ve already booked the set and the crew… perhaps I’m being naive? Perhaps mainstream audiences prefer the comfort of familiarity, and I’m doomed to forever favour obscure oddness? Either way, Tate’s show has become an all-conquering brand, with a vast pile of merchandising in its wake. What I love most about A Bit of Fry & Laurie is that it was satirical… there was a genuine passion and rage behind a lot of the humour, along with a fierce intelligence and an appreciation for the absurd. Satire is something that the Big Train writers deliberately shied away from, and now sketch comedy writers seem to have given up on the artform entirely. Personally I would have respected Tate more if, during the filming of the Comic Relief sketch with Tony Blair, she’d bitch-slapped the smug gimp rather than exchanging wacky dialogue with him… but that’s just me.
I mentioned before how much I love the little models featured in the menus on the Big Train DVDs, but Tate is the only cast member to actually have her own action figure in real life. After her appearance as ‘Donna Noble’ in the 2006 Doctor Who Christmas special (‘The Runaway Bride’), my friend Sadie kept insisting what a great “companion” Tate would make. She was older than the vacant totty The Doctor usually hooked up with, and was more of an equal, thanks largely to the experience and stature that Tate brought to the role. Donna did indeed find her way back into the TARDIS in later series, but it could only ever be a temporary gig, considering her other commitments… and the fans’ penchant for vacant totty!