On air: Serious about being silly

Father Ted's scriptwriters are busy re-inventing the sketch show and bracing themselves for a panning. No need, guys.
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The Independent Culture
Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews are slaving over an editing- desk in Soho. They are nit-picking about the exact timing of a duck's quack on the screen in front of them. Linehan is absent-mindedly popping a sheet of bubble-warp, while Mathews obsessively chews a plastic knife. These are men in the grip of pre-curtain-up nerves.

The writers of the Bafta-winning Father Ted, perhaps the most original sitcom of the Nineties, are fine-tuning Big Train, their first go at a sketch-show, and the pressure is telling. They know that after the success of Father Ted, they are prime candidates for a backlash. "You always have to be vigilant," Mathews admits. "But we can't complain if it happens because we've avoided it for so long. Still, I did get held up at gunpoint once, and getting a bad review is much worse."

My guess is that Linehan and Mathews needn't worry themselves unduly. Like any sketch show, Big Train is uneven, but it certainly hits more than it misses. Crucially, it boasts the sheer daftness which so distinguished Father Ted.

In one skit, the Bee Gees and Chaka Khan engage in a bloody Spaghetti Western-style shoot-out - no, I've no idea why, either. In another, filmed in the style of a docu-soap, Jesus gets fed up with the practical jokes, such as a plastic spider in his sandwich, which are being played on him by his fellow office-worker, the Devil. "I think I'm going to have to let him go," Jesus sighs. "Quite frankly, a lot of his pranks, as he calls them, are dangerous and unhygienic."

Briefly emerging from the editing suite for air, Linehan and Mathews concede that any new sketch-show is bound to be compared with the current top of the class, The Fast Show. They claim, however, that Big Train is an attempt to get away from that style. "We're trying to avoid catchphrases because The Fast Show and Harry Enfield have done them so well," says Linehan. "Why try and do the same thing? We wanted to go back to sketches that exist in isolation from each other, so there are no running characters. It's what you used to have in Monty Python when you didn't know what was going to happen next."

Even mentioning Monty Python in passing is a hostage to fortune. But Linehan is quick to point out where he believes Big Train differs. "When someone comes on dressed as a giant fish in Monty Python, they'll talk about it. Whereas if it happens in Big Train, the fact is never even mentioned. It's just taken for granted."

All this chimes with Linehan and Mathews' professed weakness for "insubstantial, silly, fly-away, and childlike" humour. "You don't have to be significant to be funny," says Linehan. "People hated the comedy of the Eighties - it was so violently bad, po-faced, and bludgeoning. Then Reeves and Mortimer, The Day Today and Harry Hill came along and people started remembering why comedy is important: because it's funny.

"With Bill Hicks [the late American political stand-up], you had to listen the whole time, and he didn't make the audience feel very comfortable. You had to be on your toes. But with Vic and Bob, you can just relax. It's like an escape valve on a pressure cooker."

This generation of comedy writers - often lazily dubbed "surrealists" - certainly have an abhorrence of appearing in any way "meaningful". "If you're going to make a political point, make sure you attack yourself at the same time, because no one knows what they're talking about," continues Linehan. "Armando Iannucci replies to people analysing The Day Today that it's just a really silly programme."

Linehan and Mathews met when both were working - as writer and art director respectively - for Hot Press magazine in Dublin during the late Eighties. Linehan found himself drawn to the humour of Mathews, who was moonlighting as the drummer for a spoof U2 band called The Joshua Trio and also performing in comedy clubs as a ridiculous priest called Father Ted. They began writing sketches together, and within a couple of years had one accepted by Smith and Jones. Since then, their scriptwriting CV has become a case of "if you've heard of them, they've written for them": The Fast Show, Harry Enfield and Chums, Coogan's Run, Brass Eye, Never Mind the Horrocks, The Day Today, The All New Alexei Sayle Show and Friday Night Armistice.

It has not all been accolades and award-ceremonies, though. Paris, their first ever sitcom starring Sayle as a struggling painter in the Twenties, was criticised as the scribblings of Sunday-afternoon dabblers. "A lot of people didn't like the world it was set in and made unfavourable comparisons with Tony Hancock's The Rebel," says Sioned William, who produced that series and Big Train. "Perhaps it was too soon to do something that bizarre and uncompromising. The climate would be more forgiving now because people are better used to making surreal connections."

As Father Ted proved. Although set in the parochial house of a remote island off the west coast of Ireland, the series was more about preposterousness than priests. "The Church has had a lot of bad publicity," says Mathews, "and we obviously haven't helped. A young man of 18 isn't going to look at Father Ted and think, `God, I'd love to be a priest.' But the series is not a comment on the Church. It's just saying these are stupid people." Which is why the public loved it.

"Also," Mathews continues, "the people in Father Ted were not the type of characters you were used to seeing in sitcoms. It wasn't full of young people talking about shagging. It was full of old people who weren't allowed to."

Smart and switched-on, Linehan and Mathews spark ideas off each other like two pieces of flint. They have reached the stage now where they can pretty much make material up as they go along. Harry Enfield reveals what he likes about their way of writing: "They don't come with any pre-conditions. I say sternly to them, `These are the rules', and then they'll come up with something completely different, like the Camp Jockeys."

In the happy position of being able to pick and choose their projects, they are currently working on Hippies, a sitcom set in an underground magazine in 1968. According to Linehan, "We might use it as a platform to attack people who say they've had a good time at Glastonbury when they clearly haven't because they're covered in mud. It's about the arrogance of youth that thinks it knows it all and is going to change the world. We have a sense of embarrassment about people who take themselves seriously.

"Without wishing to sound pompous, Milan Kundera says that idealistic people are very frightening. That's true. I'd hate to make a point in my comedy. Sometimes making a point negates making something funny."

One more thing. Just why is the new show called "Big Train"? Mathews pauses before answering: "Because it's not big, and it's not a train."

`Big Train' begins on BBC2 on Monday 9 November