TV blog: The Biggest Little Railway in the World

Benjie Goodhart / 05 January 2018

Dick Strawbridge fronts a race against the clock to lay a model railway line from Fort William to Inverness in The Biggest Little Railway in the World.

The Biggest Little Railway in the World, Sunday 7th January, 8pm, Channel 4

As the festive programming falls out of the TV schedules like needles dropping from a once verdant Christmas tree, the broadcasters have a lot of slots to fill at the start of the year. And, as we all check our diminishing bank accounts and peer out of the window at a Britain battered by Storm Eleanor, we all reach the same conclusion: It’s telly month. So there are a lot of big, bold, brash and boisterous new TV shows hitting our screens this week, making an awful lot of noise and showing off with their big names and even bigger budgets. But I want to draw your attention to a smaller, quieter series that might easily escape your attention. Which would be a shame, as it’s an absolute gem.

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The concept is simple, even if making it happen is absurdly complicated. Engineer, presenter and human-walrus-hybrid Dick Strawbridge is heading up a team of volunteers, who are attempting to build a model railway travelling from Fort William, on the West coast of Scotland, to Inverness, on the East. That’s 71 miles of moors, mountains, valleys, bogs, lochs, canals, roads, forests and scrubland. Oh, and midges. Billions and billions of midges.

Make no mistake, this is hostile country. The Victorians, who built thousand-mile railways before they’d had their morning kippers, and could put rails and sleepers on a cantering racehorse, were unsuccessful in their attempt to build a railway along this treacherous 71-mile route. That should be something of a hint right there. Oh, and they’ve only got 12 days to do it in. No chance.

But Dick Strawbridge isn’t a man to listen when you tell him something can’t be done. Presumably, someone in his past bet him that he couldn’t grow a moustache the size of a family hatchback, and didn’t he just show them! So Dick has assembled team of 56 miniature railway enthusiasts, who have all volunteered their time and expertise, and are joining him and his mobile campsite, in an operation of fiendish complexity.

Among those employed are recruits who work on the real railways in their day job. The engine they are using is a small, steam-powered little beauty called Silver Lady, who has a top speed of 2mph and has to stop to be serviced every couple of miles. I think she pulled my train the other day from London to Brighton.

The show is beautifully shot – helped, quite understandably, by the stunning landscape of the Highlands – but it’s the characters, and the drama, that pull you in. The team encounters seemingly insurmountable problems right from the word go, and it’s fascinating to watch how they go about solving them. It’s also oddly touching, watching so many model rail enthusiasts working together with such gusto and camaraderie (with a fair number of arguments just to keep things spicy). Strawbridge is an amiable host, at the helm of a show that is inspirational, charming, madcap, and in the best spirit of British eccentricity.

Dancing on Ice, Sunday 7th January, 6pm, ITV

Well, well, well. Whodda thunk? ITV screening a reality show. Thing is, though, they’re having a spot of bother at the moment, with their tried-and-trusted light entertainment behemoths. X Factor had a catastrophically low-key season, Britain’s Got Talent had its lowest viewing figures since series one, I’m a Celebrity nosedived after a strong start to the series, and The Voice… well, The Voice starts this weekend as well, but anyone pinning their hopes on that increasingly exhausted-looking format might want to rethink their priorities.

In a bid to improve their fortunes, ITV have returned to a show that they axed three years ago. For those of you who haven’t seen it, Dancing on Ice is Strictly Come Dancing on skates, with more danger, more disasters, and fewer people you’ve actually heard of.

At its best, though, the show can be enormously entertaining. When the dancing is bad (as with Todd Carty’s unscheduled departure from the rink ) it is hilariously awful. And when it is good (Ray Quinn and Hayley Tamaddon were both outstanding) it is genuinely impressive. And the very real and ever-present element of danger adds a soupcon of tension to proceedings. Indeed, the show has already lost one of is contestants, cricketer Monty Panesar, who is ruled out of the series having broken an ankle in training.

So who are the other contestants? Well, here is the list. Brooke Vincent (Coronation Street), Cheryl Baker (from the 1980s), Kem Cetinay (Love Island), Candice Brown (Bake Off), Max Evans (former rugby player), Lemar (singer), Donna Air (former presenter, ex of james Middleton), Alex Beresford (weatherman), Antony Cotton (Coronation Street), Stephanie Waring (Hollyoaks), Perri Shakes-Drayton (track athlete) and Jake Quickenden (X Factor, I’m a Celebrity…).

Pip Schofield and Holly Willoughby present, and we’re promised a fresh look to the show, though the details are being kept under wraps (my guess is it’ll be set amidst the baking sands of Qatar).

There are other changes that sound sensible. For the first time, Torvill and Dean will be judges, which is a far better use of their expertise than having them standing around occasionally chatting to Pip and Holly. Their fellow judges will be Jason Gardiner (the show’s version of panto-villain Craig Revel Horwood) and Ashley Banjo, from dance act Diversity, who has been brought in in a frantic effort to modernise the show. And, for the first time, the professional dancers themselves will choreograph the routines (in the past, it was all done by Dean).

Read our Q&A with Jayne Torvill

For those of you who fancy a flutter, Jake Quickenden is 3-1 favourite, with Brooke Vincent next at 5-1. The outsider is Cheryl Baker, at 25-1. Strap yourselves in, folks, this could be a slippery ride.

The best… and the rest

Saturday 6th January

Darts: BDO Lakeside World Professional Championships, 12:45pm, Channel 4: The chiselled Adonises of the darts world go head-to-head in one of the sport’s biggest tournaments. Golden arrers.

Wedding Day Winners, 7:25pm, BBC One: Lorraine Kelly and Rob Beckett host a gameshow in which couples compete to win a televised wedding (no thanks) and a dream honeymoon (yes please).

The Voice UK, 8pm, ITV: Oh good, another singing competition. This year, former X Factor winner Olly Murs joins the judges. Presumably this year’s winner could then become an X Factor judge in the future. And so it goes on. Sigh.

Hard Sun 1/6, 9:35pm, BBC One: Jim Sturgess and Agyness Deyn star in this high octane drama with an intriguing premise: Two detectives stumble across proof that the world will end in five years. The authorities, it turns out, are not best pleased that they know. Not best pleased at all…

Sunday 7th January

Attenborough and the Sea Dragon, 8pm, BBC Two: The naturalist joins a team of scientists investigating the fossil of a vast sea creature even older and almost as impressive as he is.

Michael Palin: A Life On Screen, 9pm, BBC Two: Attenborough at 8, Palin at 9 – Beeb 2 is going all out with the nice blokes tonight. It’s hard not to love Michael Palin, as this trawl back through his glorious and varied career illustrates.

SAS: Who Dares Wins, 9pm, Channel 4: To the Atlas Mountains, where a bunch of muscly bearded men basically torture and shout abuse at a group of recruits until only one is left standing. Strangely compelling.

Monday 8th January

Silent Witness 1/10, 9pm, BBC One: Series two squillion of the drama starring Emilia Fox as the forensic pathologist who has an uncanny capacity to get heavily involved in all of her cases. Continues tomorrow night.

Surgeons: At the Edge of Life, 9pm, BBC Two: New three-part series following the staff and patients at Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham’s surgical unit.

Next of Kin 1/6, 9pm, ITV: New drama starring Archie Panjabi (Kalinda in The Good Wife) and Jack Davenport. A terrorist atrocity brings London to a standstill, while a charity worker is kidnapped in Lahore, and a student goes missing from his University. Could the three be related? (Errr… I’m guessing yes…) Looks promising.

Tuesday 9th January

School for Stammerers, 9pm, ITV: Six people whose lives are blighted by stammers attempt to gain control of their speech impediments using a variety of methods, in this emotional and engaging documentary.

Wednesday 10th January

Britain’s Brightest Family 1/15, 8pm, ITV: Anne Hegerty, the Governess from The Chase, introduces a brand new family quiz show. However, is it just possible that the brightest family in Britain might not be that fussed about going on a peak time ITV game show?

Kiri 1/4, 9pm, Channel 4: This new drama boasts the very highest pedigree. Jack Thorne (National Treasure, This Is England ’86, ’88 and ’90) is a multiple award-winning writer, and the peerless Sarah Lancashire (Happy Valley) is as good an actor as there is on TV just now. Be warned, though – this story, about the disappearance of a young girl in the care system, is brilliant, but bleak.

Thursday 11th January

Big Cats 1/3, 8pm, BBC One: A documentary series about, well, big cats. Not overweight moggies, you understand. Lions, tigers, leopards and the like. It’s a BBC natural history offering, so it’s almost certainly marvellous.

Transformation Street 1/3, 9pm, ITV: Series filmed over 12 months, following the physical and emotional transformations of people born into the wrong body. Dealing with deeply personal, emotional and often life-or-death stories, this promises to be a powerful watch.

Friday 12th January

A Vicar’s Life 1/6, 8:30pm, BBC Two: Series following the day-to-day lives of vicars in the diocese of Hereford.

The Wine Show, 7pm, Channel 5: Actors Matthew Goode, James Purefoy and Matthey Rhys, and wine guru Jancis Robinson, travel around Europe tasting wines. Tonight, what are the best wines to go with a six-course, Michelin-starred dinner? How did they find presenters willing to subject themselves to such agonies, hmm?

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