Updated: Apr 16, 2021
Sandi Toksvig and Mike McShane star in Channel 4's romantic comedy "The Big One" from 1992.
If you mention “The Big One” to most Brits they’ll likely think of Blackpool’s vomitous, giant, rollercoaster, or possibly an equally vomitous all-you-can-eat English breakfast from a local cafe that garners the consumer a free baseball hat. However, for a smaller-than-should-be group of people “The Big One” is fondly-remembered gem of a will-they-won’t-they British comedy from 1992.
Coming at the height of the UK’s love for improvisation show "Whose Line is it Anyway?", “The Big One” stars Whose Line’s mainstays Mike McShane and Sandi Toskvig as a very heavily mismatched pair who find themselves sharing a flat in London. Written by Toksvig and "Tracy Beaker" writer Elly Brewer, the Channel 4 show ran only for 7 episodes but tells a delightful little tale of opposites attract in that brief time.
American Mike McShane plays James Howard, a Bostonian romantic novelist who has travelled to London to satisfy his Anglophile heart and immerse himself in the real England as he writes his next book. A neurotic neat freak, with a fear of hotels, he’s planned to stay with a friend of a friend.
In his mind, James is imagining his landlady to be an apple-cheeked, elderly spinster, but what he finds instead is catastrophic, messy, mouthy Deddie (Toksvig). An advertising copywriter whose entire life is as messy as her roast-chicken-in-the-spare-bed apartment, Deddie has forgotten her agreement to host the writer. Her only clue to the turn of events are a slew of messages from her agent on the answering machine, and a copy of James’ latest novel - whose jacket depicts a rugged Hollywood movie hunk as the author - in her oven. Thus, the deer-stalker-wearing, Sherlock-Holmes-cloaked man-mountain who arrives at her door comes as something of a shock.
It’s a typical “Odd Couple” set up - he’s uptight and pernickety, she’s slovenly and tempestuous. There’s no obvious McGuffin that forces Deddie to allow James to stay after their mutually disappointing initial meeting, beyond a migraine that incapacitates James for some hours, and a sense of decency and obvious connection that Deddie tries to resist.
Of course, over time they find themselves becoming friends, and we see how they rub off each other’s rough corners. James clears up after Deddie, literally and figuratively, and Deddie encourages a more carefree, confident James. They find a connection quickly in their work, with both finding themselves underappreciated and under pressure in their respective crafts. But most of all, their shared sense of bleak, sarcastic sense of humour bonds them and makes the lodging arrangement a growing source of happiness.
The will-they-won’t-they is beautifully underplayed but the short series does contain plenty of the most common shipping tropes. From the old “need a date for an awards ceremony”, to the “almost kiss”, and the “pretending to be a couple” uber-trope. Jealousy is the main illuminator of their growing attraction, though their attempts to make the other happy in unsurprisingly cack-handed ways is the biggest tell for the depth of their feelings.
Both sides of the relationship see-saw perfectly as they do in so many well-written ships, where we see James fall, then seem indifferent when Deddie’s feelings are clear. That constant imbalance is played to perfection by Toskvig and McShane, as we see the gun-shy pair come close to unguarded emotion, before covering the pain and risk of rejection with humour.
There’s also a sublime metaphor in James’ inability to write his latest novel, as he struggles with how to write his repressed characters coming to the point of confessing their feelings, which runs through the series alongside his own similar predicament.
Fans of the more recent "Peter Kays’ Car Share" might find some familiarity in “The Big One’s” dynamic. There is a similar vibe, particularly with the constrained location - 99% of "The Big One" takes place in the body of Deddie’s flat, with only the 2 main characters, much like "Car Share’s" car scenes. But more than that, there is an affinity in the characterisation. Where "Car Share’s" John and Kayleigh express their feelings via song lyrics, sung in the car, James and Deddie have classic movie lines quoted back to each other.
Both shows give us a messy, complicated woman with a staid, uptight man, and a pair hurtling towards middle-age who have been hurt and cast aside by life. The importance and significance of the possible relationship, and resulting potential loss of friendship, carries the weight that comes with added age. Neither couple have the hopefulness and joie de vivre of 20somethings leaping into love headfirst.
James and Deddie, like John and Kayleigh, are a pair taking tentative steps with bruised feet, afraid to be trodden on and sent back to the end of the queue. The fear and vulnerability as they dance around their feelings, trying to grasp onto the unexpected happiness gives such a lovely depth to the comedy and chaos.
“The Big One” shines as a warm comedy that doesn’t have the slapstick of "Car Share" or "Not Going Out", but its humour is in turns sharp and silly, with stabs of astute observation and pain that give the show a true roundness. The writers Brewer and Toksvig manage to give us just enough of James and Deddie’s hearts behind the barbed humour to illustrate why they have fallen for each other. And the way both characters prop up and emotionally support the other from the harshness of their lives is really quite lovely, and makes the audience fall for them as they fall for each other.
We won’t spoil the ending of the seventh and final episode, but will say there is enough from this truncated show to leave you feeling satisfied, even if more would have been a tasty delight.
If you fancy a little trip back to 90s London and the company of James and Deddie, “The Big One” is currently available to own in the UK on Amazon Prime for £5.99 - you'll never open your fridge without exclaiming "Bastard!" again.
"The Big One" is a Hatrick production for Channel 4. Image copyright is retained by the owners and are used under "Fair Use" policy.