You’ve watched Bake Off, you’ve seen Drag Race, you might — like me — habitually tune into gigantic overblown sports tournaments. But I bet you’ve never seen competitive model railway building.
I’ll watch literally anything with a tournament format. Barbecue Pitmasters? I haven’t got the fucking foggiest why putting grilled meat on parsley is an art but my god I will be howling at the telly about how wrong someone’s done it two episodes in. Competitive cabin capsule hotel building with the mustaschio’d lad from season two of Scrapheap? Pump it into my eyeballs, what kind of idiot would do that with a beamed roof for fuck’s sake.
Cakes? Robots? Lego? Spelling Bs? Runway collections? Anything, literally anything where the drama is within highly regulated sporting requirements so I can get a little rush of tension without remembering literally everything in the world makes me want to die. I even professionally watch Formula One.
So it’s not exactly a surprise that The Great Model Railway Challenge immediately piqued my interest. Almost totally unpromoted by its startlingly off-brand broadcasters Channel 5 (who are busy holding Big Brother’s live funeral) it sort of snuck into the schedule — and the PR list of my inbox.
Well, the good news is it’s fucking amazing. It’s available on Demand 5, if you missed it on Friday. Here is everything you need to know about the first episode, although I really do urge you to watch it yourself.
The scene is set in, naturally, that one railway station somewhere on an abandoned branch line near High Wycombe that everything uses for this sort of backdrop. How do you run a model railway building competition? Well, you get three teams to build ‘layouts’ (or ‘model railways’) to a theme, over three days.
Seems simple enough. We meet the teams, summarised below;
Strangers On A Model Train
A motley crew of people who have specifically got together only to compete in this challenge, Strangers On A Model Train presumably met through some specialist messageboard or something but have literally never met each other before and are described as ‘solo-builders.’
(Don’t worry if you’re not fully up to speed with the lingo yet, you probably didn’t know what ganache was eight seasons ago)
A cheery group of cake-supplying Welshmen, the Porthcawl modellers are a regularly-meeting club who want to stoke their trains with the flames of a patriotic Welsh dragon and bring the prize back, to rub it in the face of
Perhaps the greatest modelling school in the country (citation needed) Missenden Modellers are a crack squad of highly trained model railway builders here to take absolutely no prisoners in their relentless pursuit of the prize.
There are also some presenters. ‘Stern’ Steve Flint is editor of Britain’s biggest railway magazine and the kind of respected authority on modelling who’s introduced bending over to scrutinise layout commenting “Crikey, look at the kink in that track” like he’s sucking his teeth and about to tell you how much it’ll cost yer to fix this mess.
Modelling vlogger Kathy Millett completes the judges, as an ‘even handed but iron-fisted’ Prue Leith of the operation. Meanwhile presenters Tim Shaw and James Richardson (provenance unknown) join the team as the Sandi and Noel of the group, with only slightly less remit for awkward sketch comedy.
This first heat’s theme is ‘Classic Movies,’ with teams asked to create layouts featuring trains (obv) as well as ‘animations’ or moving elements and detailed ‘scenics’ or as you and I would think of it, stuff like grass and tunnels.
The task opens with Steve helpfully explaining the process, which starts with laying track. “Track laying is a very important part of the early stages of building a layout. If they don’t get that finished by close of today then they’re really going to struggle.” This makes roughly as much sense to me as the first time I saw someone competitively make puff pastry (since I assumed you put the track ONTO the scenery, not visa versa) so is actually a useful clarification.
Porthcawl are confident — despite a complex, multi-layer looping track with a mega incline they reckon they can get the track laid by lunchtime and be train-testing this afternoon. Missenden Modellers, meanwhile, have an even more ambitious schedule to be running trains by lunch — their high-tech setup includes complex wiring demands but as one of the UK’s most respected clubs they’re confident to the point of smugness that they have no problems.
Strangers on a Model Train, however, have a problem. Their captain (there’s a bizarre feature of this show where no one is ever clearly named so I have no idea who he is) has forgotten his track-laying tools so they’re having to improvise. This scene presents the first opportunity to realise that the Strangers have in their number three people at least forty years younger than the average age here, including an admirably Skrillex-coiffed teen who turns out to be the sound technician. (oh yes)
“You can’t actually kick your own backside, can yer? But yer want to.” Is the captain’s verdict on toolgate.
Alan, captain of Porthcawl, introduces himself to Kathy and James, roving the floor to check on team’s progress. Kathy used to go to Porthcawl on holiday.
Their ambitious layout includes Jurassic Park, James Bond and a studio tour encorporating a collapsing viaduct and a house on fire. And “a train being eaten by a digger.” Apparently “If you watch James Bond, that happened in one of the James Bond films recently” — sadly, I only watch competitive making shows but I’ll believe the man.
Meanwhile Tim and Steve are interrogating Missenden. “How do you know each other,” Tim asks captain Barry, possibly naiively.
“Through Missenden Modellers, they run three training courses a year.” Yes, Tim is as confused as us but it turns out this is very much a thing. Tim asks if this makes them the SAS of the model railway world and Barry modestly replies “Yes.”
They’re making an Ealing Studios themed diorama featuring Whiskey Galore, Ladykillers and an actual flying pig helicopter. No wires.
Missenden establish themselves early as the overdogs here. Asked if they’ve come here to win, Barry shrugs “Probably” in what foreshadows what you surely know must be the course of the rest of the episode, in a narrative no less grim than Rake’s Progress.
At this point it turns out the Strangers’ captain’s name is Malcolm. Which is a bit late to introduce him but no matter; they’re making a layout based on The Longest Day, a classic film about the D-Day preparations. James immediately puts his foot in it by asking Malcolm if he’s seen recent adaptation Dunkirk.
“Nah, don’t go there” warns Malcolm. “They had a train that was made in the 1960s. Blue formica tables and top-sliding windows.”
Missenden meanwhile have put up a special 3d backdrop on their layout, with forced perspective and additional cut-out layers. We’ll come back to that later but it gives Barry a chance to take a dig at the other teams “Nobody else has anything like ours, they’re looking alright but not as good as ours.”
Team Porthcawl meanwhile have got their trains going before anyone else. Tim asks how, to which Alan confidently replies “witchcraft” and offers him a flapjack. Porthcawl don’t keep the cake to themselves, offering some to the Strangers where Malcolm gratefully takes one, noting “Lovely, that’ll set my diabetes off a treat.”
Missenden also have their train running. Barry continues his quotation-train at enormous speed. “I’m not really thinking about the others, I’m just thinking about my team and my layout and if someone’s better than us then terrific. But I don’t think they will be.
Just behind them, the Strangers get theirs on the rails. “That’s a really Formula One train going round there,” notes Malcolm. For professional reasons I must clarify that Formula One has never developed regulations for racing trains.
Day two and we’re onto scenery. It’s clarified that although each team can also build models on set, they have also been given the same budget and same amount of time prior to filming to build just six key items for the competition. Write that down in your copybooks.
After several shots of people finely spraying paints and applying fake grass with brushes, it’s revealed that Alan from Porthcawl is creating his pre-build items with a 3D printer. Meanwhile his teammates are terraforming their towering layout with ‘chicken wire, papier mache and plaster cloth.’
Meanwhile over at Missenden some of the greatest minutes of television ever made are about to happen.
Reviewing their layout, James says “This is amazing — you’ve got some big houses. And some little houses, to represent things far away.”
Andrew from the team clarifies “It was Barry’s idea about how to make the layout really special. The houses get smaller as you go into the back scene. So this is front row of houses and these are scaled at 100% scale, the houses directly opposite them are scaled at 90% and then the row behind them at 80% and then 70% and 50% along the back.”
Idyllic though this detailed explanation of perspective is, it turns out that they are counting all eighty of these houses as a single pre-built element to their layout.
No time to interrogate that, though — Tim and Kathy are setting a challenge to encorporate a high heeled shoe and a lipstick into their models in a ‘scratch build challenge’ to test their ingenuity. The modellers aren’t impressed.
“I think the scratch build challenge is totally stupid.” reviews Malcolm, darkly, “we’re model-makers, not clowns. Don’t make us so.”
Meanwhile James and Kathy confront what they discovered at Missenden, who are using enormous numbers of pre-built elements well over the six stipulated. In addition to their eighty houses, they’ve got warehouses, docks, a boat, a viaduct and railway station and that clever back scene. They decide they’ve got to speak to them, collecting the other judges. “We’ll bring Steve and Tim as well, might get tasty — Steve can handle himself” notes James.
“Barry, we think there might be an issue with your layout” warns James.
Kathy makes it clear she feels they’re gaining an unfair advantage with their pre-built items but Barry feels they’re following the rules as he understood them. Nevertheless, Steve and Kathy make it clear they will mark the Missenden Modellers down if they add more pre-build items to their layout, now warned that they are exceeding the regulated six.
(It is extremely unclear how they were counting six)
“I sort of get where the judges are coming from, particularly in light of how unprepared some of the other teams seem to have been when they arrived” says Barry. But that won’t be the end of it.
The scratch builders are getting on with their creations. Andrew from Missenden has turned the heel of their shoe into a dockside feature and the lipstick into a warehouse chimney — not bad. Ollie for the Strangers, however, has turned the shoe into not one but three features, from a bit of camo-covered shelter, to a corrugated iron bunker and even used the dust from sawing the heel off as decorative coal. And he’s turned the lipstick into a giant bomb. It’s suddenly looking much less amateur over on their table.
Simon from Porthcawl, meanwhile has turned their shoe into “‘one of those complete useless structures you see round theme parks and when you see them you think ‘what on earth were they thinking spending money building something like that’” which we’ve all wondered about Jurassic Park, to be fair. Or maybe he hasn’t, having never seen the movie.
“I think the scratch build challenge is awful and whoever designed it is a sadist” he damningly concludes.
Unsurprisingly, the challenge goes to Strangers on a Model Train. But the judges conflab takes an unhappier turn, returning to the Missenden controversy to close the second day.
Day three sees teams turning their attention to the final details for their layouts — from specific scenics to their animations and sound. Ah yes, they need to make their layouts sound the business, of course.
Missenden hold a tense conflab about their cheating. Sorry, pre-build elements. The team agree that they are going on with their plan, with everything “absolutely as it should be” and to “take the rap” for any penalties incurred. It’s all starting to get a bit much for Barry, though.
“I’m just gobsmacked. I’m so pleased with the way it looks” he says, biting into a slice of cake, before waving the camera away — “sorry guys, no.”
A moment later, Barry has to head outside to get a grip on himself, “I’ve got quite emotional in there about it because I could see that potentially this was going to be an absolutely stellar model.” He reckons that they can still win, even with a penalty.
“The Ealing films were all about a group of mavericks taking on authority and if they stick to their guns they win” says Andrew from the team, “remind you of anybody?” Probably not the most revered modelling school in the country Andrew, with all due respect.
Anyway, steaming on with things the teams get on with terraforming, decoration and a small degree of panic. Porthcawl are up against the wall while the Strangers are testing their nylon-supported Spitfire. Grass shaking intensifies furiously over layouts as the clock ticks down until the final minute is called and teams are forced away from their creations.
It’s time for the final judgement. In front of an assembled crowd of their family and friends, the teams display their layouts with (hopefully) full functionality.
The Strangers’ layout is complete, fully functional and well soundtracked — there’s no getting around it, even Steve’s impressed with the quality of every element, especially the ones made during the challenge.
Everyone’s trains work but Porthcawl are missing a couple of their animations — specifically, the James Bond house on fire, although Kathy is impressed by their commitment to cut up one of their own carriages for the ‘digger eating a train.’
Technically all the details are on Missenden’s layout, including an impressive 12 references to classic movies and the promised flying pig on a helicopter. However, there’s a chance their confidence from earlier in the show may have been misplaced. Just a chance, if you know anything about the format of these shows.
Time then for the judges conflab, where things get decidedly damning on Missenden. After praising both of the first two teams, with Porthcawl’s humour compensating for their rough-and-ready final layout, they must come to Missenden.
Steve’s not much impressed by their continuing to add pre-built elements and Kathy’s even more damning of what they’ve done during the three days — “They’ve put in some manky roads, they’ve put down plastic block paving that they’ve not even bothered to paint, they’ve got plywood with screwholes in it. That’s like mocking us! Ooh, we can’t be bothered to do it because we’re so good we’re going through.”
Yes that’s right, this show kills giants. In the end the judges have to award it to impromptu crack squad Strangers on a Model Train. Finally, a bit of the Thomas the Tank Engine theme plays, unable to be held back in all the excitement.
Musing on things, Barry concedes Missenden might have played this wrong. “Do I think the verdict’s fair? I think so. I wish Strangers on a Model Train all the success in the world going forward and I hope that they go on to win.” Ah, Barry — don’t be modest. Hate them.
Malcolm remains reassuringly curmudgeonly in victory. “Am I looking forward to the final? Honestly no, I’ve got a ****ing garden centre to run.”
The Great Model Railway Challenge returns on Channel 5 at 8pm next Friday. This one’s got daleks.