We sit down for a chat with Rimmer, Lister, Kryten and the Cat
How long does it take you to slip back into your characters?
CHRIS BARRIE (RIMMER) I think they’re kind of with us now after 28 years – it doesn’t take long to click back into it. ROBERT LLEWELLYN (KRYTEN) That was something we noticed when we did Back To Earth, when it would have been, I think, 11 or 12 years since any of us had done any Dwarf. BARRIE Even then it didn’t seem to take long. LLEWELLYN The first day we were all on the set, in the costumes, ready to go, I think we all had the same feeling, like we’d had a long weekend off.
do you think that people feel affectionate about Red Dwarf not just because it’s a good show, but because it’s survived so long?
CRAIG CHARLES (LISTER) I think the longest break was because we were trying to make a movie; that went on for 10 years.
BARRIE Every 18 months, the phone would ring, and someone would say, “Don’t do anything for the next three years because...”
LLEWELLYN “...we’ve got the money!” BARRIE Then the building blocks seemed to fall away. But the fans were always there to say, “We want more.”
CHARLES Now, with Dave repeating it, it’s got to a much younger audience. People that come to the conventions and stuff like that, they’re not all old farts like us.
LLEWELLYN No, they’re kids. Some of them weren’t born when we made the last series for the BBC in ’98.
BARRIE I think the majority now are way, way younger than us.
DANNY JOHN-JULES (CAT) Some of them weren’t born at the time, but watch it now, and they’ve brought their kids. There’s a third generation being dragged along.
The show has always appealed to a young audience. Why do you think that is?
JOHN-JULES Wild abandonment! The first letter I read was from a 13-year-old. I thought, “What are they doing up at this time?”
LLEWELLYN There’s certainly a section of young people that just absolutely love it, who are now 13, 14, 15. It doesn’t date, that’s the bizarre thing. Watching Red Dwarf from 1993, there might be a couple of jokes where we refer to people in the news at that time, but they’re so small.
CHARLES I think with it being set in the future, it gave itself a bit of legs. Whereas if you go back to The Young Ones now, which was so firmly set in the ’80s, it’s so dated.
do you think Red Dwarf would have a chance of being commissioned today?
CHARLES It was a freak that it got commissioned in the first place. Imagine going to a BBC executive and saying, “Great idea for a show. One guy – he’s three million years into deep space. Everyone else is dead. His only
It’s almost primarily for fans because they’re begging for more Red Dwarf
companions are a hologram and a life form evolved from the ship’s cat.”
BARRIE So to answer your question, no, I don’t think we’d get commissioned.
The characters must be brilliant creations, because they still work 28 years later, and you’ve never really had to retool them...
LLEWELLYN It’s enormously down to the writing. Doug [Naylor] doesn’t like us saying so – he always gets embarrassed – but that’s the reason that I think it’s lasted, because the quality of the writing is so extraordinary.
CHARLES There’s a chemistry between us that is unusual. If you did it with four different actors, you’d have a very different show.
LLEWELLYN There’s quite a lot of unspoken understanding of each other’s performances. I don’t think you can achieve that without having done years and years of it.
CHARLES And we’re mature enough now to give each other lines as well. It’d be like, “That line doesn’t work for me, but it’d work for you.” You swap the lines around sometimes.
LLEWELLYN I’m always desperately trying to give my lines away. “I have a really complicated speech on page six. Chris would do that brilliantly.” [Laughs]
do you all have an idea of what you think good Red Dwarf is?
LLEWELLYN In a way, the joy of it is, it is a sitcom. So in a sense, every episode is a fresh start. It’s still a naff, guilt-ridden, rubbish mechanoid. A vain Cat. A slobby Lister. And an uptight Rimmer. Those basic elements are still there. But there’s so many variants of that within it. That’s what I love about the scripts.
CHARLES I think good Red Dwarf is very much character-based. It’s a gang show. It’s about the characters’ different reactions to a certain event, or something like that.
LLEWELLYN There’s tiny little things that any of us can do that will crack the rest of us up. It’s not necessarily a script thing. It’s a look, it’s a little pause, a beat, a delivery, or something like that. Danny’s entrance or exit... JOHN-JULES Porridge, Rising Damp, that kind of “four characters stuck in a place” thing. Those were the kind of shows we wanted to be in.
did getting the audience back for series X feel like getting back to the early days?
LLEWELLYN Yeah, we all wanted that. CHARLES Then again, it’s careful what you wish for, because they’ve been trying to get us to make a Red Dwarf movie for years, and a Red Dwarf movie would be very like series IX in many ways. You’ve got no live audience, no laugh track... LLEWELLYN It re-found its home as a sitcom – a sitcom recorded in front of an audience. CHARLES We’re natural show-offs. As soon as the audience come in, the performances pump in. How much of a priority is Red Dwarf for everyone? do you do what you can to clear your diary to make sure it happens? LLEWELLYN The thing is, it’s literally years in advance that we’re planning it. So it’s not like, “Could you do next month?” BARRIE Meeting fans at various things, it’s almost primarily for them, because they’re begging for more Red Dwarf. JOHN-JULES Begging. Every time you talk to them, they’re begging. Craig, you had to quit Coronation Street to do series Xi and Xii. Was that a big decision? CHARLES It was a big decision because of my 10 years on that show. My family are all there. My kids go to school there now, so yeah. When I asked them if I could have some time off to make it, they said, “We’ve given you so much time off to do other things, Red Dwarf X and [I’m A Celebrity…] and all that. No.” It was a case of it’s either them or us, really. And I’ve known these guys for 28 years. JOHN-JULES What we’d say in our autobiographies, that’s why he came back! CHARLES Red Dwarf is, I have to say, the defining moment in all of our careers. I can’t turn my back on it. BARRIE Absolutely. LLEWELLYN Oh god, yeah. JOHN-JULES You don’t bite the hand that feeds you.
We’re really looking for two things: funny ideas and cool science fiction ideas
if you look back at where the Cat’s come from, then there is a development in his arc. But it’s not within this series. It’s within the whole oeuvre [of Red Dwarf].
“We’re really looking for two things,” he continues. “Obviously funny ideas, cool science fiction ideas, then trying to get the guys in situations where character is exposed.”
Few sitcoms (or indeed sci-fi shows) are as hungry for high-concept ideas as Red Dwarf, and Naylor – who, after series XI and XII, has either written or co-written all 73 episodes of the show – admits he collects them as he goes.
“I’ll jot it down in my notebook and keep it there,” he explains. “In fact, I got an idea for series XIII last week! You are collecting them all the time, because you always want to avoid that situation of having no ideas and just sitting there [when you write].”
Perhaps surprisingly, however, he says he’s not constantly working his way through other sci-fi on the hunt for ideas.
“I think it’s something Terry Pratchett said where he didn’t read that many novels in his genre – he sort of ignored them and just wrote what he wanted to write. That’s kind of what I do – if you saturate yourself with everything sci-fi and you’re too knowledgable you won’t write anything. You just have to go for it.”
It’s three days later, and we’re back in that same Pinewood soundstage – though now it’s buzzing with over 200 fans eager to see their first new Dwarf in three-and-a-bit years. It’s the second recording in the run, and it’s a special thing to be a part of. Yes, there’s plenty of laughter – both during the scenes and the bits in between when warm-up comedian Ray Peacock keeps everyone cheerful – but also a sense of being part of a privileged club who gets to see new Dwarf first. That’s possibly why every studio audience in the social media age has been so brilliant at keeping plot details under wraps. There’s also a chance for one lucky Red Dwarf fan/expert to give a good enough explanation of the concept of “hard light” to win himself an exclusive crew t-shirt (not for eBay!) – and a pitch-perfect Kenneth Williams impression from Chris Barrie.
So when you’ve got a fanbase who are so knowledgeable about the show, how do you stay on top of the show’s near-three decades of lore?
“I have very good people around me going, ‘You’ve already made that joke,’” admits Naylor. “‘Really? When?’ “‘In ‘Episode…’ “‘Really? I have no recollection.’ “‘No, you did exactly that joke.’ “‘God, that’s awful.’ And in terms of ‘that contradicts that’, that’s possibly why it stays fresh for me, because my memory’s so lousy!’”
Red Dwarf XI airs on Dave from 22 September. The first episode will also be available on UKTV Play from 15 September.
You know you’ve missed them.
Didn’t a famous Western end a bit like this…?
Well, who needs sci-fitype guns anyway?