THE HISTORY OF RED DWARF
Co-creator Doug Naylor looks back on the show’s history.
In most universes, sitcoms aren’t generally known for their longevity. But Red Dwarf’s 28 years (and counting) is an exceptional haul for any TV show, especially one that exists in the far-from-crowded area of the Venn diagram where sci-fi and comedy overlap. So how is it that nearly three decades after it first blasted onto BBC Two in 1988, Red Dwarf is not just alive, but thriving – with two new series in the can, (one due in September, the other in 2017)? It’s a remarkable feat considering that, back in the mid-’80s, even getting one series was something of a mission.
Rob Grant and Doug Naylor started writing Red Dwarf over a week in North Wales in 1984. Their script picked up early interest from two of the hottest producing talents in British TV comedy – John Lloyd (Blackadder, Spitting Image, The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy) and Paul Jackson (The Young
Ones). “We showed the first script to Paul Jackson,” recalls Naylor. “He said, ‘Don’t bother. I promise you, you’ll never sell it. They hate science fiction!’”
The BBC had already passed on the script a couple of times when Grant and Naylor had a crack at pitching it to the bigwigs at the BBC themselves.
“We went to see the BBC’s head of comedy, but he just flat out didn’t get it,” Naylor recalls. “He said, ‘People won’t be able to relate to people on a spaceship, because that’s not anything in anyone’s life, whereas a sofa and French windows, people can relate to. So if you could somehow start the show off with a sofa and French windows and
“i thought it was going to be the biggest comedy on TV. that was until i walked on set and realised people wouldn’t be blown over”
then it turned out to be a spaceship, to ease people in, that might help.’
“We pointed out that you don’t often get sofas and French windows on spaceships!” Naylor laughs. “He wound up commissioning us for a science fiction comedy, but not Red Dwarf – which we still [haven’t] written!”
Channel 4 also suggested making it into a one-off for their “Film On 4” strand, but Grant and Naylor turned them down. “We said no, because we wanted it to be a TV series. The balls of it now!”
Over the next three years outer space went quiet, as the duo continued to write for Spitting Image, and “kind of forgot about Red Dwarf a little bit”. But, in a moment of good fortune that suggested someone might have released a luck virus into the air ducts, Jackson came back to them with an opportunity. It turned out that BBC North had a slot for a comedy free in Manchester after Ben Elton had decided he didn’t want to do a second series of Happy Families. Jackson pitched Red Dwarf along with two other scripts.
“They said, ‘Okay, fine, we’ll do Red Dwarf,’” explains Naylor. “I think one of the reasons BBC Manchester commissioned it was because they thought whatever they did would probably fail – most comedy does – and wanted to protect themselves by doing something weird so they could say to BBC London that at least they were trying something original and new.”
First broadcast in February 1988 and populated with a cast of then-unknowns, debut episode “The End” got over four million viewers on BBC Two – an impressive start, though viewing figures for that first series soon dropped off, a fact Naylor puts down to the show’s low-budget aesthetic, light years away from the sci-fi TV coming from the other side of the Atlantic.
“I’d been convinced it was going to be enormous,” he admits. “I thought it was absolutely going to be the biggest comedy on TV for three series. And then obviously you’d only ever do three series, and that was it. That was until I walked on set for show one and realised people weren’t going to be blown over. I thought, ‘Okay, we might need a bit more time to get this right. We asked them not to repeat it
“i got a call from a journalist in america saying it was the biggest thing on Pbs television since Monty Python”
because we didn’t think we’d got it quite right.”
They got a chance to have another crack at proving themselves with a second series...
“The second series then took off in a small way,” Naylor recalls. “When it was repeated, it got the exact same figures as the first time. We were always in the top 10 for ratings on BBC Two. Though BBC Two at the time had a series of controllers, some of whom, we understand, hated it. But they couldn’t get rid of it because of the ratings!”
Series three came with big changes. “That was when Rob and I became producers. We wanted it to look different, to look better.”
Rimmer’s uniform became less vending machine repairman, more starship officer. The opening credits were funked up, with a new rockified version of the end credits theme. A new craft, Starbug, was introduced to get the boys off the Dwarf more often. Holly the computer gave himself a head sex change in honour of his parallel universe counterpart, Hilly (with Hattie Hayridge taking over from Norman Lovett). And perhaps most importantly, Kryten – the mechanoid who’d been a guest star in the series two episode that bears his name – became a regular member of the crew.
“We’d thought we had enough characters, and then we realised that we didn’t,” says Naylor. “Rob in particular didn’t want to have a robot because he thought it was a real cliché. Although I accepted it was a cliché, I argued it depends on what you do with it. I thought Kryten was a great character and would be great in the mix. It was a three-, four-month discussion, and finally we agreed that was the way we were going to go.
“The idea originally was to bring back David Ross, who played the original Kryten,” Naylor adds, “but he wasn’t available. It was Paul Jackson who said there was a guy in Edinburgh who does a thing about robots called Mammon, and it might be worth seeing him.
“‘Why, because he’s played a robot?’ It sounded like the most lazy idea! But Robert [Llewellyn] came in for the audition and I don’t think we saw anyone else after that. Having said that, we started shooting, and he didn’t have the voice at all. It was English at that point, and then it sort of evolved over the first week of the shoot that he became Kryten.”
The show became a ratings smash, breaking records for BBC Two, and spawning spin-offs galore. There were novels; a monthly “Smegazine” that ran for 23 issues and featured a Red
Dwarf comic strip; lots of merchandise (the Red Dwarf t-shirt was an essential part of a ’90s teenager’s wardrobe); and two pilots were also made for a potential American spin-off (one of which featured Star Trek: Deep
Space Nine’s Terry Farrell as a female version of the Cat). While it’s tempting to put the success down to iconic and memorable storylines like “Backwards”, “Polymorph”, “Dimension Jump” and “Back To Reality” in those glory years of series III-VI, Naylor puts it down to something else.
“I think the production values were great in III and IV, but I think some of the ideas, like ‘Thanks For The Memory’ or ‘Future Echoes’ which were in II, were really good. I think maybe the execution got better in III to VI. It was good times. It was great fun writing those shows.
“The real turning point, I think, was when we were half way through shooting series three, I got a call from a journalist in America saying it was the biggest thing on PBS since Monty Python. So when I did publicity I just threw this in and suddenly it was in all the papers, saying Red Dwarf is a massive hit, because they love those stories where a British thing is a huge hit outside the UK. That coincided with season three, and we took off from that point, really.”
HEY, GOOD LOOKING
When Red Dwarf returned from a four-year break in 1997, it looked very different – on both sides of the camera. Co-creator Rob Grant had left, Chris “Rimmer” Barrie appeared in just a few episodes, Lister’s ex, Kochanski, was now a regular character (played by Chloë Annett) and the show had a more cinematic look. And for the first time, it wasn’t filmed in front of a live studio audience.
“[Director] Ed Bye’s view was, ‘If we were going to make a film we should shoot it single camera and not have the audience, because it would look more filmic. And if do end up doing a
film, it would be good practice for the guys. The argument made sense to me. But then what happened was, there were never enough gaps for the laughter, because you can’t expect the cast to accurately guess every gap. It wasn’t the best thing to do, but I only realised that after the event.
“So we got the audience back on VIII. They were a bit raucous that audience. It was like having a rock and roll night! But the cast love working with an audience. It brings them alive.”
Despite 1999’s series VIII topping eight million viewers, it would be the last run the Dwarfers would get on the BBC – and their last new episodes anywhere for a decade.
But Red Dwarf never went away – through much of that “lost” decade Naylor was working on the long-mooted Red Dwarf movie. “We were trying to get the film off the ground for ages,” he explains. “There were so many drafts of the movie. There isn’t a definitive script, because I was constantly being asked either to rewrite it to make it more expensive, or to then rewrite the rewrites to make it cheaper. It kept looking like it was getting very close, and then we had the money fall through so it all fizzled out, and it looked like that would be it.”
But in the meantime, repeats of the show had become something
“i was constantly being asked to either rewrite the film to make it more expensive, or to then rewrite the rewrites to make it cheaper”
a phenomenon on UKTV’s Dave channel. So popular, in fact, that UKTV approached Naylor about getting the cast back together – in costume – to provide a framework for a clip show. Those plans were eventually abandoned in favour of an all-new three-part series, “Back To Earth” (2009), a fourth-wall-busting story that saw Lister, Kryten, Rimmer and the Cat coming back to presentday Earth, finding out they’re characters in a long-running space-set sitcom (they even see themselves on the cover of SFX), and meeting Coronation Street star Craig Charles, who, er, looks kind of familiar. The budget was small, with just “three proper sets”, location shoots and CG backgrounds (film school students helped out with some of the effects), but it was a huge success, breaking records for a digital-only channel.
“I knew where I was going, and I knew I had to prove to UKTV [it could be successful],” Naylor says. “I just thought, we’ll just get something made in the best way we possibly can with the limitations of this micro budget. But equally, once it’s out there, then I can change things. That’s thankfully what happened. It got fantastic figures!”
“Back To Earth” opened the door for an all-new, six-part series X, which debuted in 2012 – and really was a return to the feel of the ’80s and ’90s. “I told them, I want it to be like the BBC Two show, 30 minutes, with the four boys primarily on Red Dwarf and with complete stories. And I want an audience. So that’s what we did.”
Like its predecessor, Red Dwarf X was again a big ratings success, proving popular with fans and critics. SFX described it as “a triumphant return to form”, and pointed out that “people wanted it to be good and were happy that it deliriously was.” There seems to be plenty of life left in that giant red spaceship.”
“Even now there’s new generations watching it,” says Naylor. “People watch it and like it. They have kids, and the kids watch it.” So if you find yourself waking up from stasis in three million years time, it might be worth seeing if Red Dwarf is still out there...
Red Dwarf XI airs on Dave from 22 September.
Rimmer and Lister with the first incarnation of Kristine Kochanski (Clare Grogan).
The crew you’ve known for all these years…
The Holly Hop Drive unfortunately doesn’t get the boys back to Earth “in seconds”.
Doug Naylor introduces a live recording.
The crew with Holly’s new head.
Covers from Red Dwarf’s very own Smegazine.
Red Dwarf is only 28 years younger than Coronation Street!
A bit like being on Fifteen To One.
The series X vintage, and SFX’s uber-rare guest-star cover.