What can we expect from this new series of Red Dwarf?
It’s a throwback, really, to the series that were made in the mid-90s: the four boys on Red Dwarf. It’s character-based comedy, similar to those middle series that were aired on BBC2.
Why did you go back to a live studio audience – did you feel that the Back to Earth mini-series in 2009 worked less well without the laughter?
The situation with Back to Earth was that we had to play with the hand we were dealt. That isn’t to denigrate Back to Earth, because there were a lot of great things about it. But it wasn’t necessarily what we’d have chosen if we’d been given any choice.
Originally, the idea was that Dave wanted to celebrate Red Dwarf’s 20th anniversary and the actors were going to be in costume introducing some clips. But it evolved, and I don’t think the people who put the budget together realised how expensive it is to start Red Dwarf up from scratch because, of course, we didn’t have any sets at that point at all.
And so, we were forced to go down a particular path, which meant we couldn’t afford the studio audience. In fact, we couldn’t really afford any sets either. In the end, we had two-and-a-half sets. I mean, people look at Back to Earth and think it looks like the most expensive and sumptuous episode ever. It looks like there was a ton of money thrown at it, but that’s just the brilliance of the direction and the visual effects, I’m afraid.
And it’s not necessarily what’s good for the comedy, because the boys hated doing all that green-screen work. So the day after it was broadcast – and, of course, it was very successful – I said that if we were going to do it again, I’d want a proper set and audience back, please.
Plus, I didn’t want to write 23-minute episodes because Red Dwarf episodes are quite complicated - with 23 minutes you end up having to spread the story over several episodes. I don’t think it’s as satisfying as getting a whole story in one episode. Basically, this time around, all the things I wanted we’ve got.
There's still an appetite for Red Dwarf – didn’t those 2009 episodes get three million viewers?
Yes, and it was repeated over the Easter weekend. If you aggregate all three shows and add the Making Of documentary, the actual figure you end up with is 11 million. It beat BBC2, which is absolutely unheard of for a non-terrestrial channel, which was just amazing.
Also, lots of Red Dwarf fans didn’t know it was on. Even now, a couple of years later, fans say to me: “What? I’ve never heard of it.” So, that’s very bizarre.
Have there been any approaches by the BBC since then to resurrect it?
I think you can probably guess! Of course, BBC2 is where the whole thing started and obviously we want to get the biggest possible audience we can. But no, the BBC hasn’t approached us.
The last one we did with them was series eight, which got eight million and was the most successful series we’ve ever done. And then we wanted to do a film, which took so long not to get anywhere! We were constantly promised that the money was there, or about to be there, and we were sent to places all over the world from Austria to Australia to look at locations.
I think I did 35 rewrites of the script. I was asked to make the movie look more expensive because, at one point, the budget went up to close to £20 million. Then I was asked to rewrite it again to bring it down so it would only cost £8 million. We should have tried to make something for £3 million and it would probably have got made. But that didn’t happen and neither did the movie.
Then we stepped off the TV merry-go-round and once you’re off, it’s hard to get back on. I totally understand the channel controllers who want to encourage the next generation and who say, “We don’t want you old farts back again, although we enjoyed you while you were here. And quite honestly, we don’t know if the people who used to watch your show will still watch.” But I think Back to Earth proved that the Red Dwarf fanbase is still there.
And bizarrely we’ve got a whole new generation because the show’s been repeated on Dave.
Craig Charles told me he gets young people coming up to him and talking about episodes that were made in the late 80s…
Often before they were born! It’s bizarre. I went on holiday with some friends and they had an eight-year-old son. All he did for the entire holiday was watch Red Dwarf on his dad’s iPhone. I’m on holiday, trying to relax and all I can hear is the flipping Red Dwarf theme tune.
In retrospect, do you think the fact that the movie didn’t get made was probably for the best? When you watch the episodes with the studio audience, it’s almost like the cast can time their gags better. Is it a more natural fit on TV?
I think that’s absolutely right. Once we had the budget for the movie, I wanted to do what the Marx Brothers did, which was to take their scripts on the road to test them out with an audience and then film them. So they knew where the laughs were and then they replicated their performance in front of the audience on film. And I thought that was the clever, smart thing to do because there is an extra energy in front of an audience.
No matter what you say to an actor, you can’t make them truly scared in the way that an audience makes them scared. They know that if they don’t perform on the night, the scene won’t ever work. So they all just raise their game in a way that they find much more difficult if they’re in front of green-screen for 12 hours.
Are the cast always willing to jump back on board?
Absolutely, yes. We have such a good time. It is one of the hardest comedies to make though. I mean, poor Robert Llewellyn [Kryten] – if he were to eat while in costume it would completely mess up his lips. So he chooses not to and has these energy shakes, which he drinks through a straw. So he has the mask, which does terrible things to his eyes and skin. And then he’ll go off and have a curry with Craig in the evenings and says that he’s still managed to put on weight by the end of the shoot. It’s so unfair!
So you’ve got the costumes and the miniatures, some green screen and complex stories thrown in. It’s hard, and everyone accepts that it’s hard. But it’s also great fun.
I know the visual effects have become more sophisticated over the years but, for me, the best scenes are always in the bunkroom, where you see the loneliness of the situation these characters face.
We’ve got back to that core with this series. It’d probably be quite a hard sell these days, though, if you went in and pitched a science-fiction comedy. You’re halfway out the door already. People hate that idea.
Plus it’s just four blokes, no women, no aliens or monsters - and a lot of it’s about loneliness and your life slipping by. No one would buy that. But that’s what we’ve got back to: that feeling of trying to make something of your life when there’s not very much there.
There’s a story where Lister has an accidental love triangle with two female dispensing machines. And it’s a situation where you think, "Oh my god, that probably would happen in that environment, where even the dispensing machines are lonely!”
Do you feel that Red Dwarf is strongest when it looks at these little strategies the characters employ to keep themselves sane?
Yes, but occasionally you can have a big plot. You can do a Tikka to Ride, the one in which it turned out that JFK shot himself. And there’s a big one in this series, in show three. Most of the series is set on Red Dwarf, but that has an expansive interior set. So it’ll be interesting to see the reaction to that.
Finally, can you give me three words that you think sum up this series?
I can give you four. Back. To. Its. Best.
The new series of Red Dwarf begins on Thursday 4 October on Dave