Eating lunch on the set of Red Dwarf is a surreal experience, a collision of the everyday and the fantastical that feels disorientating for visitors. Not for the cast though it seems.
“You get back into it fairly quickly. The years just seem to roll away,” says Chris Barrie as he puts a copy of Motorcycle News on the table in front of him. I try not to fix my eyes Rimmer’s holographic H, which is still stuck to his forehead.
Robert Llewellyn is even more unrecognizable, his Kryten mask too tricky to remove for something as fleeting as a one-hour break. It means he can’t eat solid food and must drink energy shakes through a straw.
“Don’t get him started on the mask,” warns Craig Charles, the only one of the quartet who could just about pass for a regular guy were he to step out on the street in costume.
“I never get used to looking at him in that thing,” says Danny John-Jules. “Sometimes I just end up staring at it. Even 23 years later, it’s bizarre.”
Phew – perhaps John-Jules won’t feel so bad then about people checking out his towering Cat wig or those feline teeth.
I’m here on Stage K at Shepperton Studios, having received an invite after speaking to Charles. He’d been on the Coronation Street set at the time, filming for the last time before taking a half-year break from his role as cabbie Lloyd. Red Dwarf was beckoning for a tenth series (it airs from October 4 on Dave) and the actor was keen to share the enthusiasm he felt for this reunion:
“Come over and spend the day with us,” he’d said. “You’ll have a real laugh. The fact that the four of us, who are all so diametrically opposed on so many levels, can be best friends and make a coherent unit is a wonder to behold.”
I’d heard reports that, during the early years of Red Dwarf, there’d been ill feeling between Charles and his co-star Chris Barrie. So his reference to them all being “best friends” came as a surprise.
But during my morning at Shepperton, a few months after that initial conversation, there was no sign of any residual animosity as the cast rehearsed their scenes.
Charles has spent the entire time in an illuminated explosive codpiece (referred to in the script as a “ballbuster”), while guest performer Peter Elliott – the film industry’s go-to ape actor – has bounded around Barrie and the Red Dwarf bunkroom in full primate costume.
At one point, Llewellyn, having goofed over his delivery of some technical dialogue, gave himself a stern telling off (“Get it right, you f***ing metal piece of s***!”), something that in turn gave John-Jules a fit of hysterics.
“We’re all great mates because we’ve grown up together. We had difficult days when we first started out because of all the egos,” admits Charles. “But now, we’ve all got children and nice lives and we love comedy. And we’re so thankful that Red Dwarf is in our lives.”
Indeed, who would have believed that, after such a shaky start in 1988, they’d all be making a fresh series nearly a quarter of a century later?
“That first series in Manchester, the audience was thinking, ‘what are we watching?!’. Who would ever have thought that it would still be here today?” says Barrie, with an incredulous shake of the head.
Charles can even quote word for word from a damning early critique:
“I can remember the first review in City Limits. ‘This is the voyage of the Starship Red Dwarf. Its mission – to boldly go where many sitcoms have gone before: up its own arsehole. Very at home in this part of the television anatomy is Craig Charles. Where is he from? A distant planet called Rent a Liverpudlian or was he spontaneously generated by a TV screen? No matter – Charles and this series are heading for a sticky end.’ Believe me, the pain is etched on my soul.”
“We did get slaughtered!” admits John-Jules. “A lot of people were saying that it wasn’t good. Mind you, I remember reading the script and thinking it was either going to be the best thing ever or the biggest pile of poo. But as you went along, it became more and more apparent where Rob Grant and Doug Naylor [the show’s writers] were going with the show.”
Even though ratings and production values were far from ideal for Red Dwarf’s early series (viewing figures started at four million before falling over the course of its initial run), the sitcom’s audience figures grew steadily over time. The sixth series peaked at six million, while over eight million tuned in for the opening episode of series eight. In fact, Red Dwarf still holds the record for being BBC2’s longest-running, highest-rated sitcom.
“As soon as they realized people liked it, the critics started backpedalling,” says Charles. “You’d see a lot of reviews starting with: ‘This much-improved series…’”
In fact, the show even got its revenge on one particular naysayer, the Head of BBC Comedy Gareth Gwenlan, who had originally opposed its being made:
“He turned it down twice,” says John-Jules. “So they put jokes in the script about people being complete Gwenlans.”
“Yes, that used to be difficult for me,” admits Chris Barrie, “because Gareth Gwenlan commissioned The Brittas Empire [the sitcom in which Barrie starred as incompetent leisure centre boss Gordon Brittas] and his partner was the floor manager. So he used to come down to filming and ask how things were going. I had to use a lot of tact because it could have been quite tricky.”
Class Reunion Red Dwarf may have left terrestrial TV in 1999, but it’s been kept alive in the public’s consciousness thanks to DVD releases and a cinematic three-part mini series Back to Earth, which was shown on Dave in 2009.
Although Charles admits that this revival was “hit and miss” and “not as funny as it could have been”, its success paved the way for this latest six-part series, which sees writer Doug Naylor channelling the success of Red Dwarf’s glory years on BBC2.
So did a reunion 24 years after that inaugural series in 1988 present any particular challenges?
“Well, my sons have watched reruns of the old series,” says Barrie. “And the older one was looking at the screen and then back at me and he said, ‘Dad, are you going to do another one of these?’ So I nodded and he said, ‘But what are they going to do about you?’
“I think he was talking about the thickness of my hair. Back in 1988, I could produce Rimmer’s ice-cream-cone hair all by myself. But no amount of hair-thickening cream was going to work this time around, so I had to go to a special clinic.”
“It was him that gave Wayne Rooney the phone number,” says John-Jules, getting in on the gag.
And what of Llewellyn? Despite Craig Charles warning me not to ask about the Kryten mask, I feel I must reference the actor’s experiences of wearing such a heavy prosthetic.
“I love it! I love it! I want to wear it all the time,” he says, attempting a rictus grin. “I still remember wearing it for the first time, actually, back when we were filming Marooned [an episode from series three]. All the script said was: ‘Kryten pulls a sledge with Cat on the back in a snowstorm’. The snowstorm was a VW engine with a fan on the end of it and the snowflakes were Lux soap.
“And the make-up was so heavy around my eyes that I couldn’t blink. My eyes were effectively glued open and I had to walk into a snowstorm of soap. So, funnily enough, that really hurt. And I remember thinking: ‘is this normal?’”
“Turns out it was perfectly normal,” laughs Barrie.
Back to basics
Having now seen the first episode of series ten, I’m happy to report that it’s a lively recreation of Red Dwarf as we most fondly remember it. It’s all here: the studio audience, the bunkroom sparring and the small strategies employed by the crew to make their lonely lives that bit more bearable.
So was it important to the actors that they recaptured that original vibe?
“I didn’t want to do it if it wasn’t funny,” says Charles. “It’s such a wonderful legacy and you’ve really got to get it right. The studio audience is very important – we all need it because we’re all show-offs! Having them there does put a pep in your step.”
“We loved the old 1970s sitcoms like Rising Damp and Porridge, those are the comedies that floated our boats,” says John-Jules. “We used to have conversations about them all the time. We didn’t talk about modern shows, we were much more old school.
“So the influence from Fawlty Towers and Steptoe and Son is there – that was where the vibe of Red Dwarf really came from. It’s taking on that old style of sitcom that you don’t see much of today.”
Are they hoping to snare a fresh crowd of Red Dwarf devotees in the process?
“We’ve got a whole new generation of Red Dwarf fans thanks to Dave,” says Charles. “They weren’t even born when the first series went out. In fact, some of them weren’t even born when the last series went out.”
“Then you get the fans who say that they’re so looking forward to this new series because they don’t have to ask permission to stay up to watch it anymore,” adds Llewellyn.
So after 61 episodes, do the actors have any unfulfilled ambitions where Red Dwarf is concerned?
“I think it’d be great if, for one scene, we could be beaming somewhere and suddenly we’d be on the Tardis with the Doctor,” says Charles. “ Then we could shake our heads, say ‘nah’ and just beam back out again.”
John-Jules, it seems, is in agreement: “I think Doug should write in one of the old Doctors. Sylvester McCoy or someone. And then we could have an episode with one of those guys in it. It would be funny.”
And with the tantalising prospect of this sci-fi team-up lingering in the air, my time with the boys from the Dwarf comes to an end. They head back to their scripts and I head back to Earth. But as I leave, Craig Charles offers a final few words about what fans have to look forward to with series ten:
“There’s some great stories in this one. In fact, the only things that can spoil it are the four actors involved,” he laughs.
Red Dwarf begins on Dave on Thursday 4 October at 9pm