Comedy revivals have been ten-a-penny on the BBC this year, with new incarnations of such past hits as Porridge and Are You Being Served? proving ripe for a reboot. But when it comes to the crew of Red Dwarf, it’s Dave that’s held faith. The 11th series (AKA XI) starts this Thursday on the Freeview channel, with a 12th to follow in 2017, all of which will make it 30 years since the show first started filming. But does it feel like three decades have gone by?
“I’ve known these guys half my life,” says Danny John-Jules, who’s just put his Cat costume back on the hanger following a day’s filming at Pinewood. “And let me tell you, nothing builds a bond more than realising you’re the outsiders in the BBC rehearsal room canteen and barely anyone is talking to you.”
Back in late 1987, the boys from the Dwarf were very much the new guys on the BBC block with their low-budget sitcom set in deep space. Red Dwarf would, of course, go on to hit a ratings high of eight million on BBC2, while T-shirts and novels sold by the smeg-load. And yet, it does seem to be all-but ignored by its original home, sidelined in favour of recycled gags about Mrs Slocombe’s pussy. So does John-Jules feel that Red Dwarf has yet to be accepted by the Corporation?
“I don’t know if we want to be accepted anyway,” he counters. “If we were accepted, then we’d just be doing the same shit as them.” And let’s face it, Red Dwarf has always existed in a world of its own, albeit one lovingly nurtured and built upon by co-creator Doug Naylor, who also returns for this run as chief writer. Touring the Pinewood set, you see evidence of his imagination everywhere: posters for Lister’s Zero Gravity football team the London Jets, cans of Jupiter Mining Corporation lager, as well as an impressively refitted Starbug.
But look more closely and you might also just spot the odd sci-fi crossover. “The bed in the science room is from Prometheus,” reveals producer Richard Naylor, Doug’s son. “And some of the lights are from Guardians of the Galaxy. We’re really happy with the set. It looks great when it’s all lit and the guys love Starbug.”
You can see why. As we sit in the interior, Richard notes that some of the toggles and buttons were originally used on Spitfires and Boeing 747s, all of which gives the transport vehicle a very tactile feel. “I always wanted to be a Thunderbird and now I can,” says John-Jules.
However, co-star Robert Llewellyn warns me that I should be on my guard. “When we did Back to Earth [the 2009 special], one of those salvaged seats was still primed to eject with explosives. Can you imagine? Craig Charles would have gone through the ceiling. It would have been the smeg-up of the century.”
Ah, the smeg-ups. Two words that instantly conjure up memories of Red Dwarf bloopers, sold in their thousands on VHS. A bygone age, it seems. Or rather not, as Llewellyn explains: “I get kids coming up to me saying that they watch ‘granddad’s DVDs’, it’s not even dad or mum’s DVDs anymore. Grandad’s. It’s extraordinary. And because of its longevity, I also get people bursting into tears when they see me. They tell me that they used to watch Red Dwarf with their dad, who died last year.”
And how does he react in those situations? “I’m such a typical, middle-class awkward twat,” he laughs. “So I used to get very awkward. But Craig Charles taught me a lot. He just dives straight in. So now, if we’re at a convention or wherever, I just get up from the table, hug them and give them a selfie.”
“And what’s great is seeing how it’s influenced the new generation,” adds John-Jules. “I was at an awards show and Ashley Walters was there telling So Solid Crew that it was because of me that he wanted to become an actor. He said, ‘I’ve still got a photo of Cat on my wall’. So I think it’s become more than just a show.”
And fans will be heartened to know that the show itself has aged well. The opening episodes of series 11 mix sci-fi tropes and comedy to great effect with plotlines seeing Lister’s kidneys organ-napped by a deranged droid, plus a trip to an alternate America where science and technology rather than alcohol is under prohibition.
It seems to me that the long breaks in Red Dwarf’s filming history (filled with aborted plans for a big-screen movie) has given the show time to refresh, but writer Doug Naylor is not of the same opinion. “I think we just missed out on five or six series,” he says of his show’s hiatus. “It was just 12 years of dicking around.”
And who am I to argue, especially when he’s still finding new things to say about slobby last surviving human being Dave Lister making the long journey back home in the company of his unlikely crewmates. Take this, for example, on the era in which Red Dwarf first aired:
“I saw that someone had tweeted about watching it in a Thatcherite context and I thought, ‘my god, I remember feeling that at the time’. All those kids who would hang around shopping malls, bored out of their minds with nothing to do. No jobs and no money. And we took all that and said, ‘wouldn’t it be great if you could be like that and yet somehow have great adventures.”
“It’s very much an educated, working class show,” agrees John-Jules. “It has the vibes of a working class series, but with an educated slant to it. If you don’t know what a word in a scene means, you have to look it up in order to fully understand what’s going on. You have to do your research. That’s why people have watched it over and over again.”
“There is some deep science in there,” says Llewellyn, before roaring with laughter again, “though we do dread finding out which character is going to have to explain it. We’re all waiting for the monstrous exposition speech.”
Thankfully for devotees, Naylor has no plans of robbing his cast of difficult-to-master dialogue (“I don’t think I’ll ever write a final episode,” he says), while the crew themselves have no desire to stand down.
“There’s such a sense of combined history here, says Llewellyn. “We all know each other’s wives and kids. How weird is it that we all have children with the woman we’re still with? Believe me, that’s quite unusual in showbusiness. And it’s a huge privilege to be on a show where I look forward to spending time with three blokes that I’ve known for a long time. We always get on, we always stick with each other. Only the other night, we were hugging and high-fiving Danny after he did this amazing scene. We’re a tight little group.”
On current form, let’s hope that the tight little group doesn’t find its way home to Earth anytime soon.