The boys from the Dwarf returned to our screens after an almost three year absence with the spectacular feature-length special Red Dwarf: The Promised Land, with the TV movie – which saw the posse come up against a band of feral cats evolved from Lister's original litter – earning a warm reception from critics and long-time fans.
With the special now available to enjoy all over again on DVD and Blu-ray, RadioTimes.com caught up with the legendary Chris Barrie, who's played Arnold Judas Rimmer for over three decades, to talk about the experience of reuniting with Craig Charles (Lister), Robert Llewellyn (Kryten) and Danny John-Jules (Cat), finally going feature-length, getting to play a superhero and Rimmer's redemption.
There’s been rumblings about a Red Dwarf movie in some form or other for years. How was the experience of finally getting to shoot a feature-length special?
It was good. I suppose in 2009 we did Back to Earth, which I know was a three-parter, but that was in some ways a bit like shooting [a movie]. The main difference, for me, anyway, between shooting a sort of sitcom length [episode] – 24 minutes, 25 minutes or something like that – and something which is a much longer piece, is you’ve got to keep reminding yourself whereabouts you are in the story! And you usually have a good producer or director or associate producer who’s across that anyway, but that was the thing, you know, we’re jumping back in time here to shoot this or we’re doing that, because you shoot stuff out of order. So that becomes the thing. And you know, to pace the storyline over the length of the time it is. But it was good fun.
It must be challenging filming a 90-minute special in front of an audience, but are you glad that the live audience aspect was kept intact? Do you think Red Dwarf needs that?
Do you know what, I’m kind of 50-50 on this. I know a lot of the other guys, probably Craig, Robert and Danny and Doug [Naylor, series co-creator and Promised Land writer/director] himself, will probably be all guns blazing for an audience. But I’m a bit 50-50.
Some of me wants to not have an audience there because I think it interrupts the rhythm of the action. But that’s only part of me. The vast majority of me enjoys being in front of an audience, particularly obviously for Red Dwarf where the audience are sort of lapping it up, they just love it so much. Sometimes can be a problem because you’re doing something and then there’s this enormous great woof and round of applause and you’ve got to ride that until the next line or whatever. So that can be a bit of a funny old thing.
But you know, there’s no better feeling - that’s why I stayed in the business when I came into it in 1981. There’s no drug better than the sound of laughter, you know? And that’s what it’s all about. So yes, I think overall it’s great to have the audience. Strange, as you imply in your question, to have it in a feature-length thing, but you know, I kind of think it works.
There are some particularly touching moments in Promised Land - especially the scene where Rimmer and Lister are talking about the sun and the moon, and how they reflect on each other. Do you think that longer running time gave the opportunity to dig a little deeper into the characters?
Yes, it does, because you can’t have a laugh every 15 seconds for an hour and 25 minutes, can you, really? You’ve got to have a little bit of mood change in a longer story like that - it just needs to have that. And I think that scene particularly was obviously a case in point and it was a beautifully written scene.
I’ve always said Craig is absolutely brilliant at doing those scenes. He’s just got so much behind his eyes, you know, that it’s great fun - it’s so good to do them with him. And he makes me work that bit better, I suppose, in scenes like that. And yeah, we’ve done scenes like that of course back over the decades together, so it’s always fun to have one of those moments.
We see Rimmer at his lowest ebb at points in this episode but you also get to play an almost superhero version of Rimmer, almost the other extreme. That must have been fun?
Well yes, of course. Diamond-Light, you know! He’s fully charged, to quote an expression - as highly charged as you can ever be. Of course, when that all crashes and he’s sort of charging about Iron Star trying to find a socket to keep some sort of charge, then he gets back to Starbug and then it all starts to dwindle and he goes all black and white and everything... yeah, you go from one extreme to the other.
But Diamond-Light was good fun. Obviously, me being me, it would have been nice to have spent a bit more time in that outfit and being a bit more superhero! The transformation was great fun, going through all the Rimmers of yesteryear.
The rule of sitcoms to a certain extent is that characters can’t change too much. But do you think Rimmer has changed over the years and the decades?
Well, I think there’s always the sort of embittered ‘I want to be an officer but I’ll never be an officer’, you know, and, ‘What do you mean, be the Fourth Musketeer?’ All that sort of thing. I think Rimmer, he’ll always be this sort of ball of failure, unfortunately.
But to think that I played him from my late 20s up to now, I’m 60 now, so it’s quite a long time for a human being to play that character and I think you get an element of the fact that I am 30 years older - you just get a different thing. You’re a different type of person when you’re in your late 50s to when you’re in your late 20s. I think that comes across, the different sort of energy. But I think overall the character has remained the same – I play the character a little bit more laid-back now, but not much!
Do you think there's always the potential for redemption in Rimmer, no matter what stupid or reprehensible thing he says or does?
Definitely, yeah. I think you’ve got to think that. It can’t just be relentless and irredeemable sorrow and bad stuff! There’s got to be a little light at the end of the tunnel. With Rimmer, every story that we tell - well, most stories that we tell, particularly in a longer piece like that, there’s always going to be that moment in the end where it sort of turns out OK, and of course in this one he ends up being a god, so you can’t get much better than that!
Robert fell ill at one point during the Promised Land shoot... was it a tricky project to pull together?
Yeah, it really was tricky doing without Robert. I mean, doing it without any one of the four of us would be difficult, but there was quite a lot of doubt around when Robert would be fit enough to come back, and while he was there and not feeling very good, there were sort of moments where you’re thinking, ‘Well, Bobby, just say you’re not feeling good, you’ve got to go, you’ve got to go and see a doctor or whatever’. And that was a little bit touch and go.
Of course, we had a couple of guys who came in and sort of put on the Kryten costume and stood in for Robert, and they did a great job, but you know, someone who’s played him for as long as Robert has, you’re never going to… no-one’s ever going to stand in for him, so there’s such a limit to what you could shoot. And you know, some days we were in a fully crewed studio sitting there thinking, ‘Well, what can we shoot now?’. So that was difficult, actually, and part of me thinks we should maybe have just knocked filming on the head for a couple of weeks and waited until Robert was completely back. I don’t know what Robert’s told you but we were very worried about him at one point. To have one man down out of the four of us was tough.
It’s remarkable really that you can’t see the joins when you watch the finished project - that it is as polished as it is!
I know! Yeah. It is. You watch it back and you know, you see the scene play out and on television and I just sit there thinking, ‘My God, the problems we had trying to do that, that, that, that and that’s only a minute and a half!’ And everyone, throughout the shoot, almost the entire studio had a cold! I mean, I think I had a cold for about six weeks. I nearly got rid of it over Christmas and then January it came back.
You know, it’s quite a tough show to do - it’s tough shooting in the middle of winter, of course. your batteries are run down and there’s difficulties doing this and difficulties doing that. But you know, Red Dwarf has always been a tricky show to shoot because of its very nature. It’s got usually a few effects and stuff. We could always do with a bigger budget, all that sort of stuff.
It is fantastic how Red Dwarf has kept on surviving and thriving for all these years, but was there ever a point when you thought it was done, or have you always had an inkling that it would be back in some form?
Well, I always knew after series eight, which I think transmitted in about 1999, I always knew that Doug was keen to get it back on, whether as a feature film - I mean, that was the big idea in the early part of this century, to have a feature film. But every time… you were never far away from some form of communication with the Red Dwarf office to say, ‘Guys, we’re nearly there on this, we’re nearly there on that’.
Mind you, I suppose when we got to about 2007 or somewhere around there, 2006 or 2007, I thought to myself, ‘We haven’t done the show for so long now, for eight years or whatever, it’s not going to happen again’. But then lo and behold in 2009 it kicked off again! And now I think we’re at the stage where I think there’s the possibility that they want to do more and more... so we’ll see!
Red Dwarf: The Promised Land DVD and Blu-ray is available now