Classic Interview: Red Dwarf, April, 2006

Red Dwarf

It’s not a sentence that you hear every day - “Excuse me, I must go and get rubberised” - except in certain Soho clubs. Or if you are visiting the Red Dwarf set at Shepperton Studios and talking to Robert Llewellyn, who plays the valet Kryten, the latex-faced mechanoid in the cult science-fiction sitcom.

At Easter the Emmy-winning comedy returns in three new episodes and a documentary. It is the first time a new adventure featuring the four oddball survivors of the mining ship Red Dwarf has been shot since the eighth series a decade ago and a lot of water has certainly flowed under this bridge. Court cases, tabloid scandal, dodgy documentaries for Five. You name it, this gang has suffered for their art.

The atmosphere is frantic but relaxed. If the main stars - Craig Charles (the vindaloo-loving slacker Lister), Chris Barrie (hapless hologram Rimmer), Danny John-Jules (the overvain, overevolved Cat) and Llewellyn - seem like mates, that is because they are. They meet regularly at conventions and DVD commentary recordings. There was always talk of a movie of the series, dubbed Steptoe and Son in Space, so presumably news that Red Dwarf was blasting off again was not a huge surprise.

“Well, it was actually,” Llewellyn says, sounding as excitable as a 53-year-old in rubber ever has. “I’d privately accepted that we’d never do it again, then suddenly it was on. The same thing! With the mask! Craig, Chris and Danny! Bloody hell! But it soon comes back. Kryten is muscle memory.”

They thought that a film would be more likely than another outing on television. The director and co-creator Doug Naylor chips in to explain how their hopes had often been dashed: “Someone claiming to be a Duke wanted to put £60 million into it. He said he was a personal friend of Cate Blanchett. He gave us her number and we spoke to a woman who sounded as if she had a clothes peg on her nose. Then another person said he’d back us, then called to say he couldn’t because he was on his way to prison.”

Then suddenly the TV channel Dave gave them the green light for this three-parter, which is effectively a TV film, with highs and lows and real emotion as Lister returns to Earth. The budget is low but thanks to industry fans helping for peanuts - the CGI boffin Mike Seymour, who worked on Lord of the Rings, paid his own airfare from Australia - hopes are high.

Like Llewellyn, Chris Barrie found getting back into his old role just as easy: “I have done it for so long, it’s like slipping on an old pair of boots.” He was genuinely surprised when it actually happened though: “There was always talk, but I’d see my agent and say: ‘Until the ink is dry I won’t believe it.’” Saying yes, of course, was a no-brainer, which is apt as Rimmer is distinctly lacking in grey matter.

The only thing missing from this revival is the computer, Holly/Hilly, played by Norman Lovett and Hattie Hayridge. For the record Naylor explains: “The story just went off in a direction that excluded them and was about the four boys.” Once you leave the spaceship, he points out, it is hard to lug a computer around with you - Red Dwarf might be set in the future but the series actually predates laptops.

It is an interesting time for the team to reunite. Particularly for Charles, who currently plays the cab-firm boss Lloyd in Coronation Street. In a nice bit of postmodern intertextuality the cast briefly find themselves in Coronation Street, where, keep up now, Lister meets his parallel-universe alter ego, an actor called Craig Charles who stars in a soap.

“It’s a real mind melter,” Charles says with a chuckle, while sneaking outside for a quick break. As well as having the highest profile, he has also had the most tabloid coverage. First, when he was acquitted of rape in the mid-1990s and, more recently, when a story of him smoking crack and reading porn on the motorway hit the headlines. I joke that it could have been worse. At least he was not driving too, but it is not a subject Charles finds funny. “If I strike back I’m not going to win. I’m only going to make it worse. They have it in for me and it’s bad enough as it is.”

Charles has not been the only cast member who has had a brush with the tabloids. John-Jules was also in the red tops after an altercation with his binmen, which resulted in questionable stories about him running down the street in his girlfriend’s lime-green dressing gown. John-Jules was found guilty of assault but acquitted on appeal.

“They [the police] said they offered me the chance to get changed and I refused, which is a load of drivel. They actually said to my missus: ‘He won’t be needing any clothes; he’s going to a nice warm cell’.”

John-Jules is a man full of theories. He believes the British press is racist, which is why it did a story on him (and, presumably, on Charles too). He also suggests that maybe the Cat is gay. “He’s the John Inman of Red Dwarf. He wears more make-up than Tina Turner, he chases the girls but he never gets the girl...” He takes a bite from an apple and winks.Red Dwarf

Llewellyn is friendly with both Charles and John-Jules and sympathises: “Danny isn’t a violent man and comes from a very law-abiding family. It’s because he’s on the telly and because he’s black. If it was me, people probably wouldn’t have tried to sell the story.

“With Craig’s recent problem I felt really sorry for him. He knows he did wrong, but the Establishment press is out to get him because he is cheeky, witty and more intelligent than they are. He was being a t*** and I don’t defend his actions, but the glee with which it was pounced on, you can’t help wanting to defend him.”

A comeback, of course, entails massive expectations. This made Charles hesitate about the reunion. “We’d left a great legacy. Then I read the script and thought I’ve gotta have some of this.” But he is well aware of what’s riding on it: “The pressure’s on - this has got to be better than it ever was before. My son is 21, he was born during the second series, and he’s mad about it.”

Llewellyn agrees: “At first it grew by word of mouth.” Gradually the web took over. “I talked to someone from Microsoft recently who said that one of the first TV-based user groups was Red Dwarf. What launched the internet was Red Dwarf. Well, porn and Red Dwarf.”

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