Red Dwarf is a unique television phenomena, a science-fiction show that was genuinely funny. There have been many other sci-fi TV shows with comedy elements, such as Lexx and Farscape, none but have been a pure comedy. Neither has a comedy TV show employed so many science-fiction tropes. The closest approximation to Red Dwarf was the outstanding Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy, however this was initially a radio-show, that only much later spawning the books and TV series.
Much of the humour in Red Dwarf arises from a simple premise: four men trapped in a room. In this case, the men are Dave Lister (Craig Charles), a chirpy Liverpudlian who is also the last human being alive, Arnold Rimmer (Chris Barrie), a hologram of Lister’s dead bunk-mate, The Cat (Danny John-Jules), a creature who evolved from the ship’s cat, and Kryten (Robert Llewleyn), a neurotic sanitation mechanoid with a loose sanity chip. The room in question is a five-mile-long deep-space vessel, several million years in the future. The hilarity of Red Dwarf is aided and abetted by psychotic androids demanding the crew justify their existence, rogue A.I.’s attempting to get them into shape, and emotion-sucking killer shami kebabs.
The writing in Red Dwarf remained consistently top-notch as the series continually adapted. Changes included adding new characters, changing locations from the Red Dwarf itself to the transport vessel Star Bug, losing (and then finding) Red Dwarf, swapping actors for Red Dwarf‘s AI Holly (following a head-sex-swap operation), as well as at one point resurrecting the entire ship crew. Despite all this, Red Dwarf‘s premise remain unchanged: four guys trapped in a room with nothing to do.
The key element to the success of the show is the carefully selected characters. These are not the best-of-the-best (or, as one character famously puts it, “Don’t give me that Star Trek crap, it’s too early in the morning!”), instead this is your average person that you would meet in the street, and the friends he picks up on the way. Each of the characters are evolved as the series progressed, yet never lose their core traits. The Cat remains the best-dressed – and vain – entity in all of the six known universes; whilst Rimmer is still a “jumped up little squirt with a Napoleon complex”.
After the BBC foolishly declined a ninth season of Red Dwarf, a shorter three-part series entitled Back To Earth was commissioned by the Dave channel. Whilst Back To Earth divided long-standing fans due to its heavy use of CGI and lack of audience, the episodes were nonetheless a success. This success was due to the fact it was bloody funny and had numerous references to Blade Runner, the film which inspired Red Dwarf‘s creators Rob Grant and Doug Naylor to start writing. So when I heard the news that Doug Naylor (Rob Grant having decided many years ago to focus on other projects) had brought the band back together for a new season, this was nothing but good news.
With Red Dwarf having recently finished filming its tenth season, Chris Barrie (Rimmer) and Danny John-Jules (The Cat) joined the National Space Centre in celebrating Britain’s Science Fiction pedigree at the Brit SciFi 2012 event in Leicester. Despite their busy schedule, they still found time for a short interview.
OneMetal Red Dwarf has finished filming its tenth season: what brought you all back together?
Chris I think after the success of Back To Earth, there was always an intention for some more new product. What form that would take we didn’t really know. I think a lot of people, after Back To Earth, were saying that the one thing that that three-parter missed was the audience. I think there was an acceptance that any new product we did would have an audience, just like the old series. I think with those positive and definite elements in mind, there was a determination to get that tenth series off the ground.
OneMetal Coming from an impressionist background, how did you become involved in Red Dwarf?
Chris I worked on Spitting Image (as an impressionist) with Rob Grant and Doug Naylor, and they also worked on something I did which was the Jasper Carrot show Carrot’s Lib in 1983-4. I think when they were finding cast members to work on Red Dwarf to do the characters, they gave the opportunity to people like myself who had worked with them before.
At this point, Danny John-Jules joins us, after searching for his cup of tea (an important subject by all accounts, especaily up north), and compounds his reputation of being consistently late (he apparently arrived at his audition as The Cat in his father’s old zoot suit, oblivious to the fact he was half an hour late. The producers were so impressed with how cool he was about his tardiness, that they offered him the role).
OneMetal Danny, you are from a dance background aren’t you?
Danny Dance yes, the but the first thing I did when I was fourteen was contemporary acting, but my career sort of took-off after dance and musical theatre. What it does from our point of view, and I am sure Chris will agree, is the experience of having worked in different genres, geared us exactly for Red Dwarf, because that’s where the onions were discovered. Having that background of all these different genres – Craig’s poetry; Robert with writing and performance, and mime. Put the four of us in a room, and there is nothing we haven’t done: radio, voice-overs. It is the whole aspect of the industry, and you get those guys all in one show, and what you have longevity.
Chris I suppose we always saw ourselves more as performers, rather than legit actors. I am almost flattered to think that Alfred Molina would have been Rimmer at one point, as he is a fantastic film and stage actor. Rob and Doug decided to go a different way, as they saw a spark in what we were doing, and the potential for chemistry.
Danny And they are happy for it as we’ve heard a few times.
OneMetal Do you think your performing backgrounds contributed to the success of the show?
Danny I think that comedy has a physical aspect. You can’t just be a gag man and do twenty-five years on a show, as it’s just not gonna work. I mean if the Hancocks of this world had to do sit-com, and he was meant to be a gag-man, but when they got him in the sitcom scenario they realised that just the gags are not going to help you go through a series. You gotta have some sort of physicality. If you look at the Two Ronnies, if you look at Leonard Rossiter, if you look at Porridge, you’ll see that there’s a physicality about their comedy.
Chris I think that the performers on Red Dwarf are very different people in their own right. So that led to a very particular kind of chemistry. It is very difficult to put into words, but we are all so different, and when we got that fantastic material that Rob and Doug wrote, it really ignites, you know?
Danny Yeah, there’s a spark there. When you have guest performers coming on that say “I never knew that I’d get to do gags like that!”. It’s simple things, like a guy marching into a shop, it’s a simple thing the walk, but from the character that’s been created for him he understands that and can walk like that character. He can get a laugh just walking into the set. That’s where you see it, when other actors walk-in and drop straight into it.
OneMetal Chris Barrie, Danny John-Jules, thank you both very much.