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“They were wrong twice,” says Danny John-Jules, looking back at the execs and TV channels that believed Red Dwarf’s best days were gone.
John-Jules is the cast member who appears happiest to shout proudly about the enduring popularity of Red Dwarf, sticking a tongue out at all those who have doubted, under-appreciated and ignored the sci-fi comedy over the last three decades.
“You have to remember the creators had to do it twice. They had to convince the industry this show could work; who then decided it had run its course. Again 20 years later they dissed us again and we proved them wrong again. Dave channel and Baby Cow came along again and said well we don’t believe that there’s no longer an audience for Red Dwarf so they proved them wrong again,” explains John-Jules.
“Who knows what’s going to happen the third time around. We will be pushed in on wheelchairs saying we told you we weren’t finished.”
No other British TV sitcom from the 1980s is still pulling in millions and millions of viewers with new episodes. It may have been snubbed by awards ceremonies and largely ignored by TV critics, but the passion and the size of the Red Dwarf fandom is almost unrivalled. Just ask Craig Charles about the body parts he’s seen his face tattooed down the years.
The show’s enduring success is a testament to two things. The ability of the show’s writer and creator Doug Naylor to keep reinventing the series. And the much-loved cast, the original space posse, Craig Charles, Chris Barrie, Danny John-Jules and Robert Llewellyn, for keeping its central spirit and punky attitude.
90-minute special The Promised Land, the 14th outing for Red Dwarf, is as smeg-tastic as anything the show has done before. We may never get the Red Dwarf movie, which never got off the ground in the 90s, but this is a more than ample replacement.
Featuring guest stars Tom Bennett, Mandeep Dhillon, Lucy Pearman and Ray Fearon, the story of Promised Land takes Red Dwarf back to its very first episode when Lister smuggled his pregnant cat aboard the mining ship.
The cats evolved into humanoid form and now roam deep space in a fleet of their own. The felines in space include a trio of cat cleric who worship Lister as their God and a ruthless feral cat leader who wants to wipe out all cats who worship anyone but him.
Joyfully rude, silly and outrageously imaginative as ever, The Promised Land is a smegging great.
The long road to the Promised Land
“The ‘will there, won’t there, who’s going to be involved’, is usually on the other side of the camera, that’s always been a soap opera in itself at Red Dwarf” admits Chris Barrie.
“There have always been interesting times on that admin side. But when we’ve got to the studio, got the script and hit our marks and said our lines, that’s when it all comes to life and when everyone says isn’t it good that we’ve waded through the - to use a Red Dwarf phrase - smeg to get where we are now.”
“There was quite a big gap, about 10 years, where it was what I used to do,” explains Llewellyn. “This is a big surprise.
“I was doing a show called Scrapheap Challenge on Channel 4 and my whole world had moved on, I wasn’t doing acting and didn’t have to wear weird costumes. I was doing TV presenting which I always swore I never wanted to do and then I quite enjoyed it.
“I didn’t think that we’d carry on doing it and it’s been the most privileged I’ve ever felt with the scrappy bit of old rag that I call my career to end up in a show that’s such an iconic thing. Because I never really had a career, I just stumbled from one thing to the next. I’m happy that if nothing else ever works that I do I’m really proud of what we’ve achieved on Red Dwarf and I’ve been involved in it.”
And in an extra special treat for die-hard fans, Norman Lovett also returns for The Promised Land, reprising his role as Holly.
“Oh how could I forget!” said Barrie. “What a great guy and a proper comic with proper timing and delivery. Cynical as ever but brilliant to see him back, and the audience absolutely go nuts when they see him.”
The sets are a lot better than the early years
“To think that back in the old days we had the old flapping sets and some fairly ropey kind of stuff,” said Barrie.
“We used models more and I loved using models, we still use them a little bit these days, but of course the quality of those have gone up.”
Looking back at the show’s early years, Llewellyn said: “The first episode I did was 1989 and the difference in the technology we used in that period is breath taking. The fact I can sit in my house and talk in to a piece of glass that doesn’t have a wire joining anything – you couldn’t do that when we first started making it.
“And I’ve just been broadcasting television on a computer in my studio so the amount of changes we’ve seen and the technology we use as well is extraordinary and how much that’s changed. The special effects and the CGI in this special are extraordinary.
“Hollywood couldn’t have done that on a $100 million budget back in 1989. It wasn’t possible. “
Kryten's suit is getting bigger every series
“I’m very ashamed to say it’s expanded a little as one rather cruel viewer once commented: ‘It looks like Kryten has downloaded one too many apps’. Which I thought was a little bit unnecessary!” says Llewellyn.
“It has got a bit roomier around the midriff but in this special in particular it is quite bashed up. Essentially it is actually the same costume – it’s the same idea and design that has been refreshed many times over the last 30 years. I think the mask is very good in this episode and it is much more comfortable for me.
“It’s less stressful to wear than the older ones. I’ve always not been aware of it when we’re actually recording something but even less so with this one. It makes life a lot easier.”
Craig Charles went method playing Lister
“The way I play Lister is he’s quite dissolute at the moment. He’s hoarding all this sh*t and drinking copious amounts of booze and eating wrong, which is fun to play because I play it for real. Basically I just got pissed for five months and ate curry! So no hardship for me to be honest, I really enjoyed doing it!” jokes Charles.
“But he’s got to that stage in his life, and I play age appropriate because he’s 55, where he’s been alone in space for all that time and has no lover but a group of characters around him who to be fair you wouldn’t choose them! And he’s struggling really, which is the way I’ve tried to play him. Emotionally he’s a bit on edge. He’s definitely having a midlife crisis!”
Robert Llewellyn threw a spanner in the works
“In the first week of shooting I was taken to hospital in an ambulance and I was in hospital for four days so it really did screw things up,” recalls the Kryten actor.
“The recovery from it was slow and grim so it really did delay things. We were meant to finish two weeks before Christmas and we finished about six weeks after Christmas. I was very lucky and very well looked after in St Mary’s Hospital in London. Then you think how important it is with what’s going on now. I’ve been so lucky to get to my mid 60s, I’ve had stitches and a bad back but I’ve never had to spend a night in hospital. Then to be suddenly hospitalised and to be cared for with such amazing skill and kindness I think is an extraordinary privilege we have in this country.”
Llewellyn’s illness reminded his co-stars how much the series depended on all four central cast members, even if they didn’t show him too much sympathy about his trip to hospital.
“Robert Llewellyn got ill the old bastard,” teases Craig Charles.
“It was really strange not having him in the company because you realise how much you miss him - and what a lovely bloke and talented individual he is."
Diversity? Red Dwarf was way ahead of the game
"When we all sat down originally we all agreed that the two shows we wanted to be like were Porridge and Rising Damp and you can see the similarities,” says John-Jules.
“There was a black character who was more posh than the white characters in Rising Damp. And the black guy in Porridge was Scottish. I wanted to be in shows like that, going against the protocol.
“It’s the most diverse show that’s been on British television. All these people running up and down talking about diversity in television – Red Dwarf has been kicking your ass for 32 years, flying that flag for so long that it’s either gone over people’s heads or people don’t want to see it.
“Diversity is when colour doesn’t matter and in 32 years the colour of a man’s skin has never been mentioned in Red Dwarf."
Craig Charles got emotional about this possibly being the end of Red Dwarf
“I'm normally more together than the rest of the lads but on this one there was a sense of is this the last one? Is this the last time we’re all going to be in a room together? I think every episode of Red Dwarf we always think it’s going to be the last one. But this one felt like it might be because how long does Robert want to get in that mask?” said Charles.
“And I don’t think Lister’s haircut is very age appropriate to be honest!
“So I kind of enjoyed the company and they are three very funny men. They crack me up a lot on so many levels and there was a lot of camaraderie, we laughed a lot. What was a very intense shoot we found time to smell the roses really and just enjoy it. What a job! It’s not a bad job is it?”
Does he really think we’ve seen the end of the Dwarf?
"I don’t know. Robert is so old and decrepit; he’s breaking down that lad!” teases Charles.
"I’m the only one with hair now! I’d love to do more, it’s one of those things that you don’t want to let go but you don’t want to outstay your welcome. And it would be a shame to mess up the legacy of what we’ve done by turning out inferior work. But I don’t think we are, I think we’re on our game. It all depends. If Robert wants to get in the mask, if Doug wants to write and direct more, if the budget is there because these things take quite a lot of money to make. I’m certainly willing.
"There’s so much to look at and so much fun to be had, and let’s face it the whole world is going to hell in a handcart so everyone needs a laugh. Red Dwarf is satire as well as comedy and a lot of what we’ve done already is so prescient to what’s going on in the world today."
Watch Red Dwarf: The Promised Land on Thursday, April 9th at 9pm on Dave.
Catch up on BT TV via UKTV Play or on the BT Player.