Red Dwarf cast and co-creator interview: series XII, the future

We interview Craig Charles, Chris Barrie, Robert Llewellyn, Danny John-Jules and Doug Naylor about Red Dwarf XII and more...

It’s a good time to be a Red Dwarf fan. After years off our screens, and talk of a movie that ultimately came to naught, the show made its return with Back To Earth in 2009. UKTV Freeview channel Dave was revealed as the new home of the show, and it’s fair to say that they’ve treated the small rouge one very well in the years since the big comeback.

Red Dwarf X followed in 2012, and Red Dwarf XI in 2016. Both series gave fans what they wanted to see: character-driven episodes, stuffed with creative insults, shot in front of a live studio audience. And now, as Red Dwarf XII continues that tradition with another six instalments, we got the chance to sit down with the cast and co-creator of the show for a good long chinwag.

Craig Charles, Chris Barrie, Robert Llewellyn, Danny John-Jules and Doug Naylor were all present, as I shuffled into a swanky meeting room in the London offices of Baby Cow Productions. There were points when the conversation was completely out of my control, but it was always fun to listen to…

So this series was ordered, written and shot at the same time as the last one. How did that come about? Did that come from Dave, or was it from you guys?

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Doug Naylor: It came about because, well, from a UKTV point of view… no, actually, the truth was…

Robert Llewellyn: It was kind of a combination, wasn’t it?

DN: Craig was in Corrie.

Craig Charles: Yeah.

DN: We wanted to get him out.

CC: I said, “I’m not coming out for fucking six episodes.”

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[Lots of laughter from everyone.]

CC: “I’ve got a job for life here, I’m not coming out for six fucking episodes of Red Dwarf.”

DN: And he said, “Come on, making twelve, surely that’s got to be cheaper?” And it’s true. It is cheaper.

[Lots of agreement in the room.]

DN: And, you know, “Twelve, Doug, you could do twelve.”

CC: I said, “Look at them!” [gestures to his co-stars]

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DN: “Look at them! Get them done!”

CC: While we still can! While they’ve still got their own teeth!

[Lots of laughter]

RL: [pulling at his teeth] Well, some of them.

CC: None of them got their own hair.

[More LOLs]

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DN: So that’s how it came about. Yeah.

RL: Yeah it was availability, as well, wasn’t it? Squashing it in made it a lot easier to fit everything else in.

Chris Barrie: Cost efficient.

DN: Cost efficient, and you’ve got Danny gallivanting off to the Caribbean [for Death In Paradise].

CC: See, he didn’t give up his job. I gave up my job!

RL: You had to give it all up.

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CC: But the thing about it was, it’s difficult to get us all in the room together. So if you’re going to get us in the room together, let’s try and make it count.

DN: Let’s get a few in.

CB: Yep.

DN: And of course, that’s what UKTV wanted, you know.

CC: Chris is off farming his land, and you know…

RL: Shooting people.

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[Laughter from Chris Barrie]

CC: Shooting grouse.

RL: You say shooting grouse.

CC: He calls them grouse.

CB: Other people call them hikers.

[Lots of laughter]

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Was it challenging, Doug, to write two series at once?

DN: Yeah, well, but you just have to… I have a schedule. I had to deliver. There were four blocks of threes. So it was just: do the first three, don’t worry about anything else. And provided you hit the deadlines, you’ll be okay. So it’s sort of like walking across the tightrope, and don’t look down. And this time it was fine, actually.

RL: It was.

CC: He gets better with age, doesn’t he?

RL: He does. Because, had we got all of them before we even started? Yeah, we had.

DN: Yeah yeah. All twelve were done.

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RL: Because there were, historically, episodes which weren’t necessarily fully written when we were actually making them.

[Laughter, mainly from me]

DN: Back in the day.

RL: I think it’s fair to say that.

DN: I remember season 6 –

CC: We’ve done so many episodes called Don’t Worry, It’ll All Be Alright.

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DN: – they were coming in, you’d rehearse, and there were scenes coming in during the week.

RL: The most extreme example was when we were in Starbug cockpit, and we all had, which I loved, little autocues. And then we were back getting our call, “Ready on four!” And, “Yeah, we’re all ready.” And then I see my lines disappearing [on the autocue] and then being rewritten. Because Doug’s on the autocue.

[Lots of laughter, Doug starts trying to protest.]

RL: It’s fucking true! You were on the autocue!

CC: It’s a great scene for Red Dwarf, that.

RL: We did that scene in one take, that’s what I always remember. It was a quite long wordy scene, and they were freshly minted words.

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CC: But you’ve had your lines taped to front of my head, and I’ve had his lines [gestures to Barrie] on the back of my chair. You know, stuff like that.

CB: It’s an art in itself, I think.

DN: It is.

So in the first episode of series 12, you’ve got Lister getting quite chummy with Hitler. Were you worried, Craig, when you read that, about how people would react?

CC: I just thought, ‘one off me bucket list’. [Laughter] The concept of it is just so outlandish. But you’ve gotta realise, that I wasn’t playing guitar with Hitler, I was playing guitar with who I thought was a cured Hitler.

DN: Yes.

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CC: And to be fair, actually, throughout that episode, Ryan Gage plays it so fucking well.

RL: Yeah. True.

CC: Throughout that episode, you start actually feeling sorry for Hitler. How can you say that?

DN: When we cut it, they went, “awww”.

CC: “awww”. Yeah.

DN: And when he said, you know, you won’t jam with him, “It’s because I’m Hitler, isn’t it?”

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CC: The audience went “awww”. [Laughter] But no, I wasn’t. I thought the concept of it was hilarious actually, and quite thought-provoking. And I just thought it would be such a really cool scene to play. And then when we got the tune sorted out.

DN: Ohhh my god.

CC: [Sings] ‘I like to go a-wandering!’ Which we sang because I used to sing it in fucking Boy Scouts.

DN: Did you?

CC: I did, yeah.

DN: Because we couldn’t get permission. No one would give us permission.

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CC: To use a song.

DN: To use any song.

CC: We were gonna do Toto, Africa, weren’t we?

DN: We were gonna do all sorts of things, yeah, and they all said no as soon as they heard, “It’s with Hitler.” No. “But he’s cured!” No. [Laughter]

CC: So I had this kind of song that we used to sing in the scouts, which has got a kind of quite alpine feel to it. It’s quite a traditional, old, you know…

RL: Sort of ging gang goolie song, isn’t it?

CC: Yeah, ging gang goolie.

DN: It was a perfect choice, actually.

RL: Yeah it worked really well.

CC: But it works well with that soft rock connotation, doesn’t it?

DN: Yeah. And the back-to-back stuff.

CC: Yeah! So no, I was chuffed. I was really happy to play that. And he played it brilliantly, you know.

And after that, episode 2 is a big one for Kryten, when you meet all the other mechs. Robert, how fun was it to watch everyone else go through the pain [of wearing the mech prosthetics]?

RL: It wasn’t a lot of fun, to be honest. I mean, I felt for them. And the extras as well, all had the mask on. It was extraordinary, visually, for me to walk in a room and everyone’s got a fucking rubber head on. ‘Oh god, what’s happened!’ But I thought they did amazingly well to cope with that the first time.

Because that’s what I remember most clearly. The first day I was on the set, in that mask, going, ‘I can’t do this. Why did I say yes? This is fucking horrendous. It’s so horrible.’ And I’ve got used to it, so, it really isn’t fair. You compare it to that first day, but not to the normal days now that I do.

CC: I found it really unpleasant.

RL: It was very tough on them.

CB: It was.

RL: And they were brilliant in it. And it just looks amazing. So it’s an amazing episode. And the other actors that were in the therapy group, it’s just extraordinary. The guy who was the facilitator. I’ve met him in a men’s group in Stratford East in 1977.

[Puts on a northern accent] “Now let’s all get together and be more gentle.” It’s just that kind of way.

CB: [Same northern accent] Facilitator. “Now you feel like you’re the oppressor and the oppressed. That’s a dichotomy.” [Back to his normal accent] They’re always gently northern, aren’t they? [Laughter]

RL: Who’s that lovely painter?

CC: David Hockney?

RL: Yeah. It was brilliant! I just loved the way he did that.

How much better is it filming with an audience? Obviously you did Back To Earth and some of the earlier episodes without that.

RL: I mean, we all love it, I think.

CB: Yeah.

RL: It is harder to do it. It puts more stress on the production, and you’ve got to cram it in as quickly as you can on that night.

CC: There’s been a big move away from laugh track sort of sitcoms.

DN: Yeah.

CC: In the teenies. And I think Red Dwarf sort of proves that sitcoms – sitcoms filmed the classic way – can still work in the 21st century.

RL: We raise our game, basically, when there’s an audience in. It just lifts you. You just kind of do a show there.

DN: And also it does tell you whether they’re enjoying it.

RL: Yeah.

DN: If they think it’s funny or not. And it is single camera, you don’t know how that will play to an audience.

CC: And you are very much at the mercy of the edit, then.

DN: Yeah, exactly right.

CC: It gives you your timing. You wait for the laugh to die before you [carry on].

DN: And you can prolong things.

RL: And historically, we’ve all come out of a live performing background, in some form. That’s kind of where I learned how you perform in front of an audience, is from performing in front of an audience. There’s not really any way of practising that. You need an audience.

DN: You need an audience. It’s funny, we’ve all come up that way.

RL: So yes, it’s vital.

I just want to touch on the last one of this season, where Rimmer goes to all these alternate dimensions. It’s an absolutely classic episode, and I think people are gonna completely love it. Was that a fun one for you, Chris?

CB: Well, it was fun, yeah. I mean, you know, the sort of back in time business. And obviously the highlight type thing was meeting Holly again, you know? And that will go down as probably the longest riding of a laugh I’ve ever done. Obviously, on the show, you might not get that, but yeah, it was great fun.

It was slightly weird, to start with, doing it. But then to try and recreate that scene from The End, was tricky, because we tried to do it all in one shot, didn’t we? I look forward to seeing that.

DN: There’s a great energy as well, to that episode. One of my favourite bits is you [Craig] and Dan, at the beginning, where the consequence of the scene is the opposite.

CC: And they keep popping everywhere, yeah.

DN: Just the way you do that, and some of the looks that you do, are just so good.

Danny John-Jules: [hearing his name, having been distracted by his mobile until now] What was that?

[Everyone laughs]

CB: ‘I’m really interested in this interview.’ [More laughter]

DN: It’s really good, just that opening sequence, I think. When you’re doing the lifts and you press the lift to catch the lift, but you’re supposed to do the opposite.

DJJ: Do you know what, I saw the card game, just the clip. And I sat there, I thought, this is the longest thing I’ve ever seen on a social network, as far as a clip.

DN: Yeah.

RL: Oh what, the poker face scene?

DJJ: And I actually just sat there. I actually did actually sit there, watching it like I was watching the episode. And then it stopped, I went, ‘Oh shit, I just realised I wasn’t watching the episode.’

DN: But it’s interesting, if you look at it, and people go, ‘Why is it a success?’ And you take a scene as simple as that: playing cards. And you’ve got to deal the cards, which is boring and not funny, and that whole thing. And you look up. Everyone makes a contribution, team-wise. There’s a bit where you’re [Craig] dealing, Danny’s going [mimes Danny’s head following Craig’s hands as he deals], making it more interesting.

DJJ: I actually brace myself on the table. [Grabs hold off the table and does the head move.]

RL: There’s a great cutaway of Chris, as well, just going [impersonates a typical unimpressed Rimmer expression].

DJJ: It’s so subtle. It’s so subtle. Do you remember? Craig goes like this [leans back and looks at his cards] and then [smug little expression]. But I go further, [leans back further] literally on the level of the table. And then I come back and my head goes ridiculously to the left.

CC: I was gonna do that, but I couldn’t. [Lots of laughter]

CB: You wouldn’t have got back up.

CC: Wouldn’t have got back up. [Laughs]

RL: I was worried about my sauce, because I was doing a little béchamel there. You think that was an easy bit. That was the toughest part of the scene.

DN: Yeah no, but it’s really interesting. You’re all really contributing, you know?

RL: Yeah. The thing is, it’s… that’s what’s the most extraordinary experience about it, is that scene… I do remember doing that. I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m there. They’re playing cards. I don’t really understand cards. It’s all a bit odd. I’m making the cake, or whatever it is. What was in that bowl? I don’t know. But you get sucked in, and I think that’s the chemistry of it. You don’t have to go, ‘Ooh, what I am doing?’ I never think, ‘What am I doing in this scene?’ You’re just there.

DN: Ah, that’s interesting. Right.

RL: It’s absolutely natural, isn’t it? There isn’t a kind of effort in it where you’re thinking, ‘Ooh, I should be robot-ish. How do you do that?’ It does just take over.

That was certainly the experience when we hadn’t done it for a while. Ten years? Eleven years or something? When we were all on set. This was for Back To Earth. That first moment – we’d all seen each other and we’d been in makeup and we’d been talking and rehearsing – but then when we were all on the set, in costume, it was like we’d had a weekend off. It’s like we’d been doing this constantly. It was just instantly back there, wasn’t it?

CC: Yeah, that was quite weird for me, that one. Just being on set of Coronation Street so I’ve got two worlds colliding. So weird. Him walking down the cobbles. [Mimes a Kryten walk.]

CB: That was weird.

DJJ: That was some weird shit. Being on Corrie. The worst bit was when we actually saw Simon, on the street. The first take when I looked at him, and he looked at us as if ‘I don’t believe this.’

CC: And Red Dwarf in the Rovers.

DJJ: No but you coming in twice.

CC: Yeah.

DN: That was basically because it was a free set.

DJJ: Unbelievable.

RL: It was amazing.

DN: We didn’t have many sets. We had this massive studio…

RL: With some black curtains.

DN: On the first day, it was like one tiny set that was half built. The diving bell. And that’s all that was there.

CC: Yeah, that was it.

RL: We had some lovely black curtains. Really big curtains. They weren’t little ones.

DN: Micro-budget.

RL: Yeah that was done on a shoestring.

DN: And favours.

Before that was the long gap, and you were trying to get the movie going. Is that something you think you’d ever go back to, and try and get it off the ground again?

DN: I don’t think you should ever say no, but at the moment, certainly, we want to concentrate on TV I think.

DJJ: Yeah. The thing is that, when you start talking about doing a movie in 1988, and we’re still talking about it in 2017, I would suggest that it might not happen.

CC: I don’t know. I mean there might be a new appetite for it.

DN: Oh yeah.

DJJ: It would be a William Shatner scenario: all of us in girdles and wigs.

CC: My wife dropped me off at the train station today, in Wilmslow, and I was getting my bag out, and six taxi drivers shouted at me. “Hey! Craig! It’s back!” You know?

DN: Really?

CC: Oh yeah. And it’s like, there seems to be a momentum. A sort of impetus.

DN: Right.

CC: But I do enjoy making it as a sitcom.

DJJ: Yeah.

CC: Because I think it’s perfectly ideally suited to that.

DJJ: Do you know what mate, if there was anything better, we wouldn’t have to make it. It’s as simple as that. Why would they make it if there were fifteen other sitcoms kicking arse? They wouldn’t wanna make it. Listen. Do you think, really, that they would make it if they had five sitcoms kicking arse? No they wouldn’t.

Because there’s nothing else that can match it really. And that’s not because I’m in it, you know. It’s the fact. We’ve been running for thirty years and we’ve still got to make it.

RL: That’s a good point well made.

CC: He’s right, it’s not ‘cause he’s in it. [Lots of laughter]

DJJ: That’s right. Listen mate, I’m riding that Craig Charles donkey all the way. All the way! [Mimes riding a donkey, and whacking it to go faster] I said, “Keep DJ-ing, Craig!” [Lots of laughter] “Keep getting that Twitter media going, baby! And let’s ride this donkey all the way home!” You know? In fact, I got a new saddle when he got The Gadget Show. ‘He got another show! New saddle! This time, a leather one!’ [Lots more laughter]

CC: Where’s that going?

CB: I’m confused.

DJJ: I’m sure you can work it out.

RL: The one that I got the other day, which was at a Starbucks, at a motorway services… and they came up to me, and went, “Can get a picture? I love Red Dwarf. It’s been brilliant. I used to watch it when I was little.” And I said, “Well, the new series starts next week.” And he went, “Oh. I used to love it anyway. It was brilliant when you used to do that Red Dwarf thing. That was brilliant, innit?” And I went, “Next week, anyway, don’t worry about it.”

So he went off, and I had my coffee, and I got my little bun, and I turned around and he was there. And he’s gone and got his phone. And he’s going, “It’s on next week! You’ve got a new series?!” Which I’d just told him! [Lots of laughter] “I can’t believe it!” He was so made up. I had to do another three selfies. It was so weird that me saying it to him, it didn’t register.

DJJ: Yeah but most of the people that are not what I call sci-fi people, the ordinary public who like Red Dwarf, just never realise.

DN: They don’t know it’s on. No.

CC: When we first started out, guys, there were only four channels.

RL: Exactly. So you’d know if it was on even if you didn’t want to watch it.

DN: Even if you didn’t want to watch it, you’d find it. You’d go, ‘Oh right.’

CC: There were only four channels and now there’s like four hundred.

RL: Four million, yeah.

DN: You can’t even navigate through them.

CC: No.

DJJ: But mate, also, we’ve had the great pretenders come and go. You know, Hyperdrive, and now we’ve got Seth McFarlane. Everyone’s gone on this sci-fi thing, and, you know, if Red Dwarf wasn’t as popular as it was, would they be commissioning all of these other sci-fi comedies? I don’t know. But it’s still inspiring. And it’s still out there.

And what do they have to do with the sitcoms? What they do, they come with the sitcoms that used to be the big hitters, and then they go backwards to the younger guy. So you’ve got this with Porridge. All that stuff, they have to go backwards.

CC: I feel like Michael Caine at the moment. They’re remaking all my old TV series, but giving them to someone fucking else. [Lots of laughter]

DJJ: Younger?

CC: Not necessarily younger, either. [More laughter]

DN: [still laughing] That’s really got to piss you off.

RL: Older and whiter?

CC: Older and whiter! [Laughter continues] I don’t know whose briefcase I’ve pissed in.

CB: What else are they remaking?

CC: They’re making Takeshi’s Castle, and Jonathan Ross is doing the commentary.

DN: Nooooooo! You can’t do that!

CB: Captain Butler?

CC: No, not Captain Butler. They made Robot Wars with Dara Ó Briain. Takeshi’s Castle with Jonathan Ross.

CB: They will. Next time it’ll be Captain Butler.

CC: You know how they made Alfie with fucking Jude Law. And they made…

DN: They rarely work, though, these things.

RL: The Italian Job.

CC: The Italian Job, with Sylvester Stallone.

CB: They don’t work.

DN: They rarely work.

DJJ: Because they’re of an era, those shows.

DN: Of the time.

Just before I’m ushered out, what’s the current status of the show’s future? Does it depend on how these ones get on?

DN: No, no.

CB: Even if no one watches, we’ll do more. [Laughter]

CC: Out of spite!

DN: It’s sort of in our hands, really, and our hands are, yeah, very positive. And everyone’s very happy.

RL: We’d love to do more.

DN: So yeah, it’s all good.

CC: I mean, why wouldn’t ya?

Craig Charles, Chris Barrie, Robert Llewellyn, Danny John-Jules and Doug Naylor, thank you very much!