Red Dwarf. Image shows from L to R: Cat (Danny John-Jules), Rimmer (Chris Barrie), Lister (Craig Charles), Kryten (Robert Llewellyn). Copyright: UKTV.

Red Dwarf

Dave and BBC Two sitcom set on a space ship. 74 episodes (12 series), 1988 - 2020. Stars Chris Barrie, Craig Charles, Danny John-Jules, Robert Llewellyn and others.

Red Dwarf. Image shows from L to R: Lister (Craig Charles), Cat (Danny John-Jules), Kryten (Robert Llewellyn), Rimmer (Chris Barrie).

The Promised Land interview

Rimmer, Lister, Cat and Kryten are back for a feature-length episode of Red Dwarf. Chris Barrie, Craig Charles, Danny John-Jules and Robert Llewellyn explain more, and give their thoughts on whether this may be the last outing for the spaceship and its crew.

This special has been a long time coming!

Chris: Yes it has. I suppose, when we were talking about a Red Dwarf special way back in the noughties, and then we did Back To Earth, that kind of satisfied the muscle of doing a longer piece. But I think it was always looked upon as a three-parter and it was looked upon as reasonably experimental, so then we went back to doing 10, 11 and 12 in the normal way as a series.

Craig: Yeah. It's something slightly different and breaking new ground in many ways because it's like a feature length special but it's filmed in front of a live audience. It's just a new way of doing it. But it's a great story and there are some fantastic performances in it - and I'm not talking about me by the way, I'm talking about other people. I wouldn't write my own reviews! But it was a really nice thing to do. So feature length as well as still being a sitcom - staying true to the traditions of situation comedy.

Robert: I think we're quite used to the fact that the gaps between us doing Red Dwarf are quite long! During the '90s it was very regular thing and now every few years we get back together and do some more, which is an extraordinary thing. Doug [writer Doug Naylor] and the team have made this look amazing. I know it's something that Doug has always wanted to do.

Danny: Timing is everything, because what everybody needs now is a good laugh and we have it. Don't forget, for me as well, it's the same thing. I'm sitting here thinking 'what's it going to be like?' because filming something is one thing but the proof is in the watching. It's nice to see it does have a different feel and I would be very worried if it had the same feel as we had in 1988. The world evolves, even in space.

Did it feel quite different making it?

Robert: It didn't really, because we recorded it in front of an audience - that's our main concern, and when Red Dwarf comes alive. That's to do with the kind of shallowness of our showbusiness personalities - we need a load of people to show off to and then we'll actually make an effort! Recording two large chunks of it in front of an audience made it feel like two episodes of a sitcom. We were pre-shooting stuff, then rehearsing stuff to shoot in front of an audience, then camera rehearsals, so that was very normal for us. Then the audience came in and the response we get as performers is brilliant. That makes it for me - it's terrifying and stressful doing it in front of an audience but it makes such a big difference to our performances.

Chris: In a shorter half hour episode you kind of know, after one read-through of the script, where you are when you're shooting it. Whereas, when you're doing a film piece, it's an hour and a half so you think 'hang on when does this bit happen? Does it happen before that bit or have we done that bit yet?' It was a little bit more of studying the script to find out where we were with the piece. Although the audience scenes were very similar to what we do when we do the half hour episodes, it was quite weird just doing little clumps of the piece in front of an audience. But it's going to be unique in the sense that it's going to be an hour and a half piece in front of a studio audience.

Craig: Robert got ill, the old bastard, so we were stood down for a few weeks. 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.

Red Dwarf. Kryten (Robert Llewellyn).

How did getting ill affect the filming of the special?

Robert: Oh, it messed it up big time. 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. 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.

What can people expect from the special?

Robert: It refers strongly to the original, primal story of Red Dwarf. To Lister smuggling a cat on board of Red Dwarf and being put into stasis. All those aspects of it are reflected in the story, not just casually referred to. So it rounds off a lot of the backstory of Red Dwarf, which is really good. There's one tragic moment where Kryten feels he's been accepted by the team, when everyone can see they're putting up with him rather than accepting it. That is the genius of Doug that he'll write the threads of our real lives and relationships between the cast members woven into the plot. It's so cleverly done and very subtle. The little things often make us laugh because we know the truth of it when we read through it.

Chris: I think people can expect a solid storyline involving the Cat people, which in itself is a strong story given that our own Cat has got to meet his makers and find out who they are. All the characters have their own storylines; we're not breaking from the tradition of the Red Dwarf posse. The interaction between the characters is as it's always been; and it's more of the same within the framework of a fantastic story.

Danny: The people that know, the 12-year-old kids who were watching it in 1987 who now have grandchildren, those people don't have to be convinced [to watch] because they've been on the ride with us from the beginning. We have our core audience that is unshakeable and we're in that fortunate position - they're also the most critical people out there. We have those kinds of conversations with our audiences at forums and places they can address us directly to tell us what they think. It's why we have a head start and have been going for 32 years because it's not only a sitcom but far more social that any show out there with its fans.

What's going on with your characters?

Red Dwarf. Cat (Danny John-Jules).

Danny: Well, it's a Cat-based story. It's all about my character! In fact the title is The Promised Land and that was my line in the first ever episode - when Cat's explaining about The Promised Land. The people who know the show will know that, but also Doug has to explain that to the people who've never seen the show before - he's very good at that. Doug's very clever which is why I keep telling everyone I'm in the best show in England, end of story. The joy we have playing the characters and the joy we have watching people enjoy the characters.

Robert: Kryten is in need of a service. He's patched up and a bit battered, he's been around for three million years, stuff goes wrong and he's definitely the worse for wear. It ties in with the reality of the performer! I'm still going and can still do it but I'm a little bit battered and knackered! I remember hearing that when I was a kid and it sounded so stupid from all my older relatives: 'Oh the body might be old but the mind is still young!' You'd go "yeah whatever Granddad" but it's true! I'm about 22 right now mentally and emotionally. And then you get up and do something and your knee collapses and your back hurts and you can't. It's so weird.

Craig: The way I play Lister is he's quite dissolute at the moment. He's hoarding all this shit 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! 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!

And then Lister becomes a god, but doesn't seem to let it go to his head too much...!

Craig: That's quite cool though isn't it? That story is great and it was fun being a god for a while. The bit when he turns around and says, 'How can they think I'm a god because look at the state of me!' I reckon all gods probably feel like that every now and again.

Chris, your character becomes a superhero with an incredible suit...

Chris: You always know when you put on a costume, as soon as you've been to wardrobe and make-up and start walking in to the studio, you can immediately tell by people's reactions what it's going to be like. I think both Vanessa and Howard in the make-up and wardrobe departments respectively did an absolutely A1 job and gave me the base to really enjoy the moment in that outfit and perform this uber Rimmer as it were. I wanted to be in the costume longer!

Red Dwarf. Rimmer (Chris Barrie).

It's quite a dramatic storyline - would you say it's more serious than other outings?

Craig: I think it's more epic. It just felt like an epic story and the special effects, wow. It's like motion picture quality. The big thing was trying to keep it funny, because it's a comedy. It might look great 'but is it funny?' That's really important to us.

Robert: I think there are serious elements within it and there's an existential thread running through it. Why are we here? What are we doing? And a lot of discussions around religion and belief and faith and things like that. Doug's scripts always cover an amazing amount of topics. It's quite a difficult journey for Lister with a lovely twist at the end. Certainly Lister's character will carry any emotional weight of any episode or series we've done. Which is Craig's amazing skill to be funny but to also carry a genuine emotional thread through an episode. That side of it is very fulfilling, it isn't just a series of gags that Doug writes and we deliver. It always has an underlying thread that gives it some emotional weight. I think it's harder to make that work in a mechanoid! There might be an enormous amount of admiration for human emotions coming from Kryten but it's hard to know whether he really has them. He's highly sensitive, aware and empathetic but they're all learnt systems.

Did you feel quite reflective once you were all back together to make this new episode?

Danny: When you get back in to a room with 'I told you so' t-shirts on, it's great. You hope we've helped open up the doors for the people that have always been doubted - Red Dwarf is a good barometer to say it can be done. Nobody gave up, even though they were told no. Then what happens when you do get commissioned is your workforce works double hard to prove these people wrong and to try to pay you back for all the hard effort they did to get us in to costumes on set. It's now down to these four wacky guys who at the time none of whom were so-called "traditional actors" to get this show where it deserves to be.

Red Dwarf. Image shows from L to R: Kryten (Robert Llewellyn), Sister Luna (Mandeep Dhillon), Sister Peanut (Lucy Pearman), Lister (Craig Charles), Brother Sol (Tom Bennett).

Chris: It's always very easy to switch into character on Red Dwarf because as soon as we get the costumes on and the dialogue going it's like we've never been away. And every time we're there, we're always reflecting on the old shows and obviously we can go way back now to 1987 so there's a lot to talk about and recall! And all the characters and people we've met along the way. In this piece we met and worked with another great batch of people. The three cat clerics Tom Bennett, Mandeep Dhillon and Lucy Pearman were great performers. Ray Fearon - what a top performance as the feral king. And Al Roberts his apologetic flunky was brilliant as well. So many great performances and it was fun to see them add another dimension to the show.

Holly is back too, and got a very big cheer!

Chris: Norman [Norman Lovett] is back. 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.

Red Dwarf. Lister (Craig Charles).

Do you fall in to your characters and dynamic filming together very naturally?

Craig: Chris will hate me for saying this, but we're kind of caricatures of our own personalities in many ways. So there's an awful lot of Dave Lister about me and there's an awful lot of Arnold Rimmer about Chris. Robert is full of that middle class guilt and Danny is the vainest man I've ever met without any reason to be! So we're kind of caricatures of who we are and I think that's why it works in many ways because none of us are really stretching that much for our characters - we're kind of set in place.

Robert: I try not to do Kryten when I'm not on Red Dwarf but it kind of leaks out every now and then and sometimes I'm genuinely not aware of it. My wife will say 'why are you doing a Kryten walk; what's wrong with you, you're in the kitchen?' Am I? Did I? The weirdest one was being recognised a few years ago in a restaurant having dinner with my wife and the waiter who wasn't serving us was in the bit of the restaurant behind me came over and said, 'I love Red Dwarf can you sign this? He said he recognised me from the way I eat. So I must eat like Kryten - who doesn't eat! The whole thing was completely bizarre. But then my wife said, 'You don't know do you? You move your stupid head like Kryten!'

Do you spend a lot of time together when you're not filming?

Craig: We're not like best mates in each other's pockets all the time but we do see each other quite a bit and it's a pleasure. We're all so different you see, we have completely different interests, politics, attitudes to life but when we get in a room together we all naturally seem to gel which is really quite strange and one of those things - the casting is absolutely amazing in it.

Craig, there's a moment where you look like you're about to lose it. Is there a lot of corpsing?

Craig: Completely. 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? 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. On 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?

Who corpses the most?

Chris: Oh I think we all corpse occasionally. I look back on the shows and there are only a few times in 33 years that I've managed not to stifle a corpse. Obviously Doug would always try and go for a take that doesn't have us corpsing in the background but it is a comedy and you like to play it for real. We all love playing in front of an audience and thinking we're going to get a big laugh.

Robert: Of course [the audience] love it when we do get things wrong. In a way I don't think we got enough wrong this time, we got through it quite well. But when something goes wrong there's a massive cheer and a round of applause! Sometimes people see us doing a camera rehearsal and are quite shocked at how lazy, unprofessional and ridiculous we can be, and then once the audience is in they can't believe the difference because we're then very focused and hit the mark.

Red Dwarf. Image shows from L to R: Kryten (Robert Llewellyn), Rimmer (Chris Barrie).

Robert, has your outfit changed much over the years?

Robert: 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! So 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.

It must help to get in to character.

Robert: Yes it does, exactly. I don't know what happens, something does. Occasionally I'll get told to shut up - Craig will go "Bobby you're not Kryten now, we're out the back!" I'll say "Oh sorry sir." It just takes over. I think that happens with all of us in a way - when Danny has his teeth in, Chris has his H on and Craig has his ponytail on it's so familiar to us. It really is the oddest thing. I find it hard to watch now because I find it so weird that we're still doing it. It is extraordinary.

Red Dwarf. Image shows from L to R: Cat (Danny John-Jules), Kryten (Robert Llewellyn), Rimmer (Chris Barrie), Lister (Craig Charles).

Are your working relationships the easiest you've had with anyone?

Robert: I've worked with a lot of different people but certainly when we all get together I'm instantly in hysterics because they just make me laugh a lot. So there's an enormous joy I find when we're all together and it is the weird in-jokes and stuff that I remember having when you're at school in your little gang. It's the most stupid bloody thing that means nothing to anyone else but Red Dwarf. I'm like the quite well behaved boy that enjoys hanging out with the naughty boys, who always gets in trouble when the naughty boys get away with it. That's always been my role from very early on!

Chris: It's been my main working relationship in my career. I was 27 when we started doing this and now I'm 60 so all my life I've worked with Craig, Danny, Norm and a year or two later Robert. Doug and Rob [Rob Grant] I worked with right from the outset of my career. I've known Doug for 37 years so it is the backbone of my working life. Having said that, we had a lovely company on The Brittas Empire for a lovely eight years. I worked on Spitting Image back in the 80s and we had a lovely company on the voice and puppeteering side, so I've been very happy and lucky to have some great working relationships over the years. But obviously Red Dwarf stands in the middle as the longest and probably most successful show in terms of my career. When we all started as youngsters we were different young men; we were "I must get on, I want more lines" blah blah. But as the years go on you realise that we're a team and we've come through so much from young single men to getting married and having children. And now we're passing through the middle age era and I think we appreciate each other as much as we've ever done, if not more.

Danny: I'd never met any of them until the first day of rehearsal. We walked in as four guys who knew nothing about each other. The only thing we had in common as artists and people was Rob and Doug's script. Those characters were developed out of those four personalities in the room. People say "Red Dwarf is based on you guys' characters" - no it's not - I just read what was in the script. What happened of course was, as we went along, we started noticing more and more of our isms turning up in the script. You'd read a line and go hold on a minute - that's what Craig did in the restaurant the other day, or 'hang on, that sounds like Chris Barrie. So that would inspire the differences in the characters.

The characters work with each other and there's no one character who could hold Red Dwarf as the leading man. It's an ensemble piece. 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. 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: I've known this group of people longer than I've known my family. My mum and dad are dead, my older brother is dead; these are the longest human relationships that I've ever had with anyone. And they've been with me through thick and thin and stood by me in good times and bad times. They're the kind of people I feel so lucky I got to know. I've hung on to their coat tails and let them be funny while I bask in their reflected glory!

Red Dwarf. Image shows from L to R: Cat (Danny John-Jules), Kryten (Robert Llewellyn).

Who has changed the most since your first outing 32 years ago?

Craig: I suppose I have really. I'm very different from when it started. I was 23 when I started playing Dave Lister and I'm 55 now and I came from absolutely nothing, a council estate in Liverpool and I live a completely different life now. So it's probably me but hopefully for the best!

Robert: I think we have all matured a bit, although it's hard to say it. One of the things that's a remarkable aspect of four men who work in various branches of showbusiness is we're each married to the same women and have the same children, which is quite unusual. We've all been with our partners for a long time and we've all brought up our children. Because, I think if you took a random selection of any four blokes of our age in showbiz, one of them would have a 26-year-old Russian wife somewhere. I'm quite proud of us that we've managed to do that and we talk about that a great deal about how we've struggled - and none of us have had an easy ride, we've all been through problems - but we've all got through it, which is quite intriguing. So I'm terrified to say it but I think there's a level of emotional maturity amongst us and I feel very safe in their company to talk about things that aren't funny. We can talk about difficult stuff, which is really good.

Technology has obviously changed a lot - you have a laugh with that...

Chris: Oh yes. To think that back in the old days we had the old flapping sets and some fairly ropey kind of stuff. We used models more and I loved using models, we still use them a little bit these days and of course the quality of those have gone up but we're always making comments on various topical things when we do Red Dwarf - the tech ban in M-Corp in Series 12 for example. Technology and the use of it and comment on it is never going to be far away from Red Dwarf.

Craig: Back in the day what we did was science fiction, which became quite quickly science fact and a lot of what we've done in Series 10, 11 and 12 and now this special is science fiction but it will quite quickly become science fact. You're kind of ahead of the curve but you can make things look better a whole lot cheaper now. I film The Gadget Show and we use drone cameras that can do flying shots, but back in the day that would cost us tens of thousands of pounds. You'd have to hire a helicopter and film crew and now you can do that with one man on the ground with a drone. Technology is so advanced now it can only make better television. Graphics have been moving so quickly you can get things to look really fine with half the budget. It's great being on that cusp pushing boundaries and making things look special.

Red Dwarf. Image shows from L to R: Cat (Danny John-Jules), Lister (Craig Charles), Kryten (Robert Llewellyn).

Robert: Yes, the transformation in that period... which is from 1988, which is when I agreed to get involved. The first episode I did was 1989 and the difference in the technology we used in that period is breathtaking. The fact I can sit in my house and talk into 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.

How does it feel to have a documentation of your lies over all those years?

Robert: It is weird isn't it, because in a way that's what it is. If I see bits of old episodes what's really obvious is I'm a lot slimmer but that's about it. You can't really see anything else. But to see Craig, Chris and Dan as young men, which we were, they were very young. I was always one of the oldest in the cast other than Norman. So I love it when he's on because he's really old and even more grumpy and balder than I am!

Chris: Yeah it's interesting. Obviously when Series 3 crops up every now and then you see yourself as a 30-year-old, you tend to go 'my God!' Or, as my son said, 'Dad what happened to you!' But I think it's been a real privilege to be around to do a show for so long. And the fans still love it I hope.

Especially as there was a long period of time when they didn't think you'd come back...

Chris: Well yes the 'will there, won't there? Who's going to be involved?', usually on the other side of the camera, that's always been a soap opera in itself at Red Dwarf! 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.

Red Dwarf. Image shows from L to R: Cat (Danny John-Jules), Kryten (Robert Llewellyn), Lister (Craig Charles).

Are you recognised all the time?

Chris: Not these days because I now look myself and quite different from Rimmer. Mainly due to the disappearing barnet but you know, that's life and in many ways it's quite good. But a lot of people do still recognise me and go 'You're that bloke aren't you?' Then they ask where they've seen you and it all falls in to place. You get recognised just enough to know you've done a reasonable job.

Craig: I've been really lucky in a way because there have been so many demographics that I cross: the people who watch Corrie then young adults in their early 20s who are all mad Robot Wars[i/] fans and you have the [i]Takeshi's Castle crowd who are kind of like stoners. Then you have the funk and soul crowd, which is a completely different demographic again. So when you put them all together it's a fair cross section of the public I suppose and they all seem to like me, which I'm forever thankful for.

The show does have a huge, dedicated fan base of course.

Chris: We do, and we know that from going to conventions. Even when we've been off with no new product in sight we've always packed in a good crowd at the conventions. I don't know when we'll next be doing that but we'll see.

What's the craziest thing a fan has done?

Craig: Oh my face has been tattooed on some very strange places, that's all I'm going to say!

Red Dwarf. Image shows from L to R: Kryten (Robert Llewellyn), Sister Luna (Mandeep Dhillon), Cat (Danny John-Jules), Sister Peanut (Lucy Pearman), Lister (Craig Charles), Brother Sol (Tom Bennett).

Will there be more specials like this?

Chris: Just as things stand right at the moment given the global circumstances with you know what, Covid-19, I don't know when there's going to be more of anything and what form that might take. We just have to ride out this storm and go from there. I know that's a very depressing answer but it's the way everything is - it's not just Red Dwarf. We'll see what happens but, later this year or early next year, if someone asked if we're going to do another one, I think we'd discuss it and there'd be a strong possibility it would go forward given the health and desire of cast, and especially Doug of course and his son Richard. In the meantime I think we'll give the fans a good opportunity to sit at home and watch this latest Red Dwarf, which I'm confident they'll enjoy.

Craig: I don't know. Robert is so old and decrepit; he's breaking down that lad! 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.

Robert: I haven't got a clue. I certainly hope so and from my point of view when I'm asked if I want to do another Red Dwarf, my first thought is "it's really hard, the mask is tough, the make-up, the hours are long". But then I spend the day with Craig, Chris and Dan, brilliant! I really enjoy being with them. At my age now I have mixed emotions about it because it is a pretty tough thing to do. It's kept me fit because I have to train to do Red Dwarf because it is knackering, which is good. I go to the gym and go running and for long walks. But it's becoming more challenging as every year passes so my only comment would be if we're going to do more can we do it quite soon because I'm getting knackered!

Danny: It's driven by Doug. If he has a great idea then it will come about. There's always logistics as well. We did 11 and 12 and everyone was raving about them but it's taken three years to do another instalment and that's after everyone saying it was the best of the best. So it's about everyone coming together and for it to be commissioned - but I think it's time for people to see another Red Dwarf now.

More Red Dwarf interviews

Published: Monday 6th April 2020