Over the years no sitcom has changed more than Red Dwarf. The series has been constantly evolving for 32 years, probably more than any other TV show. So, as we’re getting a new feature-length special very soon, I thought that it might be fun to start The Red Dwarf Chronicles - taking a look back at the show, how it was made and how Red Dwarf has changed series on series. We’re going to start with where it all began – Series One.
In the early 1980s Red Dwarf’s two creators - Rob Grant and Doug Naylor were writing a radio 4 comedy sketch show called Son of Cliché. Amongst others it featured a series of sketches entitled 'Dave Hollins: Space Cadet', which was an Alien parody of sorts, about a lone survivor left in space with only a computer for company (voiced by Chris Barrie). These sketches became the blueprint for Red Dwarf. You can listen to these here.
Another inspiration for the series was the 1974 science fiction comedy movie, Dark Star. Doug Naylor said that he’d watched it and thought “It’s crazy no one’s done a sitcom like that.”
After writing for Spitting Image and gaining further inspiration from the advice of Hancock’s Half Hour and Steptoe and Son writers - Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, Rob and Doug eventually took a script to the BBC. BBC comedy producers John Lloyd (Blackadder) and Paul Jackson loved the script but that didn’t stop the BBC rejecting it… three times.
The script continued to be touted about. Paul Jackson, who knew Craig Charles while he was working with him on Saturday Night Live, decided to show Craig the script to ask him if he felt that the part of Cat was racist. Craig told him that he didn’t find it one bit racist, and asked if he could audition for Lister.
None of the Red Dwarf team were particularly keen, as Craig Charles had no acting experience. Rob and Doug had said that they were looking to cast a character along the lines of Jim ‘Iggy’ (played by Christopher Lloyd) in the 1970s American sitcom, Taxi. The original plans for the character of Lister were a long way from the curry loving space bum we’re familiar with today.
The mighty Alan Rickman and Alfred Molina had both expressed an interest in the script, and were originally lined up to play Lister and Rimmer. Rickman was particularly keen to play Lister because he thought that playing Rimmer would be less of a challenge.
In the end though, when the show was finally commissioned, it was decided that Craig Charles and Chris Barrie ultimately made a better double act. Danny John-Jules was the first person the team auditioned for Cat, and the only man that they wanted for the job.
The series was eventually commissioned through Paul Jackson, who had a recording budget to make Happy Families Series two (a second series of Ben Elton’s sitcom which never came to fruition). It was something of a technicality that he used this budget to make Red Dwarf. Paul Jackson said in the ‘Launching Red Dwarf’ documentary - "Red Dwarf got made because Happy Families series two had been written into an annual budget, when it never existed.".
Red Dwarf may have been given the green light, but even then, it almost never made it to TV. Filming unfortunately had directly clashed with a BBC electrician’s strike - Some 500 electricians walked out on the BBC over pay disputes back in 1987 – whilst all six episodes of the series were rehearsed, all the recording dates came and went without a single shot being filmed – for a lot of the cast, they felt as if it was all over before it had even begun!
Not even a pilot was filmed, which was quite unusual, and something Doug described ultimately as a setback. They were going into their first recordings blind, with no feeling for what worked and what didn’t. Eddie Izzard was the first ever studio warm-up, who was then replaced with Tony Hawks (who you can regularly see in various roles across the first two series).
The long delay caused by the strike forced a recasting of Kochanski, but, on a positive note, it meant that some truly sophisticated ‘Scutters’ could be built. These remote-controlled robots took three months to build, despite the team originally having been given a strict deadline of two weeks. The models that were made for the famous model shots also had longer to be worked on.
Initially the team were fairly horrified to find that the ship had been painted red. "But it’s called Red Dwarf!". One of the model builders told them. Eventually the unintended colour scheme prevailed.
Howard Goodall composed Red Dwarf’s iconic music. He had previously written famous sitcom theme tunes such as Blackadder and Mr Bean. He felt that Rather than use futuristic synths, that would probably date within 5 minutes, he wanted a timeless sound.
To achieve this, he used a technique he dubbed ‘Phil Spector’s wall of sound’ - created by recording bass notes on a grand piano over and over again, achieving a powerful echo and a great ‘wall of sound’ which emulated the emptiness of space. The ending credit’s theme song was sung by Jenna Russell. The lyrics were originally intended to be "placeholder" lyrics, something Howard came up with on the fly, imagining that Lister wanted to be having "fun, fun, fun in the sun, sun, sun" on Fiji, the island that he often fantasied about in the first series.
For the first ever recording the team struggled to get people to fill the studio audience, Doug Naylor described hot-footing it to the local pub and begging people to join them for an evening of comedy – proudly noting that he did persuade ‘most of the pub’ to come along.
Recordings went well and it was felt that by the time 'Me²' was recorded, the team were on a roll. Still though, it was felt that too much emphasis was being placed on the story, and that there weren’t enough jokes. Norman Lovett’s Holly was a disembodied voice of the computer for the first three recordings, but it was on Norman’s insistence that he was put in front of the cameras to allow for a proper visual comedy performance.
Retakes of Holly in his new computer screen guise were re-shot on a spare recording day, which, by luck, the crew found they had, and although they weren’t strictly supposed to be filming for that extra week, nobody at the BBC seemed to notice anything was amiss. As well as the Holly retakes, extra gags were also cut into all six of the previous episodes.
The series consisted of six episodes:
'Balance of Power'
'Waiting for God'
'Confidence and Paranoia'
According to the Ganymede & Titan’s Pearl Poll (a mission to poll Red Dwarf fans and rate all 74 episodes), 'Future Echoes' is the most popular episode of Series One amongst fans with 'Me²' in second place.
'Waiting for God' was one episode that Rob and Doug were retrospectively not too keen on (it was also considered the worst Series One episode in Ganymede & Titan’s Pearl Poll). This was the episode that explored the mythos of the Cat species, and in doing so made a bold statement about the futility of religious sects and ultimately religion itself… which when you break it down like that does seem as if it could ruffle a few feathers. But, the question of belief was offset neatly, as even though Rimmer dismisses the Cat religion, he still maintains his total blind faith in the fictional alien race that he’s dreamt up - the Quagaars (double ‘a’ actually).
Personally, I love that episode, and in particular the ending, where Lister comforts the old Cat Priest (played by Noel Coleman) by announcing himself as his God - "Cloister the Stupid" lying in order to make a dying man/cat happy. Pathos was something that really marks the first two series out from the later series, more specifically the golden era, which most people would define as series 4-6. By then the series had taken on a more sitcom-like feel, which is by no means a bad thing.
The inclusion of such drama and conflict in the first series gave a unique feel to early Red Dwarf. The classic ‘Everybody’s dead Dave.’ scene is a really fine example of this. It’s hard to say why that scene works, treading the line between tragedy and comedy, the audience reaction could have gone either way - in the end (seriously no pun was intended there) it became one of Red Dwarf’s defining moments.
Another iconic scene from the first series was Rimmer’s ‘Gazpacho Soup’ story, performed brilliantly by Chris, and once again highlighted the unique dramatic quality of the first two series. Interestingly, this was a real-life incident that Rob and Doug witnessed while working at Thames Television - although apparently the person in question didn’t actually get so far as sending back their soup!
To come up with genuine sci-fi stories without using aliens or monsters was a rule that Rob and Doug set themselves in the early series. It set Red Dwarf apart from other sci-fi shows of the age with a more mature concept of science fiction, almost along the lines of the writings of Philip K. Dick. In fact, years later in Back to Earth Phillip K. Dick’s Blade Runner was mentioned as an inspiration for Red Dwarf.
Interesting science fiction concepts have always driven Red Dwarf, and that’s especially true of the first series with episodes posing such conundrums as ‘Me²’s question – ‘Could you live with yourself?’ ‘Future Echoes’ asks ‘Can we change a predetermined future, or do we always have a destiny?’ While ‘Confidence and Paranoia’ makes the negative and positive aspects of our personalities flesh, and concludes that we need both to work in harmony. Pretty smeggin’ deep concepts for a sitcom!
Red Dwarf’s first series may have had a bumpy ride to our TV screens, but in the ratings it did very well (hitting 5 million viewers), A second series was apparently already commissioned before the first was transmitted and it had become clear by the time the last episode aired that the team may have a cult hit on their hands. However, they could never have imagined just how big a hit the series turned out to be!
Join me for the next Red Dwarf Chronicles, when we’ll have a look at Series Two.
Information collected from The Bodysnatcher documentaries, IMDB, The Guardian Online and Ganymede and Titan.
Originally posted on The Comedy Blog
Written by Rhianna Evans