The Shit-Com Story

DYSWIDT? That joke was far better than anything Dawn French’s scriptwriters could come up with. On Monday 26th May 2003, Red Dwarf was featured on BBC ONE’s The Sitcom Story, which was a fantastic opportunity to see Del Boy falling through the bar, Basil Fawlty beating his car with a stick and Captain Mainwaring saying “Don’t tell him, Pike”. Because they’re all really rare clips that sum up the programmes in their entirety. Hmmm. Red Dwarf‘s section is transcribed below, and our reaction follows.

SCENE: A montage of clips These are: Cat jumping the heat-seeking bullets in Polymorph; the pullback from Red Dwarf in the Re-Mastered opening sequence; the asteroid crashing into Starbug in Marooned; Lister, having just been blown up in Queeg; Rimmer, doing the Mesma Stare in Parallel Universe, Cat, having just had a reverse shit in Backwards; then wearing his gold spacesuit in Kryten; and then the last three shots from the Re-Mastered opening sequence – the so-called Observation Dome, Red Dwarf breaking the light barrier, and a little fireball. Under this, we hear Starman by David Bowie, and Dawn French introduces the show.

FRENCH: Father Ted was surreal, but at least it was set on Earth. In Red Dwarf, writers Rob Grant and Doug Naylor took sitcom one giant step further, and put man in space. And not just any old man, no; here was a curry-loving slob, an anally-retentive hologram and a being descended from a cat, along with a morose computer and a pedantic robot servant. So, nothing weird about that set up, then.

Archive Clip: From Queeg Re-Mastered
LISTER: Shouldn’t this plug into something?
HOLLY: Oh yeah, that joins up with the white cable.
LISTER: The white cable?
HOLLY: Yeah.
[A big fucking explosion]
HOLLY: Or is it the yellow cable? Yes, it should have been the yellow cable.

Craig Charles Interview
CHARLES: I kind of thought it was like Steptoe and Son or Porridge in space, y’know, chaps who are stuck in an environment where they can’t get away from each other, and they don’t particularly get on, y’know. It was sort of like a classic comedy situation. It was taken out of a scrapyard and stuck on a spaceship three million years into the future, looking for a way home and a really hot curry.

Archive Clip: From Legion
RIMMER: Go to blue alert.
LISTER: What for? There’s no-one to alert, we’re all here.
RIMMER: I would just feel more comfortable if I know that we’re all on our toes because everyone’s aware it’s a blue alert situation.
LISTER: We all are on our toes.
RIMMER: May I remind you all of Space Core Directive 34124?
KRYTEN: 34124. “No officer with false teeth should attempt oral sex in zero gravity”.
RIMMER: Damn you both, all the way to Hades! I want to go to Blue Alert!
LISTER: Ok, ok.
[LISTER presses a button. The “Alert” sign on the wall starts to flash blue.]
RIMMER: Thank you. A bit of professionalism.
KRYTEN: Wait! I’ve got something. I’m punching it up.
[Model Shot of an orange, comet-like thing speeding through space.]
LISTER: Too small for a vessel. Maybe some kind of missile?
KRYTEN: It’s impossible to tell at this range. Whatever it is, they clearly have a technology way in advance of our own.
LISTER: So do the Albanian State Washing Machine Company.
RIMMER: Step up to red alert.
KRYTEN: Sir, are you absolutely sure? It does mean changing the bulb.

Craig Charles Interview
CHARLES: It’s character based comedy, Red Dwarf, y’know. I mean, it’s how the Lister character would react to a situation is where the humour is. He’s not telling jokes, y’know, “hey gentlemen, punchline”, it’s not like that, y’know. It’s about how the character would react. And which makes sitcoms funny to fans and followers of that particular sitcom, more so than if you’d just switched on. You’d think ‘why are they laughing at that?’ You have to know the characters before you can laugh at how he’d react, y’know. So that’s why so many sitcoms go by the way, because the characters aren’t established quickly enough in the nation’s conciousness, so the nation doesn’t find them funny. You have to give a sitcom legs before you know if it’s going to work or not.

And that’s it. Two minutes and fifty-two seconds, out of a programme with a total running time of three hours. Next, the piss-poor Ardal O’Hanlon vehicle My Hero was given a much longer amount of screentime. It’s sickening. Eight series, eleven years, eight million viewers. Less than three minutes.

The worst thing isn’t the short screentime though, it’s the actual content. All clips, with the obvious exception of the Series VI one, were re-mastered. The pencil-like ship was shown far too often, and the film-effect clips still look piss poor. Is this what they are implying Red Dwarf is about? Dark, grainy pictures and awful CGI? They’re in the process of releasing the original series on DVD, so why can’t they let the Re-Mastered shite die? This behaviour is hardly likely to attract new customers for the DVDs.

Dawn French can park her over-paid fat arse on this mid-digit. Her script was poor for the whole series, and her delivery was plain irritating. She’s just shit. So allow us to deconstruct more or less everything she says in the introduction. Actually, we do agree with one thing, that Father Ted was set on Earth.

“In Red Dwarf, writers Rob Grant and Doug Naylor took sitcom one giant step further, and put man in space.” Now, there are several problems with this sentence. Firstly, she misquotes Neil Armstrong. It was the leap that was giant; the step was merely small. One of the most famous speeches of the 20th Century, and they get it wrong. Good research, there. That’s just nitpicking, though. The main problem is the implication that Red Dwarf was the first sitcom to be set in space. Now, we’re happy to correct undue criticism towards the show, so it’s only fair to point out that Irwin Allen and Douglas Adams are currently spinning in their respective graves. (Actually, Irwin Allen, the producer of Lost In Space might not be dead. If this is the case, he’s spinning in his house.)

“And not just any old man, no; here was a curry-loving slob, an anally-retentive hologram and a being descended from a cat, along with a morose computer and a pedantic robot servant.” Meanwhile, Craig Charles wonders what happened to Series II-VI, where curry and slobiness are highlighted about seven times, Robert Llewellyn wonders how on Earth his character can be summed up in one word, which only describes one tiny aspect, and Hattie Hayridge and Chloe Annett wonder whether they just dreamt that they were in Red Dwarf.

“So, nothing weird about that set up, then.” Oh, just piss off. Go on.

The clips used suffer the same problem as the clips used for other programmes: they are undeniably funny, but everyone’s seen them before, and they are the same clips used every time. But then, as Craig says, Red Dwarf doesn’t really work out of context. Take some of the best episodes – Marooned, Dimension Jump, Back to Reality, Gunmen of the Apocalypse – they all require a basic knowledge of the characters to work. You can’t appreciate Ace Rimmer and Duane Dibbley without knowing that they are the antithesis of their alter egos. However, the clips here are a series of bankable woofers, so they do work here, despite being better when you already know that Holly is incompetent and Rimmer is a pedant.

Craig makes good points about the show, despite the clips shown pissing on his points about Lister not cracking jokes and the show not being funny unless you know it. But for the series as a whole, particularly up to and including Series VII, he is right. It’s different with Series VIII, in which most episodes have a crap plot and poor characterisation, and the humour is sketchy. The best jokes in VIII, such as the Brylcream, Have A Fantastic Period, Lister tapping the wrong number in Morse Code, would work in any context, which is unfortunately at the expense of the equal balance between plot, jokes and character that was perfected some years earlier.

Craig is also right about sitcoms needing time to prove themselves. There was a time when all sitcoms got at least two series to establish the characters and the situations, but nowadays a lot of sitcoms are dropped if they are not an instant success. See: Hippies, which is severely under-rated. Give that another series, and it could have been hugely popular. It is interesting to note that Red Dwarf itself benefitted from the old policy of giving sitcoms a second chance. Bearing in mind the drop in viewing figures during Series I, it is likely that in today’s climate, we wouldn’t have got a second series. Craig is one of the few people connected to The Sitcom Story to talk sense. Oddly, the footage used seems to come from the same session as the Launching Red Dwarf interview, as Craig is wearing a light blue T-shirt and sunglasses, and the background has been blue-screened in.

Red Dwarf is rarely included in these sorts of compilation shows. We should be ecstatic that it has been included in this one, and grateful to the BBC for doing it. However, the footage used was so poor, so badly researched and so fucking re-mastered, it’s hard to feel anything other than anger.

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