Best of the Britcoms

Best of the Britcoms? That’s sure to be good.

RED DWARF
BBC-2
1988-1993, 1997-
52 Episodes
3 Specials

Written by Rob Grant and Doug Naylor
Produced by Paul Jackson

Avaliable on home video in the U.S.

Cast:

Dave Lister............Craig Charles
Arnold Rimmer..........Chris Barrie
Kryten.................Robert Llewellyn
Cat....................Danny John-Jules
Holly..................Norman Lovett (series 1,2)
                       Hattie Hayridge (series 3-7)
Kristine Kochanski.....Chloe Annett (series 7,8)

Red Dwarf has been hailed in both Britain and America as one of the most imaginative sitcoms ever to appear on television. It stands out for several reasons, not the least of which is that it belongs to the sparsely populated genre of the science fiction sitcom, a true rarity for British as well as American television. One American series that attempted such a mix was Quark starring Richard Benjamin in 1978. The network programming strategy at that time was to capitalize on the Star Wars craze, so the show placed its characters on a garbage-collecting spacecraft. Quark lasted less than three months. No series from Mork and Mindy to Third Rock from the Sun has had any true sci-fi elements.

Red Dwarf has become a major cult favorite not only among Britcom fans, but among science fiction fans as well. The plots are sometimes mind-boggling but no less plausible than those on any of the Star Trek series, and the use of impressive special effects enables Red Dwarf to create suspenseful as well as comic moments. One of the strongest and most important attributes of the series lies with some truly interesting characters who, beyond the jokes, are capable of revealing their fears, hopes, and dreams with a surprising regularity. It helps that the cast has great chemistry.

Red Dwarf creators Rob Grant and Doug Naylor honed their writing skills on several TV sketch comedies such as the BBC’s popular Splitting Image while working their way to creating their own sitcom. Grant was especially interested in science fiction. Their Red Dwarf pilot script was based on a sketch they had written earlier for a radio series, Son of Cliche. The sketch was called “Dave Hollins, Space Cadet.” Grant and Naylor’s excitement over their pilot TV script was tempered by the BBC’s reluctance to pursue the project. Producer Paul Jackson supported the team but remained pessimistic about the show’s chances. He decided to send the script to BBC Manchester, where Commissioning Editor Peter Risdale-Scott surprised them all by expressing his enthusiasm. Red Dwarf was given a fighting chance.

In the opening episode entitled “The End,” we find David Lister on the immense Red Dwarf spaceship in the twenty-fourth century, where his job as maintenance man involves repairing such delicate equipment as the chicken soup dispensing machine. His bunkmate and immediate superior is Arnold Rimmer, a rather disagreeable chap whose attempts to climb the ladder of success invariably get him nowhere.

Rimmer commits the ultimate faux pas by allowing a radiation leak to kill all 169 crew members, including himself. Only Lister survives. Just before the accident, Lister has been sent to the ship’s suspended animation chamber for eighteen months as punishment for refusing to relinquish his pet cat (which, as a superior tells him, could be a disease carrier and isn’t allowed on board). The ship’s computer, Holly, who has an IQ of several thousand and appears as a human face on the ship’s video screens, brings Lister out of his suspended state when the radiation levels become safe. The only catch is that three million years have gone by. Lister “awakens” to find himself alone, or so it appears at first. Holly has resurrected Rimmer as a hologram, although Rimmer wouldn’t have been Lister’s first choice or last choice to have as company. They later run into a most unexpected companion: Lister’s own pet cat, protected from the radiation leak, produced the first of thousands of generations of descendants. Evolution eventually produced Cat, a vain preening fashion plate who resembles James Brown with fangs and is always the first to seek a good hiding place in the face of danger.

While Grant and Naylor were at first timid to exploit the sci-fi aspects of the series, they quickly realised how many story possibilities could arise from the series’ setting and characters. They allowed their imaginations to take off, which produced more complex stories and enabled the use of more elaborate special effects.

At the beginning of the second series, the crew comes upon a stranded android named Kryten, who later becomes a regular character in the third series. Kryten’s superior artificial intelligence and problem-solving skills often collide his more human-like foibles. The result is a cross between a robotic scientist and a pesky party guest. From this point on, the program’s stories become more ambitious, and bizarre encounters with strange aliens are soon the norm.

Grant and Naylor became the series producers at the beginning of the third series, and used their expanded influence to make more changes. Norman Lovett as Holly left the show due to a contract dispute. Comedian Hattie Hayridge took over the role, thus giving Holly a new gender and platinum blonde bangs. The addition of Hayridge completed the longest-running incarnation of the cast (she had appeared in an earlier episode, “Parallel Universe,” as Hilly, a computer counterpart to Red Dwarf’s Holly).

“Backwards” is a particularly inspired episode, making brilliant use of video tricks to enhance the intricate details of the storyline. It opens with Lister and Cat engrossed in a Flintstones episode. “I think Wilma’s sexy,” Lister confesses. He and Cat trade observations about Wilma and Betty Rubble’s desirable attributes. Meanwhile, Rimmer is administering Kryten’s driving test aboard Starbug 1. The nervous Kryten accidentally ejects Rimmer out of his seat before they begin the test and proceed into space. Soon they find themselves entering a time hole and arrive back on Earth, where Starbug plunges in the middle of a pond. “I suppose you’re going to fail me for this,” ventures Kryten. Upon exploring the area, they find a road marker printed backwards and then hop a ride with a truck driver who “arrives” in reverse, speaks backwards, and takes them to Nodnol (London). Holly surmises that they’ve arrived on Earth during the Big Crunch, when the universe has stopped expanding and has begun to contract. Time itself, she reasons, has begun to move backwards as well. Rimmer decides that while they wait for the others to rescue them, he and Kryten might as well find jobs to fit in with the truly backward society. They find a theatrical agent’s newspaper ad looking for a novelty act, and decide that everything they do naturally could now be considered a novelty.

After weeks of searching for their companions, Lister and Cat find the same time hole and land by the submerged Starbug. They soon find posters for Rimmer and Kryten’s stage act, but the confusing language leads Lister to conclude that they’re in Bulgaria. They make their way to the pub to watch their friends performing in glittery suits as the Reverse Brothers. Kryten’s big finish is simply drinking a glass of water, much to the delight of the crowd. “The Bulgarians have very simple tastes,”, Lister explains. Soon, however, he figures out what’s really going on. Surprisingly, Rimmer and Kryten have adjusted to the backwards life and feel no desire to leave. There’s no death or crime here, Kryten explains. “Our first night here a mugger jumped us and forced fifty pounds into my pocket!” But soon they are involved in a barroom brawl in which the room is actually straightened up as the brawl proceeds. Rimmer and Kryten eventually have a change of heart and return to the ship with Lister and Cat. As they exit the cab, the driver gives Lister a handful of money, plus a tip!

“Terrorform” provides an excellent example of how writers Grant and Naylor combine a sci-fi premise with a closer look inside one of their regular characters. The crew searches for crash victim Rimmer on a psi-moon, an artificial planetoid. “It tunes into an individual’s psyche and adapts its terrain to mimic his mental state,” explains Kryten. In other words, they are traveling through Rimmer’s mind, and it’s not a pleasant sight. All of his fears, neuroses, and personal demons have taken physical form. “This sounds like a twelve-change-of-underwear trip,” Cat observes. They make their way through the deep recesses such as the Swamp of Despair, where they find gravestones with epitaphs such as “Here lies self-respect, died age 24.”

In 1992, Hollywood producer Linwood Boomer, a big fan of the show, proposed an American version of Red Dwarf. He intended to use a mostly American cast but also asked Robert Llewellyn to continue his role as Kryten in the new version (Terry Farrell, later of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was cast as Cat, and Jane Leeves, later of Fraiser was to be the new Holly.) Grant and Naylor flew to Hollywood to serve as consultants, but soon found themselves rewriting an unsatisfactory pilot script. Other setbacks and a general apathy among network executives brought the project to a halt. Red Dwarf had become the latest casualty in a long line of Britcoms to suffer from attempts by American television executives to duplicate or Americanize the original hits.

Back in Britain, the show began a tumultuous period behind the scenes. Director Ed Bye had agreed to direct The Ruby Wax Show, whose taping schedule conflicted with that of Red Dwarf. Wax, an American comedian and talk show host, happens to be Mrs. Ed Bye, so her influence in his decision to direct her show was no doubt significant. Red Dwarf‘s replacements for Bye didn’t work out, so Grant and Naylor eventually took over the directing reins themselves.

The sixth series begins with a major change in the storyline. In “Psirens,” Lister awakens after a 200-year sleep, and suffers some temporary amnesia. Rimmer has been off-line as well, until Kryten re-activates him, and then debriefs the crew. Red Dwarf has been stolen by unknown thieves, leaving the Dwarfers to chase after it in Starbug.

Without the Red Dwarf around, there could be no Holly. This development required the dismissal of Hattie Hayridge as Holly. Another important story development took place in the episode “Legion,” in which a strange but seemingly friendly being permanently converts Rimmer from a soft light hologram to hard light, giving him solid form and enabling him to touch.

Much of the sixth series was rushed into production when the BBC condensed the shooting schedule. The actors found little time to memorize their lines and found themselves having to read from teleprompters. Unable to maintain such a hectic pace, the series closed production at the end of that series. Red Dwarf VI is nonetheless often considered the best of the series, and achieved top ratings on BBC-2. It also won the 1994 BBC British Comedy Award, and the 1994 International Emmy.

After a three-year gap, during which time Rob Grant and Doug Naylor ended their partnership, Red Dwarf VII arrived on British screens with eight episodes in January of 1997. Doug Naylor stayed with the series, and hired additional writers to lessen his workload. Ed Bye returned as director and made the big step of continuing production without a studio audience. This greatly relieved a lot of the stress the cast had come to expect during the studio tapings of the previous series. (From this point on, a studio audience would be brought in only to view the finished product, and have its laughter recorded and added to the soundtrack.) The loss of the audience also allowed for larger sets and more flexibility in the shooting schedule. Bye expressed some concern, however, that the absence of the audience might throw off the actors’ performances. “They have an invisible communication with an audience,” he said. “It’s difficult for the performers, who’ve got to imagine these people laughing… whenever I shoot without an audience there, I leave a space for the audience to laugh, but I never leave long enough. It’s very difficult to shoot with dead air.” Still, the cast members’ long experience with each other helped smooth the transition, as did Bye’s experience of directing series such as The Detectives without a studio audience. Red Dwarf was also now shot on film rather than videotape. That plus additional location shoots gave the series the more polished look of a feature film.

Another change during Red Dwarf VII came with the decision to add a female member to the crew. Chloe Annett as Kristine Kochanski, Lister’s ex-girlfriend, proved a wonderful choice. Annett’s presence (beginning with the episode “Ouroboros”) provided balance for the reduced role of Rimmer, since Chris Barrie agreed to return for only a limited number of episodes. The episodes and high ratings gave the cast and crew a renewed enthusiasm to continue the series.

On February 14th, 1998, the BBC devoted an entire evening’s programming to the tenth anniversary of Red Dwarf. Production on Red Dwarf VIII began in the summer of 1998, with Chris Barrie (and Norman Lovett, the original Holly) back full-time.

Red Dwarf VIII opens with the Red Dwarf and its crew newly resurrected by the nanobots. Rimmer also enjoys a new lease of life since he has technically been dead since the premiere episode. Our heroes, however, have been arrested for stealing Starbug, and have to serve their sentences in the penitentiary. For this series, side trips to various planets are kept to a minimum, as most of the action is confined to the ship’s cavernous prison. Lister and Rimmer are bunkmates once again (allowing for scenes reminiscent of the program’s early days), and Kryten has been designated a woman and must live with Kristine and the female prisoners.

The ever-evolving nature of Red Dwarf, from that of sitcom to sci-fi adventure with laughs, allows for still more changes to take place in series 8. The studio audience has been brought back much to the delight of the cast, who realized after the previous series how important it is to hear a live audience react to the comedy. Chris Barrie, Craig Charles and the others almost surprised themselves with their optimism for the series’ future. “It’s great to have Norman back,” Barrie said in a magazine interview, “Chloe is excellent, and the boys are the boys, and we’re all happy.”

The program has become the most successful comedy on BBC-2. A full-length feature film version of the series will be shot in 2000.

The bouncy Red Dwarf theme was written by Howard Goodall, and is sung with great vigor over the closing credits by actress Jenna Russell. It was released as a single in Britain.

Capsule Errors:

  • Hattie Hayridge is credited as Holly for series 3-7; in fact, she was only in series 3-5. Norm isn’t credited for series 8, either.
  • There is no such show as Splitting Image – it’s Spitting Image. And it wasn’t produced by the BBC, either – Central made it, for the ITV network. One might almost have the idea that the writer didn’t know what the fuck he was on about here…
  • At the start of the series, it is said to be the 21st century, not the 24th as stated in this capsule. Later on in the run, it is said to be the 23rd or the 22nd – never the 24th.
  • “bizarre encounters with strange aliens are soon the norm”? As Red Dwarf has a strict no-aliens policy, this would be rather difficult.
  • Lister does not say “I think Wilma’s sexy” – he says “Do ya think Wilma’s sexy?” Additionally, Backwards does not open “with Lister and Cat engrossed in a Flintstones episode” – Lister specifically asks Cat whether he has ever seen the programme, which he wouldn’t do if they were actually watching it.
  • Neither does Lister say “The Bulgarians have very simple tastes”. He says “They’re Bulgarian. They have very simple tastes.”
  • Kryten does not say “Our first night here a mugger jumped us and forced fifty pounds into my pocket!” He says “The first night we were here, a mugger jumped us and forced fifty pounds into my wallet at knifepoint!”. Notice a pattern emerging here?
  • The paragraph on the Red Dwarf US pilot is rather confused – Terry Farrell was not cast as Cat originally – it was Hinton Battle. Terry Farrell was cast in the second pilot, which this capsule does not mention.
  • Red Dwarf was also now shot on film rather than videotape.”
    Bzzzzt, wrong! It was shot on video, and then treated to look more like film.

With a title like Best of the Britcoms, I’m sure you can guess that this book was written for the American market in mind. Personally, (and I’m sure many of you feel the same), the phrase Britcom (meaning British sitcom, obviously) irritates me – but for no good reason, really; it’s perfectly valid as a concept. So, putting aside my predudices, what’s it like? I can offer the following: I feel… ambivalence.

The Red Dwarf capsule doesn’t start well. Paul Jackson is given Producer credit, despite the fact that this role was in fact (in earlier series) held by Ed Bye; Paul is the Executive Producer. Since Ed Bye both produced and directed the first four series, his absence in the list is laughable, despite the capsule mentioning him in the main text later on. None of the later producers are mentioned at all; Rob and Doug are only given a writers credit. Again, it is mentioned they become producers later on in the capsule, but why isn’t this listed here? And why the hell are no director credits given? Meanwhile, as noted in the capsule errors, Hattie Hayridge is credited for series 3-7, rather than 3-5, and Norm isn’t credited for series 8. This is really sloppy work. Even worse is that, as you can see above – a lot of the quotes from the episodes are wrong. There is absolutely no excuse for this.

However, that’s not the worst of it. This capsule could be great – it has the right mix of facts and descriptions of episodes. Unfortunately, the errors marr the piece dreadfully. When you start reading about a BBC series called Splitting Image, something is wrong. And the “fact” that VII was shot on film shows a complete lack of research. It shows horrible, horrible assumptions. “Look! It looks different! Must be film.”

I wouldn’t mind if the book hadn’t showed so much promise. The shows it covers are great; things that are unfairly forgotten, such as The Brittas Empire, Waiting For God, or The Two Of Us are included. And the capsules often have some fascinating facts in, and something even better – actual quotes from interviews by the creators of the shows. It’s wonderful to hear how proud Andrew Norriss is of some parts of Brittas, for example. But on the factual side, I worry. Apparently, the episode of One Foot In The Grave that was set entirely in a traffic jam, took eight days to shoot. Now, that’s interesting stuff – but take a good long look at the list of errors in the Dwarf capsule, and you may realise why I’m inclined to take any facts this book has with a pinch of salt.

It’s not just blatant errors, though – there is also some rather sloppy writing in there. Son of Cliche is mentioned, rather than Son of Cliché. When discussing Ed Bye’s departure, the order of events implies that this happened for series 6, rather than for 5; therefore missing out Andy De Emmnoy’s reign completely. There is confusion between which of the American pilots the capsule is discussing. And so on. None of it is completely wrong; but it leads the audience to the wrong conclusions.

So, do I recommend it? Again, I remind you of my ambivalence. There is some excellent stuff in there, particuarly about other sitcoms, with some wonderful choices. But look at the error list for the Dwarf capsule again. Could you trust this book? In the end, it’s up to you. I’m not sure that I can.

Tags:

Leave a Reply