Doug Naylor has always insisted that Red Dwarf: The Movie has the original cast. Although this has held up production, surely he is right. Imagine Ben Stiller as Rimmer. (It’s the sort of thing which could have happened – at one point Jim Carrey was being considered for Zaphod Beeblebrox). Fans find the idea of Red Dwarf with a different cast revolting. Yet, as is well known, Grant Naylor did not end up with the kind of cast they had planned on. What if things had gone differently? What if some of the big names known to have auditioned had got the part? How would this have affected the show and their careers? The answer, of course, is that we can never know. But this shouldn’t stop us engaging in some idle speculation. In my opinion, the most interesting casting to speculate on is that of Rimmer and Lister.
Hugh Laurie was auditioned, presumably for the role of Rimmer. Laurie is so famous for playing idiotically optimistic toffs that it’s a little difficult to imagine him playing a petty and cruel character. However, although many will always remember him as George in Blackadder The Third and Goes Forth, Laurie is able to do more than lampoon the dumber members of the upper class. In his sketch show with Stephen Fry, A Bit of Fry and Laurie, he played a wide range of characters with success. I recall him doing a believable spoof of Dallas. He is now a belligerent doctor in the American show House. Most have mixed feelings about this one, but it certainly proves that he can do more than play an Oxbridge fool.
In fact, the experiences of Eton and Cambridge, which no doubt helped Laurie to play the two Georges in Blackadder, would also have helped him to play Rimmer. An important part of Rimmer’s character is his ambition to be an officer. In Marooned, for example, he talks of the “men of honour” who direct the battle from the safety of their tents on the hill. This he contrasts with the distasteful task of having to fight somebody. It could be said, then, that Rimmer is something of a snob who aspires to belong to that portion of the upper class which runs the military. A good example of this part of his personality is that scene in Better Than Life, when he fantasises being fawned over by a room full of very upper class officers. I suspect that Laurie would have been quite good at capturing this side of Rimmer.
Although I’ve played down the importance of Laurie’s tendency to play toffs, it still seems to me that he is so much the Oxbridge type that this would have made a big influence on the show. Sitcom writers tend to shape their characters to fit the actors playing them, and it is well known that this is true in the case of Red Dwarf. Of course, Chris Barrie is no stranger to the bizarre world of the upper classes, but Laurie is almost a cliché. For example, he used to row for Cambridge. I reckon the class snobbery of Rimmer would have played a bigger role in the show if Laurie had got the job. This would have been especially emphasised if Craig Charles had played Lister. Charles’ Liverpudlian Lister is a very working class character. Two good examples of this are his rants about the middle classes in Stasis Leak and DNA. It’s interesting that in the actual show little is made of the class difference between Lister and Rimmer. The tension between them is primarily the result of Lister being a basically decent slob, while Rimmer is a cowardly, selfish anal retentive. There is little of the class based comedy which is so evident in most British comedy. I suspect that this wouldn’t have been the case had Laurie played Rimmer.
If I’m right about this, Red Dwarf was probably better off without Laurie. Class based humour tends to age badly and one of the great things about Red Dwarf is how even the early series still seem fresh. Laurie wasn’t better off without Red Dwarf, though. In the ‘80s he was a successful and well thought of comedian, but his CV for the ‘90s is not a pretty sight. By the end of the decade he reached an all time low by starring in Ben Elton’s Maybe Baby. (How did Elton go from Blackadder to Maybe Baby in just 11 years?) As a star of both Blackadder and Red Dwarf, Laurie would surely have been held in high regard.
By all accounts, though, Laurie was never really in the running to play Rimmer. Another man came much closer: Alfred Molina. Perhaps Molina is most famous these days for playing the baddie in Spiderman 2. On the basis of his performance there it’s difficult to imagine him as Rimmer. (For some reason I can’t picture Rimmer as such a large man). But Molina is, in fact, a talented and versatile actor. He’s funny too. For example, he’s the only funny thing in Jim Jarmusch’s recent Coffee and Cigarettes, which was otherwise a waste of everybody’s time.
Unlike Laurie, Molina is not associated with any particular kind of role. He’s played a Russian sailor (Letter to Brezhnev), an old fart in ‘20s London (Enchanted April) and Joe Orton’s tormented and ultimately homicidal lover (Prick up your Ears). Molina could have been any kind of Rimmer Grant Naylor wanted, so the show would probably have been safe in his hands. The big problem with Molina as Rimmer, though, is that he obviously prefers movies to TV. He was making films in Hollywood even before being considered for Red DwarfRaiders of the Lost Ark) and has now left England to live in LA. His versatility as an actor and his unusual appearance (unusual for Hollywood anyway) have given him success that would no doubt have compromised his commitment to Red Dwarf. As has been pointed out on the series 1 DVD, we have been lucky in this respect. Only Barrie has ever looked too busy to do another series.
Considering how the cast might have been is most interesting in relation to Lister. Apparently the likable, lager swilling Liverpudlian we all recognise as Lister was largely Craig Charles’ interpretation of the role. Doug Naylor tells us that before Charles was auditioned he and Rob Grant were thinking of Lister as a cross between Christopher Lloyd and Stephen Wright. Their original idea of Lister was that “his brain was fried; he was slightly deranged”. This character sounds much less interesting than the Lister which eventually materialised. Lloyd’s brand of manic energy is fun when supporting more rounded central characters, but a show based around it would be tiring. Imagine a sitcom with Seinfeld’s Kramer as its star. Similar considerations go for Wright, whose spaced-out, emotionally detached weirdo act lends itself to a supporting role only. Charles’s Lister couldn’t be more unlike Wright. Wright’s self satisfied surrealism would sound entirely wrong coming from the Lister we all know. (It’s a good line, but can you imagine Charles saying “I intend to live forever. So far, so good”?) My guess is that if Lister had been portrayed as originally intended he would, over the series, have become a shallow caricature, much in the way Cat did. With Lister no longer a strong lead character it is likely that the writers would have made more of the relationship between Rimmer and Kryten. This is a potentially interesting relationship which took centre stage when Kryten first appeared in series 2 but was later neglected. Perhaps the tension between Rimmer and Kryten would have replaced the tension between Rimmer and Lister as the focus of the show.
David Baddiel was considered for Lister. Apparently at the time he had the sort of hair style made fashionable in the ‘80s by the Cure, i.e. a large amount of messy black hair. I suppose that look would have nicely fitted Grant Naylor’s idea of a Lloyd-Wright Hybrid. They wouldn’t have known it at the time, but The Mary Whitehouse Experience would later prove that Baddiel is rather good at playing weird characters. It would also make him a star, a fact that’s easy to forget now that he lives in the shadow of Frank Skinner. In the early ‘90s, Baddiel and Newman’s double act was about as big as comedy gets. It was around that time that people started to talk of comedy as “the new Rock and Roll”. So, with Baddiel in Red Dwarf we would probably have got the deranged Lister that Grant Naylor planned on, and it’s unlikely that we would have got more than three series. In ’91 Baddiel and Newman sold out Wembley arena. It’s hard to imagine such a big shot making time for an only reasonably successful sitcom. Maybe I’m wrong about that. Baddiel seems like a nice guy. The screaming fans at Wembley don’t seem to have turned him into an egomaniac. (Contrast Baddiel with Newman, who now sees himself as a sort of political messiah).
Maybe Baddiel would have played Lister for eight series, but Alan Rickman almost certainly wouldn’t have. Since making Die Hard in ’88, Rickman has had no trouble getting work in Hollywood. On top of a busy movie career, Rickman is known to prioritise the theatre over everything else. Although Doug Naylor tells us that he was keen to play Lister, there’s no chance he would have been able to devote us much time to Red Dwarf as Craig Charles did.
Much of what I said about Alfred Molina applies to Rickman. Both are talented, funny and versatile actors. They probably would have been good together. Since seeing Galaxy Quest, though, I can’t help feeling that Rickman would be better suited to playing Rimmer. He was so good at being bitter and resentful. He would presumably have played Lister in the deranged way already discussed; which may have worked for about as long as Rickman would have played the role. We’re much better off with Charles, who helped give us the Lister we have, and stuck around for eight series.
But who knows.