G&T interviews TORDFC founder Nic Farey, and ex-team member Maxine Lehmann
Having only first watched Red Dwarf in its repeat season in ’94, and not being part of fandom until 2002, I’ve often wondered what those early days of fandom were like. So, with Dimension Jump XVI nearly upon us, what better time to go back to the beginning and find out how it all started? We snagged Nic Farey, founder and chairman of the The Official Red Dwarf Fanclub from its inception in 1990 to 1993, and Maxine Lehmann, who was involved with the club until 1997.
Can you remember the first time you saw Red Dwarf? What was it about the show that made such an impression on you?
Nic: The first time I saw the show was the first time it aired – 15 February 1988! (Gahd, is that really 23 years ago?) From the trailers I recall it looked as if it might be some good, and indeed it was! As an SF fan I’d have been interested anyway, but what struck me a lot was that the show was in the great tradition of “closed environment” British sitcoms in which antagonistic characters are essentially stuck with each other (Steptoe and Son is my favourite example of this). As the first season episodes progressed, it was also pretty clear that the writers knew their science fiction tropes (I knew nothing of ‘Dave Hollins’ at this point), and as well as being very, very funny, the show was to my mind also good SF.
Maxine: I missed out on the start of Red Dwarf, personally. I caught the tail end of Series 1 when an English teacher had our class each give a talk each, one of the designated titles being “My Favourite TV Programme”. A couple of lads in my class talked about Red Dwarf, and being intrigued I picked it up at Confidence and Paranoia. Massively hooked by this, I was pretty disappointed to find the series end so soon and waited eagerly for more. I was fifteen at the time and for me Red Dwarf fitted the gap that many unhappy teenagers would fill with obsessing over a pop group. My best friend and I were so captivated by Red Dwarf that we looked out for magazines carrying info, and when the merchandise started to appear I was buying it up at a crazy rate. We started to write what, in retrospect, I realise was effectively fan fiction at one point, hoping to see a Red Dwarf book published, and while we novelised episodes like this we also wrote new stories. On contacting Grant Naylor as naive hopefuls (at that time via Paul Jackson Productions as GNP didn’t yet exist), we were put in touch with the fan club.
Nic, were you already involved in SF fandom at that point?
Nic: Yes, I discovered fandom in about 1981 via a co-worker who was a major Doctor Who fan. He clued me in on the monthly first Thursday London meetings – basically just a gathering point for all flavours of SF fans, at that time held in a fairly tiny bar near Farringdon tube station (it’s moved several times since those days). I met my first wife there; she got me going on the Star Trek fan club and conventions which she ran, and from there, through meeting a Birmingham bookseller named Rog Peyton, I also got into the Birmingham Novacons (written science fiction) and made some long-lasting friendships there.
Maxine: What doesn’t sink in for a lot of people now is that things were very, very different back in the 80s and you couldn’t look stuff up instantly, or find people who shared your hobbies and interests unless they were on your doorstep. A fan club was an amazingly exciting proposition, and a fanzine with a letters column and the opportunity to find penpals was filling the space now vastly taken up by the internet. Perhaps if I’d lived in London or nearby I’d have found science fiction fandom earlier – I was certainly interested from an early age. But perhaps not – I was, after all, a largely isolated teenager with no links into the community. As it was, I lived in a small town not a huge distance from Birmingham and I remember the crushing realisation, upon reading a listings magazine, that we had narrowly missed seeing Rob and Doug when they did a signing session for the first novel.
Over the next couple of years I ended up doing A-levels, then leaving home. Along the way, though, I’d become friendly with Danny John-Jules (who was to copy his own video of Series 1 for me, thus letting me catch up on the episodes I’d missed), attended Red Dwarf recordings, and started helping out more and more on the fan club ‘zine, Better Than Life. It was mostly down to transcribing a thousand bits of fanfic, reviews and letters that I got familiar with computers – first for word processing, then for desktop publishing. Later, I was to set up a website for the club, learning HTML in the process which later became the route into my present career (I code web pages for the BBC these days).
How did you go about setting up the fanclub? How did you let people know about it?
Nic: Looking back, it seems kind of haphazard really! Red Dwarf was a frequent topic of conversation at the London First Thursday meetings (which by this time were being held at the Wellington pub by Waterloo Station), and as fans do, the topic of “we should start a fan club” was raised. Having had some fan club experience with the Star Trek lot (I’d also published a fanzine or two by this point), and being really into the show, I was coming up with some ideas on how it might be done. After a couple of months of this kind of chit-chat, various people were admonishing me to get on and do it instead of just talking about it, so I applied my organisational skills and came up with a plan. Historically, then, The Official Red Dwarf Fan Club was indeed started in a pub… We had word-of-mouth going, ads in other fan club ‘zines we knew of, SF newsletters and so on, thinking that we’d maybe get a couple hundred members (ahem).
What was your first contact with Rob and Doug?
Nic: Part of the master plan (ahem) included an idea to make the club “Official” by getting the blessing of Rob and Doug, so I contacted their office with an outline of what we were trying to do, the structure of it, newsletter schedules and so on, and set up a meeting. This was really before anything had gotten started, although I’d made some enquiries about badges, membership cards and the like from suppliers I’d used before in other fannish endeavours. I went in with a copy of the SF newszine Critical Wave, published by my great friends Martin Tudor and Steve Green in the Midlands, basically selling Rob and Doug that the fan club newsletter would be “like this”. The lads were interested, welcoming and put me well at ease. That first meeting of maybe 30 minutes ended up with a “Go for it, Nic”, so we were committed at that point (or should have been).
How did that very first Dimension Jump go, back in 1992?
Nic: Very well, I thought, in that we achieved our objectives in running it. Attendance could have been better (about 150, maybe even a little less), but we weren’t expecting Wembley crowds anyway. I’d used that particular Northampton hotel before for other small events, so I was familiar with the layout and facilities, and as important as anything, the staff were familiar with me and with the type of event we were running. There was a certain amount of silliness on the program, but probably the best thing about it was getting the actors and backroom people (and of course, Rob & Doug) that we did, pretty much just for expenses.
Why did you decide to step down as chairman of the fanclub?
Nic: Basically, I was moving to the States. That simple.
Maxine: By the time Nic left the country I was doing a lot of the fanzine, helping organise the envelope-stuffing sessions, and contributing to getting the conventions working. A few people assumed that I would step into the role of chairing the club, but Nic quite sensibly handed it over to a whole team of people who had different responsibilities and my own was to look after the fanzine.
The numbers grew into thousands as Red Dwarf became more popular, saw repeats, had video releases and so on. There was a core of regular people who were very involved in the club, and meet-ups started to happen around the country. To this day the big toe on my right foot is damaged as a result of a Monopoly Board pub crawl and I’m still in touch, albeit not regularly, with a handful of people I met through the fan club initially. We had in-jokes and running themes and so on, such as any thriving community does.
I think, though, that asking about Nic’s involvement with general SF fandom leads to something of a misnomer. Most Red Dwarf fans, the ones interested enough to go on forums these days, or to spend actual money to join a club back then, were actually interested in Dwarf and not SF as a whole. There’s a surprisingly narrow overlap (or there was, perhaps that’s changed), despite, as Nic says, the SF tropes within RD being very well observed. This was something that increased within the fan club as a lot of the fan base felt that they were more comedy fans with more in common with fans of stuff like The Young Ones, and wanting to distance themselves from the stereotypical Star Trek fan. Daft, really, as the mass media was already starting to shift to taking the piss out of Red Dwarf fans as being the kind of lowlife that trendy people should steer clear of.
What kind of things have you been doing since leaving active Red Dwarf fandom?
Nic: Assuming you mean in a fannish context, a few conventions here and there, local fan groups, and periodically (maybe that should be spasmodically) publishing issues of various fanzines of my own, which are currently all available online (along with many, many others) through the good offices of webmaster Bill Burns (an expat Brit in New York and a good friend). I’m currently involved with the Vegrants, a local Las Vegas social group of SF fans, fan writers and artists. Lately I’ve been into doing fannish song parodies and publishing these on my YouTube channel (search “fannish song parody” and you’ll find them).
In other news, I went to jail a couple of times.
Maxine: I stepped back from the fan club when it all got a bit too much. It was a hell of a lot of work. Although we had DTP software, we didn’t have a scanner, and the computer (A Macintosh Performa 475, fact fans!) was a bit weak and feeble when it came to handling large documents. Getting images into the fanzine involved taking slides from Grant Naylor, getting Boots to create photographs from them (for which purpose we had a signed letter from GNP saying they were the copyright holder and we did have permission to do this), then cutting and pasting in the traditional sense, with scissors and glue. We had a printer from which we created the master copy, but it took a minimum of three minutes to print a page and there was no form-feed, so it had to be done manually, for each individual side of the 60-page ‘zine. As it reached the bottom of each print I’d inevitably notice the typos, so I’d spend nearly a full day on just printing the bloody thing. Most people didn’t have computers, so submissions were hand written. While some things arrived on floppy disks there were still conversion issues, and we had no OCR software, so there were hours and hours of transcription and copy editing, plus we had regular calls and meetings to discuss the club in general.
There were certain tensions within the team, and when I started full time work and then had a massive health scare it seemed it was time to quit. As a thank-you for the efforts I’d put in, the team told me I’d have a lifetime membership of the club, but apparently all the lifetime memberships expired the other year. To be honest, though, after I stopped running BTL I didn’t particularly like the direction it took (more UK-centric, lots more reference to pop culture, lower editorial standards with more typos and spelling mistakes, less focus on the direct fan interaction in the letters pages), and the team size seemed to keep growing unnecessarily. By the time I left the club management side of things the internet was starting to reach homes and I was getting a lot more out of interacting on the Red Dwarf newsgroup, alt.tv.red-dwarf.
Red Dwarf played a huge part in my life, the fan club being just a part of that. It’s kind of sad that clubs don’t really have a huge role to play any more – the news is on the internet the minute it’s released, as are photographs and trailers. Anyone can find the conversations going on about their favourite show with minimal effort, and while some can and do foster communities, more of it is quite fractured and splintered. Strong, focused sites such as G&T do something to address this, and it’s certainly cheaper than joining a fan club, but there is a bit of a loss when there’s no fanzine to look forward to eagerly for the next fix of news and community. The Red Dwarf newsgroup has died a death, although I retain a number of friends I made through that as well as the fan club. These days I’m on the periphery of general science fiction fandom and spend a lot of my spare time involved in live action roleplay. Although I’ve largely left it behind now, I seriously have no idea who I’d be today if I hadn’t ever gotten involved in the fan side of Red Dwarf.
Series 7 and 8 always seem to generate a lot of “discussion” in Dwarf fandom. What was your opinion of them?
Nic: I actually saw very little of either series, since we were reliant on the local PBS (Public Broadcasting) station carrying them, not having access to BBC America at the time. The only episodes I recall seeing were Cassandra and Ouroboros, so I’ll see what Max has to say…
Maxine: For me, the pinnacle of Red Dwarf was Series 2. The enforced contact and claustrophobic atmosphere that Nic talks to as “closed environment” – the Porridge-in-Space kind of ethos was strongest there. As Red Dwarf went on the characters lost something of their depth and became cardboard cutout clones of the original concepts. Everything about Lister was curry-based, for example, everything about Rimmer was neuroses, and Cat cared about nothing except fashion. I think a lot of the charm was lost as it went. I have a bit of a soft spot for Series 6, having managed to see every episode recorded, but I think it was headed downhill on a shallow incline from before then, even.
Red Dwarf VII was a brave move, but I felt like it had lost a lot of what had been so magical previously. I really didn’t like the return of Kochanski, because to me it felt like she would have worked far better as a character if she had been anyone but KK – having a weird she-is-but-she-isn’t thing going on just over-complicated things, especially with the retrofitting of her into a role that had previously been played very well by someone else. The episode with the mirror universe made no sense at all (I suspect key scenes were cut), and didn’t make up for it with the humour. I was more excited by Series 8 which tried to return to the early days in some respects, and came away from the recording I watched thinking they may have achieved it, but when it transitioned to screen it just felt unfunny, over the top and drawn out at length. Lots of this is possibly down to my own age and perspective; I joined Red Dwarf as a kid with little experience of the world. By the time Series 8 was going out I was in a totally different place, and it was really quite a disappointment. I felt to some extent Doug didn’t recognise the jewel he’d had but had tried to recreate it anyway.
Did you see the Back To Earth specials, from 2009? If so, what did you think of them?
Nic: Likewise, havent seen these at all, although I’d like to…
Maxine: I watched the Dave episodes with a sense of discomfort and embarrassment, to be perfectly honest. It seemed to be trying too hard to be funny while having a strung out and confusing plot base. That said, there have been some gems in even the stuff I didn’t like much. The bit where they zoom, enhance, flip, zoom, enhance and so forth on a photograph was genius. I don’t think any new Red Dwarf can ever live up to my halcyon ideals and memories of the early stuff.
With many thanks to Nic Farey and Maxine Lehmann, and to David Langford for the initial contact.