Hello and welcome to High & Low, our brand new monthly feature looking at the very best and very worst offerings from the wider world of Red Dwarf. Each month, we’ll be taking a subject and picking out the top ten best examples of whatever that category is. It’s a bit like Buzzfeed, but with lots of words instead of animated gifs taken from Youtube videos. But that’s not all. Because this is G&T, we’ll also be pouring scorn all over the bottom five shit bits from each particular field.
So, what subject will be kicking off this glorious brand spanking new feature? We present the Top 10 and Bottom 5… Cast Members’ Other Shows.
For the purposes of these lists, we’re taking into account any full series or standalone TV specials that star any of our four main cast members – Chris Barrie, Craig Charles, Danny John-Jules and Robert Llewellyn. This means that I, Lovett is ineligible, as is Crime Traveller, which, let’s face it, could have made either list. Guest roles in established series don’t count either, which means we can’t have Chris in Blackadder The Third or Filthy Rich and Catflap, Robert in KYTV or Bottom, or Craig or Danny in… any of those amazing non-space-based comedies they’ve been in. We’re also excluding the likes of radio series and online formats, primarily because Son of Cliché and A Brief History of Time Travel would be incredibly difficult to place, for differing reasons. Oh, and the placings are determined solely by the writer of this article, and he’s a rampant egotist who doesn’t care if you, or indeed the rest of the G&T team, disagree with him.
With various caveats out of the way, let’s get cracking with the Top 10 list…
10. Hollywood Science
Robert Llewellyn and Jonathan Hare present the show that takes famous movie stunts and gadgets, recreates them on the cheap, and runs experiments to see if they’re scientifically possible. An Open University production, originally broadcast in the BBC Learning Zone, the show was a great deal of fun, thanks to Robert’s child-like excitement and enthusiasm. After an original run of six 10-minute shorts, the show was expanded to full half hour episodes broadcast during the evening on BBC TWO, bringing us memorable moments that include firing dummies over a wall using a trebuchet, making soap out of pig fat, and Robert Llewellyn drinking his own piss. It’s a shame it wasn’t a little more successful – Mythbusters came along soon after to steal its thunder – but it remains an under-appreciated gem.
Now, if we were taking into account the online episodes of Robert’s car-based chat show, it might find itself a little higher on the list. But the rules state that it needs to be on the actual telly to count, so we’re just looking at the ten half-hour episodes that were broadcast on Dave in 2010/11. Unlike the web episodes, which could vary in length from 20 to 40 minutes depending on the interestingness of the chat, each televised interview was chopped to ten minutes apiece, which wasn’t quite in the spirit of the original – plus, inevitably, Robert had to stick with TV-friendly comedians and celebrities, rather than just rabbiting on with Ed Bye or Paul Jackson for half an hour at a time. But it was still well worth watching, as you can’t really go wrong with the “funny and interesting man talks to other funny and interesting person and they both laugh a lot” formula.
I used to work with a bloke who used to work on Takeshi’s Castle. He told me that their working day consisted of showing Craig Charles some cut down versions of the original Japanese show, taking some brief notes, fucking off to the pub for two or three hours, then sticking Craig in front of a microphone and seeing what happens. This is a technique that’s very much evident in the finished product, what with its references to contestants “being taken from behind” and “giant black balls banging into his backside”, which add an amusing, if childish, extra edge to what is essentially another old reliable formula: watching people falling over.
7. Scrapheap Challenge
A mainstay of Channel 4′s Sunday evening schedule for many years – and still found filling in the gaps on More4 of a weekend – this was a great example of a host being the perfect partner for a particular show, and was greater than the sum of its parts as a result. Robert’s nerdy enthusiasm for all things mechanical was given a home, whilst the presence of experts and proper men allowed him to retain his wet middle class flappiness. Two teams were given a building brief each week, they’d spend ten hours salvaging engine parts and scrap metal, weld it all together and then compete in a series of trials, all whilst Robert watched from afar, occasionally shouting at them to hurry up through a megaphone. As with Robert’s previous entry, Hollywood Science, it’s the fact that he’s genuinely interested that sells the show. It’s a sign of the show’s success that this is the series that Robert is most associated with for many people, even taking into account the fact that he has to wear a mask for his other big show.
6. Coronation Street
Well, yes, this is a tricky one to place. Coronation Street is undoubtedly one of the biggest and best television series of all time – you don’t surpass your fiftieth anniversary and still regularly find yourself at the top of the ratings charts without being a bit special. But it has to be said, and I apologise in advance to all you Craig Charles fans out there, I don’t really think that Craig’s presence in the series is the main reason behind that success. I mean, it managed to survive for 45 years before granny-grabbing, philandering taxi driver Lloyd Mullaney even showed up. Coronation Street as a whole is – objectively – better television than almost all the shows further up the list, but given that we’re looking at things through our Red-tinted spectacles, we’re favouring shows where the Dwarf contingent is immeasurably more integral to the show than Craig is in Corrie.
Still, Craig is very good indeed in the soap, particularly in scenes shared with Simon Gregson as Steve McDonald. Lloyd is very much on the secondary tier of Corrie characters, but when given the chance to shine, such as when Lloyd discovered that he had a long-lost daughter or when his girlfriend leaves him for her ex-boyfriend because she believes he’s dyring of cancer, Craig shows just how good an actor he’s become. Of course, Craig’s time on Corrie not only gave us the best bits of Back To Earth, but has also improved him as a performer, thanks to the high turnover of episodes and wide range of emotions that soap acting entails. If only the character wouldn’t inexplicably disappear for months at a time every few years…
5. Maid Marian and her Merry Men
One of the greatest kids’ TV series of all time, and proof – if proof be need be – that there’s no reason whatsoever why telly aimed at children can’t be just as clever, funny and inventive as anything after the watershed. Danny is part of a fantastic ensemble cast, headed up by Tony Robinson’s Sheriff of Nottingham and Kate Lonergan’s Maid Marian, and is one of many memorable characters, alongside the likes of Rabies, Little Ron, King John, Gary & Graeme and Wayne Morris’s brilliant ineffectual Robin. Danny was so good as the rapping narrator Barrington that nobody ever questioned why there was a Rastafarian living in the village of Worksop in the fifteenth century.
If nothing else, the intro to the series one episode A Game Called John ensures that the series will always be remembered at least once a year, every Shrove Tuesday, yes on Shrove Tuesday, on Sh-sh-sh-sh-sh-sh-sh-sh-shrove Tuesday.
4. Robot Wars
A victory for flame throwers and circular saws, because the programme in fourth… *kisses fingers* …is Robot Wars.
Series one of Robot Wars was great, but it had one main flaw – the biggest baddy was the host. (Sample Jeremy Clarkson line, to a female roboteer after her robot was knocked out: “So, back to the embroidery classes for you, then?”) Series two fixed that with two additions: the awesome Sir Killalot and, of course, Craig Charles. All of a sudden everything clicked, and the show tipped from “great” to “awesome”. Craig’s excitement and enthusiasm – which was either completely genuine or he was doing a better acting job than he did in Red Dwarf VIII – provided a link between the show and the audience. Teenage boys were watching at home, and an overgrown teenage boy was right there in the arena.
The combination of wanton destruction, impressive feats of engineering, and Phillipa Forrester made this the perfect Friday night entertainment for an entire generation of slightly nerdy adolescents. Even now, there are thousands of us who still know what a CPZ is, still remember the first time we saw a Srimech, still have a favourite House Robot, would still recognise Professor Noel Sharkey in the street, are still not sure as to the gender of Chaos 2 roboteer George Francis, and still feel sick to the stomach at the memory of each and every time Razer failed to win the championship as a result of some mechanical catastrophe or other. Even watching it back now, fifteen years later, you can’t help but cheer every time Sgt Bash sets something on fire, or get angry when the judges make the wrong decision in the battles, or to pick the same favourites (Panic Attack, Cassius, Hypno-Disc, Nemesis) and the same worsties (Mortis, Napalm… mostly just Mortis actually, the pricks) as we did all that time ago.
It’s easy to mock it now, especially after it went off the boil, transferred to Channel 5 and introduced a new batch of stupid wrong House Robots, but this was a show that got eight million viewers at teatime on BBC TWO at its peak. For a brief moment, there was a significant number of people who cared just as much about Chaos 2 vs Hypno-Disc as they did about Manchester United vs Arsenal. Those who loved Robot Wars at the time will never forget it.
We all know Ghostwatch as one of the finest, most well-crafted and subtly brilliant television dramas of all time. But for those watching ‘live’ on Hallowe’en 1992, it was just a bog-standard slightly dull studio discussion show that went horribly and terrifyingly wrong. Despite being undoubtedly a product of its time – simply due to the fact that the type of programme it’s so expertly subverting doesn’t tend to exist any more, plus the fact that it’d be near impossible for it to disguise itself so beautifully in this day and age – it stands up exceptionally well to analysis. There are some beautiful touches, such as the supposed recording of Pipes, which features different levels of his ghostly appearance each time it’s played, and the disturbing quick pan across the bedroom, where Pipes is there one second and gone the next. It’s a TV show about ghosts which turns into a drama about the people making the TV show about ghosts, and the thing that sells it the most is that those people are Michael Parkinson, Sarah Greene, Mike Smith and Craig Charles – trusted, established TV presenters, instead of anonymous actors faking it.
Of course, for Craig, playing the slightly crap, slightly annoying, cheesey-grinned roving reporter wasn’t a huge stretch, but he performs the candid, between-takes moments equally well. Incidentally, for far more on Ghostwatch, how it was done and why it was so important, we heartily recommend Behind The Curtains, Rich Lawden’s epic labour-of-love documentary.
The Brittas Empire remains one of the most under-rated sit-coms of all time. Provided you ignore the last two series, including that nonsensical bollock-kick of an ending, the bulk of the show is a highly polished, subversive and hilarious slice of comedy gold. Chris Barrie was born to piss about in front of an audience whilst putting on a silly voice, and the greatest strength of the series was to put this at the centre of the stage. Whilst played with undoubtedly broad strokes, Gordon Brittas was a much more complicated and nuanced character than he’s given credit for – it would be so easy to make the character unlikeable and cringeworthy, but the audience always ends up rooting for him and seeing that he’s at least trying to do the right thing.
But far from just being a star vehicle, Chris is backed up by a terrific ensemble of characters; his manic-depressive wife Helen, alongside such leisure centre staff as troubled receptionist Carole, deputy manager (wet) Colin and on-off couple Tim and Gavin, notable for being an early example of gay comedy characters who just happened to be gay, rather than their sexuality being their main source of humour. All of this was combined beautifully to form Norriss and Fegen’s scripts, which reveled in slapstick, farce and absurdism, but also touched on some incredibly dark subject matter. What other sitcom could deal with electrocution, drowning, assassination attempts, suicide and decapitation on pre-watershed BBC ONE?
All of the main Red Dwarf cast members will be remembered for having played one truly great sitcom character. Except for Chris Barrie – he played two. And I believe Little Mix would agree with me on that one.
So given that Chris Barrie is one of our favourite all-time comedy actors, it’s no surprise that the number one slot goes to a show where he teamed up with two of our favourite all-time comedy writers. The puppet-based satirical masterpiece started just over 30 years ago, but would be long forgotten about by now if not for two young Mancs called Rob Grant and Doug Naylor being brought in as head writers to save the ailing show. By the time they buggered off to make some sit-com or other about some people in a big spaceship or something, they’d built an empire of satire and silliness, which invaded the national consciousness and remoulded the political landscape in Britain.
Chris was part of the cast right from the start, up until 1991, and provided voices for Ronald Reagan, David Coleman, Paul Daniels, Ronnie Corbett, Michael Heseltine, Prince Charles, Neil Kinnock and, erm, Jimmy Savile, amongst many others. He was joined by such talented performers as Harry Enfield, Steve Coogan, Jon Glover, Steve Nallon and Jan Ravens, and the behind-the-scenes talent included Ian Hislop & Nick Newman, Richard Curtis & Ben Elton, Jack Doherty & Moray Hunter and producers John Lloyd, Geoffrey Perkins and Bill Dare.
The series is fondly remembered for the lasting impressions its caricatures made, with Thatcher as a brutal tyrant, John Major being grey and eating peas, Roy Hattersley as a dribbling fatso and Douglas Hurd’s Mr Whippy hair. There was also the musical numbers, most notably the number one single The Chicken Song, penned by Rob & Doug. Other highlights included the B-side I’ve Never Met A Nice South African, Santa Claus Is On The Dole, and the chilling Every Bomb You Make, performed by your actual Sting.
Like all such things, it lost its way towards the end, having passed the satirical torch on to the likes of Have I Got News For You and The Day Today, but now those successors have either gone away or become shit, we sorely miss this sort of political comedy on TV today. Often imitated – anyone remember 2DTV? No? Good – but never bettered.
Right, well that’s more than enough warranted praise for the time being. Now that we’ve established what are CATEGORICALLY and INDISPUTABLY the best TV shows featuring Red Dwarf cast members, let’s do the same for the rubbish stuff.
5. Weapons of Mass Distraction
A bawdy, late night chat show on ITV, that goes out post-midnight on a Friday? What could possibly go wrong! The biggest crime of this Craig Charles-fronted monstrosity, with its oh-so-topical-and-mischievous name, was that it was boring. Boring chat, boring music, boring comedy – and Craig couldn’t mask his boredom with the whole thing either. The sole highlight of the series was co-presenter Caroline Flack’s right tit popping out during the first episode.
4. A Prince Among Men
Having grown bored of playing the obnoxious arsehole Arnold Rimmer and the obnoxious arsehole Gordon Brittas, Chris Barrie quit both those shows and plumped for a completely different role – the obnoxious arsehole Gary Prince. But unlike the previous two characters, ex-footballer-turned-entrepreneur Gary Prince had none of the depth or warmth that made Rimmer and Brittas so brilliantly likeable. Gary was just a prick, who was always treating people badly for no reason and always getting into arguments where he was in the wrong, despite his tediously annoying catchphrase of “eh, I’m always right”. It ran for two series on prime-time BBC One, although the second series was unceremoniously buried on Sunday afternoons halfway through. Nobody liked it.
The theme tune was quite good, though.
3. Captain Butler
And speaking of shit sit-coms, here’s Craig Charles’s foray into the genre. Craig is the eponymous captain of a pirate ship that made a short and unsuccessful voyage across the Channel 4 airwaves in 1997. It was trying to be saucy and irreverent, but was instead just dull and forgettable. Neither Craig or Sanjeev Bhaskar could save this sinking ship. Because they were pirates on a ship. Do you see?
The theme tune was quite good, though.
2. The Crouches
Another shit sit-com, this one starred Danny John-Jules and was billed as the first BBC sit-com to star a black family. Unfortunately, they thought that that was enough, and didn’t bother to put in any jokes. Danny was part of a decent cast, which included Rudolph Walker and Don Warrington, playing a London Underground worker who merely existed to have witty banter with the lead character. The main problem was the writing – as Danny John-Jules said at the time, it was a bit weird to have a sit-com about a black family in London being written by a white man from Glasgow.
I can’t even remember what the theme tune was like.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of making a bad chat show or a bad sit-com, but it’s not the worst thing in the world. Plenty of talented people tried their best to make them work, but the fact that they failed doesn’t make them bad people. They’re not making the world a worse place by simply existing. Celebrities Disfigured on the other hand…
Billed as a sensitive documentary designed to raise awareness of facial disfigurements, the show was in fact just tabloid titillation and celebrity smugwankery. The premise was to use make-up to recreate disfigurements on people’s faces, then send them out into everyday life to see if they’re treated any differently. But rather than having normal people acting normally, to make it a fair scientific test, they used celebrities Craig Charles and Caprice, and then had them act like stereotypical weirdos and pretend that the awkwardness and indifference of the general public was solely down to the disfigurement, and not the fact that a bloke who looked a bit like him from Robot Wars was acting like a prick.
The denouement came as a made-up Craig attended a Red Dwarf convention panel, hid in the audience and started shouting things out at Chris, Danny, Chloe, Norman and Mac. The programme makers then tried to make out that Craig’s fellow cast members were somehow in the wrong for objecting to some nutter running towards them shouting “DO YOU LIKE DAVE LISTER?”. A triumph in the field of absolutely fuck all.
There, that should successfully baffle the people who scrolled right down to the bottom to see what was at number one, without first checking the premise of the article. If you disagree with any of the placings, or are angry that I’ve missed off your favourite/least favourite show, feel free to tell me so in the comments below.
Next time on High & Low, we look at DVD Extras. We’ve been treated to some of the most lovingly-produced DVD packages ever made, so it’s about time we gave them their due. If you’d like to nominate your faves and worsties, do so in the comments to this article within the next couple of weeks. There’s no vote or actual democracy or anything, but you might be able to sway our opinions, and your comments might be used in the next article, if they’re not shit.