Previously on High & Low, we’ve comprehensively and indisputably determined the ten best and five worst cast members’ other shows and DVD extras. With those contentious issues now settled once and for all, we turn to the topic of guest characters. Red Dwarf has always had such a strong core ensemble that it’s a rare occasion when an outsider takes centre stage. But memorable guest performers have often been used to enhance storylines, either for extra comedy value, a threat to the crew’s safety, or to build touching and emotional relationships. The best ones are usually a combination of at least two of the three, and it’s those that we celebrate here, along with some of those that failed to do any of them effectively.
Not too many ground rules to lay out this time. Characters chosen can have appeared in more than one episode, as long as they’re not one of a fully-fledged series regular at the time of their appearance. For example, Captain Hollister’s appearances in Series 1 and 2 are eligible, but not the ones in Series VIII when he was a recurring character in every episode. David Ross and C.P. Grogan appeared as guests when they played Kryten and Kochanski, so they count, even though the same characters later became part of the core cast. To simplify things, alternate characters played by any of Chris Barrie, Craig Charles, Danny John-Jules, Robert Llewellyn, Norman Lovett, Hattie Hayridge or Chloe Annett are excluded, so there’ll be no Ace Rimmers or Duane Dibbleys here.
It’s also worth pointing out that both the quality of the performance and the writing are being taken into account. There are plenty of parts that are decent on paper but played badly, and plenty that are pretty thin on the page but boosted by great acting. Most of those listed below are either good in both areas or bad in both. So with the usual reminder that the opinions expressed are those of the individual author and not G&T as a whole, let’s crack on…
Tony Hawks, Meltdown
Warm-up man, accomplished rapper, fridge enthusiast and pro-skateboarder Tony Hawks was known as “the fifth Dwarfer” in the Manchester days, and has racked up more distinct guest appearances in the show than anyone else. This is his only appearance on this list (spoilers), but that’s largely because all the others are such small roles. In terms of the execution of an idea, it could be argued that the Suitcase in Stasis Leak is the best character of all time, but sadly it only comprised of about thirty seconds of screen time. Caligula, on the other hand, was a key part of Meltdown, and his scene was the funniest of a very funny episode. It’s a fine British comedy tradition to turn historical despots into slightly camp oddballs, and Hawks does this with aplomb. The repeated backhand slaps to Lister’s face, the way he looks into the middle distance whenever addressing Rasputin, and his brilliant double take on emerging from the cupboard are the highlights of a fantastic comedy performance.
Judy Pascoe/Francesca Folan/Suzanne Rhatigan, Camille
While Meltdown‘s guest cast featured a large ensemble of minor roles, Camille was driven purely by multiple iterations of the same central character. Therefore, the episode’s success hinges on the quality of this character, and given how brilliant the episode is, we can only conclude that the character is too. It’s an unusually warm and touching episode, centered around Kryten’s relationship with Camille, and this is beautifully rendered by both the writing and the chemistry between Bobby his real-life partner Judy Pascoe. Both the hologram and the human Camilles are decent too, but Pascoe steals the show, as both the android and the blob versions, with her softly-spoken cute naivety. Our favourite thing about the character, though, is that Robert Llewellyn’s mum used to have a publicity shot of Kryten and Camille on her mantlepiece, and she’d tell visitors “this is my son, who’s a robot, and his girlfriend, who is also a robot”.
8. Elvis Presley
Clayton Mark, Meltdown
The only character to emerge from Meltdown‘s ensemble even more memorably than Caligula is undoubtedly Clayton Mark’s rendition of Elvis Aaron Presley. He’s woven in throughout the episode, capturing our heroes, leading drills, and even popping up at the end to sing the theme tune. His success is partly due to the surreal nature of seeing the king of rock n’ roll in the middle of a military junta, but also the accuracy of the impression and the energy of the performance. In fact, it’s one of the biggest and broadest performances of the show’s early years, but it all works in context – and we wouldn’t trade those over-the-top theatrics for anything.
7. Howard Rimmer
Mark Dexter, Trojan
Playing any character with the surname ‘Rimmer’ has one inherent challenge for any guest actor – you’ve got to share some of Chris Barrie’s mannerisms, but without coming across as a pale imitation of the great man. Mark Dexter rose to that challenge, and created a version of Arnold’s youngest older brother that not only felt convincing as a member of the Rimmer family, but that was a great, funny character in his own right. The episode reveals that Howard and Arnold are far more similar than either of them imagined, and that’s matched at every step by the chemistry between the two actors. Like Arnold, Howard presents a veneer of smugness and condescension when hoping to impress, and resorts to bitterness and bile when it’s become apparent that he’s failed. The only downside to the character is that he didn’t get nearly enough screen-time, as everything that he was given was done well, especially his beautifully incredulous exclamation of the word ‘twat’.
Nigel Williams, Legion
Now, here’s another tough acting job – play a complex, morally ambiguous villain… whilst dressed entirely in green lycra, with your face hidden behind a featureless mask. Luckily, Nigel Williams needed little more than his deep, alluring voice to get across both Legion’s friendly, courteous side, and his deranged, angry lunatic side. He’s also more than capable of some superb comic timing, most notably in his light switch-related exchange with Rimmer. It’s when things start to go wrong that he really shines, though, as Rob and Doug give us a baddy that’s not merely motivated by evil, but by the necessity to imprison our heroes just so that he can stay alive. Above all, though, it’s a guest character that, rather than overshadowing the main four cast, mainly exists to give them funnier and more interesting things to say, and that’s exactly what a great guest character should do.
Rebecca Blackstone, Fathers & Suns
Thinking about it, Legion is rather similar to Series X’s Pree. She’s another character that’s found themselves occupying the traditional “villain” role, but whose motivations and intentions have more shades of grey than Paul Montague’s overalls. Pree does bad things, but only because her ruthless logic leads her to believe that she’s in fact doing the right thing. And like Legion, her mere presence in the plot leads to great things happening, most notably the double Lister scene. But it’s Rebecca Blackstone’s memorable performance that lifts this character above all others from Dwarf‘s modern era; her stark looks and verbal dexterity enhance the character immeasurably.
Robert Addie, Timeslides
Such a small role, in the scheme of things, but I’ve never been able to shake it from my head. Robert Addie breezes through his scenes, effortlessly creating a character who’s clearly loyal and hard-working, but with deep disdain for his employer, which he gets across with little more than a raised eyebrow and a muted sigh. The greatest compliment that can be paid to Gilbert is that when Rimmer appears in the corner of the room, he almost – almost – steals the scene from Chris Barrie. He has some stupendously funny lines, and he just casually throws them out in a deliciously dry and deadpan way. Robert is sadly no longer with us, but I’d like to think that Gilbert is out there somewhere in the Red Dwarf universe – once Rimmer fixed the timeline, Gilbert was never employed by Lister, so maybe he’s even working for someone he actually likes in our timeline.
David Ross, Kryten
Despite what was to follow, Kryten was most categorically written as a one-off character to begin with – it’s the only way Rob Grant would allow a robot into the show, for a start. But with the huge success of the performance, the character and the episode, it’s no surprise that he was brought into the fold permanently at the earliest opportunity. It was the first time an episode was based entirely around a single guest character, and this change of format paid off in spectacular fashion. David Ross is an expert at playing characters who are deeply confused by life, but who are completely unaware of how abnormal they are. When Kryten was told that the Nova 5 crew were dead, he was genuinely shocked. When Lister asks if he’s ever wanted to do anything for himself, he really does think that it’s a “barmy notion”. And his biggest dream genuinely is to be on his own in a big garden, and why the hell not?
Ross is equally adept at playing the meek, selfless servant, and the swearing, soup-throwing rebel at the end. While it’s impossible to imagine Red Dwarf without Robert Llewellyn, you can’t help but wonder what the show is like in the parallel universe in which David Ross’s 1989 schedule was clear. Would the character have been reset by a bike crash like in our universe, or would he have picked straight up from the leather-clad bad-ass that left the ship? Either way, it’d be a completely different show, and the fact that so many different possibilities can spin off from this single half-hour episode is testament to just how great Kryten’s first appearance was.
2. [Talkie] Toaster
John Lenahan/David Ross, various
Yes, David Ross has managed to bag himself a whopping two slots in the top three. But we’ll come to him shortly, because this character – uniquely for a guest role – has two distinct incarnations. Firstly, John Lenahan lent his sulky American tones to Series 1’s nameless bread-warmer, creating a personality that was completely different to the arguably more memorable one-off that followed. Lenahan’s toaster was a martyr to his boredom, lamenting Lister’s lack of enthusiasm for baked goods and turning his knobs to singing and smart-arsed comments to pass the time. It was perhaps his impetuous and morose nature that lead Lister to – off-screen – smash his Ford Cortina headlight in with a lump hammer.
But, having previously established in Series III that when a mechanical being is rebuilt, you can completely rewrite their appearance, voice and personality, the Toaster was reborn, in bright shiny red with the given name of “Talkie”. David Ross played it completely differently to Lenahan, giving Talkie a sing-song, constantly chirpy re-imagining, perhaps drawing from his role in the Grant Naylor-penned Wrinkles. The focus of the writing changed too, moving away from sulky annoyance as the source of the humour, and make it more about the repetition and the leaps of logic that Talkie uses to steer the topic of conversation back to bread. He’s the perfect foil for both Lister and the super-intelligent version of Holly, annoying each of them in distinct and character-specific ways. It’s this version that became iconic, spawning t-shirts and catchphrases aplenty. Given its vast influence on the Dwarfy subculture, it’s remarkable that Talkie only made one appearance.
Charles Augins, Queeg
We’ve already seen Legion and Pree on this list, and we could have easily mentioned Hudzen 10, The Inquisitor, Dr Lanstrom, The Creator, or any number of Simulants. But right at the top of the tree is the one that started it all – Red Dwarf‘s first ever villain, Queeg 500. Never before had the crew encountered a character whose sole purpose was to make life difficult for them. Okay, Queeg wasn’t out to kill them, like most of those that followed, but he was clearly fulfilling that role in the episode – and the revelation as to his true identity means that this was by the design of both the writers and of one of their characters, Holly. It’s a stroke of genius that only came about because Rob and Doug had written themselves into a hole that they couldn’t get out of, and the result being so spectacular is an indication that the pair really were at the absolute height of their powers at this period in the show’s history.
But the quality of the writing is only half of it. Charles Augins only came on to the production’s radar when Danny John-Jules – who also has been a law unto himself – decided to bring a mate along to the Series 1 wrap party. This presumably Babycham-fuelled evening lead to him choreographing Tongue Tied and being cast in the role he was born to play. If Charles Augins hadn’t been such a good dancer, he would have been a brilliant drill sergeant. Authoritarian, menacing and borderline psychotic: all the necessary ingredients for portrayal of a truly sadistic bastard. But it’s the little nuances that elevate the performance to the top spot, such as the hints of joy when waking Rimmer up at the time he asked for, or the casual indifference to the fact that he fainted during his enforced exercise. All this from a character that, it turns out, doesn’t actually exist. How Dwarfy is that?
And so, having reflected on so many truly great characters – old and new – we turn to the uninvited guests. Those unwanted interlopers who came over to our show, drank all the booze, pissed on the toilet seat and fucked off again, having nicked the stereo. Some of these choices may be controversial. Others most certainly will not. But let’s start with one that’s bound to annoy some wrong idiots…
CP Grogan, various
The problem with Kochanski as a character – and this is true of all incarnations – is that the execution can never live up to the concept. She represents the perfect woman, from Lister’s perspective, and that’s quite a brief for writers and actors to fulfill. The only way it can work is if she’s not around, so that she can become this mythical, faultless ideal. Therefore, the characterisation when she’s on screen has always been a little lacking, although curiously that’s not the case on the page, where time can be taken to establish a character that’s independent of her relationship, or lack thereof, with Lister, particularly in Last Human. Sadly, this fleshing out never really carried over to Chloe Annett’s portrayal in Series VII and VIII, but at least she was a better actress than her predecessor.
The version of Kochanski that turns up every now and then in the early series is absolutely paper-thin – she’s just a girl that Lister fancies, and nothing more. It’s not very progressive, but it’s kind of fine in a getting-the-job-done way, providing you hire someone who can, you know, actually act, and talk properly for that matter. Clare Grogan is a bloody embarrassment, giving the impression that she’s reading the script for the first time, and that she’s having to translate it from a foreign language. She’s at her worst in Psirens, mangling lines left right and centre. Just piss off.
4. Customer in Café
Anna Palmer, Backwards
Watch this scene reversed on Backwards Forwards, and marvel at the way this fucking idiot wolfs down that entire chocolate eclair in one go, the greedy mare. And look at the way the feckless moron drinks a cup of tea, spilling half of it down her astonished face. What kind of moron goes to a cafe and consumes their entire repast within five seconds? Dickhead.
3. Blaize Falconburger
Ruby Wax, Timeslides
By far the worst thing about the premature death of Graham Chapman is that he never got to make a career-defining appearance in Red Dwarf. It’s hard to imagine how he would have performed this dialogue, but it would probably have been a damn sight better than what we ended up with. You often hear of crap young actresses getting parts on shows by sleeping with the director, but this one went one further by marrying him. There’s not a lot of specific things that she does wrong here, but I guess it all boils down to whether or not your instinctive reaction to hearing Ruby Wax’s voice is to smash your head into a brick wall.
Andrew Alston, Pete (Part One)
Yeah, you know. Mex. The one who gets zapped by the time wand and goes “screw-oo-oo-oo-oo you up”. The most baffling thing about it is the decision to have the actors do the freezing and jittering stuff live, rather than pre-recording the scenes and doing the work in the edit. The Ed Bye of the late 80s would have done it in post, but the Ed Bye of the late 90s couldn’t be arsed. But even so, it could have been done so much better than the overblown, gurning interpretation we got here. You can understand the instinct to play it for laughs rather than realism, but there were no laughs to be had anyway, so they might as well have at least tried to make it look like he was really being frozen in time. But no – too much effort for Series VIII.
1. Taiwan Tony
Kerry Shale, Fathers & Suns
So, there are some performances in Red Dwarf that are a bit crap, but at least they aren’t actually offensive. The very existence of this character is questionable at best, and downright stupid at worst. It’s part of an episode that’s home to two really strong plot threads, and a character that leapt into fifth place in the top ten list. There really was no need for a third plot thread to be weaved through Fathers & Suns, regardless of what it was – and this Chinese Whispers thing was a huge disappointment, largely because the entirety of Red Dwarf to this point took place in a universe were racism wasn’t an issue. It’s a shame that it’s suddenly something that’s on our characters’ minds, and it’s just really weird that the ship contains a vending machine that was built to be a ludicrous and out-dated racial stereotype.
Mind you, on paper, there might well be some potential in that situation, provided it’s played right. Spoilers: it’s not played right. It is played wrong to a spectacular degree. Kerry Shale could well have taken up several places in this bottom five list with his array of shit medical practitioners, but I’ve already had to type his name twice now, and it’s that’s more than he deserves. Deftly sidestepping the thorny issue of whether a Caucasian actor should really be putting on that type of voice on 21st century television, the fact remains that you can’t understand a bloody word he’s saying, which rather undermines a lot of the lines he’s given. On the page, it could have been a scene about the strangeness and incongruity of having a vending machine with a built in nationality, or a comment on how the characters are so uncomfortable and clueless when it comes to race issues that they feel the need to consult a food dispenser about it. In practice, however, the performance is so ludicrous that it’s just “haha, he’s doing a Chinesey voice, don’t they talk funny”. That’s all that’s there, because there’s no room for anything else. It’s just awful, and it’s such a shame that it exists, dragging an otherwise superb episode down with it.
Sigh. Let’s not talk about him again for a while, eh? Instead, let’s look forward to the next edition of High & Low, in which Tanya Jones will be looking at the very best and very worst Rimmer scenes. And I’m glad that Tanya’s doing it, because it means that it’s not my responsibility to think of five crap ones. Why not give her a hand by making suggestions in the comments, as well as telling me why you love Clare Grogan so much, or why racism is actually fine, or that I only put Pree so high because of that Dwarfcast sting that Rebecca Blackstone did. Cheerio!