We’re sad to note the death of the hugely influential comedy producer and commissioner Gareth Gwenlan, aged 79. And on the same day as Reg Grundy, who was in many ways the real life equivalent of Kylie Gwenlyn. Yes, despite Gwenlan not having directly worked on Red Dwarf, we feel the need to mark his passing due to the way the show immortalised him, both on screen and in behind-the-scenes folklore, as being intrinsically linked to the programme’s fledgling fortunes in those early days.
As well as being the inspiration for the producer/director of Androids, the same episode, Kryten, sees Lister use his name as insult, calling the eponymous character a “total Gwenlan”. The reason for Rob and Doug’s apparent lack of affection for the man was that, as the BBC’s Head of Comedy between 1983 and 1990, he had turned down Red Dwarf several times. One notorious meeting is recounted by Rob Grant on the Six of the Best CD:
The third rejection we got from the BBC, we went in personally to see Gareth Gwenlan. Doug and I went in and there he was with his loafers. Never trust a guy who wears loafers. Or slacks. White loafers and pastel blue slacks. So we knew we were in trouble, right from the get-go. So we said “are you absolutely sure you’ve read it, Gareth, and why don’t you want to do it?” And then he gave us something about people not liking science-fiction…
…We got him to the point where he said “you’re probably right, a sci-fi comedy might not be a bad idea, but I think people will be very uncomfortable with it being on a spaceship. What you should do is you should start with an opening shot of a sofa. And then pull back, and you should have French windows. And then you pull back and you realise these are on a spaceship!” So you ease people gradually in, in this surreal way!
…He said “I’m going to commission you boys, I’m going to send you away and commission you for a science-fiction comedy series, and I want you to write it for me”. And Doug picked up the script – I couldn’t believe it, the balls of it – he slung it down and said “and there it is, Gareth!” And he said “not that one…”
But hey. Gwenlan may have made, what can be described with the power of hindsight as, a bad call on Red Dwarf, but during his tenure as Head of Comedy, he did commission Blackadder, One Foot in the Grave, Yes Prime Minister and ‘Allo ‘Allo, which isn’t a bad track record by any standards. Additionally, he served as producer on Only Fools and Horses and The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin – two of the greatest comedies of all time. The man leaves a damned fine legacy.
Also, what if he had have commissioned Red Dwarf straight away? Things could have worked out very differently. They wouldn’t have taken it to Manchester, and we’d have missed out on Peter Risdale-Scott, the autonomy he gave to Paul Jackson, Rob and Doug, and the camaraderie between the cast that was forged on those long coach journeys and in those shoddy hotels. Much like Ace Rimmer, being held back made Red Dwarf what it is, so we should be glad that Gareth Gwenlan did what he did. A huge figure in British comedy, and one who will be missed.