This article discusses the Red Dwarf Special whilst adhering to G&T’s spoiler policy. Please ensure your comments do likewise…
At least some of an episode of Red Dwarf has been recorded in front of a studio audience for the first time in nearly four years. G&T were there.
There were many things that made it unique. The first time that they’d deliberately set out to only shoot half an episode in one audience night, and yet it will convert to the highest amount of screen time covered in a single session since Back In The Red in 1998. The fact that we were supposed to be watching the second part last night, but circumstances conspired to make this the first part, which also means that this will become the first individual episode to have its filming split roughly equally across two different calendar years. And that’s not even to mention that this is a completely new format for Red Dwarf, the first time ever that – on broadcast, at least – a story that lasts longer than half an hour will be told in one uninterrupted go. But there was so much that was reassuringly familiar.
The show is back at Pinewood Studios following the successful move for the last production block, the epic XI and XII double header. While it’s no less of a pain in the arse to get to than Shepperton, it’s a more modern set-up and more suited to handling a studio audience. They’ve even marginally improved the quality of the portaloos since last time. We were ushered in to the same car park, directed to queue up along the same bit of fence, and frisked by the same security guards before being let into the same marquee to wait. By the time I was in there, not long after 6pm when doors were supposed to open, the first batch of fans had already been taken through to the studio, so those poor buggers must have had very sore arses from those seats by the end of the night.
The brilliant Jay from Lost In TV was there with his team, frantically trying to fill the final handful of available spaces. Something odd has clearly happened with the ticketing this time, given that many of the people who applied for standby tickets on Thursday afternoon got instantly upgraded to guaranteed entry tickets instead. There were clearly a lot of cancellations or returns, leading to a last-minute flood of available places, sadly and unavoidably released at too short a notice for anyone located more than an hour or so away from Iver Heath. Perhaps a downside of the ballot system – which is broadly speaking much fairer than the first-come-first-served method used for Series X – is that the hardcore fans who would move heaven and earth to be there have the exact same chance of getting tickets as people who might be put off by the freezing cold weather, or who decided to sack it off in favour of pre-Christmas drinks or whatnot.
Despite the aforementioned outside temperature, my heart was immediately warmed when I spotted filming notices on display, informing us that we’ll be captured on camera for a production currently entitled “Red Dwarf Special – Behind The Scenes”. Given the industry-wide decline in money and effort spent on physical media releases over the last few years, there was no guarantee that any such footage would be captured for this, but in fact there were multiple behind-the-scenes cameras in use throughout the night, with the reassuring presence of veteran documentary director/producer Nathan Cubitt on hand to give instructions. It’s probably safe to assume that some of this footage will end up in the 3×60′ documentaries that will be broadcast alongside the Special, but our fingers will remain crossed that we’ll also get something bespoke for the DVD/Bluray too. In the meantime, I can only apologise to Nathan for the fact that when I first spotted him on the night, I didn’t also spot that he was rolling at the time, and so I may have completely ruined a shot by unwittingly waving directly at the camera.
Anyway, we were all taken in batches along the circuitous route from holding area to studio, peppered with multiple security guards ordering us to turn our phones completely off every thirty seconds or so. They even had someone checking they were off as we entered the studio, stopping people from proceeding to their seats unless they proved they’d complied. This seemed a little excessive. The old “interferes with the equipment” explanation was given, but nobody who works in a studio even turns their own phone off these days. I wonder if instead they were worried about people taking photos, which is fair enough, but then in the previous three series worth of audience records in the smartphone era, it’s never been the punters they ought to be worrying about.
The studio is laid out in pretty much identical fashion to XI and XII, with the science room and sleeping quarters taking up the bulk of the room, the smaller, four-walled Starbug set tucked in on the right hand side, and various sections of corridor slotted in wherever there’s space. One of the sets was obscured by a black curtain as we entered; turns out it had been redressed for plot reasons, and they wanted to capture our reaction properly when we saw it for the first time on VT, which is a lovely touch. Other than those episode-specific changes which obviously we won’t go into, all the sets look pretty similar to when we last saw them, including the handful of tweaks to Starbug that were unveiled in the AA advert. A number of new animations are in use on the various screens, but some of the old favourites remain in the mix too. Such consistency is perhaps unsurprising, but it’s worth pointing out how rare it is – other than the two series that were shot back-to-back, no two sequential Red Dwarf productions have looked so similar since Series IV and V, more than a quarter of a century ago. For perhaps the first time for separate production blocks in the Dave era, this feels like the same show coming back after a short break, rather than yet another revival.
Another pleasing returning element was Ian Boldsworth (née Ray Peacock) on warm-up duties, who despite having taken a break from live performance in the intervening years was just as funny, engaging and adorable as he’s always been. His contribution to the success of these recordings is not to be underestimated; he knows how much it means for the fans to be there because he’s genuinely just as excited as we are, and it’s so reassuring to have a fellow fan guiding us through the evening. He broke out a couple of the old favourite gags, while expressing his delight and surprise that they still worked, and over the course of the night he constantly insulted the crew while they worked, ripped an audience member to shreds for having a ridiculous name, continued to have his personal space invaded by Kryten on numerous occasions, and attempted for a long time to manufacture a unique and complicated selfie situation, which was hilariously scuppered at the last second by the inconvenience of the actual filming being ready to start up again.
Following the safety announcements, a spoiler warning and a customary short welcome speech from Doug, the show got underway properly with all five regular cast members being introduced to the audience. Yes, all five. While it still technically hasn’t been officially confirmed, considering the lack of additional fanfare to his introduction, plus Richard Naylor hinting at it on Twitter, the photo Baby Cow posted of him at the readthrough, Danny tweeting a picture of him that was later embedded on TOS, and the complete lack of surprise in the room at his presence on the night, it’s pretty much an open secret that Norman Lovett is back as Holly once more.
For the first time ever, he performed in full view of the audience during his scenes, against the aforementioned black curtain which had been repositioned in front of the Starbug set in the corner. He wore a black neck brace to keep his head still and conceal his jowls, and I’m delighted to announce that he looks so much better on screen than he did in Skipper, with the make-up and lighting much more consistent with the classic Holly look we’ve been craving. His camera (adoringly identified as “Hollycam” by its operator) was fitted with an autocue, which he relied on for his lines, even coming to a halt during one take because the prompter was in the wrong place. He was also suffering from a cold, as he was not reticent to inform us, which may have affected his performance a little, but then again his character was given some rather unusual things to do.
As for the rest of them, three of the four look extremely consistent with their Series XI/XII style; the identity of the exception will perhaps be apparent to those who have looked very closely at the various social media pictures that have emerged in the last few weeks. The performances however were all spot on, and the atmosphere within the cast extremely relaxed and jovial. The smeg ups were of course numerous, but unlike some episodes of the last few series, they provoked nothing but laughter and mischief from the cast, rather than a vague sense of stress or frustration. My favourite was Robert stumbling over a speech about something being “relatively straightforward”, instead coining the line: “It’s a relatively straight fuck.”
It was interesting to see how Craig in particular has changed since the last block; he’s now spent a few years away from Coronation Street, where the schedule is so tight that the actors have to get everything right first time, and if they don’t they just pause and continue immediately. Consequently, he messed up a little more often than average, but was far more relaxed when he did. Chris was the only one who struggled more than a little at any point, but it was a complicated sequence, and Danny had been deliberately putting him off in the previous scene. Robert did much better than usual at remembering his lines, and in general there were far fewer lengthy pick-ups, and while there were occasions when bits would be performed twice to double up on camera angles, it was a smaller proportion than previous audience shoots. For the final live scene of the night, they managed to do it pretty much all in one go, much to the surprise of literally everyone. The lack of repetition made for a much smoother and enjoyable viewing experience this time around.
It is however worth noting that we only actually saw three scenes performed live, albeit with the middle of those three being being an extremely long one, tackled in two parts. But the vast majority of the material was pre-recorded and played in on VT, making up probably around two thirds to three quarters of what we saw. Effects sequences were represented by placeholders, comprised of captions, footage from previous episodes, other people’s material ripped from YouTube, and one or two very early renders of the actual CGI. The rest of the VT scenes seemed to be all studio rather than location, but on completely different sets and in most cases involving guest characters, none of whom were present on the night. Easy to see why these needed be shot in advance, and indeed why the first audience date had to be postponed if the pre-records were running behind, but you sensed that the crowd’s attention started to wane towards the end of one mega 15-odd minute VT towards the end of the evening.
Nevertheless, we did indeed see roughly 45 of the Special’s 90 minute total running time, starting with the opening scene and playing out in sequence until the halfway point. This made the evening’s entertainment strangely reminiscent of the first episode of a Doctor Who two-parter, with various situations and events slowly building up to what felt like a big cliffhanger, although obviously it won’t be upon broadcast, other than for the duration of an ad break. Only seeing half a story obviously makes it difficult to pass judgment on the writing from a plot point of view; there are certainly a lot of plates that Doug is spinning, and it remains to be seen whether they’ll make for a spectacular finale, or all come crashing down in a big porcelainy mess.
But we do know that it’s very funny so far, with a few big visual set pieces providing the comedic highlights, along with sharp dialogue and more than a hint of farce. There’s a touch of political satire, proving that Red Dwarf has not stood still while the world has changed around it, after a potentially controversial section early on that made me worried that it had, but I think it was alright in the end. A feature-length special requires a big story, and it was certainly not lacking in that department. There were in fact several huge ideas in play, at a pace which felt a little breathless at times, but we won’t be passing judgement until we’ve seen how they all converge in the second half. There are several moments designed purely to please the fans, but it’s a potential jumping-on point too, with one section serving the same purpose as the opening of Psirens as a recap for new viewers.
Overall I have one or two reservations, but it was undeniably very exciting to see a totally new kind of Red Dwarf story unfold after thirty years, and the crowd seemed almost unanimously happy as we departed, having serenaded floor manager Matt with a chorus of Happy Birthday at the behest of Ian Boldsworth. At the half time whistle it’s finely poised, and could go either way when the team return for the second period in the new year. But what is clear is that the Special is bold, ambitious and potentially the biggest and most complex Red Dwarf story ever told on screen. Whether or not that ends up being the case depends entirely on how it sticks the landing, but make no mistake: this isn’t just a longer version of a regular episode, and while some elements of the story are undoubtedly reminiscent of things that have gone before, the piece as a whole doesn’t feel like any one previous series overall. It’s totally its own thing.
With a cast that’s not getting any younger, television budgets that aren’t getting any bigger and schedules that are seemingly not getting any easier to align, it’s clear that Red Dwarf needed to evolve if it was going to continue as an ongoing concern, and move away from the on-again-off-again frustration of the last few years. If the intention is to offset the cost of losing half the running time of a regular series by telling bigger stories more often, they may just have hit upon a way to pull it off.
TINY TEASER: Man-Eating Cheese
APPROXIMATE SCENE COUNT: 50 (Including effects sequences. Due to all the pre-records, the total was only possible to ascertain because the last live scene was marked #47 on the clapperboard, and there were three sequences on the VT that followed.)
APPROXIMATE SMEG COUNT: 1