This article discusses the Red Dwarf Special whilst adhering to G&T’s spoiler policy. Please ensure your comments do likewise…
The concluding part of a very long episode of Red Dwarf has been recorded in front of an audience for the first time this decade. Well, for the first time ever, come to think of it. G&T were there.
It’s a now-familiar journey to Pinewood for Red Dwarf fans lucky enough to get tickets or brave enough to risk it on a standby, but the studio seemed a lot busier than it did for the first recording. Despite the rearranged nature of this event leading to fears that attendance may be affected, the marquee was packed to the wind-swept rafters, with the security team sensibly electing to conduct their checks inside this time, away from the bitter cold that the snaking queue outside had to endure. The higher than average number of production guests included James Baxter, who brought his Dwarf character to mind when he went through the security checks and posed with his arms outstretched.
Perhaps the reason for the high turnout is that it’s much easier to get to the relatively remote studios in good time on a Saturday, with attendance not reliant on time off work for the majority of people, making last minute drop outs less likely for ticket-holders and production guests alike. And as usual, there were many who took a punt on the standby list, all of which meant, unfortunately, there were far more people than there were seats. My wristband was #154, but by the time I made it into the studio in my batch of 50, there were only single spaces left. Later, it emerged that some people were sitting on the floor, for more than three hours. [EDIT: As clarified in the comments by, erm, Rodney Trotter, the people who were described by the warm-up as “sitting on the floor” were in fact on chairs, they were just extra chairs that had been plonked on the side rather than part of the main seating.]
But there were many more that didn’t get in at all. We’ve heard that some of those people were ones with supposedly guaranteed entry tickets, yet we’ve had numerous reports that a few people on standby tickets managed to make it in. We can’t be sure exactly what happened, but it seems that some seats had been become unavailable at relatively late notice; one friend of ours who didn’t make it in was told that around 40 seats had been removed because the cameras needed more room, while another explanation could be that a group of thirty local film students were in attendance. Either way, it would seem that the night was accidentally over-subscribed, which is the default setting for almost all television recordings, but extremely rare for Red Dwarf. It’s hard to know what could have been differently, and not being able to squeeze everyone in was clearly not for the want of trying, but it must have been heartbreaking for those who missed out, and it’s an issue that shouldn’t be allowed to happen again.
Those who did successfully complete the journey from tent to studio were once again instructed multiple times to ensure their phones were off along the way, with the security team even more over-zealous in this mission than last time. At one point we were made to show our blank screens to three different people in the space of one minute and around twenty metres as we bottlenecked through a single-file gate, after which we were told off for the fact that the queue had broken off into chunks. It has to be said that some, though not all, members of the security team were decidedly unfriendly and at times downright rude to the fans. At the end of the recording, the left-most section of the audience was ushered out while the cast were still taking their bows, and barked at to hurry up when we paused to put our coats on. All entirely unnecessary and extremely annoying.
But anyway, let’s loosen our tight diamond shoes and talk about the show itself. We were sad to read during the afternoon that the always-brilliant Ian Boldsworth was ill and unable to make it, but we knew when we were in safe hands when we were greeted by Mark Olver, one of the finest and most experienced warm up people in the business. Like Boldsworth, he favours a conversational style with the audience, getting through the night by generally being amiable and gently amusing rather than trying to squeeze bits of material into gaps of unknown length. He also professed to being a Red Dwarf fan, and he showed great judgement throughout the night of knowing when to intervene and when to just hold back and let us enjoy the studio atmosphere – the golden rule for most television recordings is that all lulls must be covered, but Red Dwarf is not most television recordings, and Olver knew this.
Much of the audience interaction was on the topic of best and worst snacks, with Mark’s views on Roast Beef being the superior Monster Munch flavour, and what does and doesn’t qualify as a “two fingered snack”, proving controversial at times. There were also running threads about the shittest towns the audience had come from, and regarding the youngest member of the crowd, 12-year-old George, and all the things that he’s too young to remember. The comedic highlight was when Mark was teasing a Liverpool fan in the crowd that he knew the final score of their game against Tottenham Hotspur, but wasn’t going to tell him, only for a beaming Craig Charles to bound over shouting “Liverpool 1 Spurs 0, come fucking on!”
Following the customary welcome from Doug and introductions for the cast – including three guest characters that had appeared only on VT at the first recording, but were needed on the night this time – the evening’s entertainment started with a seventeen-minute cutdown of the first half of the Special. This brings to mind the precedent set by the Back In The Red (Part Three) recording over twenty years ago, which similarly had to bring attendees up to speed; based on a show of hands conducted by Mark, the vast majority of this audience hadn’t been there for the first part. All the plot-relevant bits were included, along with a few gags that it transpired would pay off during the second recording, but anything that wasn’t strictly vital was chopped out, with some whole scenes replaced by captions.
The VT ended with one short scene that wasn’t captured on the first audience night, instead being a pre-recorded scene that happened to be the first bit of business for the second half of the show. Our first live scene of the night took place in Starbug’s cockpit, which had been moved from its usual position in the corner, instead placed slap bang in the middle, in front of the Red Dwarf corridor and bunk room. What’s more, it had been rotated to accommodate the mid-section, similarly moved to be in view of the audience for the first time. Each and every scene recorded in front of the audience took place on these two sets, although there were plenty more glimpsed on VT. They shot a large number of different scenes with similar set-ups, interspersed with lots of relatively short pre-recorded bits, and illustrated with mock-ups of effects shots. As the cockpit is a four-walled set, the new position didn’t make much difference in terms of visibility for the audience, but confining the live action to one location meant much less resetting and repositioning between scenes, allowing the action to unfold smoothly and with very few gaps. Or at least, very few gaps for that particular reason.
We mentioned last time that there were much fewer mistakes and retakes than usual, and that seemed to have carried over when the opening short scene initially went off without a hitch. But this didn’t last long, and for the majority of the night they struggled to get through more than a few lines at a time without something going wrong, be it a forgotten line or a blocking problem whereby the camera’s view of one character was obscured by the positioning of another. Thankfully, the atmosphere didn’t suffer, and there was a lot of laughter and light-heartedness from the cast throughout the process. There are one or two Smeg Ups that will potentially go down as all-time greats, but would be impossible to describe now without giving away too much context. The old favourites were referenced too, with Robert cacking his pants at one stage, and Chris combining two of his standbys into one glorious whole – the vaguely-Italian sounding gobbledygook he flows into when he stumbles over a line, but done in Kenneth Williams’s voice.
There were also a number of technical issues throughout the night, with floor manager Matt bemoaning gremlins in the system, most of which seemed to involve lights going out, unexplained noise, or bits of set falling off. As the evening wore on and tiredness set in, the series of niggly short delays added up to a realisation that the shoot was running behind, and the mood did drop a little for a brief period, during which the cast seemed more frustrated than amused by cock-ups – but notably only ever getting annoyed with themselves, there was always a palpable sense of supportive camaraderie between the guys.
And while the multiple retakes interrupted the flow of the episode for the audience, thus making the pace of the story impossible to judge and the scene count incredibly difficult to approximate, they may have had positive consequences for the finished show. After the third or fourth false start for one particular scene, a note came down from the gallery via Matt for Craig to insert an extra line into the set-up for a gag, which consequently got a much bigger laugh than it did beforehand. The script for a Red Dwarf episode being improved by rewrites happening right before the audience’s eyes. It’s a classic tale.
The biggest technical problem occurred right at the end, when the live action was done with and the episode concluded with ten minutes or so of pre-recorded VT. The lights were dimmed, the video played… and then the dialogue disappeared a few seconds in. The music and sound effects were there, but not the speech. Playback was swiftly stopped, while the audience were literally kept in the dark, with the not-yet-fully-wrapped cast milling about bored – we’re very much looking forward to seeing whether the lengthy tour of the darkened studio that Danny filmed on his mobile phone will ever make it online. Eventually, floor manager Matt explained that they’d “lost” the dialogue in the edit, but gave us the gist of what was said before playback resumed. It seemed to be quite a crucial bit that had been missed, but at least it gives attendees something new to look forward to on broadcast, assuming they find it again.
After that, all that was left was a couple of pick-ups of individual shots from across the evening, before the cast took their bows, Danny got on the mic to ensure the hard-working crew got their ovation too, and we were ushered back into the cold Iver night to mull over what we’d witnessed. We’re not going to pass judgement on anything at this stage, especially as we’re hopefully not too far away from broadcast when you can make your minds up without any pre-conceptions, but to answer some specific questions that were asked of us: it’s very much an ensemble piece; the plot is at the forefront, is multi-faceted and is suitably incident-packed for the running time; there’s also enough character work to ensure at least some emotional impact; and almost all the bits that were set up in the first half are resolved in the second, but not all.
The ultimate question remains: is this one last hurrah for Red Dwarf, or the start of a new way of keeping the show going for a fifth straight decade? At this stage, it could still be either. There was a real sense of celebration throughout the evening; partly due to the content of the Special itself, partly because of the end-of-term atmosphere that will always permeate the final night of any production, regardless of length. While the bonhomie between cast and crew, along with the obvious affection within the core group firmly on display, could be interpreted as an indication that this is goodbye, there was also no clear reason why they wouldn’t want to do this all again, and again, and again. But regardless of what happens next, and indeed how it all turns out in the edit and is received on broadcast, the main feeling we’re left with after seeing the recording of the Red Dwarf Special is appreciation of just how special Red Dwarf is.
TINY TEASER: Moonlight
VERY APPROXIMATE SCENE COUNT: 34 (total: 84)
APPROXIMATE SMEG COUNT: 1 (total: 2)
Pictures lovingly stolen from the social media accounts of Danny John-Jules, Matthew Clark and The Official Red Dwarf Fan Club.