The 15th of February is a date forever etched into the history books of both science-fiction and comedy. It’s the anniversary of one of Britain’s most beloved sitcoms, from a writing lineage that includes Spitting Image and Son of Cliché, and with a cast featuring the likes of Mark Williams, Jack Docherty, Sarah Alexander, Ricky Grover and Morwenna Banks. Yes, Rob Grant’s The Strangerers debuted on Tuesday 15th February 2000, twenty years ago today.
Made by Absolutely Productions for Sky One, it was much-hyped as the channel’s first foray into original comedy commissioning, but it’s fair to say that it didn’t quite make the same impact as Rob’s previous sci-fi sitcom. It was never released on video or DVD, and has never been repeated since its original broadcast. But luckily, it’s all on YouTube (albeit in off-air VHS quality, with the credits cut off and irritatingly in the wrong bastard aspect ratio), so let’s all give it an anniversary airing and see if it’s worth reappraising.
Many years ago, when a young teenage boy who for some reason liked to call himself “Ian The Smegmeister” first got home internet access, there was only one thing on his mind. But after that, I searched for all the information about my life-long obsession Red Dwarf as I could. I signed up for forums, chatted in chat rooms and delved deep into webrings, which sound a lot more sinister now than they did in the late 90s. It was undoubtedly the first step on a path that led to this place existing, for better or worse, and I’ll always fondly remember and salute our fansite forefathers from that era, such as Smegweb, Red Dwarf World, The Red Dwarf Clearing House, Groovetown, and Planet Smeg among others.
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.
After over a year’s gap, welcome back to Set to Rights, the series where I look at Red Dwarf‘s sets in mind-numbing detail. And having already looked at some thrilling wall sections and the Captain’s Office, we turn to what might initially seem an unpromising avenue for spectacular revelations: the Teaching Room in Series 1.
I think, however, you may be surprised. Because telling the story of this set leads us into some rather interesting areas which I don’t think have been examined before. As ever, we don’t have the paperwork handy to be able to check any of this: instead, we have to do some deduction, some guesswork, and leave some questions unanswered.
With that health warning, let’s take another trip through early Red Dwarf – as ever with these articles, in order of recording date rather than broadcast.
Moving swiftly on, then. The last 12 months have been rather surprising in that things have actually happened in the land of Dwarf this year, unlike the mildly disappointing 30th anniversary. Not fast, get there in the end, etc. The biggest news was obviously the Red Dwarf Special, from Danny tweeting a picture of the readthrough, followed a week later by its erm, the official announcement. It perhaps seems unfair to talk about the production of the show never running smoothly – it’s not like there are fansites examining the minutiae of Still Open All Hours audience recordings – but there was a distinct air of familiarity when one of the two audience recordings was postponed until next year. Well it probably is déjà vu, it sounds like it. Luckily, the other recording went off fine – bar Norman Lovett having a cold – and 2020 will hopefully see the second recording rescheduled. If not, at least we can look forward to Chris Barrie shooting linking footage vaguely in-character in 13 years time.
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 of 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.
Ho ho ho, Merry Christmas everyone. It was twenty-five years ago this very month that all our mums went out to buy the Smeg Ups tape for us to open on Christmas Day 1994. For Red Dwarf fans of a certain age, this seems to be an almost universal experience, especially the ones like us who are still obsessed with it now – the joy and laughter provided by seeing the cast off-guard and out of character cemented our love for the show, and imbued us with a fondness for and fascination with the behind-the-scenes process too. So what better way to pay tribute than to investigate the process of making the video itself?
At some point during the compiling stage of production, a rough cut was dubbed on to VHS, before any grading, mixing or sound effects were added, and with big “LINK Goes Here” captions in lieu of Llew. This tape somehow made its way out of the edit suite and into the hands of fans, who made copies for their friends, who made copies for their friends, and so on until an extremely low quality version, suffering from multiple layers of analogue generation loss, became a relatively readily available open secret. Inevitably, you can now find it on YouTube. The full length tape is there as an unlisted video, and there’s also a compilation of the most interesting bits:
Here’s an incredible find that was first brought to our attention by Tom Selway on Twitter at the start of August, just a few days after it surfaced on YouTube. We immediately sprung in to action, opening our to-do list and pencilling it in for September’s G&TV. Which would have been fine if things like TORDFC’s newsletter and reddwarf.co.uk didn’t exist, both of which have featured it in the meantime. Nevertheless, it’s well worth sharing in case those two passed any of you by, as it’s not every day you get to see a fully-fledged broadcast programme all about Red Dwarf. Before Comedy Connections and The Making of Back To Earth, but after Red Dwarf Night, there was Smegheads in Seattle.
Produced and broadcast by KCTS, a local PBS affiliate serving Seattle and Tacoma in Washington, it features Craig Charles and Danny John-Jules on a visit to the eponymous city in May 1998. It’s a compilation of material from various sources: one main interview by KCTS’s Ken Vincent, another interview with Danny solo, viewer Q&As from two separate pledge drives for the station, at least two different convention appearances, plus a couple of specially-shot sections, which we’ll come to. After it initially aired, it did the rounds as a bootleg VHS for a while, along with another show from the same station, Swirly Thing Alert, but then disappeared and slipped from the memory, until now.
With the two year anniversary of Red Dwarf XII rapidly approaching, it’s time to tidy up a few remaining bits of business here on G&T. Our retrospective DwarfCasts are already in the can and will be published before too long. But before those, there’s one thing which I’m sure you’d all hoped I’d forgotten about. Yes, it’s time for that sodding ad breaks article again.
Here’s a lovely thing. Reader Jon Kearey recently got in touch to tell us about his visit to the BBC Visual Effects workshop in late 1997. Jon was doing on a project on Red Dwarf‘s model and effects work for his Design A-Level, and was invited along to take a look by the late, great Peter Wragg. This would have been at the time when the team were working on models for Re-Mastered, which would turn out to be their last major contribution to Red Dwarf for the best part of twenty years, by which time they’d gone freelance and set up The Model Unit.
On his visit, Jon was fortunate enough to meet Mike Tucker and Alan “Rocky” Marshall, who showed him not only their collection of Red Dwarf models and props from across the years, but also their work-in-progress new builds of Red Dwarf and Blue Midget for Re-Mastered. And he was allowed to take photos. Our deepest gratitude to Jon for sharing those photos with us, so that we could share them with you.