Genesis of Red Dwarf
THE EIGHT year-old boy with the leaky -pen mouth knocked timidly and entered the Sixth Form common room. In his hand he clutched a twelve page punishment essay entitled 'Knocking Over Sixth Formers' Coffee Mugs'. After ignoring him for a suitably humiliating amount of time, the prefect in the brown Hush Puppies and the black barathea blazer turned and took the essay.
So You've done it, have you?' he said. 'How long did it take?"
'I was up till nearly midnight," the boy whimpered.
Without even glancing at the pages, the prefect tore the essay into eight and dropped it into the bin. The rest of the Sixth Form howled with derision and pelted the prefect with rugby boots, books and rubbers.
The prefect's name was Rimmer.
Two Sixth Formers sat in the corner, playing their fifth game of chess of the day. They had perhaps twenty minutes before lunch break ended and double history began.
Twenty minutes before they would be forced to skive off to their favourite coffee bar and spend the afternoon smoking No 6 and finalising their thoughts on the meaning of life. The one with the distinctly non-regulation flared trousers and Peter Wyngarde sideburns was called Grant. The one with the plastic Chelsea boots and the Man from UNCLE polo neck was called Naylor. They didn't know it, but something significant had just taken place. Neither of them would mention the incident again for twelve years.
It' s two o' clock in the morning. In eight hours' time, we are going to start rehearsals for a radio sketch show called Son of Cliché. Half the show remains unwritten. In less than sixteen hours, 400 people are going to show up at the Paris Theatre in London to watch the recording of a show that, as yet, only half exists.
There is a feeling beyond panic, beyond fear, where your emotions run full circle and you actually start to feel euphoric.
This is happening to us.
We begin to giggle hysterically.
Almost certainly our career is over and it's all our fault. Three cast members, a musical director, a producer and his PA and eight technicians are sleeping soundly in the knowledge that the script will be delivered, since we've been assuring them all for a week that it' s simply a question of dotting a few 'i's and crossing the odd 't'.
We've been lying.
We've just spent the last three months working seven days a week on a TV series for Jasper Carrot, and then had to segue straight into a two-show-a-week commitment for a radio sketch series written entirely by us. It's an absurd schedule and more assertive people than us would probably have been able to get out of it. But, not wanting to disappoint anyone, somehow we've agreed to do it.
And the last amusing sketch in the universe has been written. There are no more funny ideas to be had.
Then, suddenly, out of this emotional cocktail of panic, hysteria, exhaustion and terror, we write a sketch called 'Dave Hollins Space Cadet'. It concerns the plight of a lone space traveller and his computer, the rest of the crew having been wiped out by a strange, chameleonic alien.
At last, we're up and running.
We finish the rest of the show and turn up with the script, having creased and folded it to make it look like it's at least a week old, apart from the occasional dotted 'i' and crossed , t'. And the only half clue that we've been up all night is that, on separate occasions, we both walk off the edge of the stage and crash into the orchestra pit.
The audience arrive. The show begins. And, as is sometimes the way with these things, the show is actually better than some of those we've spent weeks and weeks writing and rewriting. They laugh at everything. But far and away the hit of the show is a sketch called 'Dave Hollins - Space Cadet'.
We sit across the table from Jimmy Gilbert, the Head of Light Entertainment, BBC TV. We tell him we've got an idea for a situation comedy. It's about four students sharing a house together.
He' s a nice man and sounds genuinely interested. He says, however, the BBC have just made a situation comedy which sounds a bit like that, called The Young Ones. W e say we're sure it'll be nothing like ours.
We want ours to star this weird stand-up comic we've seen called Nigel Planer.
Any other ideas, he prompts.
Well, there's this project we've been working on which we think could be very, very funny indeed.
It's called POW and it's set in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. It'll be absolutely real, with integrity,. no funny torturers. Sort of King Rat, with laughs.
He gently suggests we write something from our own experience. Something we know about.
We leave and spend the next two years writing for TV sketch shows and thinking about it.
We return with a situation comedy, set on a space ship based on a certain sketch from Son of Cliché, about two ordinary guys trapped together in a boring job, of which we have vast experience. Jimmy Gilbert reads the script and likes it very much indeed. Unfortunately, by this time he has left the BBC, and his replacement hates it very much indeed.
Three years later, Paul Jackson called us on his new mobile phone from a Manchester-London train:
"Hi guys, it's ... kkktktkttttttttttk static, crackle kkkkkkttttttkk ..."
"Im calling from a kkktktkttttttttttk more static, crackle kkkkttttttkk ... train."
"Paul? Is that you?"
"I'll phone you kkktktkttttttttttk ... back ... kkkkkkttttttkk ... OK?"
The phone rang again.
"Is that better?"
"I've just been to BBC Manchester and they've read the script."
"And they haven't said no."
"They haven't said no?"
"Is that good?"
Oh yes. That's how these things work."
They haven't said yes, then?"
No, but they haven't said no, and if they continue not to say no, we're in."
And he was right. We were in.
Three years after Red Dwarf was rejected by the BBC, the same script was accepted and commissioned by BBC Manchester.
OF ALL the shows we've worked on in television, Red Dwarf is the most complex, logistically and technically to realise. In comparison, normal sitcoms are a total doddle. It's easy enough to write three Listers and three Rimmers appearing together in the same scene from different timezones, or scenes where Kryten' s disembodied hand goes for a stroll, or Starbug crashes into an arctic moon: it's another matter altogether making it possible. With a tight budget and an even tighter schedule, there is only one way to make it work, and that's to have the best production team around. Fortunately, we've got it.
From the very bottom of our rehydration units, we thank them all.
The one key person who isn't interviewed in this book is Ed Bye, who directed the first four series.
Without him, it would never have worked or been half the success it has. Which isn't to say we're not glad to see the back of him - good riddance to the old bastard. He was too tall anyway.