Incredibly it’s almost 30 years since Rob Grant and Doug Naylor first pitched their science-fiction comedy script to the BBC. It would be a further four years before the show reached the screens – and the reception was not positive (Craig Charles was astonishingly described by one newspaper as a ‘brown dwarf’). It looked as if Red Dwarf would go down as a footnote in TV history.
Yet on the eve of the tenth series, 25 years on from the broadcast of the first, Red Dwarf is one of the BBC’s most popular comedy series; so popular that it’s made a successful transition to nascent UK TV channel Dave.
Over the years the show’s stock has declined somewhat, due to ever-longer gaps between series and the dubious quality of the product in recent years. In fact, Red Dwarf arguably hasn’t been very good since series six, nearly 20 years ago. The last new TV venture, Back To Earth, was not good and the advancing years of the cast sat rather awkwardly.
That Craig Charles, Chris Barrie and Danny John-Jules were all so young when the series kicked off has seemed to accentuate their different appearances; that many of the cast – with the addition of Robert Llewellyn – seemed to have forgotten how to play their characters, in a similar way to how William Shatner played, well, William Shatner in the Star Trek movies, the boys from the Dwarf seemed to be playing heightened versions of themselves.
There’s a suspicion that the new Red Dwarf X will be fairly weak stuff, but it will be a nice nostalgia exercise if nothing else. Despite is aging stars, the faint whiff of a sell-by-date long gone and the lack of one of its creators (the show was never as good once Rob Grant left, leaving Doug Naylor to soldier on alone) Red Dwarf still has plenty to commend it.
For me that’s because it’s based on the utterly irresistible conceit that the last human being alive in the universe will be a total bum called Dave Lister who was found in a box under a pool table in the Aigburth Arms (where he later earned the nickname Dave Cinzano Bianco Lister because once he was on the table you couldn’t get him off).
That the last human should be a scouser is amusing enough, that Craig Charles managed to make him funny, sympathetic, largely likable and just about believable – like many of the characters – is one of the series’ great strengths.
How accurate, or flattering, Dave Lister is as a representation of the people of Liverpool is debatable – he lost his virginity on Bootle Municipal Golf Course at the age of 12 and, as a child, went ‘scrumping’ for cars – but he is cheeky, quick-witted, funny, generous and caring; all traits that many from Liverpool would claim as recognisably scouse characteristics.
Either way it’s a connection that goes largely unremarked. Red Dwarf’s roots are in Liverpool because its creators, Grant and Naylor, lived in the University of Liverpool’s Carnatic Halls and regularly drank in the then Aigburth Arms, now The Victoria.
There aren’t many Liverpudlians on television these days – and Dave Lister certainly seems more real than the collection of plastic faces on Desperate Scousewives and Hollyoaks, perhaps because Lister and Craig Charles have become more difficult to differentiate between over the years.
People will scoff at the return of Red Dwarf, perhaps understandably given the dip in quality over the years, but this is a series that won an Emmy and pulled in BBC2’s best viewing figures for years.
I’ll always defend Red Dwarf (with certain caveats) as I genuinely think it was the funniest thing on television for a while. What started off as a classic ‘trapped by circumstances’ character-driven sitcom – with one of television’s most hideous grotesques in Arnold Judas Rimmer – morphed into a well-observed science-fiction pastiche.
A monster made of Vindaloo; a Westworld pastiche where Lister sees Winnie The Pooh executed by a firing squad; a giant squid that makes the crew believe they’ve hallucinated the entire show; a planet of Rimmers; and the crew’s future selves come back in time to wipe out their earlier selves. All tried-and-tested sci-fi tropes, but with a scouser, a sociopathic hologram, a creature who evolved from Lister’s cat, a senile computer and a knackered robot.
And could resist lines like “Over the years I’ve come to regard you as… people I met,” or “…he is only guilty of being Arnold J Rimmer. That is his crime, it is also his punishment.”? Not I.
Underneath it all I like the conceit that when the human race is finished there’ll be a lone scouser bumming around the universe in search of curry, lager and his lost love.
So when the strains of Howard Goodall’s quite excellent theme tune start up, I’ll be toasting the most useless crew in the galaxy. And crossing my fingers a little.
Red Dwarf X is on Dave on Thursday 4 October at 9pm