Features | Written by J.D. Gillam 01/10/2012

Interview: RED DWARF Writer / Co-Creator DOUG NAYLOR

With Red Dwarf X premiering on Dave this October, we caught up with the show’s co-creator to chat about its origins, its continued popularity, the aborted remake, the long-awaited movie version, and much more…

Starburst: What’s prompted a return to the Red Dwarf universe now?

Doug Naylor: Well, a few years ago it was Red Dwarf’s 20th anniversary, and Dave (the TV channel) wanted to commemorate this in some way. The original idea was to get the cast back in costume and have them introduce some old clips. It evolved from there into making a new show, which turned into two shows and when we were in pre-production, it turned into three shows.

At that point we obviously didn’t have any of the old sets and the budget was really tight and as a consequence of that the first thing to go was the audience which was a huge disappointment but it was either that or not make the show at all. We wound up with two and a half sets and a lot of green screen and having to tell a story that didn’t involve a lot of sets that needed to be built, which is why we wound up using on contemporary Earth. So it was sort of bizarre… having to do a lot of things to make a story out of what we could use that wouldn’t cost very much. Coronation Street, of course was a wonderful set and we got it for mate’s rates. And then we got Mike Seymour as VFX Super and he, and his team, did the most amazing job making everything look like we had a massive budget and as a consequence we got featured in American Cinematographer which is unheard of for a UK comedy show. Thankfully Back to Earth was a massive hit. 

It was the most successful non-terrestrial show ever and broke all records at that point and then Dave wanted to do a series – which was always my plan - but I said if they wanted a series, then I wanted it to be 30 minutes with an audience, with six self contained stories.

I wanted to return the show to being about the four guys on Red Dwarf, doing Red Dwarfy things and recreate a mid-season vibe. Dave said “fine,” though they didn’t care too much about the audience one way or the other but then it got complicated because BBC Worldwide were part of the commission and they were co-owned by Woolworths at the time, who then went bust, and it all took way longer than we expected to get the deal signed off. We finally got the greenlight and then we had to get Craig out of Coronation Street which was pretty complicated. And that’s how it all came about.

The gang are back in Red Dwarf X

What excited you most about revisiting the show?

I’ve always really enjoyed making it, I never made a decision to walk away from it. When we did series eight, that got the highest viewing figures for any Red Dwarf series ever and then I wanted to do the movie, and then perhaps a series of movies, because I was promised that the money for a movie could be raised. Years went by and the people who were supposed to be raising the money didn’t raise it. We went into pre-production three times and I spent six months on two separate occasions in Australia doing rewrites and putting together a production team because I was directing the movie, but on each occasion the money disappeared at the last minute. By this time, of course, we’d got off the TV merry-go-round and the BBC were no longer so keen on Red Dwarf and felt that our time had passed.

The whole thing was reborn because of Red Dwarf repeats on Dave doing so well which led to Back to Earth being commissioned. Even then, Dave weren’t sure how successful BTE was going to be. They were hoping to get a million, and when the figures came through, they were 2.7 million.

Are you at all surprised at how well the show is still loved and revered?

I’m not surprised because I’ve been hearing it for a long time. Having said that, it’s absolutely wonderful. Surprising in the sense that it’s amazing that a show that was first conceived in 1984, and first broadcast in 1988 can still be sustaining today, but I am aware of it because of all the Tweetage, fan mail and people you meet.

It seems to be reaching its third generation now. I remember going on holiday with some friends who have an eight year old son who spent the entire holiday just watching Red Dwarf. Nothing to do with me at all, he was just watching it on his Dad’s iPhone because that was the show he was into. It was completely bizarre on my holiday to just hear the Red Dwarf theme tune all day long and him doubling up.

Red Dwarf series 1, episode 2 'Future Echoes' (1988)

Where did the idea originally come from?

Rob and I were working at Spitting Image and we wanted to do a sitcom. We’d written some radio sitcoms and we wanted to do something that would stand out and be unique. We’d done a radio show called Son of Cliché on Radio 4 where we’d had recurring sketches with the same characters and one of them was called Dave Hollins: Space Cadet which was a bit of a parody of Alien about a single, lonely guy on a spaceship talking to his computer after the crew were wiped out and he was going slowly space crazy.

It was well received but not nearly the most successful item on the show, but we thought there might be some life in that as a format and years earlier of course, we’d seen Dark Star. I remember remarking to Rob at the time that I couldn’t believe no-one had done a sitcom like that because it seemed like such a good thing to do. So it was the old memory of Dark Star and the Dave Hollins sketch and we decided to try and write it.

Before we wrote it, we went to see Paul Jackson, who we’d worked with on the Jasper Carrott Show, and we told him about it, really excited, and he said we’d never sell it. We said it was nothing like Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, it’s not VFX heavy with people with two heads, it’s more like Steptoe & Son in space, it’s going to be really ordinary but harnessing science fiction conventions to explore character.

He advised us to put in the first stage direction just how ordinary it was, which we did. We sent it to him and John Lloyd and they both liked it and we thought we were quids in because these guys were the two most successful producers of their generation and there was even talk of them doing it as a co-production.

To cut a long story short, Paul took it to the BBC three times and it got rejected three times, they just didn’t ‘get it’. They didn’t understand where we were coming from and they didn’t think that anyone would be able to relate to people on a spaceship because most people haven’t been on a spaceship. They couldn’t understand that these were relationships that viewers could relate to. The idea that someone could be evolved from a cat just finished them as far as identifiability was concerned. Film on Four wanted to make it into a movie, but we wanted to make it into a sitcom so we said, ‘No.’ We were show-runners on Spitting Image at this point and a few years went past and then Paul heard that Ben Elton didn’t want to make a second series of his show Happy Families and so BBC Manchester had this slot of six half hours available and they wanted something a bit weird to fill it. So if it failed, at least they had the excuse that they were trying something a bit different and Paul had three scripts in his bag and he dropped them all on the table and said, have a read. They decided they liked Red Dwarf.

So BBC London rejected it three times, but we snuck in the back door at BBC Manchester.

We went into production but then there was an electrician’s strike so we rehearsed each show expecting to film it but each week the strike killed the show. That turned out to be a great thing for us because it meant the production had more preparation time. We waited for six months before we were told we could go again.

How did the theme tune get chosen?

Howard Goodall came in and we told him what the show was about and he’d read the first script and he played it to us on the piano and I think the lyrics were sort of half written, maybe fully written. We had no input at all and we had such an amazing track record of writing music together because we’d written The Chicken Song so we were seriously affronted because we weren’t involved in writing the lyrics (laughs). When we heard it arranged, it was absolutely brilliant.

What happened between you and Rob Grant to cause your professional split?

Basically Rob wanted to go off and do his own thing and write on his own. So that’s what he did. He went off and did The Strangerers and Dark Ages and wrote some novels. That’s what he wanted to do. In the end, there’s no answer to that. We were best friends since we were nine years old, he was my best friend first and my writing partner second but I confess that I thought it was an absolutely nuts idea us splitting up and I told him more than million times.

It wasn’t the first time he’d wanted to go off and write his own things. The first time he wanted to go off was just after the electrician’s strike. We’d rehearsed the first six shows but none had been made and he wanted to go off that summer. I said we should be rewriting the scripts for the re-launch but we spent most of that summer with him wanting to go off on his own. He came back a few weeks before we went into production again and there was a second occasion he wanted to go off and I got offered the chance to produce Spitting Image on my own and I said that if he wanted to get together again I’d refuse the offer but if not I’d produce Spitting Image. He wanted to get back together so I turned down their offer.

After the third time, it became obvious, there was no going back really and that’s what happened.

That’s a shame. Did you have any input into the US version and what went wrong?

All too late really.

We went over with a week to go, the script had been written based on the pilot script of the UK version and it wasn’t fantastically funny. During a table reading it didn’t go down that well and we asked if we could rewrite it. They weren’t that keen but we asked for one chance to do a pass on it. We started at six in the evening and we had the new version by ten the following morning, working through the night.

We didn’t realise at the time that you get so much money from having written or co-written the pilot, we were just trying to help them make the best show we could. I think there was a subtext, an agenda to it. We handed it in and expected him to say that it was so much better but the guy read it and said he didn’t like it. So we said we were going home because there was no point being there, but we went back to the hotel and someone had given us a bottle of champagne for something and Rob said – because we’d been working the whole night, it was the equivalent of our evening, as it were – “Bollocks, let’s have the champagne.” We downed the first bottle and we were halfway through the second and I think I said it was ridiculous and that we should go back and at least get the thing read.

So we went back and secretly gave our script to the American cast and they all thought it was much better and they all called their agents and said they wanted to do our version. In end it was agreed they could do our version, but certain finesses were made and it didn’t happen.

The cast of the US Red Dwarf pilot

That guy left and we were told to come back and make a new pilot but there was no budget and we had to shoot some stuff in something like a large garage. It was so bizarre, working for Universal and we were in this garage without proper facilities and then the whole thing went to pieces and died. It was a shame but most times UK shows are adapted for the US, they don’t become successful because they try and duplicate the original with a different cast, which you can’t do. You have to go with the cast you’ve got and write for them. They probably did the world a service by not making it.

Have you thought about rebooting the show?

It’s so much easier to do that with a drama than a comedy. It’s easier to recast James Bond, Spiderman or Batman than Lister and Rimmer and have that character chemistry. Then the fans... they’ll never allow it. It might be different in twenty years, when I’m not involved and they reboot it. While you’ve still got the four remaining guys around and they’re really funny, it would be kind of criminal.

Will we ever see a Red Dwarf movie?

Craig’s feeling, and I tend to agree with him, is that it should be done with a continuing Red Dwarf TV series running alongside it.

The reason the movie didn’t get made was probably because we didn’t have the right people on our team trying to raise the money, and there was no-one there telling us we wouldn’t be able to raise the kind of money we were asking for unless we recast it with movie stars which I wasn’t prepared to do. I was told at one point to make the script more expensive, put in more VFX, make it cost £19 million. The theory was that the bank involved wouldn’t raise just a little bit of money – it had to be a ton of money to make it worthwhile for them – which turned out to be absolute nonsense.

It took a lot of writing and re-writing. 35 drafts, I think all together. More expensive, even more expensive, a bit cheaper, even cheaper, a lot cheaper, now a bit more expensive.  On and on and on. You look at the success of The Inbetweeners and if we’d done the Red Dwarf movie at the right time with the right budget, we’d have picked up an audience. No question.

Do you see the story continuing beyond this series?

You never know, all sorts of things can happen. I always try and finish them tidily, because you never know, it might be the last show you do. If this is the final ever show we do then it’s a good way to go out, but equally I think there’ll be more.

How different is it to direct yourself compared to allowing others to do it, as previously?

In some ways, I always sort of co-directed. The first shot you see in Red Dwarf, where we’re looking through the mesh grate, was my shot. The opening title shot where we pull out from Red Dwarf was something that Rob and I worked out with Ed and since season two, I’ve always been part of the furniture in the edit and giving acting notes through the shoots.

Of course, as a writer, you do have ideas about the best way to execute a scene because you’ve already seen ever shot in your head while you were writing it. On an audience night it can be much quicker to be the writer/director as you don’t have to explain things to the director who then has to explain them to a floor manager, who then explains them to the cast. In that sense, it’s easier and quicker but equally, you could be losing great input from a director.

It’s tricky, I’ve always enjoyed directing and I enjoyed directing Back to Reality and Quarantined with Rob – it’s way more fun than writing, that’s for sure. There’s nothing like having a script that you think is pretty decent and then directing it.

Will there be any further Red Dwarf novels?

There are none planned but I’ll be very surprised if there aren’t at some point.

If there was one thing you could go back and change in the show from the past, what would it be?

It’s a real shame that Norman left. I never quite understood the decision why he did. It’s a real shame, obviously, that Rob left too, but there’s nothing you can do when people leave for new things.

Mistakes? In terms of mistakes I’ve made, there are too many to list (laughs), we’d be here all night!

Sometimes there’s a really thin line between doing something that turns out to be innovative and good and something that falls flat on its face. You just can’t tell sometimes until you get there, and sometimes even when you get there you don’t recognise it.

Have you got a favourite memory of the show?

I think it’s just hanging with the guys and rehearsing. And laughing. And my time writing with Rob.

It doesn’t matter what you do if you’re creased up laughing, it could be the most stupid thing. Those are the things you remember.

One memory is when I was editing Polymorph, ‘the shrinking boxers’ scene with Ed and the editor was very disapproving of the whole thing and he thought the BBC would never allow it. The more disapproving he became, the more hysterical I became and Ed was giggling as well. I was sent to get some pizzas to get me out of the room because I was laughing so much and I basically laughed all the way to the pizza place, got the pizza and returned and was still laughing. It was probably lack of sleep as well, but all my best memories are memories of laughter.

Red Dwarf series III episode 3, 'Polymorph'

What's your favourite episode?

It’s really difficult. I know the fan’s favourite is Back to Reality but I don’t think it’s nearly the funniest show that we’ve done. I really like Polymorph and Marooned.

There’s so many shows that you like but then I can’t name one that’s head and shoulders above the others and I do genuinely think there are some contenders in Red Dwarf X.

UKTV are jumping up and down about episode three, but I think the fan’s favourite will be show six.

Will we see Kochanski making a return in this series?

That’s a real difficult one because if I told you that it wouldn’t really be fair!

There were two things really. One is that the whole idea of the series was to get the four guys back on Red Dwarf and have a vibe like those middle series. Also, I knew if this series wasn’t a hit in the way we all want it to be, there’d be no more series. I knew what the stakes were, so there were some battles I wasn’t going to lose. Having the audience back was one of them. Perhaps as a result of that decision we lost two weeks of filming - both our Exterior shoot weeks - to pay for the audience. This meant that two scripts I intended for the series died as we weren’t able to have exterior locations and in a bizarre way that forced us to make Red Dwarf X even more like the early series. We’ve got one exterior in the entire series which is in a forest which was in the back-lot over the wall of K stage in Shepperton. Everything else is studio.

Although there’s a show where we’re in India in 23AD, it’s a massive set, but it’s all interior. Even in series two, we had a quarry but we couldn’t afford a quarry this time – that’s sad isn’t it? So, there were plans to have Kochanski in this series in the last two shows, but those last two shows didn’t happen. That’s not to say that she won’t be in it, but equally it’s not answering your question either!


Red Dwarf X starts on Thursday October 4th on Dave at 9pm.