How Red Dwarf became Red Dwarf

From near-fatal cliff-top escapades to the casting of the Cat, we look at how everyone's favourite sci-fi sitcom came to be.

Red Dwarf crew

On the wireless

It was in the womb of Radio 4 that the squidgy foetus of Red Dwarf first developed. The time was the early 80s, and the show was Son of Cliché, written by Rob Grant and Doug Naylor and featuring a sketch called Dave Hollins – Space Cadet. It even featured Chris Barrie, only in this he was the voice of the computer. When they brought it to telly, they changed Dave's name to Lister as there was a football player called Dave Hollins.

Near-death experience

Did you know humans have their own version of silicon heaven? It's called "heaven", and Grant Naylor almost saw it first hand while writing the first episode of Red Dwarf. They'd been working on the script in a Welsh cottage and, while driving in the area one night, their car almost fell off a cliff. The next day, instead of finishing the script, they had to return and rescue the car from its dangling, Italian Job-style fate. And people think writers have boring lives…

Sod yer sci-fi

After almost giving their lives for Red Dwarf, our intrepid writers were probably a bit miffed when the script was roundly rejected. A sci-fi comedy just wasn't a commercial idea, apparently, but Grant and Naylor kept themselves busy by saving Spitting Image, which was on the verge of cancellation before they revamped it. They also scored a number one hit by writing the lyrics for legendary Spitting Image ditty, The Chicken Song. If you don't remember it, count yourself lucky.

Making off with the money

Then came the unwitting saviour of Red Dwarf: Mr Ben Elton. He'd written a sitcom called Happy Families – a now almost forgotten follow-up to The Young Ones which starred everyone from Rik Mayall to Stephen Fry. Only one series was made, but budget had been set aside for a second run that never happened. So the Beeb took a punt and gave the money to Red Dwarf instead. Finally, the show was a go…

Mr Lister, sir

Back then, Craig Charles was known as a "punk poet" (look, it was the Thatcher era, they had people like that then). He was originally given the script just for his opinion on whether the Cat could be seen as a racist stereotype. Racism was considered bad, you see, even in the 80s. Having given the Cat his seal of approval, Craig then asked to try out for Lister. And the rest is curry-stained history.

Cat attack

Speaking of the Cat, Danny John-Jules turned up late for his audition – which probably would have counted against him had he not arrived in character. A singer and dancer who'd appeared in the West End, he cavorted through the doors while clad in his dad's flamboyant 50s-era suit. He'd even read a Desmond Morris book on the behaviour of actual cats. That's how to pass an audition, people.

Aliens, schmaliens

Another key moment in the creation of Red Dwarf was the banning of aliens from the show. This was a conscious decision, to emphasise the hopeless vastness of the cosmos and the lonely plight of the Dwarfers. And they've stayed true to it ever since – all the beasts we've seen, from the Polymorph to the Vindaloo Beast, owe their existence to human ingenuity and idiocy. Mainly the latter.

A smegging strike

Just as everything FINALLY seemed to be going well, Red Dwarf was suddenly shut down mid-production thanks to a massive electrician's strike in 1987. It dragged on so long, it looked like the show had missed its chance and would be binned. Luckily, the hard-working, and probably by this point slightly sweaty producers practically begged the BBC bigwigs for a second chance, and filming was allowed to commence.

No kind of atmosphere

Red Dwarf's theme tune is one of the greatest in TV history, but then that's hardly a surprise when you consider its composer was Howard Goodall – the man who also gave us the Blackadder and Mr Bean themes. The vocals were recorded by Jenna Russell, a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company who still occasionally pops up on telly – she was the "Floor Manager" in Christopher Eccleston's final Doctor Who stories, Bad Wolf and The Parting of the Ways.

The admirable Kryten

Novelty Condom Head was the final big addition to the Red Dwarf formula, and when he was made a regular character, the producers picked Robert Llewellyn thanks to his star turn in a play called Mammon, Robot Born of Woman. The play had actually been commissioned as a series, and Robert had to decide whether to pick that over Red Dwarf. Luckily, he chose wisely. (Well, we say that – for all we know, he'd be an A-list movie star if he'd done Mammon instead. But let's not dwell on that, eh?)

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