How good did it feel to return Red Dwarf to TV with Back To Earth?
Someone at the BBC said that Red Dwarf didn’t have an audience, and that wasn’t the road they wanted to go down. And we knew that was nonsense. The mail you get tends to tell you when you are no longer wanted. So, Dave [the TV channel] picked up the show and put out Back To Earth, we got 3 million viewers and trounced all of the BBC’s shows that night and yet they still think there isn’t audience for it. So that actually feels fantastic.
Was there ever a point where you thought it wouldn’t come back?
Well, if you think about it, it never went away. There’s never been a time when Red Dwarf hasn’t been at the forefront everybody’s lips, meaning: “When’s the new show coming out?”; “When are you doing the film?” Our lives have been plagued with these questions since we shot the last episode over ten years ago. For us, the cast, it was like we never went away but for the audience that ten- year gap has felt like an eternity. But fortunately for us, there have been all the DVDs in that time, we went in to record commentaries, made appearances at conventions, it’s never stopped for us. And the fact that people have gone on to do other things in their career too. Red Dwarf, in the comedy sense, has been a zimmer frame for us. Whenever we’ve fallen by the wayside, Red Dwarf has been there to help us along. So when it came time to do Back To Earth we fell back into it like clockwork.
So it was comfortable to return to then?
Well, if you were frightened of being typecast then it would worry you, but it’s impossible to be typecast as the Cat because he’s so unique. When we get together we all know what we have to do. We’re all completely different in character, political standing, lifestyles but we know what we have to do and we’re so focused and clued in to what we’re doing that it’s a walk in the park. We shot an hour and a half in two weeks, which really should have taken three weeks. But we can do it because we know what we’re dealing with and we go above and beyond the call of duty, we get thrown about and we get wet in the most uncomfortable costumes. And there are no tantrums. If you want a great example of how to execute a successful TV show then look no further than Red Dwarf.
Some people speculated that the new show might recast all the characters. What have you thought of other people who’ve played the cast, like in the American pilots for example?
Funnily enough, Hinton Battle, the black guy who played him, was actually a hero of mine when I was a dancer. He’s an amazing musical theatre star on broadway with about three Tony awards. He played the Scarecrow in Wiz when he was 17; he’s an incredible talent. And so when it came to casting the American Cat they went for someone similar to me – a black man with a career in musical theatre and dance, and they got the most successful one around. But for the second pilot they did what [Red Dwarf creators] Rob [Grant] and Doug [Naylor] swore they would never do, which was to have someone creeping around in a leopard print cat suit. They also had the audacity to bulk out the end of the pilot with clips from the UK TV show. I asked a lot of Americans at the time what they thought of the pilot, and even they thought it was rubbish. So that just shows that you can’t mess around. Americans always try to Americanise British products and America has enough money to convince almost anyone to lose their artistic integrity.
What’s your favourite memory from 21 years of Red Dwarf?
Looking at everyone’s face when I revealed the Duane Dibley character in Back To Reality. I could see the horror in their eyes as they were thinking, “How am I going to get through this scene without laughing?” And what they didn’t realise is that I was thinking the same thing. That was a classic day.
Would you like to play Duane Dibley again?
I think it’s going to be impossible not to play him again at some point. But, you know, some people only have one memorable character in their whole career and I’ve had five in one show.
How do you think the Cat’s character has changed over the years?
I think the character has got older and matured alongside the writers of the show. And that’s strictly a written thing. I only ever do what’s written on the page. People say, “Oh he’s not as puerile and infantile as he was before” but if you look at the Cat, he’s 21 years older than when you first saw him and I guess through the pen of the writer he has matured. He did get a bit more catty in Back To Earth, but I think it’s good that he changes because there’s new generations getting into Red Dwarf all the time and the world has changed a lot since 1987 and what a 15-year-old expects now is not the same as what a student of the time would have liked.
Despite Back To Earth’s success, we still haven’t heard much about the Red Dwarf movie. What went wrong?
I don’t believe that the Red Dwarf movie can’t get funding. I think that it would have been more of a personality clash somewhere along the line. There’s no way that somebody could ever think it wouldn’t make money. It would at least break even and the DVD sales alone would get the money back. They’ve sold 7 million already, so what are they scared of? There can only be some isms and schisms going on in the background. After ten years I tend to switch off now. What more can I think of doing that I haven’t thought about already? I do think it will happen someday, though. They didn’t think that we’d come back after ten years, but we did. So we should be making this movie now while the iron’s hot.