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Craig Charles: We're all show-offs on Red Dwarf
After a decade's break, apart from a one-off special three years ago called Red Dwarf: Back To Earth, the legendary sci-fi sitcom is returning for a tenth series.
"As mad as the premise may be, the show garnered a cult following from the outset"
"We've gone back to doing it in front of a live audience, which really helps, and it's gone back to being a relationship-based comedy about the way the four of us interact," says Craig Charles, 48, who's plays Lister, the last human in the universe.
To the uninitiated, Red Dwarf is one tough sitcom to describe.
Set upon the titular spaceship, it's a pastiche of science fiction that boasts mind-bending storylines, complex dialogue and four strange characters.
Perhaps it's easier to go back to the far reaches of time, to 1988 when the show first aired, to make any sense of it.
In that first episode, set at some point in the late 22nd century, a radiation leak has killed everyone aboard the ship bar the lowest ranking technician Dave Lister - and his pregnant cat.
Kept in stasis for three million years, he emerges the only remaining human. A neurotic former workmate called Rimmer is resurrected as a hologram to keep him sane, while a creature, known only as Cat, has evolved from Lister's pregnant pet.
In series two, they're joined by a mechanoid named Kryten and together they battle time distortion, mutant diseases and bizarre life forms.
As mad as the premise may be, the show garnered a cult following from the outset.
It's lunchtime on the set of Red Dwarf, based at Shepperton Studios, and Charles, dressed in a white vest and
"To the uninitiated, Red Dwarf is one tough sitcom to describe"
long johns, is explaining how his Coronation Street bosses allowed him time off to shoot the series, when two of his co-stars arrive.
First in is Danny John-Jules, 52 who plays Cat. He's wearing a typically flamboyant suit, and while the fangs have been removed, his hair remains styled in Cat's magnificent quiff.
He's followed by Chris Barrie, 52, wearing Rimmer's blue uniform - though the glistening H that usually sits slap-bang in the middle of his forehead is nowhere to be seen.
Like Charles, they're thrilled to be filming in front of a live audience again.
"Well the show was created in that guise," says John-Jules, recalling the early recordings at BBC Manchester.
"And it's kind of important because we're all show-offs," adds Charles.
"Speak for yourself," jokes Barrie.
Red Dwarf returns on Thursday 4 October on Dave at 9pm.
"No, we like the audience and they love us when we make the odd mistake."
The three actors are explaining how they were responsible for the return to the live format, when the door opens and a robotic version of Noel Coward walks in. It's fellow co-star Robert Llewellyn, 56, dressed in his smoking jacket and clasping a man's clutch bag - but with Kryten's robotic facial prosthetics still in place.
"In the quarter of a century since Red Dwarf first aired, the actors have enjoyed success away from it"
"You look like such a thespian, have you got a pipe?" inquires Charles, prompting laughter from the group.
"There's nothing stopping me eating but my lips go soft," says Llewellyn, by way of explaining his liquid lunch accessorised with a straw.
"In the old days it used to take him five hours to get ready. We'd be coming back from [Manchester nightclub] The Hacienda at 5am and Robert's coming down the lift to go to work," says Charles.
"I now take less than an hour to get it on, but frustratingly it still takes an hour to take it off," adds Llewellyn.
"It's easy for me. Slap the 'H' on my head and I'm good to go," Barrie chips in, laughing.
Written and directed by the show's co-creator Doug Naylor, this series begins with the Dwarfer's mining ship still creaking though the wastelands of unchartered deep space.
Over the six episodes, Lister grapples with the problem of being his own father and gets involved in a love triangle with snack dispensers; Kryten and Cat become quantum entangled, forcing them to do everything in unison; while Rimmer receives an SOS distress call from an old foe and is suddenly faced with the dilemma of his life.
"So far, it's all gone really well," says Charles.
"The scripts are excellent, really good stories and they're standalone episodes, so you can miss the first one and still enjoy the third one."
For that reason, the cast hopes newcomers will enjoy the series just as much as their old loyal fans.
"The show's been the backbone of our careers really"
"Because it doesn't make any references back to old episodes, it'll appeal to new fans too," says Barrie.
John-Jules adds: "Once you understand the story, it's just comedy."
The rambling, complicated dialogue doesn't appear to be dampening audience reactions anyway.
"There have been two instances I can think of in this series where we've set up quite complex philosophical concepts, which usually involves me having to say some convoluted speech, and you think, 'Have they got that?'" says Llewellyn.
"It's been an immense privilege to be in the show"
"And then 22 pages on, Dan and I make a little reference to it and there's a huge laugh. That's really reassuring because what we've said is not in the least bit funny, it was just how it tied into the earlier speech."
In the quarter of a century since Red Dwarf first aired, the actors have enjoyed success away from it, but each cast member appreciates that the show's been a constant.
"The show's been the backbone of our careers really, certainly mine," says Barrie.
"Other scripts you get sent end up being watered-down versions of Rimmer, and you think, 'Why would I want to do it?'
"Then more Red Dwarf comes along and you want to do it!"
Llewellyn echoes his thoughts: "It's been an immense privilege to be in the show.
"I'll still get out the car in Worcester or wherever, and someone will go, 'Oh, I love Red Dwarf', and this would be
"There's a real genuine joy when we've done a scene and can feel it work"
three years ago when we hadn't done it for 10 years.
"Now there's a whole generation of young kids who'd have just been born when we last did a series in front of an audience. They must watch their parents' DVDs," he adds.
"They know everything," Charles agrees, nodding.
There are already rumours of another series in the pipeline and, given the sense of ease between the cast members, it should come as little surprise.
"There's a real genuine joy when we've done a scene and can feel it work. I think we all appreciate each other's performances and there isn't any petty competition," says Llewellyn.
"Yeah, we're all quite supportive of each other. For instance, we're all hoping this series, Rob's going to get a laugh," adds Charles.
This generates hoots of laughter from the group, loudest of all from Llewellyn, before they're ushered back to set and the deep recesses of space.
Red Dwarf X begins on Dave on Thursday, October 4 at 9pm.
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