A few weeks ago, I was asked by Looking Glass Books, a relatively new independent bookshop in Edinburgh’s Quartermile development, to host a visit with Robert Llewellyn. I wasn’t sure I was up to the job as I can only quote about three series of Red Dwarf verbatim, but I thought I’d give it a shot.
Robert is best known as Red Dwarf‘s Kryten, a service android who makes his debut in Series 2 (though he was played in that instance by some other bloke) and became a regular from Series 3 onward to the most recent, Series X. As someone with a keen interest in engineering he’s also presented the series Scrapheap Challenge and How Do they Do It? as well as his own online video series Carpool and Fully Charged.
He’s written several books including The Man on Platform 5, Sudden Wealth and Sold Out: How I Survived a Year of Not Shopping, but was here to promote three books. The first is an updated version of his autobiography about his time on Red Dwarf: The Man in the Rubber Mask, and the other two are the first and second volumes of his science fiction trilogy about politics and environmentalism; News from Gardenia (published last year and now in paperback) and the upcoming News from the Squares which is out this week (and is already available on Kindle).
The event had attracted a healthy audience of people who were clearly SF fans, so we started with his work on Red Dwarf. In The Man in the Rubber Mask he focuses often on the difficulties of acting with a lump of latex on his face and how it would often mean simple tasks for the rest of the cast (notably Craig “I do all my own stunts” Charles) were gruelling marathons for him. We begin by talking about these scenes, such as his very first day, which involved hours of pulling a sledge carrying Danny John-Jules as Cat while having soap flakes blasted into his glued-open eyes. This ended up in the broadcast programme as a seven-second segment with no sledge in sight. Another was a long, complex speech in which Kryten apologises for calling the mother of Rimmer (Chris Barrie) a “silly old trout” while digging himself deeper into a hole. I watched all these scenes again before meeting him and noticed that such big events for him were almost undetectable on screen. Does he think that actors have totally different preoccupations to the audience?
He begins by describing just how hot and uncomfortable the Kryten costume is.
“I’ve just done some recording of Kryten recently in a studio in London where all the rest of the crew were in thick heavy-duty winter gear: thick gloves, mittens. My son was operating the autocue and he was in a blanket because it was so cold, while I was about the same temperature I am now. A bit warm, but certainly not freezing cold. It was bitterly cold, they had the air conditioning up to ultra-max, it was an extremely bad carbon footprint. So I need to be at about -4C to be comfortable.
“That doesn’t happen in a TV studio with lots of lights. So you lose a lot of your understanding of what happens in the world. Things like memory and the ability to remember lines goes out the window. What actually happens is that you have to trust yourself. That trout speech was a great thing because I had never managed to repeat the whole thing without stumbling, and on that night there was even idiot boards everywhere, but they weren’t ready, so there were men under my feet turning over bits of card. And I did it, and you have to trust yourself.”
When I watched it knowing what was going on, I noticed that you’re looking down quite a lot, but that’s not you reading the boards it’s because there’s a man lying at your feet and you’re going to step over him in a moment.
“You do get into a very silly state of mind.”
There is a long section in the book about his experiences in Hollywood during an attempt to make an American version of Red Dwarf. The section on the US pilot seems like a fantasy land where they threw tons of money at it and it just didn’t happen. I’ve seen the pilot, and it’s not as bad as you might expect. There are a few bits that are a bit odd, like talking to the camera, which they do quite a lot to explain the situation. There are a lot of good bits, though. Specifically Jane Leeves as Holly, best known as Daphne from Frasier, who is very good. You became friends with her. How long before Frasier was this?
“It’s got to only be a couple of years. She was in a series at that time with Candice Bergen, Murphy Brown, so she was in that whole Hollywood TV thing, and she was given stuff. You get paid a lot but you don’t have time to spend it: she got given Jeeps, two or three. There was one day where she had to go out and she said, ‘If you want to go out, use these,’ and threw some keys at me. I went down into the huge underground garage and had to use the blipper on the keys to find it. It’s like someone’s lent you a cup. It’s no big deal, this huge great big tank of a thing. I met up with her a couple of times recently and she’s now an extraordinarily rich woman.”
Another thing about the pilot is that though they Americanised a lot of it they kept in a joke about stealing traffic cones.
“Which means nothing to Americans! There was a huge battle with the script. They had a huge team of writers. Shows like Frasier or Friends have, say, 60 writers. It’s like an audience of writers and they’re all coming up with gags, it’s an enormously complex process, and that happened with the Red Dwarf pilot. The script wasn’t working and there was a lot of misery, and the actors are gods in America. I didn’t know what to do because the experience in England is that the director tells you what to do; at the bottom of the pile are the actors.
“The directors, the cameras, the sound, they’re all important. Then there’s the really annoying people who come in and do talking: they’re all vile, you should treat them like scum, which I think is good. In America you can do no wrong. You’re an actor, you’re on the screen, you’re effectively royalty. You get asked by the director ‘Maybe we could do some work, would that be OK?’ and I’m immediately ‘Oh, yes, of course’ because I’m English and middle-class and guilt-ridden. All the other guys are going, “Yeah, we’re just talking, we’ll be there in a minute.’ It’s very different.”
In the book he mentions how he met Virginia Hey, known to many SF fans as Pa’u Zotoh Zhaan in Farscape. It’s well-known among Farscape fans that she had had to quit the show because of stress and serious health problems caused by her makeup. Given his own experiences with prosthetics, had he heard that story?
“It’s possible we did discuss it, but we certainly discussed extreme acting experiences. Doing Mad Max 2, the good one, she was brilliant, so when I met her I was: ‘Oh, my god. The woman with the bow and arrow in Mad Max, she’s so cool.’ That was filmed in the Australian desert in the winter, so it’s not hot, it’s only 40C rather than 45C, so if you’re wearing a heavy costume like she was… She has done other things with prosthetics, it’s quite a weird group of disturbed individuals who’ve done heavy-duty prosthetics.
“Tim Spall is another. He was in Red Dwarf once and he couldn’t come into the make-up room because the smell of the prosthetics and glue gave him flashbacks of the previous year, when he’d done some Christmas show where he was a pig. He had a complex prosthetic mask on and he was fed with a straw, but they had to shove it down his pig snout. It sounded a lot worse than Kryten.”
Moving on to News from Gardenia. Can you give us a rough outline of what it’s about?
“It was inspired by scientists and engineers I met doing Scrapheap Challenge and How Does it Work?, which was extremely educational for me. Through that I met a lot of people who were working at the cutting edge of new technologies, new material science. I was hearing about all these extraordinary things like carbon nanotubes and new kinds of energy storage systems and renewable energy – this was five, six, seven years ago – and early electric vehicles, which I’ve since become very involved with.
“It was a game-changing approach to the way we live and produce and consume energy, the way we build buildings and use cars and hydrocarbons, all that stuff. It was suddenly like a switch was flipped in my mind that it was really down to burning stuff.
“There was postgraduate student, a Dutch guy I met about four years ago. We weren’t there to film this, but we were filming stuff in Holland. This Dutch guy (Markus Kayser) showed me this glass bowl. I could only describe it as the most rubbish glass bowl you’ve ever seen. It looked like a badly made glass bowl that had been covered with glue and dipped in grit.
“It wasn’t impressive-looking but it was glass. He’d made this in the Sahara desert with a 3D printer he’d built himself – very sophisticated. The box moves around very rapidly and above it is an array of lenses that follow the sun, and the light is focused light down into a small point and it melts sand into glass. He’d made glass bowls without burning anything. The human race has never been able to produce glass without burning stuff.
“He’s now working with the Red Bull Formula 1 team. He’s got a much more sophisticated printer which is full of titanium alloy powder and he’s using the same system to produce formula 1 parts out of titanium alloy using a 3D printer technology. He’s got a laptop and a tent, there are videos of him on YouTube. You could look up ‘3D sand glass printing Dutch madman’. He’s a proper Dutch eccentric.”
And how did this inspire the book?
“I came up with this idea of a world 200 years in the future where you don’t burn anything to make anything else. That changes the whole way the human race can live on the planet. Because one thing is guaranteed, that if you burn stuff it’s not there afterwards. Wood, coal oil, gas. It’s gone and you’ve got to find some more, and that’s really a problem that we and future generations of the human race is going to have to face whether they like it or not, regardless of what Exxon and Cuadrilla say. Whatever happens that stuff is going to run out, and we’re using it at a greater rate than we ever have.
“So partly it’s from that understanding, and partly the sadness about the joy I certainly got out of petrol engines. I grew up in a very car-ry environment. My brother works in motor racing and has a business building Formula 1 cars. For him the sound of a highly tuned extremely powerful engine gives him the same pleasure as an Italian would get from opera. It’s exquisite. He can listen to an engine and will put a screwdriver on the rocker cover up to his ear and he can tell if a valve is out of time. It’s an amazing skill; I’ve appreciated that. But then you realise that that thing is monstrously inefficient: the internal combustion engine is shite, there’s no way round that.”
The plot of the book is about an engineer involved in renewable energy. How much can we say without spoiling?
“He’s flying in the plane called a Yuneec E430, a plane that does exist, which has batteries: a lightweight two-seater plane. And he takes off from an airfield that’s right next to Jeremy Clarkson’s house in Oxfordshire, just outside Chipping Norton. So he takes off and does a little circle over it in the hope he’ll annoy Clarkson but it’s so quiet nobody would notice anyway. He’s flying to a meeting and flies through a big cloud and when he comes out the other side he’s 200 years in the future. It’s a wibbly-wobbly Red Dwarfy time-shifting bit. It’s not really relevant to the plot. He just arrives in the world 200 years in the future.”
It’s very Swiftian, he just arrives somewhere where he’s a complete fish out of water. He has no idea what’s going on but has a rough idea of how it might have come to be there.
“He starts in 2011 and arrives in 2211 and he thinks that means they’re telling him the time, twenty to eleven. It takes him a while to understand that it’s a future that has changed into one where they don’t burn stuff. But it’s not an agrarian low-tech world where they all live in huts and eat nuts. They don’t eat meat, as it’s a very inefficient form of food production, but there are very high-tech ways of moving around the world, of transportation, particularly long-distance.
“There’s a wonderful scientist I worked with a couple of years ago who read the book and gave me amazingly complex notes. I did make a very big error. There is a concept of the tethers, geostationary satellites that have a very lightweight cable that drops down to the earth and instead of sending rockets up you lock something onto that cable, they can pull themselves up into space. Let go of one cable, the earth moves below you and lock onto another one. You can go from London to new York in a matter of minutes, there are no jets, no rockets, no burning. I’d put the geostationary satellites at 70km. It sounds really high, but it needs to be about 650km. It’s not impossible, I just didn’t get the maths right.”
He lands in this society where there’s no money. It’s kind of an anarchist utopia.
“I wish it wasn’t a utopia but it is a kind of lawless-but-lawful environment. It was partly inspired by a book called News From Nowhere by William Morris, who is better known for his wallpaper than his books, but he wrote this book about this perfect society. I read it when I was 16 and it was very influential at that time, looking at the world from a completely different perspective. There’s no banks, there’s no economy, no competition, no inequality. All the things that wishy-washy wet liberals like me wish there wasn’t.” He adds slightly sarcastically “why can’t everybody just be nice. So I wrote a book where everybody was nice.”
And it works, more or less.
“And it could work.”
But then, as it’s a novel, You can’t just leave it like that. And he eventually realises that there are things we have now that are valuable that are completely lost, bacon sandwiches being one of them. There is a passage where he’s been asked to give a history lesson to a bunch of kids without revealing he’s from 200 years in the past. He’s doing and saying all the right things – fossil fuels are bad, we did all these bad things, it was awful – and then he goes on a different tangent.
“He lands near a place called Goldacre Hall. They all live in ‘Halls’, not a commune but a big sort of house with lots of people. I did a Carpool with Ben Goldacre not long before; all the buildings are named after who I consider to be benign and intelligent scientists of the present day.”
He then gave us a reading of the section which rapidly descends into a paean to the messy and stupid yet vibrant 21st century he realises he’s lost.
I think that portrays the tension you have between a love of engineering and the fact that have to try to get it right in the future. That’s what you’ve been doing a lot over the past few years.
Another thing is that you have a history of how this came to be. You could have just said “it just happened” but you decide to give it a bit of history, one of the ideas I particularly liked, as it was very Red Dwarfy was that a few corporations took over the world and it all collapsed. One of them is called BipTic.
“I had a dream maybe ten years ago. I very rarely remember dreams. My wife is a psychotherapist who does lucid dreaming, but this definitely wasn’t one, just a psychotic one. BipTic – British Independent Parking Tickets – was run by an ultra right-wing American Christian fundamentalist corporation, and if you parked wrongly, you got a BipTic ticket. If you paid the fine that was it, but if you didn’t pay the fine you could go on a course to understand Jesus and become Christian. You could get away with the fine but you had to go to church.”
People go to the church instead, which means they become part of the organisation, so it just grows.
“The thing I wanted to look at was the problem we have now with governments and corporations and who runs the world. It’s that difficult position we’re in now that we don’t trust the governments or the corporations that govern us and who do the corporations. I know that David Cameron is sponsored by oil firms, and all his buddies work for energy companies and, goodness me, they’re allowing fracking and giving the companies that do it massive multibillion-pound tax breaks. What a surprise. These things are really blurred and it’s not just one party, and I wanted to show that when corporations run the world they make a right mess of it, as do overbearing governments.”
You’re also quite scathing about Libertarians, too.
Yes, and I have no problem with that.
Did you specifically choose someone who’s not a pleasant man as the main character?
“The thing that has become apparent is that he was primarily and engineer and, in the second book, News from the Squares, which is a continuation of the story, a big development of him as a character is that although he had an electric plane and an electric bike, that’s because he was interested in engineering, not anything else. He works for mining companies and extraction that’s what he works at. He’s very intrigued by the changes in the future but he’s critical of some of it.”
Is it a journey of redemption?
“There might be some, I’m a bit bad at redemption. I’m possibly somewhere on the very liberal end of the autistic spectrum, so I do tend to be locked into one subject, and I think there are some autobiographical elements of learning as a man to be emotionally mature. That’s the journey that he’s on.
“I think that some men have done it already. A very good friend of mine who is Anglo-French has been emotionally mature since about the age of 12, and it’s just annoying. So I’m not saying it’s all men, but there is a certain element of masculinity that will venture towards adolescence because it’s fun. It’s that thing where it’s annoying and infuriating when a woman tells you something and you just want to say, ‘Shut up, I hate all that stuff,” but you know she’s right. And that really, really hurts.
One thing I noticed was that in the book the power source and the way their version of the internet works seems to me to be a kind of stepping-stone on the way Iain M Banks’ Minds work. Have you read the Culture novels?
“Yes, and it’s difficult, as you don’t want to repeat what someone else has written. I was a very big fan of Iain’s, and met him a few times, and I’m very sad that he passed away much too young.
“It’s certainly something I explore in huge depth in the second book: the concept of what we’re now at with the beginnings of the internet, the interconnectivity and the fact that my phone is telling someone, somewhere, the NSA and GCHQ, exactly where I am right now and probably what I’m doing and it’s linking me with all of you because they know you’re here too.
“There’s definitely, without any question, some negative sides to that, but it’s not all negative, and it’s understanding what is and is not negative, what we do and don’t know and how much we know and how much we can access, that’s such a fascinating area.
“And what about when it isn’t something in your pocket it’s just in you, part of you: everyone knows where you are and you know where everyone else is, but who wants to know? If you need to know you know and if you don’t you don’t, and it’s that whole learning process I look into in much more depth in the next book.
“The second book, News From the Squares comes out of this process of how annoying to men it is when women know stuff. It’s a world in the same historic period but slightly off to one side. If you imagine we’re here now and there’s a string of ribbons. Say one is a Mel Gibson apocalypse, and number of apocalypses with any number of well-known actors walking across America to save their daughters with a shotgun and they’re shooting zombies. We know all those stories, but these are some separate ones.
“News from Gardenia and News from the Squaresare exactly the same period of history but slightly different history where the world has changed very dramatically because of the environment and the way the world is, and it’s now completely run by women. Women are in all the administrative positions of power. Not exclusively, some men are in there, it’s not like they’re not letting men do it, but the men have sort of shrugged, which I think is happening if you look at educational statistics from around the world.
There’s a wonderful book that inspired this, called The End of Men by Hanna Rosin, that has some shocking statistics. The one I remember clearly is 1960 in Japan, 6% of university graduates were women; in 2010 it’s 92%.
“Which means men have gone “oh, fuck it”. They’ve seen their dads being the corporate salaryman and doing the whole getting-pissed-and-going-to-karaoke and saying ‘I don’t want to do that… I’m going to do… fashion.’ Some of the most amazing, most camp human beings I’ve met in my life were Japanese men who were straight; talking about fabrics and colours and they have girlfriends. All my preconceptions were kicked out the door. I’m not saying all Japanese men are like that, of course.”
“It’s a world run by women, which is quite challenging to a slightly nerdy, slightly sexist man from 2011 who’s had lots of rows with his wife about sexism when he didn’t even know what it meant. He’s now having to confront lots of things in his life. I think it’s quite challenging for everyone because it’s not saying ‘the world will be better if it’s run by women’ but it is saying ‘the world would be very different if it was run by women’. This is how I envisage it might possibly be. The men look after the children, do the cooking, look after the houses, grow food…”
“No, I didn’t want to do The Worm That Turned, a classic comedy sketch by The Two Ronnies.”
For a given value of “classic”…
“Sorry, yes, it was “a sketch”. I’ve not got hotpants-clad military women marching around. Though I had this dream that, when I’d written a third book, I’d collect them and have one big, fat science fiction book and the cover would be be a very photorealistic gory illustration of a scantily-clad warrior-woman with a massive sword with blood dripping off it and the head of a man in the other hand. It’s got nothing to do with the book, though.”
This prompted a question from the audience: “How many Amazonian movies did you watch before writing it? That description sounds like Amazons.”
“It would be a perfect excuse to tell your wife as you sit there and watch them.”
“The thing is that my generation in particular – I’m 57, so I was a teenager in the mid-70s – in 1975 I lived in a proper hardcore radical feminist squat in London. They allowed me to live there because they thought I was gay. There were two men in the house and about ten women. The other man was blind, he’s a barrister now. He was a law student. We often had to leave because they’d have separatist meetings. It’s hard to describe how it was at the time to people who weren’t there.
“I grew up in that environment and I think men at that time had one or two reactions to feminist women. One was ‘They’re all lesbians and we hate them and they don’t shave their legs’ and the other was ‘They’ve got a point.’ It wasn’t 50:50, it was probably 90:10, where 10% of men thought they had a point. I felt they did: I didn’t say the C-word from 1975 till about 2007, ever. I never said it because it was explained to me: “just don’t do it.”
The C-word? Clarkson? Have you met him?
“Yes. He was very, very funny.”
Oh, yes, he’s in the book, he asked you what you drive.
“I’m glad I put that in there.
“He was coruscatingly funny. I think we disagree on every single possible topic that the human race could possibly think about, but I support his right to have his ridiculous, homophobic, bigoted, right-wing racist, sexist views. I live quite near him. I saw him a few weeks ago and said hello and he said hello back so it wasn’t too hostile. He was with Rebekah Brooks. Really nice people, they are trustworthy members of the media that can hold their heads up high.”
[Brief exchange, on how accurate this assessment is, redacted for legal reasons]
The next audience question was about which aspects of Gavin’s character did he find hardest to write in the new books?
“None. I wish I could say it’s so hard to come up with a nerdy, insular bigot, who’s a bit of a sexist twat. It comes out quite easily, I don’t know where from. I’m embarrassed. I wish I could say it way really hard to come up with the imagination to create this slightly prickish character, but it’s fairly straightforward: I think a mirror might be involved. I’d like to think, though, I wasn’t as locked-in and emotionally repressed as he is. I’ve met lots of men who I think there’s some logic and sense in it. They look at a woman being normal and just go ‘that’s so weird’. I have so many male friends who are in long relationships and women behave in ways that are just a total mystery to them.
“There’s a wonderful article I read in the New York central library which was written just before the first world war in 1913 by a man called Floyd Dell, The Mona Lisa and the Wheelbarrow. It was basically that men understand machines and they don’t understand women. The word ‘feminist’ was already in use in 1911. Max Eastman, Floyd Dell and Hutchins Hapgood were three guys who wanted to change how men thought about women and women’s suffrage, and it was very tied into that movement at the time. But their actual history was so horrendous.
“Max Eastman was married three times and all three of his wives committed suicide. Yet he was classified in pre-war New York as a trendy Greenwich Village socialist-communist “feminist man” in 1911. He was a really good-looking guy, a very handsome man who married very beautiful women who then killed themselves. They had a very tough time. He became a very right-wing Republican senator in the 1930s who wanted to remove the right to vote from women, so he went from a feminist man to the most repressive patriarch you’ve ever heard of.”
Do you fear you’ll ever go from being a liberal environmentalist to being the opposite?
“As I’ve got older, I think of Churchill’s maxim that if you’re not a socialist when you’re young you’ve no heart and if you’re not a conservative when you’re old you’ve no brain. I started out with no brain and I’ve ended up with no brain: I’ve gone so far to the left as an older man. I don’t agree with that, I think it’s optimism and pessimism, that’s how I see what was left and right. So I’m more of an optimist now, that’s growing rather than diminishing. I’m not going to start voting for Cameron: ‘I’m a landowning member of the middle class, come and frack my garden!’ I’m not going to start doing that.”
I remember that fracking sounds like it’s borrowed from Battlestar Galactica. What industrial process is going to be smegging?
“I want them to start smegging, wouldn’t that be brilliant and it was a genuine thing? If Exxon started smegging I’d buy shares.”
A member of the audience asks if he has a title for the third book yet.
“There’s notes… I haven’t even started writing it yet, but I kind of know what’s going to happen. It’s now a period of enormous frustration because I do enjoy writing them but my diary is rather full. I want to come out this time next year. It’s not impossible, but at the moment I can’t see how. Going back to Red Dwarf, we’re making series 11 of Red Dwarf early next year, we’ve had lots of texts about that.”
Is that an exclusive?
“It’s not, we are allowed to say it. The trouble is I can never remember what I’m allowed to say. Normally I wait for Craig Charles. That’s happened twice before where I’ve had the emails from the producers and Doug Naylor saying, ‘don’t say anything yet.’ Then there’s nothing and I’ll have Tweetdeck open and suddenly my mentions go from ‘blip, blip, blip’ to ‘thrrrrrrrrrr’ because Craig’s been on a local radio station going, ‘Yeah, we’re doing another series. I can’t say anything about the new series.’ But I’m always blamed, it’s always me.
In the book Craig says “la” in pretty much every sentence, does he really do that?
“He did, but he doesn’t now, and he’s very annoyed that I put that in there. He said it was only for a few months he said it.”
So the new series is interrupting the next book.
“It’s just that it takes a fairly big chunk of time. To get the book to come out in September I need to have finished it in February-ish and I’ve got a very busy autumn. I don’t think I can be in the corner of the set with my rubber head on writing it.”
One fan notes that the post-production on the Red Dwarf X DVD was particularly bad. Was he aware of that?
“Some of it was going on while we were still shooting it, so a lot of the model shots were done in a corner of the studio while we were still making the recording. There was some noticeable tension. There were a lot of problems with the post-production. It’s a complicated show to make, it always has been. It’s reassuring to know that everyone who works on Red Dwarf all say, ‘This is the hardest show we’ve ever done.’ They all go mad, because when you’re doing your standard British sitcom, you’ve got a set, the actors come in, they say some lines and then they go out. But with us the door has to open, the thing has to explode, one of them’s got a rubber head and he doesn’t know who he is, Craig’s got beer, Danny lives on another planet and Chris is looking at a brochure for the Jaguar E-Type V-12 (Chris Barrie voice), “Which is a classic engine, Bob!”
Does he really obsess over cars that much?
“He’s pretty keen. There was a time when he had 42 classic cars. I don’t think he has now, but his E-Type is just gorgeous.
“There’s a thing that I’m trying to do, it’s going to have to be next year now which is a sort of Top Gear, I do this show called Fully Charged which is about electric vehicles and renewable energy, and we’ve done a little experiment with some students from Birmingham university: ‘How far can you go for a pound?’ People always say electric cars have limited range, so we’re going to have electric pedal-assist bicycles, electric motorbikes, electric cars, an electric truck and say, Chris’s E-Type Jag or a Range Rover Sport, but also sensible super-economic ultra-modern petrol cars.
“You can go about 20 miles for a pound in a very economic car. It’s in the yards or metres for the E-Type and the Range Rover. You can do about 90 miles in an electric car, and about 250 miles on an electric pedal-assist bike. One of the ideas is to do this with Chris and other people I know who have really flash cars. We have an external clear plastic thing you can pop on to the petrol filler cap, so you can put a pound’s worth of fuel in and you can see it go down.”
How does that work with a cyclist, do you give them one and a half Mars bars?
“There’s a lovely old lady who lives down the road from us who has an electric pedal-assist bike. It’s really changed her life. We live in The Cotswolds and there’s lots of hills, and she loved cycling when she was younger but these days couldn’t do it without this bike. And now she goes up Stanway Hill, a really brutal hill. I managed to cycle up it once but when I got to the top I lay on the floor crying. She just goes up it now. I wanted her to do this, because then the last shot will be in the dark and she’s still going round the track.”
Back to Red Dwarf X, I thought it was probably the best series since about Series 5. A lot of people thought that from about 5 onwards there was a bit of a downward trajectory. A lot of people attributed that to the departure of Rob Grant, but I think X gave the lie to that, as it’s all Doug Naylor, and it’s back on form.
“We missed Rob, he was an extraordinary man to spend time with, and I really loved him and still see him occasionally now. We were like the children of divorced parents where mum wouldn’t tell us why dad had left. It was a very odd experience. Now we know that he just didn’t want to do it any more. They worked so hard. Rob and Doug as writers then were the most extraordinary people to spend time with. They’d listen to us just chatting, and we thought they were just in the room and they were taking notes. They’d hear me talking about doing laundry, and it’s so tragic because I do enjoy doing laundry, but then it would be in the show. Twenty-six years I’ve been with my lovely wonderful wife and she’s never ironed any of my clothes, which is fine. I’ve ironed a lot of hers because I’m quite good at ironing, or sewing buttons on. When a strap breaks she just gives it to me and I sew it back on. One of my 50th birthday presents was a sewing box, from my children.”
But she’s a mechanoid, too, isn’t she?
“Judy, my wife, was in Red Dwarf, she played Camille, Kryten’s love interest. A lot of people think we met on the set of Red Dwarf, and when people ask I often just say yes, even though we’d been together for about four years by then. We met here at the Edinburgh Festival. Some of you may have seen Circus Oz in the late 1980s. Amazing, my missus was quite extraordinary. She was a gymnast, I went to see her at a tent on The Meadows climbing up ropes. Then I saw her at the Assembly Rooms balancing: she’s the only Caucasian woman in the world who can balance three eggs on a chopstick on her nose. She learned it with the Nanjing acrobatic company in China. Several Chinese people can do it and one white guy learned to do it but he doesn’t do it any more. She doesn’t do it any more. The amount of times I’ve given her breakfast in bed with three raw eggs and a chopstick, but she won’t do it. Three eggs, it’s bonkers. A lot of swearing when she did it, as they would often fall off and she’d be very foul-mouthed. She’s Australian, can’t help it.”
Another question from the floor: “You recently got involved in A Brief History of Time Travel, how did that come about?”
“I did, but the problem is I can’t remember. Someone else was asking me about this. I can’t remember what I did. I do a lot of internet-based things that you do that you don’t remember.”
“It’s an online, crowdfunded radio play series.”
“I only saw the little bit that I did. I’ve got a sound studio at home in my office. It’s great, but people often say ‘that’s great, you were in that…’ and I say ‘was I?’ It used to be a huge deal when people would say, ‘can you do a voiceover?’ You used to have to go into a studio and meet all the producers and you’d get all the pictures, particularly for an animated thing and now they say, ‘Can you read this and this and this?’ And now I’m at home and can record it and send it to them. It’s so bizarre that that’s possible. Quite shocking. So I often haven’t got a clue what I’ve done.”
“I did a film, written by Neil Gaiman, Mirrormask. A few years ago I was in a studio in London with pins in my head, a kind of framework to keep my head absolutely still but still had to express things. It hurt! They were like nails. I was digitally superimposed onto a sphinx. You do that and it makes no sense. You’re not talking to any other actors, there’s no-one in it, it’s so bizarre.”
A young fan asks what was Robert’s favourite episode of Red Dwarf?
“That’s very hard.”
Is it the one you wrote?
“No. That was Beyond a Joke, the one with the tank and Mr Bingley’s gazebo. The beginning of that I’m really proud of because that was mybit. The cruelty of that episode was that I was asked to write an episode of Red Dwarf so I had this brilliant scheme that I’d write a bit where Kryten gets really angry in the beginning, his head explodes and they find a spare head right at the end, so there’s a whole long episode and I’m not in it but still get paid. It was a writer’s attitude, not an actor’s one. An actor would want to be in everything.
“The beginning stayed as I wrote, inspired by the torrent of BBC long-dress dramas: ‘Let’s do Jane Austen again! Oh how original, we haven’t done that for a week.’ So they went into Jane Austen world and had tea in Mr Bingley’s gazebo and Kryten got cross and plugged in a World War Two action game into the same virtual reality.
“I met this guy who has T-72 tank he’d bought in Russia for like £40. It was the same tank that had been used in a James Bond film. We could get hold of this tank and it was so cool. We drove it into the lake and it leaked. Then we blew up Mr Bingley’s gazebo on an army base near Basingstoke.
“Normally when they do an explosion like that they put flash powder, gunpowder and petrol in plastic bags. When you see it it goes ‘whoof’, there’s no noise, it just makes a big lot of smoke and flames, and afterwards they put on the sound.
“When we were on the army base they used 22 metres of Semtex ribbon. It looks like electrical cable, but it’s what the SAS would wrap round bridges to blow up a massive steel structure. It’s incredibly dangerous stuff. This was on a balsa wood structure. Some of that stuff is still in orbit. It was just phenomenal. I was used to film explosions. But the difference between a film explosion and a real explosion that can knock a building down is very very different. It cracked windows in the local village. There’s still, I think, some sort of insurance problem going on.”
“I don’t know that I have a favourite episode. There are things I remember, certainly Polymorph. A scene where Kryten has to take off Lister’s shrinking boxer shorts. It’s memorable simply because we had to do it so many times. Normally if you have to repeat a scene with a live audience the laughter goes down. On this particular scene the laughter got louder. One of the problems we had was that we couldn’t hear each other, the whole thing was so loud that we couldn’t hear our cues.
“Lemons, for Series X was definitely a favourite because it smelt so nice when we were in the Indian market. Normally that stuff is plastic bread and fake fruit, but it was all real, and the spices were real, so you walked in and sniffed and it smelled like a really nice spicy shop. That was really lovely.
“It was great fun to do because the lemon battery was the first prop on Red Dwarf that ever actually worked. It’s the school experiment where you put galvanised nails and copper coins into lemons and you wire them up and you generate a small amount of electricity. It was 7.5 volts. One of the cameraman had a voltmeter and he put it on either end of this classic, rubbish Red Dwarf prop and we all went, ‘Oh my god it’s working!’ then there was a long discussion inspired by Danny John Jules’ question ‘How many lemons would Bobby need to power his gay electric car?’ We worked it out as about 5,500 lemons. Chris Barrie’s face was a picture.”
A final audience question: “Do you miss being a performer?”
“I think, ‘Oh, I’m much too old to do Edinburgh’, and I keep seeing posters and thinking ‘He’s older than me!’ Norman Lovett’s here this year. There is some talk of me coming next year to do something. I loved performing here, it is an extraordinary experience.
“I first came in 1981, even the building that we were in isn’t there any more. There were four of us in a theatre group and we had one poster. We’d screenprinted it and were very proud of it. We pinned it up outside and took it down at night in case anybody tore it. The first night we had five people in. We’d been performing a lot in London before. Five was annoying because there if there were fewer people in the audience than on stage, we’d have just not done the show and given them the money back.
“The second night was 50 and the third night was sold out and it was sold out form that point on. It was pure word-of-mouth, it was extraordinary. I don’t know that you could do that now. We were outsiders and we’d never done it before and it was amazing. Queues of people trying to get in. A very exciting time. We lost money, as you do.
“Our manager, the woman who brought us up and who organised it was called Jeanette Winterson, who went on to have a very second-rate literary career. Last time she was here I met her and went for a walk back to where the building was, a little sentimental journey.”
We should put a plaque up.
“It was called Buster Brown’s.”
This triggers off an audience discussion about where that was, and the consensus seems to be that it’s now the karaoke nightclub Electric Circus on Market Street. Get on it, Edinburgh Council, it’s just round the corner.
And with that we thank Robert for his time, and hope the new book does well. He’s out and about promoting the new books, and there’s a list of where to find him on his blog.