20 April, 2012
Over the last quarter of a century, Red Dwarf has had the honour of featuring the work of professionals at the very top of their fields. In nobody's case was this more true than of visual effects designer Peter Wragg.
A hobbyist model maker in his youth, Peter's big break came when he got a job at AP Films - which would later become Century 21 - and so his earliest work for television was on arguably the most quintessential model-based series of all, Gerry Anderson's Thunderbirds. Work on other shows in the Anderson stable, including Joe 90, Captain Scarlet and the live-action UFO, followed, before a few years' sabbatical from the film industry.
In the mid 1970s he returned to television, initially joining the BBC's Visual Effects department on a short-term contract. Over the next decade working for the department, of which he would later become head, Peter created effects work for an array of classic programmes - including Doctor Who, Allo Allo and Filthy Rich & Catflap - as well as working on Barry Hines' seminal TV movie Threads.
Despite this glittering career, however, Peter's most memorable and iconic work was still in front of him. Having already worked with Paul Jackson on various BBC comedy series - demonstrating a particular talent for blowing things up - Peter, his team and their considerable expertise were called upon by the producer to create the necessary space-bound model shots for the first series of Red Dwarf. The results exceeded everyone's wildest expectations.
Rob and Doug may have called the ship "Red Dwarf", but they weren't even expecting it to be painted red. In fact, the majestic - and very red - eight-foot-long model Peter delivered didn't look like any sci-fi ship they, or anyone else, had seen before. It was squat, it was ugly, it was industrial, it was grimy. And yet in its own, distinctly British way, it was beautiful. In other words, it suited the show absolutely perfectly.
Over subsequent years, in addition to creating and filming a dazzling array of model ships, the crew that Peter helmed would also be responsible for bringing vividly detailed monsters such as the Polymorph, the Curry Monster and the Self-Loathing Beast to the screen; yet even more than any of these, surely the most memorable figure to have been designed by his hand was the distinctive head of Kryten. Angular to suggest "robotic", yet flesh-coloured to retain an all-important humanity, Kryten slotted perfectly into the design aesthetic of the series and became one of the most famous androids in science fiction.
Having overseen Red Dwarf's effects for the entirety of the first seven series, Peter continued working at the BBC until retiring just a few years before the Visual Effects department itself was closed down. As well as being a true master of his craft - recognised by the industry with multiple Television Society awards for his work - he was regarded by his colleagues just as fondly for personal as well as creative reasons. Director of Photography Peter Tyler, who worked with the team throughout their time on the show, remembers:
I first worked with Peter on Series I. We became friends pretty much immediately, partly because of a shared love of beer! He was largely responsible for getting me involved with the BBC Visual Effects department, and I ended up working with almost every Vis FX designer there over many, many happy years. Peter was quite a large man in the early Red Dwarf days but despite his appearance was very nimble - he had been a ballroom dancer in his youth!
One time during filming, Peter was required to fly Blue Midget across a landscape. We rigged a long scaffold board 10 feet above the set which he ran along, full tilt, with only a rope to act as a hand rail. The board wobbled and bounced alarmingly and, as I was directly beneath it, I feared it would crash on my head any second. Despite that Blue Midget sailed through shot perfectly smoothly as if on rails!
I remember Peter Wragg as a constantly genial and good natured man, and his passing saddens me greatly.
Doug Naylor, meanwhile, writes:
The last time I saw Pete was at Mel Bibby's funeral. He told us he was enjoying his retirement and doing up his house. Craig wondered if his front door looked really "sci-fiey" and opened automatically due to an unseen stage hand pulling a rope. Everyone, including Pete, cracked up at the idea and we all chipped in with our own ideas about Pete's home improvements, including a lift that didn't work but had lights that made it seem you were moving up through the floors.
Pete was a modest, lovely, self-effacing, brilliant man who made budgets stretch beyond all reason - and no-one could do explosions quite like him. In fact, bits of his Gazebo from the tank explosion in Beyond a Joke are still falling in parts of southern England. He never said anything was too hard, too impossible or not affordable. I loved him to bits. We wanted an animatronic polymorph - no problem, we wanted a pair of radio controlled skutters - coming right up. In the environment of, "You guys go off, think up anything you like and leave us to worry about how we make it", Red Dwarf became Red Dwarf.
Often, in later series, we'd go to the pub before a word had been written and ask what Pete and the VFX boys could do. The ice planet in Marooned was written around the idea that "Snow's not a problem"; Back to Reality came from a "Why don't you do an underwater one?" I remember the production meeting when he told us he and the VFX boys had been working on that ship-to-planet craft we wanted: it was green and looked a bit like a bug. In fact, they wanted to suggest a name for it: "Starbug." We loved the design and we loved the name.
When the Red Dwarf model was first built, no-one realised the series was going to become what it eventually became. The fact Pete's work still holds up today, nearly 25 years later, says everything about his creativity and professionalism. We're forever in his debt, as we all continue to sail in the ship that Pete built.
Peter Wragg passed away after a short illness in April 2012, at the age of 65. He is fondly remembered and greatly missed by everybody connected with Red Dwarf.
Read more about Peter's career in this interview from February 2001.