Red Dwarf hits 25!
15 February, 2013
Monday 15th February, 1988. Margaret Thatcher is Prime Minister, while Sylvester McCoy is Doctor Who, and Kylie Minogue sits atop the UK singles charts with the classic I Should Be So Lucky. Five million people sit down to watch the first episode of a new BBC2 sitcom, by two writers at that point best known for their stint running Spitting Image, and for composing the lyrics to the novelty number one hit "The Chicken Song". It's about the last human being alive, stuck on a spaceship three million years in the future, and it's called Red Dwarf.
For Rob Grant and Doug Naylor, the broadcast of that first episode - ironically titled The End - was the culmination of three years of seeing their script passed from pillar to post, and a further two years of production mishaps and delays. They'd first conceived Red Dwarf as an offshoot-cum-adaptation of a series of sketches called Dave Hollins: Space Cadet, in their Radio 4 sketch show Son of Cliché. Despite being told by all and sundry that sci-fi sitcoms were a fundamentally bad idea, they pressed ahead with what they felt was a unique and inventive concept.
They were right to do so. Despite its unusual setting and premise - and the fact that it starred four cast members known respectively for poetry, impressionism, dancing and stand-up rather than acting - Red Dwarf struck a chord. Although viewing figures almost halved over the course of the first series, they soon picked up again, and remained consistently strong from the second series onwards. Within five years of its debut, the show had become a certifiable phenomenon - spawning t-shirts, catchprases, hugely-selling videos, dedicated fan conventions, tie-in magazines and bestselling novels.
Red Dwarf has often been described as a "cult" - perhaps because of those conventions and T-shirts - but cult shows don't attract eight million viewers to BBC2, as Dwarf did in 1999. Cult shows don't get remade by American networks looking for the next big hit. Cult shows don't enter the wider cultural lexicon, make bona fide stars out of their lead actors, or sell millions of books. Red Dwarf may never have been the most fashionable of sitcoms, particularly among a press that rarely favours traditional audience-based studio comedy, but its global popularity is matched by few British sitcoms, if any.
There have been other science-fiction comedies, but never another that quite so expertly fuses inventive idea-driven plotting with perfectly-drawn character comedy. Red Dwarf is frequently one of the funniest things on television - but it's also often among the cleverest, and is even capable of strong emotional drama. Whether shrinking boxer shorts, "double polaroids" or Swedish moose, the show has provided some of British television's greatest comedy set-pieces; while backwards-running universes, future echoes and paradoxical presidential assassinations have been among the sci-fi genre's most memorable concepts.
From the claustrophobic, submarine-esque environments of the early series, through the raucous action-adventure of the middle years, all the way up to a triumphant twenty-first century revival, it's a show that has constantly reinvented itself, yet always retained its unique heart and charm. These are elements which are appreciated by an army of millions of fans worldwide, who are as ardent and creative a fanbase as you're ever likely to find. That's you lot, by the way. We love you lot.
As we raise a glass of Mimosian telekinetic wine and celebrate Red Dwarf's Silver Anniversary, you find us in a proud mood: looking back fondly over the last quarter of a century, while also hugely excited about the possible developments the future may bring. We hope you'll be with us every step of the way to enjoy them - here's to the next twenty-five years!
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Better Than Life (Radio Show)
Written by Grant Naylor