Life During Dwarf Time

Celebrating 30 years of Red Dwarf fandom!


The first reported sighting of a Red Dwarf fan is probably the one told by Peter Ridsdale-Scott - the commissioning editor who helped launch the show - to this very website, back in 2002. Peter was on the train to London, preparing to dissect the initial performance of Red Dwarf at the BBC's Programme Review meetings, when, as he told it, "this great big guy lumbered down the corridor with this black t-shirt on. In the haze, I thought, 'There's something written on that... I'm sure there was... Red Dwarf!' So I went to the buffet car, and two up in the queue was this bloke. He'd stencilled 'Dwarf' on in white and 'Red' on in red!"

The identity of that fan has never been pinned down, but we can only hope that his love of the show continued past that fateful day. Maybe he's even been to a Dimension Jump convention, or visited this site. Either way, he was one of an early wave of people who were struck by the show's idiosyncrasies, which were born out of its very production circumstances. "The one thing Manchester could not do was produce an average, middle-of-the-road comedy," Peter explained. "It had to be dangerous, it had to be risky, it had to be innovative."

Series I had debuted on BBC2 on 15th February 1988, and made a strong ratings debut with around five million viewers. Those figures dipped as the series went on, but by then a second series commission was already in the bag. And it was immediately clear upon making that next run of episodes later in the same year that the audience that had remained were now much more engaged with the show.

"During Series I, we could feel an audience latching onto it," said Chris Barrie. "But I think it was Series II - and the scene, if I can be so specific, in Kryten, when we went in to meet the three lovelies... I think the length of laughs that we had in that scene made you realise that the people who do like this show really do love it." This was also evidenced by the ratings for Series II's repeat run, which unusually garnered similar figures to its first transmission.

It's difficult to say what it is about a TV show - or any kind of entertainment property - that makes it the sort of thing that would attract an actual, living breathing fan club. But it's safe to say that especially in the late 1980s, such clubs were largely the preserve of science fiction and fantasy. Red Dwarf, of course, had its sci-fi credentials nailed to the mast - but even so, it was unusual to see a BBC2 sitcom garner its own fan society and publications.

Yet that's what happened in 1990, when Nic Farey was corralled by a group of fellow pub-going sci-fi fans into founding what would, after contacting Grant Naylor Productions, become The Official Red Dwarf Fan Club. They began by producing a fanzine titled Better than Life, but by 1992 had gone so far as to establish the Dimension Jump convention, which continues to this day.

"When they came to us and wanted to form the fan club, we went 'Oh! Okay! Right!'", says Doug Naylor. "I don't think we'd really considered it as something that might happen - although bizarrely, when we did Son of Cliché, there were about six people who came back to watch it week on week, one of them had a particular laugh... so that was maybe our first experience of having a fan club, albeit a fan club of six!"

"When you create a show, and you're writing it, you're not trying to please anyone other than yourself. So you just go, we think this would be cool, it would be a show we'd watch, and our friends would watch. You've only got about ten people you're trying to please. And in a way, knowing that there's an audience for it, that can put you off! You don't want to know what people think, because it can create pressure. Especially in the early days, when it can live or die... and it turned out that apparently in those early days there was a lot of vitriol from the sci-fi press, who didn't like the first two series."

Despite this early sniffiness from certain corners of the sci-fi community, Red Dwarf was increasingly striking a chord with an audience that, in the early 1990s, was suffering from withdrawal symptoms for shows of that type. The first tie-in novels only strengthened its connection to as much of a sci-fi audience as a comedy one, as did the production of a range of official merchandise.

"[The manufacturers] had guessed that there was a demand for it," says Doug. "And there was a hole in the market, I guess - Doctor Who must have done a lot of merchandise [before its cancellation], and so maybe it was those people going 'Can we fill this with what else is around?'"

"And it was only quite short - the t-shirts were only really being produced for about eighteen months." Nevertheless, for the remainder of the 1990s, black t-shirts with quotes from the show on the front would become the official uniform not just of the Red Dwarf fan - but, it seemed, of any self-respecting nerd in the UK.

Because by the time Series IV and V were rolling around - and the Red Dwarf Smegazine was on newsagent shelves up and down the country - Red Dwarf wasn't just a little cult hit any more. It was a bona fide phenomenon. Having to deal with not just a dedicated fanbase, but the attentions of the general public on the street, took some adjustment for cast members not used to that kind of thing - what with their backgrounds in voice-overs, poetry, standup and musicals.

"It's very difficult to stand on a railway platform now," Chris Barrie once declared, "without at least one person shouting 'Oi, smeg head!'" Craig Charles, meanwhile, shared a story in which "I'm walking down Broadway in New York, going to a liquor store - and I walk in, and the guy looks at me, nearly faints. He gets me round the counter, into the back room, and there's him and five of his mates, all sitting there watching Red Dwarf on the telly!"

Not that becoming nationally beloved celebrities wasn't without its upsides for the cast: the profile given to them by Red Dwarf's success helped them to go off and have other hits, from The Brittas Empire to Robot Wars, Maid Marian to Scrapheap Challenge.

Yet Red Dwarf remained the priority, and even with the four-year delay between Series VI and VII - and the behind-the-scenes shakeup that included Rob Grant's departure and a change in the style of the show's production - by 1997 the arrival of a new series was a major event in the British TV calendar, with the show even earning a Radio Times cover for the first time. A heightened interest in televised sci-fi and fantasy generally - with the briefly-revived Doctor Who and a slew of other series debuting in the mid-90s - meant that the show sat comfortably in a landscape that allowed for the launch of magazines such as long-time supporter SFX.

It was against this backdrop that 1998's tenth anniversary Red Dwarf Night on BBC2 offered the most in-depth look yet into the phenomenon of Red Dwarf and its fandom. We were shown just how geeky fans could get as the Universe Challenge quiz saw a team of die-hards beat the cast members, and treated to loving testimony from a range of self-confessed celebrity fans - among them Patrick Stewart, Terry Pratchett and Stephen Hawking.

The show would find itself increasingly referenced elsewhere in popular culture, too. Notable examples included a line in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and a background gag referencing the JMC and DivaDroid in Star Trek: Voyager. Further down the line, hit sketch show Little Britain mentioned the VHS tapes ("including Smeg Ups"), Rimmer popped up in a Simpsons tie-in comic, The Big Bang Theory's Sheldon Cooper was confirmed as a fan, and a recent Marvel's Super Hero Squad Show cartoon episode saw one character quote "Smoke me a kipper".

But it wasn't just as a sci-fi series that the show was finding continued success - just as in the early days, it was as much its strength as a comedy that had attracted the ever-growing audience. "I think the fact that it's science fiction does sometimes put people off," says Doug, "but then some of them actually catch it eventually, and get it, and go 'Oh, I don't like science fiction, but I do like this!'"

"Once you attract a dedicated following, they'll stay with you," Paul Jackson stated in the anniversary documentary. "As long as you keep the standard up. And they've been meticulous about keeping the standard up. You've got the best of both worlds - a structurally sound comedy, with this added twist that the specialist, 'Trekkie' type audience found it. You've got a very successful motor there, and people will want more and more of it."

And while 1999's Series VIII brought Red Dwarf to ever-greater commercial success - posting those record eight million BBC2 viewers - this was an adage that, in the decade that followed, would come to be both tested and proven.

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