Dimension Jump XX

by Seb Patrick


The Sunday morning Danny John-Jules Q&A is fast becoming a DJ tradition - although none of the fans attending the event actually even knew Danny was going to be here until Friday evening. His Strictly Come Dancing schedule had looked like making it impossible, but he's managed to hot-foot it up from Elstree despite having only got to bed at around 3.30am. So at least he has that in common with some of the attendees.

Danny's appearance is preceded by a screening of his short film Bucky - a thoughtful exploration of gun violence in London and the collision between real-life violence and children's playful imaginings - and once again, when he takes to the stage, it's practically like a standup set, with him barely needing to take many questions to get going, as well as enjoying playful back-and-forth with certain audience members.

Naturally, conversation turns to Strictly - Danny taking great delight in being on "the biggest show on telly right now" - and he admits that his previous comments about the show were actually born out of a desire to be on it. "It's one of the biggest questions I've had since that show started. When are you going to do Strictly? I always wanted to do it, so I took the piss! I said I wouldn't be judged by those guys 'cos they can't dance. It's all just mickey taking. But when I got in there, I got a rude awakening! I'm knackered!"

"Besides, I also said on Twitter in 2009 that, forget X-Factor, the best singers on telly were on Strictly. See, anyone can pick an old tweet out, it's all about context! Shows are like that. They're all there to be taken the piss out of, aren't they?"

"Strictly Come Dancing? I do that in Red Dwarf all the time. You remember, everyone made that big fuss about the Korean guy [Psy], with 'Gagnam Style'. Remember his video? What was out first, the Blue Midget dance, or Gagnam Style?"

The assembled crowd are then invited to record a special message for Danny's dancing partner Amy Dowden, which they do with great relish:

A question about whether Danny's command of a live audience means he might ever actually try doing standup leads him to admit that he probably wouldn't, as "it's laziness, really. People think that those guys just walk up on stage and do that - these guys are slogging around, going around little clubs, trying their stuff out. It's a dedicated process. There are people who are just much better at it than me!"

Unsurprisingly, the question of whether he might perform Tongue Tied on Strictly comes up - but it actually leads Danny first into reminiscing about the filming. "We were stuck in the studio for two days, and it was all green, and there were all these dancers, and two pissed-off actors in red suits looking like the sugar plum fairies, spitting nails and cursing my name that they ever had to put a pair of white Cuban-heeled boots on."

"Seeing it on telly is one thing, and they're in character, but what you needed to see was the actors coming in in those suits and shoes. They still curse my name because of that. Craig hates me because of it."

"Tongue Tied could be done, but I think if we ever did it on the show it's over - what are you going to watch after that? And I'd get voted out next week, because all the people who don't watch Red Dwarf would be pissed off. But no, I'd like to do it, but I don't think I could do half of those moves again. There's a serious back bend with a split that would never happen, now!"

"And, you know, light entertainment - which in our day was 'variety' - allegedly is dead. You've only got X-Factor and Strictly. But they're not performers in the way it was in our day, when you had fifty performers who could get up on stage and do that kind of thing. Those variety performers, they're the backbone of the industry - they're the guys running around the country, going out and entertaining people; but the thing about television is the moment you become out of fashion, you get put out to pasture."

"And all those people, they're the ones you'd learn all the history from, it would get passed down. And that's why something like Red Dwarf could run for thirty years, it had that base. The people that were around Red Dwarf were around in those days of the variety performer - and that's why you had a poet and a comedian and a dancer, because that's where all the big stars came from. You can see the difference in shows that haven't got that."

Of course, in true variety tradition, they say to finish on a song - and that's just what Danny does, with the final question cueing him up to sing Tongue Tied itself in such a way that you almost wonder if the audience member who asked it was planted....

And with that done, there's no time to hang about: we're straight into the next Q&A, as the mighty Mac McDonald is ushered onto stage.

"A lot of people who are on Facebook with me know that I'm writing an erotic novel," says Mac by way of introduction. "So I thought that I would read an excerpt from my erotic novel for you folks today." And he does. We're not going to repeat it here, except to say that the words "Arnold Rimmer", "Yvonne McGruder", "nausea" and "violently soiled pair of Lister's underwear" appear in the opening sentences.

Mac is asked if he took any of the many insults directed at Hollister, particularly by Rimmer, personally. "I grew up on Long Island in New York, and I was a chuboid kid," Mac replies, "so I had a lot of insults in those days. But I worked hard and got myself into the shape I see before you. But nah, it's all in good fun: Rimmer gets to insult me, and I get to put him in prison for as long as I can manage."

A question comes up about the similarity of Mac's appearance in the Aliens to his role as Hollister. "I thought these were going to be fun, like Did you have fun making Batman?" he jokes. "I can see I'm going to have to work for my money. Yes, they do exist in the same universe. The science fiction universe extends all the way from Jules Verne to... Jules Verne. That's the great thing about fiction is you can make it be whatever you want it to be. And Simpson, my character in Aliens, and Hollister are very alike. They're both very schlubby, and they do as little work as possible."

"But y'know, the science fiction world has grown so much since I was a kid. My dad got me reading science fiction when I was ten - he got me a book, I think it was Heinlein, and I started with that. And I've loved science fiction, all the way from the mid-50s until now. I still love to go to sci-fi movies. It's a great world, and you people live in it all the time, right? Because you really look spaced out to me!"

Given Mac's propensity for making a joke out of everything, there's a nicely sincere answer to the question of his proudest ever moment - the story of the birth of his daughter, which gets him quite emotional at the end. Then it's back to talking sci-fi, with some fun stories from the filming of The Fifth Element, and Mac's insistence that he be allowed to show rather than hide his face in the film, for extra comedic effect.

After a bit of discussion of US politics, the topic moves on to Mac's return to Red Dwarf in last year's Skipper. "I was really happy when I got the call to come in and do it. It was a surprise - I didn't necessarily think that Hollister would ever return. That's the good thing about Red Dwarf - things can happen that wouldn't happen on another show, except maybe Doctor Who. So it wasn't beyond the realm of possibility that Hollister could reappear."

"And who knows, maybe he'll reappear in the future? Seems like they've got a really good thing going with getting series made, and there's certainly an audience for it. Hopefully people keep loving it and they keep making new series, and I'd love to do it again - I have a great time."

The final question sees Mac pondering the difference between US and UK comedy. "Funny's funny, you know, I really believe that. People do have things in their country that are weird and they pick them to be emblematic of that - like Benny Hill, Americans would hold that up as an example of funny British comedy because they hadn't seen much else! I saw that when I first came over here, and just did not get it. But then I saw Monty Python, The Goon Show, and I thought wow, that's really my sense of humour."

"And it's the same with American humour here, I'm sure you guys like Steve Martin, and Chris Rock, and so on. There really isn't any cultural difference - except that Germans don't laugh about anything!"

With Mac's departure, the morning segment of Sunday comes to an end - but there's still plenty to come. Over the course of the afternoon, while autographs are going on elsewhere with the Sunday guests, it's the turn of Mike Tucker and Alan "Rocky" Marshall to bring their latest visual effects talk to the convention. With rarely-seen photos and all manner of technical insights into their model-making work, it's a long-standing tradition for the hardcore nerds to enjoy.

The next event in the hall is the latest iteration of the traditional Sunday afternoon gameshow - an event that in past years has seen us take in such delights as Smeg or No Smeg, Smeggheads, Goitless and The Ace. This year it's Three Million and Fifteen to One, with fifteen randomly-selected fans given the chance to compete against each other and show off their Red Dwarf knowledge in the hopes of winning some merch. Congratulations go to Kelly McNeil, who sees off the other contestants to take the win after a gripping and incredibly close final round.

It's usually around this point on a Sunday afternoon that Dimension Jump would wind down with a quick closing ceremony. Not this time, however, as for the anniversary event things have been extended for one final, very special Q&A.

All making their debuts at the convention, Rob Grant, Paul Jackson and Ed Bye take to the stage to reminisce about the show's earliest days. What's more, they've brought with them The End, to essentially perform a live commentary over - and a batch of rehearsal photos from before the first episode was even shot.

"What are your impressions of the weekend?" asks host Ian Boldsworth. "It's amazing," says Rob. "I don't know what I was expecting, but not this. There's all this love for the work in the room, and it's quite humbling, quite emotionally... well, I'll probably have to have therapy, to be honest."

"Out of all the series of Red Dwarf, which are your favourite?" is the first of a selection of questions Ian has been given by fans. "It's like saying which is your favourite child," says Rob. "With a gun to my head I'd have to say Series V." "Oh, the one I didn't direct?" interjects Ed. "I'm thinking really from the script point of view, rather than the direction," Rob reassures. "Because obviously otherwise that would be VI..."

Paul, meanwhile, expresses a fondness for the first series because "although it's not the best series, we filmed it twice, it shouldn't have happened... it was kind of the runt of the litter that shouldn't have survived, and for that reason I kind of love it. I remember two things about reading the first script. One was that they called their first ever episode The End - and then you read it, and it's totally legitimate that it's called that."

"And I have to say, the story of the Cat - just the concept that a new humanoid species would evolved in the hold of a cargo ship. I was just blown away by it. And really, that's what I pitched the show on: these guys are just geniuses."

Talking about the continuity changes between the early series, Rob discusses how the writing of the novels had an effect on the direction of the show, and retcons such as the change in Lister and Kochanski's relationship came about as a result of taking a fresh perspective. Or, as Paul puts it, "They f**ked it up, and then they fixed it!"

"How do you approach writing for different mediums?" Rob is asked. "They're all very different," is the reply. "The Quanderhorn Xperimentations was designed to be a radio project - and the difference with radio is that you're inviting the audience far more into your mindset. It's more collaborative with the audience. It's quite similar with a book, so it lends itself very well to adaptation. If it became a TV series it would need to undergo some substantial revisions."

"Radio producers always say pictures are better in your head," adds Paul. "They know f**k all!" declares Ed.

If Red Dwarf were created today, would it get off the ground, and would it be likely to last as long? "I think the answer to both those questions is no," says Paul. "Red Dwarf only got made in the first place because of the BBC idiosyncracies of the time. You couldn't sell it now to the committees that are involved. The system now doesn't allow anomalous things to happen."

"Not that I don't think there's good television going on now, there's some fantastic television. But it's not ever going to become a long-running beloved series, because they'll do two, and they won't be able to afford any more, and they'll be doing something else, and then it'll be gone. The system just doesn't allow for something like Red Dwarf, or The Two Ronnies, and so on."

"The only exception to that, I think, is The Walking Dead," says Ed. "That seems to manage to hold on, doesn't it?" "It's not that funny," Rob points out. "Unless you like somebody's head being smashed into pieces!" retorts Ed.

Rob is then asked about his process for character creation and development. "Jesus, how long have you got?" comes the amused reply. "Basically, character and plot and situation are all linked. They have to be, to make sense. When you're doing it right, when you're creating a project properly, there's very little invention in it. You come up with the original idea, and then you basically cut away some of the options and you get a smooth spine to the thing, so it always makes sense, and everything's going to fit. You don't just put random stuff in."

"This is often a conversation I have with young writers, where I say This character isn't believable. And they say Ah, but he really exists! And it's like, it doesn't matter! What are you going to do, put a little sign on him, saying this character may be unbelievable, but he's real? It's not about making real people, it's about making believable people."

A question is aimed at Ed and Paul: what are the greatest challenges they face in any production? "The writers and the director," says Paul. "The producers and the money!" retorts Ed.

The back-and-forth continues throughout the next half hour, as the trio discuss The End - with anecdotes about shooting on studio gantries, Clare Grogan's unrepeatable joke-telling, and Ed Bye's keenness to point out the quality of every special effect shot wherever he can. Then it's on to the photographs, which feel like flicking through an old photo album with the family at Christmas - only the family are the cast and crew of Red Dwarf, and everyone's keen on making jokes about one-another.

It's an unforgettable way to end the longest, and surely the biggest, ever Dimension Jump convention - and as fans filter out either to make their immediate journeys home or stay on for one more (no longer officially organised) late night, the feeling is that with everything that's happened across the three days, with every guest that's contributed, Red Dwarf's thirtieth anniversary has been well and truly celebrated the smeg out of.

The only question remains... how's the next one going to top it?