Dimension Jump XXI

by Curtis Threadgold

Sunday

Predictably, Sunday morning began with many Dwarfers kicking themselves for not learning the lessons from the previous day concerning drinking and bedtimes. We never learn, do we?

After the photo session with Ian, Norman, Hattie and Lee Cornes, the day's first Q&A was with Robert Llewellyn, who joined us from his studio via Zoom, and was moderated by Ian Boldsworth, who took great delight in gently mocking Robert for not appearing in person. Something that Robert took with the humour that was intended and the attendees greatly enjoyed.

Taking questions from the room, Robert told us that while Fully Charged is taking up a lot of his time, he still intends to write more novels, and that he has an idea which is different from anything he has ever done before. On the subject of updating his Red Dwarf memoir, The Man in the Rubber Mask, he has plans to bring this up to date in the form of an audio book. The first two chapters have already been recorded and he expects to add the latest episodes soon.

In a reflective moment, when one fan explained that Red Dwarf was their go-to source for positivity in difficult times, Robert told us that the things that make him happy have gotten "simpler and simpler, and less and less." These days he likes to go for walks, spend time with his wife and children, and tend to his garden. The one thing he doesn't miss, however, is air travel, but he is pleased that Fully Charged will soon be documenting the development of electric flights.

When asked about his reputation for struggling with line learning, Robert also let us into a little secret about his acting process. After giving himself some (much deserved) credit for the amount of lines he had learnt over the years, he revealed that at the most recent recording, he was provided with an ear piece, controlled by an iPad, that delivers prompts that he immediately utters. He confirmed it is a unique approach to acting, and something that is open to manipulation in the wrong hands... something the cast took great delight in during the recording of The Promised Land by suggesting all manner of things that Robert would then just blurt out.

When asked if he'd like to appear in more episodes without the makeup, Robert gave a categorical "no", and surprised us all by saying that his appearance in DNA was his most uncomfortable Red Dwarf experience to date, and that he still can't watch it. He also told us that this decision is, in part, a result in the improvements to the costume and mask over the years, which have now greatly improved both in terms of comfort and that amount of time it takes to put on.

On the show's success, Robert credited the writing, and admitted that if he was designated scribing duties, every episode would feature the groinal attachment. When asked if he has ever received a script that he felt wouldn't work or missed the mark in terms of how Kryten would behave, he said no, that the scripts were nailed every time and that he still marvels at their continued inventiveness. The closest parallel he could draw here was the occasional line that he found hilarious yet barely made an impact, or lines he didn't really notice that ultimately got the biggest laughs, citing the red alert bulb gag from Legion as an example.

Like Chris' Zoom session the previous day, Robert's hour was another real treat, and when held together with Ian's meticulous comic timing, it made for an hour to remember.

Next to entertain the collective was Confidence and Paranoia actor, Lee Cornes, who explained that he got the role because he was one of producer Paul Jackson's go-to cohort of trusted comedy performers after originally auditioning for a lead part.

He talked frankly and openly about his then fractious relationship with his co-star, Craig Fergusson, explaining how the politics of the comedy circuit had come between them. With some regret, he said he had later apologised for any immaturity but said that the pair hadn't really met again since. On a more positive note, on the show's success 33 years after his episode was originally broadcast, he considers himself to be "a lucky passenger on the show's journey," and stated that "good creative art will persist."

Lee spoke of his memories of his time working with the late Rik Mayall on Bottom and The Young Ones, noting in particular his extraordinary on-screen energy, which sometimes contrasted with the much more humble man behind the scenes. He noted a particular example during one recording, where he saw a man at the peak of his comic capabilities experiencing a moment of self-doubt, even questioning if what he was doing was actually funny, and remarked that it took a great deal of self-control from Rik to create a character as anarchic as that.

On his non-Red Dwarf roles, Lee cites his favourites as Bottom's Dick Head and Grange Hill's Mr Hankin. The latter, in particular, lead to some frankly surreal and brilliant anecdotes as he recalled that at the time he was a trained and practising science teacher, a fact that the casting department didn't believe when he auditioned for the role at a site literally around the corner from his current posting. He also explained how the children he taught failed to get their heads around the situation: "Were you on telly last night, sir?" "Yes." "... Are we on telly now, sir?"

Lee enthused about his recent appearance on the Quarantine Commentaries and said the research he undertook for his role as Koo Stark actually meant he started to develop some empathy with her. When asked if he would like to reprise the role of Paranoia now, he admitted that it probably wouldn't work these days, and that to develop the character it would require exaggerating his qualities to the point where the audience would no longer like him, wisely pointing out that Paranoia had a certain childish quality that hit a sweet spot back in 1988. It was a pertinent point that brought Lee's show to a conclusion before he decided to play a trick on everyone by hanging around after the applause, asking us to question whether or not the show was over, or whether it was still going on.

Talking the stage immediately after Lee were Hattie Hayridge and Norman Lovett. This was a show characterised by a series of probing questions designed to unearth any hidden antagonism between the pair but were instead met only by the comradery of two old friends, who genuinely respect each other's work and clearly share a mutual affection.

Hattie and Norman discussed the various people who had auditioned for Holly over the years, including Kathy Burke and Janine Duvitsky, before candidly discussing their views on contemporary comedy, which Norman says has sometimes gotten him into trouble. They also spoke of their different approaches to stand up craft and technique, how both James Cordon and Jerry Seinfeld owe a debt to Robert Llewellyn's Car Pool, Hattie's experience with Sir Laurence Olivier who erroneously thought she was trying to steal his coat, and Norman's footballing-loving youth.

When asked what they both thought of each other's episodes, Norman admitted that he didn't really watch it after he left, but that he was grateful to be given the opportunity to return, whereas Hattie admitted to watching the first series on VHSs that she borrowed from Norman prior to her appearance and enjoying the later instalments every time since. Both spoke of their experiences with the cast, including the shy and retiring Danny John-Jules, and praised the performances of The Promised Land's guest stars, with Hattie particularly enjoying the cat flap jokes.

It was clear throughout this warm and funny chat that both of these supremely gifted comic performers really appreciate the support of Red Dwarf fans, and they both agree they're lucky to be a part of it. Not nearly as lucky as we are.

After a short break for lunch, it was time for the welcome return of Red Dwarf's co-creator, Rob Grant, and executive producer, Paul Jackson, the latter of which trotted onto the stage proudly holding an inflatable guitar.

In a follow up to the previous Dimension Jump's The End Commentary (later to become the Quarantine Commentaries), this time the pair (sans Ed, who had double booked himself and was to be found on a charity bike ride in Croatia) tackled the origins of Red Dwarf with the tale of how they met, and their early years working together.

Beginning the story in the 1980s, Rob talked about how he and Doug had been writing radio sketch comedy and preparing to make the move to television with a sitcom script they had written, set in shared student accommodation. Unfortunately, Ben Elton, Rik Mayall and Lise Mayer already had one, but they should meet its producer, Paul Jackson who Rob describes as "a force of nature."

Paul was working with Lenny Henry and Tracy Ullman at the time and putting together a team of writers for Three of a Kind, a show that he wanted to be quick, pacey, and a ground-breaking alternative to the far more controlled and stuffy sketch comedy of the time. He wanted these two hot shots from Manchester to inject it with life, and to prove his commitment, he said he'd pay them on delivery, rather than up front. A bone of contention, it seems, to this day!

Rob and Paul then played us a clip, with Paul confiding to the room that at the time, he thought the now dated Teletext-inspired opening title sequence was simply stunning, representing as it did the technological high point of the day. While this caused some mirth among the Dimension Jump attendees, what was also apparent was that this four-decades old sketch show still packed a punch and was able to make the room laugh. It was easy to see why these writers impressed Paul so much.

After three successful series, Paul explained that he brought Rob and Doug along to write for Carrot's Lib, the Jasper Carrot-fronted Saturday Night Live-inspired topical sketch show. This was significant, and the promise to pay the pair up front this time required a move from Manchester to London. Unfortunately, as Rob explained, he and Doug made the move on the morning of the first planning meeting and arrived late with all their worldly belongings in hand. The dedication didn't quite impress Paul the way they hoped it would: "Why didn't you just move yesterday?"

Despite this shaky start, the partnership proved a good one, and as the clip Rob and Paul showed us proved, Carrot's Lib was just as funny as the team's predecessor, laying the foundations for the now well documented route to Red Dwarf, via a series of unsuccessful pitches, bizarre rewrite suggestions, and the ultimate snatching of Happy Families' second series slot thanks to Peter Ridsdale Scott. As an interesting addendum to this story, Paul speculated that Rob and Doug tried to impress him with the Red Dwarf script by pitching a far inferior one beforehand. Rob vehemently denied this, but Paul stood firm. The matter remained unresolved.

The pair followed the story up with their thoughts on television comedy, with particular attention paid to the heroic style of veteran director, Geoff Posner, how Paul learnt everything he knows about comedy from Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett, how a four second clip in The Young Ones could take four hours to film, and the importance of consulting a dictionary if you're ever asked to prepare a topiary chicken.

It was a captivating and comprehensive 90 minutes, that concluded with the pair taking questions from the audience. Along the way, Rob talked about the challenge of writing sketch comedy, due to the repeated appearances of white pages, without the help offered by character and narrative, while Paul talked about his love of Tom Stoppard's work, in particular Arcadia. We were delighted to learn that The Nether Regions, the sketch comedy written by Rob and Andrew Marshall, has been commissioned for a full series and that Rob hasn't ruled out the possibility of writing a new Red Dwarf novel. We will of course bring you more news on this when we have it.

And with barely any time for the audience's applause to quieten, it was time for the final Q&A of the weekend.

Series XII and The Promised Land's graphic designer, Matthew Clark is a fascinating man, and as his hour proved, he not only has a deep affection for the show, but also made his own lasting impact on its look. Throughout his Q&A, he told us that in his youth he wanted to be a 3D model maker, but as the industry declined he made the transition the graphics and got his first big job on the ninth series of Doctor Who. He got the Red Dwarf role by fluke when another project he was asked to work on fell through; a move that was stressful at the time, but turned out to be very fortuitous, not only for Matthew, but for Red Dwarf fans too.

Matthew's Q&A was perhaps the most relaxed and informal of the entire weekend, with attendees freely chatting with him, encouraged by his friendly manner. Along the way he discussed his work recreating the sleeping quarters for Series XII's Skipper, with only the DVDs as reference material. As a direct result of this, he struggled to identify that it was a Red Dwarf model on Hollister's desk until the very last minute, resulting in a frantic attempt to recreate it before the cameras started rolling.

He revealed that the look of Series I and II are his favourites because he likes the cold, bleak aesthetic, and said that Red Dwarf is now technically considered a period piece, rather than a modern science fiction. With this in mind, even small decisions can require extensive research to get it just right and build on everything that's gone before.

Before showing a revealing collection of slides that detailed the development work on iconic images such as Starbug's console and the poster designs for Mechocracy and Siliconia, he concluded the main Q&A by telling us that he enjoyed his work. With characteristic humility, he said that he isn't quick to point of the mistakes of others, knowing as he does the time and budgetary restrictions imposed on the role. In a precise summing of his impact on the show, he said "fans like the shows because of the world building, and the world building is one of the most fun jobs."

In truth, this writeup barely scratches the surface of everything Matthew discussed in his comprehensive session, and to do it justice would require a detailed report all of its own. We highly recommend listening to Matthew speak if ever you get the opportunity and can only imagine the insights he offered fans during his time in the merchandise room on Saturday afternoon.

With the twenty-first Dimension Jump headed to a close, the only thing that remained was the closing raffle, followed by the specially created quiz, Dibbley Family Fortunes. With TORDFC's Dan 'Pendo' Pendleton taking on Les Dennis duties, two teams of five were selected: the Sensational Reverse Family and the Dimension Dunces. Playing across four rounds of Family Fortunes-themed questions where the teams had to identify the most popular answers from questions including 'historical figures that have appeared in Red Dwarf,' 'shapes the Polymorph assumed' and 'episodes featuring time travel,' it was eventually the latter that went through to the final, with the Dimension Dunces romping to victory and claiming the grand prize.

The format was well suited to playing along in the audience, and Dan proved to be an excellent host. It all added up to riotously entertaining end to an amazing weekend.

And with the Fan Club's Alex Newsome returning to the stage one last time to show his appreciation for everyone that made this happen, the familiar theme tune played, the credits rolled, and we reached the end of Dimension Jump XXI.

With so much happening over the course of the three days, we're sure that each and every one of you that attended will have your own take-aways and thoughts. But for us, one thing is for sure. After the success of the previous convention, faced with all the delays and last minute changes to government guidance, and with all the odds stacked against them, the Fan Club team have still got it.

Bring on the next one.