Doug Naylor Interview, Part 2: We Chat with Red Dwarf’s Co-Creator about Writing and Directing in the Dave Era
Red Dwarf is well and truly back! Series XII of the classic space-adventure-sitcom is now in full swing over on Dave and UKTV, and if the first few episodes are anything to go by, then the show is in the same kind of form that made it a full-blown cult smash in the 90s. The boys from the Small Rouge One may be older, but they don’t seem any wiser, and are every bit as funny as they were in the show’s BBC heyday. Of course, there’s one man to thank for all of the above, and that’s Red Dwarf’s co-creator, writer, director, and all round comedy legend, Doug Naylor.
It feels like you’ve been trying to relaunch Red Dwarf from Back to Earth through to Series XI.
Well, in a strange kind of way it’s very similar to the early series. Series I – absolutely no money. So, you’ve got set problems, you’ve got prop problems. You can have a bit of dialogue, but you can’t afford to do any location work, exactly the same as it was on Series X. All those things were exactly the same. When you get a bit of, “Oh, you can go out into a power station,” as we did in Series XI, then you can have a show like Give and Take, which the fans thought was very similar to a show from season V, and you’re gathering some momentum. But it’s about collecting your sets and collecting your props and having the location stuff. And having said that, every series that we’ve done on Dave, including Back to Earth, have been very successful in terms of the ratings. So, they’ve been very happy to continue to support us.
I watched the documentary on Series X, We’re Smegged. Was there a point when you thought, “I Just don’t want to do this anymore.”? Because it seemed like it was absolute hell to get through that experience.
No, we used to laugh. Roopesh [Parekh] would come into the edit, he was the line producer towards the end, and he would go, “Okay, you want to know what’s happened now?” and we would just fall about laughing. Because we knew it would be some other new catastrophe and generally it was. But God no, it never occurred to me. Maybe that’s why I’m still here. Now it’s like, we’re going to make this a success if it kills me.
Yeah, it’s incredible, because Series X is one of the best Red Dwarf series and you would never know the hell that you went through to actually put it out there.
You know the story, which was the schedule was moved forward six weeks. I was told to write in locations and then the line producer was told he could go on holiday. Then he came back from holiday, looked at the budget, and there was no [allowance for] an audience. There should have been an audience, so now you can’t have any of the locations. At all. None. It was just absolutely killing. Four shows had to be massively re-written, two shows were dead, which is bad enough, but when you’re directing it you’ve got to show up for rehearsals as well. (Laughs.) So, it was, completely, completely bonkers. All the while being aware that if this fails, and most people are probably expecting it to fail, that’ll be it. There’ll be no second chances. But we got through it, so that was all fine.
Will we ever see those dead scripts?
I have cut up several of them and used them in later series, and one hasn’t materialised which we may do one day, but it involves a character who’s not in it so much anymore.
Were Series XI and XII a dream to make by comparison to series X?
Oh, it was so much easier! It was a great time. We’re all pulling in the same direction. The two producers, Kerry [Waddell] and my son, Richard Naylor, are fantastic, just an absolute joy to work with. Because it was terrifying doing twelve [episodes]. We’ve never done twelve before. Never written and directed by the same person. But there is a schedule. There were four deadlines to deliver three scripts per schedule, and it was basically writing don’t look down, don’t think about it, just hit those deadlines and then we’ll see where we are. And I hit the deadlines. Suddenly we had twelve scripts. Of course, they were re-written and no one wants to re-write them more than me, especially when I’ve heard the boys do them… or we can’t afford this, or if we change this, this can happen.
So, I got a little apartment round the corner from Pinewood Studios. Now, that allowed me to get up at 5 or 6 in the morning, have a full, really decent 2 – 3 hour writing session, or re-write session, and then have a five minute drive into Pinewood to start rehearsals, often with new pages. In fact in Twentica [Series XI] half the big nightclub scene, which is just crammed with enormous laughs, half of that was written on the Thursday before we shot it on the Friday. It was basically the same premise, the end was the same, but there were just extra huge laughs that were a page and a half, two pages that I added. And because the atmosphere was so good, the boys so welcoming to all the other guests, everyone just got on with it.
You shot Series XI and XII back-to-back. Have you been tempted to go back to Series XII and tinker around with it?
Because we could, because it’s not gone out yet and there’s a whole year ahead of us?
Well no, because it has to be delivered to UKTV, and also, there’s no money left, because you’ve spent the money. I’m sure if they’d have looked at them and gone “Oh my God! We think there are problems here,” they would have said, “Tell you what, here’s a bit more money, go back and fix this and fix that.” And there have been shows where we’ve played them to the audience and I’ve gone, “I want another day in the edit just to tighten things up.” I was wondering whether I was going to do that with this, but the reaction when we did the premiere in Edinburgh was so positive, it was like, “No, it’ll play like that.” The reaction was very satisfying. So, no, we haven’t. But sure, if you’d said, “Here’s a couple of hundred thousand, is there anything you want to do?”, of course, you would always go back. You would always. You use every second and every bit of money you’ve got to change things and make things better. Because you can always make things better, you just run out of time.
I suppose for you as the creator of the show it’s a long time to wait for your work to emerge into the public eye.
It is strange, yeah, because we’ve never done it quite this way before. And it’s the same with the cast. They’re going, “What was that one about again?” And I’m going, “No it was the one…” “Oh yeah! Oh right! Was that any good?” Because they hadn’t seen the shows either. So, their memory is of the night. I mean, they’d seen Cured and that’s it. They hadn’t seen any of the other shows. So, it is strange. I would much rather… if it had been down to me… gone, boom, there you go, there’s twelve shows and they were shot one after the other. It would have felt more like an achievement to me. Whereas now, it just looks like a conventional… you know, you’ve done two series.
We’re not quite aware of the amount of graft that’s gone into putting those twelve together in one block.
Well, that’s right because it was one after the other, week after week. We had Christmas off. But then back we came and just on with the next thing. And there is a real, sort of, end of term feel to that last show, because that was the last show we shot, and I think, as a consequence, there was such an energy to it and a slight madness to it. It’s infectious.
The series really does end on a nice grace note. Not to spoil anything, but it does leave the fan feeling very happy.
Oh good, good. I’ve always tried to do that. You always think, is this going to be the last one ever? Without it being the last show, you want it to end in a nice way.
Because the show’s been on such a long time and you’ve got such a dedicated fan base, do you write with the fans very much in mind? Or do you sometimes think, I want to write in a way that will attract a newer audience?
The thing is, you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t. Everyone goes, “Oh, why don’t you bring back Ace Rimmer? Why don’t you bring back Dwayne Dibley?” And then if you were to do that everyone would go, “It’s just the same old things, you haven’t got any new ideas. Why are you still bothering?” So, it’s juggling those two things. You want to do stuff where you feel, “Oh, why have we never done this before?” Someone said about the left turning Starbug, “I can’t believe you’d never done that gag before. All the Starbug being rubbish gags that you’ve had and you’d never done that.” So, we’re looking for those things that we haven’t done. The whole Cat as a psychopath arc, we’d never done that, and Danny has probably had bigger parts in the Dave era than he’s ever had. And of course, he gets such a fantastic response you kind of want to do more of that. So, we’re trying to constantly look for things that we haven’t done before, while at the same time, not throwing the baby out with the bath water.
It did feel in those first two episodes, Cured and Siliconia, that you explored Cat and Kryten’s personalities more deeply than you had in the past. One is a psycho, the other a victim.
Yes. I think that’s true. And I think we did that a little bit with Lister in the Fathers and Sons episode [Series X], where he tried to contact his drunken self and give himself advice. The heart of that is such excruciating loneliness. Again, you would have thought that’s something we could have done season III, IV, V. But we didn’t. So, I guess, it’s maybe finding the bits we missed first time round. Also, there are moments where you find things in the news, or science. M-Corp, for example, seems to me to be quite prescient, with the way society’s heading, with products being made invisible if they’re not made by a particular multi-national. That wouldn’t have had quite the same resonance if we’d have done that in 1989.
No, that was very clever and very satirical and it made me remember that you used to work for Spitting Image.
Yes, indeed, yeah.
Just generally about the show. Is Red Dwarf fully back now? Can we expect consistent series, like the old days?
Yeah, I mean it’s like any TV series. The broadcaster can axe it at any time, if it fails. They certainly don’t feel like that at the moment. So, the boys want to continue making it, I want to continue making it, so there’s no reason why it should stop any time soon.
That’s good. It seemed like in the past actually getting the boys together was the cause of some of the delay. Is that no longer an issue at all?
Oh, huge delay, yeah. Coronation Street wouldn’t let Craig out to do any. They just said, “You can’t come out.” So, he then had to choose between Corrie and us. I always knew which way he would vote on that, but nevertheless he had to do it. And that was part of the reason why we did twelve episodes, because Craig said, “If I’m going to leave Corrie, we’ve got to do more than six.” And I went “Yeah, you’re right.” And he said, “It’s got to be cheaper to do twelve than six, overall.” And of course, “Yeah you’re right.” (Laughs). And then it was only after I’d put down the phone, I thought now hang on, I’ve got to write twelve shows. And then of course, we got delayed because he needed to do I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here. Once that was all sorted out we were able to start making shows. And we’re also, of course, juggling with Danny’s availability because he’s out of the country in Guadalupe for half the year doing Death in Paradise. But they all really want to do it. They really have a good time doing it. We have a great camaraderie. We were together only two days ago having a beer. It’s a great show to work on. I feel very privileged.
Have your relationships with each other changed over the years? I’m sure I heard rumblings that Craig Charles and Chris Barrie didn’t get on too well at the beginning.
It’s interesting. We were talking about this the other day. When you start off a series, everyone’s in it for what they can get. There’s no teamwork necessarily, or camaraderie. “Is my part funny?” “Have I got enough lines?” “Have I got enough laugh lines?” “What am I doing here?” There’s no team. And now… one of the examples was the card playing scene in Cured, where you see what Danny’s doing to make the very boring task of dealing cards that Craig’s doing, more interesting. They’re all adding little bits to make the scene work. I’ve had other shows where the lead actor’s gone, “I haven’t got any lines in this scene, can I leave?” They’re the antithesis of that. The opposite of that. They want the thing to work. Now that takes time, I have to say. It does. And it takes probably success in the first place. But now everyone certainly accepts that Red Dwarf is a success. It’s a big part of all our lives, and now we just want to make sure we don’t screw it up and undo the legacy.
Because they are a well-oiled machine, aren’t they? They’ve obviously worked together for so long. You talk about that poker scene…
All sorts of things are going on, because they’re so experienced, and with audiences as well. Because that’s the thing. There are very few audience comedies now. Not nearly so many. And of course, if you learn that way – you do learn, because you’ve got audience feedback. When they’re laughing and when they’re not laughing. So, that can be a great education.
That’s interesting, because you didn’t have the audience for a period of time on the BBC. I can imagine that must have been hard for you as a writer, because you couldn’t then hone your material.
Awful! Awful! Also, it wasn’t so much that in Back to Earth. We didn’t have sets, so we had a lot of green screen. And the guys are there and they hate green screen at the best of times, because you’ve got nothing to act to and with, and lots of props weren’t there. But that was the way it had to be; it had to be that kind of filmic thing. And then everyone goes home and thinks, “Did that work well? We’ll find out when it goes on.” Whereas the audience do tell you when a scene’s too long, and equally when they want it to be longer, and you can milk this bit because they’re laughing.
I know that you’re a fan of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Larry David has a great disregard for the audience and was famous for going on stage and looking out at the audience and then walking off again, because he didn’t like the look of them. Have you ever had that feeling that you’ve had a great joke, but the audience have missed it?
No actually, I’ve been very fortunate there. I can’t think of any time where I’ve gone, “That was so great, and they didn’t react to it.” I’ve been lucky like that, I think. But then that’s because I am writing laugh lines, as opposed to… I mean, with Larry David for example in Curb, it’s improvised, and you know that the scenes are conceptually very funny but people can laugh at different points in the scene. Whereas when you’ve got a point where you go boom, there’s your revelation, or everyone should laugh there, everyone should laugh there, generally they will.
You had a co-writer for a long time. Then in Series VII and VIII you experimented with a few different people. When you came into Back to Earth and then X and now, did you ever think to yourself, maybe I’d like to have someone else across the desk from me? And maybe I’d like someone else to direct? Or did you think, no I’m just going to do this myself, this is mine?
It was partly because of doing VII and VIII that made my mind up about that. Because Rob left I think on the 10%ers, which won a comedy award. Then when we came to do Red Dwarf someone said, “Get different writers, and you can write a few, and they can write a few, and you can re-write their stuff. It’ll be like co-writing.” But I didn’t enjoy that experience at all, because I am prepared to re-write and re-write to an almost pathological point, and most other writers that I’ve met aren’t. And I can sort of understand that. This is my baby, it’s not there’s. Two, three re-writes and they’re done, and I’m still going. If I think of a better idea I’ll throw out the thing I’ve re-written goodness knows how many times. So, we did two series like that, and then we came to do the film. But we couldn’t get the kind of money that was required, which was over twenty million. So, when we came back the reason I wanted to direct was because I was kind of directing anyway. People often think of Series V as being the best. It’s many people’s favourite season. Well that was… Yeah. The director left. A lot of it was re-shot, and it was me, on my own, in the edit. I remember calling Rob and going “You know what, I think Back to Reality is funny now.” And he was going, “Really?” And I went, “No, honestly, you won’t recognise it when you see it. Just come down and check this out.” So, I wanted to do it. And obviously it’s a kind of short hand.
There was an example years back, when I’d given a new line to Chris. And I gave it to, I think it was the first AD [assistant director], and I said “This is a better line than the one Chris has got. Can you give it to Chris?” Then we went back up to the gallery and we were camera blocking ready to go in front of the audience, and I could see the assistant director whisper in Chris’s ear “Doug’s got an extra line,” and Chris just sort of waved him away and went “No, we’re fine as we are.” Then the director was in front of me saying, “What’s going on?” So, I said to the director, “Can you just ask the assistant director to read out the line?” And the director said “Why do you need that?” And I said, “Just get him to do it, just get him to do it.” The assistant director read out the line and Craig laughed. It was a funny line and Chris said, “Oh, I’ll tell you what, I will do it.” That’s why I wanted to be a director. And the director said to me, “How did you know that?” And I thought, “How did you not?” (Laughs.)
So, shoots can be so much faster. And we’ve got so little time. We have so little rehearsal time because of the schedule, and because the sets change every week, and when you get there on Monday they’re often not right. You have to change them, and do all sorts to make them work for the story. So, I’m often spending the first full day working with the production designer on the set. And the cast get home early and learn their lines, which then get changed.
So, it’s a way of cutting out the middle-man for you and not having to explain yourself.
And to be fair, as well, Richard [Naylor], who is a producer, spends an enormous amount of time with me and we kick everything about. And he’ll come up with great ideas and make great points. I’ve also got Andrew Ellard, who does script notes. So it’s not completely just me in a room by myself. Then of course we’ve got the guys when we hear it. And you can tell what’s working, what they laugh at, what we’re all laughing at, and then of course you’ve got the audience, who in the end are the adjudicators of the whole thing. The studio audience.
Does the show feel like a labour of love to you now, rather than job? Because, watching the documentary about Back to Earth, you bought the car for Starbug / Carbug because they didn’t give you the money for it, or it wasn’t in the budget. That’s really going above and beyond.
I’ve always been like that, actually. Down to the first season when I couldn’t believe how bad the set was, and saying to the production designer, “It just seems so grey and flat and can’t we just have some book shelves, or something to break things up and get some colour in?” And then next minute he was building these bookshelves. And the sacrifices, quite honestly, that you’ve got to make in your private life to go away and… because when you’re writing it helps enormously if you live and breathe the thing. So, you basically get solutions when you wake up in bed, because your subconscious mind’s still working on it. And you can’t do that if it’s 9 to 5. You have to be obsessed by it. So, yeah, it is a labour of love, you’re absolutely right. But it always sort of has been. It’s never been a job.