Mr Flibble Talks To... Wilko And Out
Artist Mark Wilkinson talks merchandise, novels and remastering - and shows us some rare Red Dwarf artwork.
30 November, 2007
Mark Wilkinson
Mr Flibble's right hand provided by
Andrew Ellard

Mr Flibble donned a smock and beret, grabbed his palette and brush and approached a fresh canvas. Andrew didn't, and instead asked Mark how he got involved with RED DWARF...

In the '80s and '90s I was doing a lot of illustrations for Bravado, the rock merchandise company. Anything from T-shirts to tour brochures for various rock bands, also the long-running Monsters of Rock festival at Donnington.

A breakaway company formed dealing more with film and TV licensed merch[andise] called Network, and through them I started working on film and TV tie-ins like The Flintstones, Star Wars, Robocop and Captain Scarlet, to name a few. They got the contract to do some Red Dwarf tees, which took off big time.

We're talking the mid-90s, of course, when Dwarf T-SHIRTS were everywhere (some of the illustrations, many of them un-used, are shown here)...

Rimmer t-shirt designMr Flibble t-shirt designLister t-shirt design

At the time I was involved, Red Dwarf was just about the hippest comedy series around, and with such great characters and writing - [it] makes you realise what talent it takes to produce work like this, 'cos there's not a great deal around these days that holds a candle to it. Consequently the merchandising surrounding the programme was very successful.

The T-shirts seemed to be everywhere at the time. I remember cadging a load of 'better smeg than dead' children's sizes for my son's birthday party one year to give to his pals instead of a party bag. I can remember one uptight parent ringing me up to tell me how 'inappropriate' they were for young children and she would be returning it to me. When I enquired what it was she was upset about she said, "Everyone knows 'smeg' is a rude word"! I told her it was a make of fridge (amongst other things) but she wouldn't have it. I wonder what she makes of the average TV comedy show these days if she thinks smeg is bad. The rest of the kids loved them of course!

People may not know that you also created the cockpit character artwork seen in the 1997 calendar...

Yes, the limited edition poster for Network. Each member of the cast was supposed to sign it along with the writers and me, but something happened along the way.

Mr Flibble's 'Smiley Face in Monochrome' proved an unimpressive piece of art and he started again. How did you begin the REMASTERED project?

The cover art came first. I had a meeting at the production offices and the graphic designer, Andy [Spence], said we'd work on getting some visuals together. Doug and he suggested the format where the art would cover front/back and spines - 'wraparounds' to give them the technical term - and it was suggested I try to incorporate the spine art into one visual block when the videos were stacked together, to make a spinal 'set'.

Something like this had been done on Star Trek, but it was just the spines I seem to remember. To attempt to design a series of 'wraparound' illustrations that had a generic central area was no mean feat, I can tell you.

It meant that any visual element in that spine area had to move along by one spine width on to the following illustration. That was all very well, but how could I make sense of this on six different covers at the same time - not easy, and it meant they all had a similar look to them on the fronts as well, i.e. the ships and planets.

Also, print being what it is, there can be a tolerance of a few millimetres or so for 'movement' in any printing, and the video sleeve allows for some movement of the covers too. Therefore I was trying to not make too many perfect joins with characters - or Starbug for instance. If a leg cut across two spines it may well have looked like Jake the Peg...with the extra leg!

How was this all put together?

After the initial meeting I faxed some rough visuals together with the front cover pretty much laid out, and also a very rough idea of these linked spines. The only reference I had for the illustrations were the videos, so I freeze-framed various parts - never that successful - and used those as my basic reference.

The cat ship was a challenge, and I think that was the only one that came back for some alterations. Those were the pre-computer days when changes could be a real pain to resolve. It meant spraying white over the areas to be 'reworked' and hoping there was no reaction with certain colours - blues especially were difficult to paint over white spray paint - using the materials I did in those days anyway, which were gouache paint and acrylic ink either airbrushed or painted. Nowadays I just use acrylics when asked to paint in a traditional medium, and they have improved vastly. So it is easier now to make changes.

Were there any concepts that were created that didn't get used, or were heavily altered?

The timing was as tight as a gnat's wormhole, so I believe it was just the cat ship that came back. There really wasn't enough slack in the schedule to allow for much in the way of alteration.

Remember this was the grand old days pre-computer, at least for me, so a change meant a courier to deliver the painting from London to me in Suffolk (half a day), me doing the change and sending it back by courier - a day at the very least would be lost, and I was up against a tight deadline to get all six done in time. Always the illustrator's lot that is. But in those days any kind of a change could be my worst nightmare as I was already working with little sleep to get them all done.

The fifth image - for the swirly 'time hole' - seems very different from the other five. It shows characters as well as ships, and the spacescape background doesn't line up on the spine in the same way as the others...

It doesn't, does it! What was I thinking? It was a time hole though, and thus the fabric of the 'spinal' universe is upset. In my universe though it was trying not to upset Doug - that was of prime concern!

But I remember wanting to create that swirly time hole as it fitted the episode. Besides I was a little tired of continuing that same style of spacescape in the background - so I thought 'to hell with it, this is the one piece of imperfection that will be like an afghan carpet', where the designer always intends to put an imperfection into the design because only God can create something that is perfect! So that was my addled thinking, late one night or in the early hours of the morning - sleep deprivation can effect strange visions!

You see I'm struggling here to justify it...

Mr Flibble's 'Doodle of Man With Curly Hair' showed all the creative flair of a colour-blind skunk with crippling arthritis. He started again. Andrew moved on to discussing the remastered SHOW IMAGES themselves - the cat evolution artwork for example...

The evolution of Cat was the first of the series I did, and the one that absolutely delighted Doug - so much so he rang me up to tell me. I was buoyed up by that I must say, especially as once again I had a horrific deadline - a day or less on each piece - and I knew I wouldn't have time to spend creating too much 'finish' as I usually like to do.

After the first illustration went off, I had to do all the others in one block of time, and they literally went to the wire. I was up till two or three in the early hours every night and worked straight through - a 24-hour shift to get the last one done. I was then due to meet Doug and Ed Bye at BBC studios with the paintings so that they could be [filmed] that morning ready for the remastering process. It was that tight. If they hadn't been okay there was no time to rework them.

Luckily for me they seemed to go down fine. The cat war was the one to me that really looked rushed and the one I'm most embarrassed about, but there you go. I'm not a quickfire artist, never have been.

What was the brief there?

To provide the whole 'Fuchal' diner - Lister as God idea, the hats, the bible for the cats... What a crazy, crazy concept! What were Doug and Rob on? But a beautifully mad world to inhabit for any designer or visualiser. There was no brief other than to provide these biblical epics for a second or two of screen time - but to make them a bit like those old Ladybird books on the bible stories style.

How did you feel about replacing the show's existing 'cat bible' artwork with your own?

Now you have mentioned it I vaguely do remember that. I really can't remember the original work though. I certainly don't have any worries about recreating something that someone else has done. It gives employment to two illustrators.

I've had to work like this a few times. On several occasions you can be in competition with other artists, providing work for free in the hope your work will win the day. I've often thought how unfair that is, but it's no worse than many actors going for auditions for one part I suppose. An illustrator's lot can be a tough one - the deadlines etc. - but on the whole it's a great way to earn a living, and on balance I have no reason to complain.

We have an image here of the Cat departure accident that was never fully shown on-screen - in fact they used part of the video sleeve image. Is that kind of thing disappointing?

I really can't recall why only the central part was used. Some decision made on the day - they were, after all, there for the purpose of serving the story, and I would imagine showing those parts did the job the best.

I do sometimes get disappointed, yes, usually if someone messes up with the printing, but then most illustrators I know get peeved by their work not being reproduced well. It goes with the territory. But in this computer age with calibrated monitors etc. it happens rarely.

Mr Flibble revealed his 'Lady Penguin In Repose With Fish' - a creative triumph which will surely send the art world into a frenzy. Andrew, meanwhile, had moved on to discussing the LAST HUMAN novel, for which Mark provided illustrations. Was the art always intended to be black and white?

Yes. The cover had already been done - that was already in place before I entered the frame - and so I had a meeting with the publishers to discuss the illustrations for the interior.

I can't recall if Doug and I spoke at that time on the phone or not. I was sent the book proofs I think - or at least the chapters that needed a picture - and worked out some rough visuals to fax to Doug.

Odd that none of them feature the Red Dwarf ships or characters...

Perhaps none lent themselves to portraying the characters, I really don't remember. I don't recall being asked not to include the characters though. I can remember Cyberia had a definite theme, heads bobbing in the liquid. Time Fork was a demented 'crossroads' skit, on which I was encouraged to go 'surreal'. And The Rage was the whirlwind [itself].

Last Human artworkLast Human artworkLast Human artwork

What are the proudest moments of your Red Dwarf involvement?

My two children at the time absolutely loved this show. My son who was 12 and my daughter who was ten, they knew what I did for a living, knew about the work for rock bands, and it meant nothing much to them in those days. But when I worked on Red Dwarf I had suddenly become a hero - and for any dad, that's a proud moment!

We all went to the recording of the Red Dwarf night. As they were too young to be in the audience we sat in the green room and had photos taken with the cast, met Patrick Moore - which for my son, who knew him as the Games Master on the TV program, was a blast!

And you've worked on a huge number of things over the years - so what are the proudest moments of your career?

Apart from the above you mean! Being invited to take part in exhibitions and events in many countries like the US, Italy, Switzerland and Norway especially. The buzz you get from meeting people around the globe that know what you do is fantastic.

The internet has opened up this world for me in so many ways, all those years beavering away in a small studio in the middle of the night with only Nicky Campbell on the radio for company, continually looking at the clock wondering if you are going to meet the deadline, wondering if what you are doing is any good - somehow by leaving the country and meeting a few strangers that know of your work and seem to like it is especially great.

Mr Flibble enjoyed talking to Mark, and now that it's over... Mr Flibble is very cross.