It Was Twenty Years Ago...

Rob Grant remembers the ambition that led to Red Dwarf.

22 February, 2008

It Was Twenty Years Ago...

Well, blimey. Twenty years since the first broadcast of Red Dwarf. Hard to believe. It makes me feel both tremendously proud and incredibly old.

One of the most Frequently Annoying Questions I get asked is: 'Did you know it was going to be such a big success?' Did I know it would still be playing regularly on several TV channels twenty years on? I'd have to have been a fairly arrogant idiot even to contemplate that. In fact, I was so painfully aware of the shortcomings of the pilot show that by the time the first transmission actually came round, I would probably have settled for being allowed to carry on working in television after it aired, if perhaps in a vastly reduced capacity.

Right from the outset, when Doug and I started trying to write for television, our single-minded goal was to create a sitcom that would join the pantheon of sitcommery. A show that would take its historical place nestling comfortably alongside the likes of Hancock's Half Hour and Porridge and such. It was, perhaps an arrogant ambition, but then all worthwhile ambitions are necessarily arrogant to some extent. There's very little point in having your life goal focussed entirely on, say, going down to the corner shop and buying a packet of cigarettes and a Crunchie bar. It has to be a bit difficult to make it worthwhile. And it was with this end in sight that we embarked on our writing career. Not the cigarettes and the chocolate, you fool, we achieved that easily, and with some style: no, the pantheon. We cut our teeth first on sketches for radio, because a sketch was a small commitment for everybody involved, and we could make our mistakes on a tiny scale without anyone getting fired, including us. We worked our way up to full blown radio sitcoms. We created three of them, which were all commissioned for series, though we only got round to writing two of them, Wrinkles and Wally Who? before we were whisked away to the glamourous world of television, where our mistakes would be more expensive and higher profile and much less forgivable.

At that point, our careers took a short detour. We had acquired a reputation as sketch writers from our radio work, mostly from our own show Son of Cliché and our regular contributions to the weekly satirical show The News Huddlines, and our first TV work was in sketch shows. Somehow we found ourselves in charge of a political satire show. We both hated political satire. I think that's probably one of the main reasons Spitting Image became the hit it was. Well, maybe the puppets had a little bit to do with it.

We were making a decent living. After years of having to make the cruel decision between food and beer, our cup runnethed over. The cigarettes and Crunchies were finally flowing like water, and we hardly ever had to hide from the landlord. But our ambition had been slightly derailed. We were successful, but not in the arena we'd originally intended. So we took the brave and almost certainly insane decision to abandon this particular line of success and re-focus on creating our classic sitcom.

The tribulations of getting Red Dwarf on the air are well documented elsewhere, so I won't bore you with them. In short, we wrote it, everyone loved it, it took the BBC five years to agree to make it.

And did it achieve our ambition? Well, curiously, Red Dwarf isn't really thought of as a sitcom. Certainly, it never appears in those One Hundred Million Best Comedy Moments or The Thirty Thousand Top Sitcoms compilations that seem to air every other Thursday. It's odd to me, because Red Dwarf fulfils all the classic sitcom requirements: it's about people who fundamentally don't get on, who are trapped together without the possibility of escape. In fact, Red Dwarf probably fills those requirements more completely than any other classic sitcom. It just does it in a unique and unexpected way. And the truth is: Doug and I don't get to decide if it belongs in the pantheon. But we'll happily submit if for consideration.


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