'It was a labour of insanity'
Red Dwarf actor Robert Llewellyn became an internet sensation with his unlikely online chat show, Carpool, in which he interviewed celebrities while giving them lifts. Now, after making 76 episodes on his own since early 2009, the show is moving to the Dave channel. Here, he tells how the show came about, some of his favourite guests and the practicalities of trying to interview someone while driving…
After ten years on Scrapheap Challenge, interviewing engineers and sometimes awkward people who aren’t used to talking on camera, I realised I quite enjoyed doing it, that aspect of meeting someone and finding out about them.
But I didn’t want to do a chat show and also they weren’t people exactly clamouring in the broadcasting industry going, ‘Robert, please, do a chat show.’ But I was very interested in online video and new media and the fact that it was possible to make a TV programme on your own in your bedroom – at least technically. Although realistically, it was not that easy.
I wish that I had gone: ‘This is what I’m going to do’, but it was literally years of faffing about
A good ten years before I started Carpool, I was given a lift by Dave Baddiel through London. I had a little video camera, which I shoved in the corner of the windscreen while he was driving. We re-enacted a scene from Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, if you can imagine anything sadder than two posh boys pretending to be Cockneys. There were terrible shots where you see part of my face and some of him, and it was all misty. Technically it was a disaster, but we genuinely forgot the camera was on and just then nattered about girlfriends and sex and children and life and death, like you do.
That tape I’ve still got in my safe. I definitely don’t want people to see it is quite scurrilous but years later I found that tape, and what is really interesting is that it’s not an interview and yet you actually find out quite a lot about both of us,
It was over probably five or six years of toying with these ideas then it gradually narrowed down, slowly all these things connected. Even down to the little cameras we use on Scrapheap, which we used to call suicide cams because they often go mashed.
I tried it out with my kids and my wife, who is very funny and very revealing about marriage, then I tried one with Ed Bye, who directs Red Dwarf. I gave him a lift to the 24-hour party shop to get his daughter’s balloons. So, it was really mundane. Then I put that together and tried to upload it. This took weeks of me faffing about and getting it wrong.
Eventually I worked it out, put it up on a Friday, went away for weekend, came back, looked at my computer on Monday morning and it had 4,700 downloads. I hadn’t told anyone. You think, ‘How the hell does that work?’ That was a real surprise and also quite anxiety-inducing because people weren’t really meant to see that one.
Then the responsibility comes of keeping up the continuity of it. I actually managed to do 76 weeks, which, looking back, was a labour of insanity. You’ve got to be barking mad to do it. But I was working other jobs, too. So when my wife would come into my office late at night and say, ‘What are you doing?’ I wanted to say ‘I’m looking at porn.’ It would have been more respectable than editing at 1:30 in the morning.
Very few people I approached to do the show said no. The first one who said no is a wonderful old mate of mine, a very successful guy called Addison Cresswell [agent to Jonathan Ross, Michael McIntyre and Jack Dee, among others] who is a big comedy diva and such a funny dude. He would have been brilliant.
My original desire was to get not only people you have seen on telly but also sometimes people behind the scenes like Paul Jackson, who produced the Red Dwarf, Bottom and The Young Ones. He gave an interesting other aspect of that story
The most popular one, at the moment, is Hans Teeuwen who is a Dutch comedian who I had not heard of until his PR people called up and said, ‘Can you give him a lift?’ That was a genuine journey from the airport.
He was a lovely guy and really amazing and interesting. That was the only Carpool that had three people in, because he had a bodyguard. I thought that was a joke about his road manager, but the guy is ex-military, Dutch military, because Hans has had lots of death threats over his contentious material. The bodyguard was tough. You knew that if you hit him in the face with a brick, he’d just go ‘That was not a good idea.’ He was a really hard case, but giggling away in the back all the way through.
His show crashed my servers because it hit the Dutch papers. So all the Dutch people suddenly found it then watched all the other shows, too. We suddenly had 104,000 views on Sunday morning in about two hours.
Before this, I tried lots of different web things. I’ve written low-budget sitcoms that we’ve shot pilots of. But it’s hugely complicated, particularly when I was hassling people who earn their living from being actors. They did it because it’s fun, but they don’t really want to commit to 70 episodes for nothing but the hope of some advertising sponsorship one day, whereas in Carpool I found a format that would work and was very cheap to make.
It didn’t take people that long. Their commitment was minimal. I’ve done a few fake lifts but the majority of them are real. Particularly for the new Dave series, I think for two out of the 20, they didn’t really need to go down the shops or whatever – but all the others had to do that journey anyway, so it makes it much better. But we do visit the BBC quite a lot.
We did a few in Edinburgh, when we’d drive comedians to their venue but probably not on the quickest route. Basically trying to avoid cobbled streets. We did Phill Jupitus in Edinburgh and he was just on fire. He was just hysterically funny.
Jim Jeffries, who I didn’t know about before, he was fairly – I think it’s not unfair to say – hungover. We picked him up at 3pm and he got up to have a fag and some cold KFC for breakfast. So, he is fairly hardcore, proper old school, rock and roll comedian but just brilliant, just such a joy. He really took off and he really enjoyed it. He said the most fun he’s ever had doing that sort of stuff, which he normally dreads.
It isn’t an interview because I’m rubbish at that. In fact, in that first one with Ed, I remember I stuck questions on the steering wheel so I could have notes. But then I would turn the steering wheel and then they were upside down. I felt such an idiot.
We do have incredibly hefty insurance. We have action car insurance, which is only for the day that we do it, but I think it’s tens of millions we’re insured for. You need that in case you put someone through a windscreen who’s about to go and make a motion picture.
I have to focus on the road, which means sometimes I will lose the thread of a good conversation because I’m steering – which is annoying. People who are used to working on TV will keep going with it, whereas scientists or engineers forget as well and then go, ‘What were we talking about?’
I did try one once driving with Kryten’s head on from Red Dwarf – though it does affect your peripheral vision and hearing. The great moment was sitting in traffic and this portly gentleman in his BMW casually glanced over and saw me with this square head, but no reaction at all. Nothing
Making money from Carpool wasn't that crucial because it wasn’t my primary income. I went to meetings with advertising agencies and PR people and it never quite came off… no one knows how to make money off it. It isn’t like you sell adverts in between programmes. There is no structure to support it. It’s still an emerging form. And there is something more intrusive about an advert on the internet than there is on the telly.
The only sponsor of sorts was Toyota, who gave me a car. I owned a Prius anyway but in the summer last year, when I was driving in to do a Carpool, a young man drove into the side of me at 50mph, tore my car in half.
I was very lucky. I wasn’t hurt at all. I was knocked out for quite long time but I wasn’t injured. Both cars were mashed, and luckily, no one hurt. It was miraculous because it was spectacularly horrific crash. But I don’t remember anything about it. Everything in the car was just trashed. My laptop was like a boomerang; it just bent. So that was fairly serious. But then, I think the next day, a truck arrived outside our house with a brand new car on it because Toyota had heard about it through Twitter.
Making sure we didn’t lose whatever charm the web series had when it transferred to TV was certainly a worry. But actually, they’re remarkably similar. They just look better and sound better. Really, that’s only difference.
Because once we’re in the car, there’s no one else there. Also now there are cutaway shots, as we have a camera running outside the car, which is great. There was a great incident with Ross Noble when we saw a man who really did look like Bono… except he was in a disability scooter with a dog that barked to everyone in its way.
I mean it was uncanny. He had the same wraparound glasses and ponytail. And then Ross Noble just went off on one, which was just brilliant – it wouldn’t have been this funny if you had not seen the Bono guy, but you see him go past us and then weaving across the junction. Maybe he was looking for where streets have no names.
It would be glamorous to get someone like an A-list Hollywood person to do the show. There is some possibility of that happening through people I know in America – but I’m not that bothered because I think it’s interesting people who’ve done something weird or just are very funny without effort who are the most fun. One that’s on the cards at the moment is [Apple co-founder] Steve Wozniak. He said yes, but it’s just the logistics of fitting in with his timetable. Kiefer Sutherland’s also said yes but again it’s extraordinarily doubtful with the schedules
Generally an agent will see your request and it just goes into the ‘never heard of it’ pile. But I always approach the people personally. Now we’ve had to approach them officially for the Dave series, they’ll automatically say ‘no’ even though we’ve already arranged for them to do it. So, then we’ll ring the agent back and say: ‘Well, they did it yesterday – is it all right for them to do what they have already done?’
After this series, I don't think I can face doing 70-odd weeks of it online again, but there are some people who’ve said ‘yes’. So I might do one day a month, something that doesn’t impinge on my life too much.
Robert Llewellyn was talking to Steve Bennett. Carpool starts on Dave at 8.30pm this Thursday, November 4. Here is an exclusive preview clip with Rufus Hound:
Published: 3 Nov 2010