'People still call me smeg-head in the street' | Craig Charles on coming to terms with his Red Dwarf legacy © UKTV/Gareth Gatrell

'People still call me smeg-head in the street'

Craig Charles on coming to terms with his Red Dwarf legacy

Red Dwarf returns to our screens  on Thursday, with a feature-length episode entitled The Promised Land. In a one of a series of interviews with the cast, CRAIG CHARLES talks about his relationship to the show and his co-stars

This special has been a long time coming…

Yeah. It’s something slightly different and breaking new ground in many ways because it’s like a feature length special but it’s filmed in front of a live audience. It’s a new way of doing it. But it’s a great story and there are some fantastic performances in it - and I’m not talking about me by the way, I’m talking about other people. I wouldn’t write my own reviews!

Did it feel quite different making it?

Robert Llewellyn got ill, the old bastard, so we were stood down for a few weeks. It was really strange not having him in the company because you realise how much you miss him. 

That’s kind of reflected in the storyline because things do get quite emotional at points…

Yeah the way I play Lister is he’s quite dissolute at the moment. He’s hoarding all this shit and drinking copious amounts of booze and eating wrong, which is fun to play because I play it for real. Basically I just got pissed for five months and ate curry! 

 But I play age-appropriate because he’s 55, where he’s been alone in space for all that time and has no lover but a group of characters around him who, to be fair, you wouldn’t choose! And he’s struggling really, which is the way I’ve tried to play him. Emotionally he’s a bit on edge. He’s definitely having a midlife crisis.

Then he becomes a god! But doesn’t seem to let it go to his head too much…

That’s quite cool though isn’t it? That story is great and it was fun being a god for a while. The bit when he turns around and says, ‘How can they think I’m a god because look at the state of me!’ I reckon all gods probably feel like that every now and again. 

It’s quite a dramatic storyline - would you say it’s more serious than other outings?

I think it’s more epic…  and the special effects, wow. It’s like motion picture quality. The big thing was trying to keep it funny because it’s a comedy. It might look great but is it funny? That’s really important to us. 

There’s a moment where you look like you’re about to lose it. Is there a lot of corpsing?

Completely. I’m normally more together than the rest of the lads but on this one there was a sense of is this the last one? Is this the last time we’re all going to be in a room together? 

I think every episode of Red Dwarf we always think it’s going to be the last one. But this one felt like it might be because how long does Robert want to get in that mask? And I don’t think Lister’s haircut is very age appropriate to be honest! So I enjoyed the company and they are three very funny men. They crack me up a lot and there was a lot of camaraderie. What was a very intense shoot we found time to smell the roses really and just enjoy it.  It’s not a bad job is it?

I’ve known this group of people longer than I’ve known my family. My mum and dad are dead, my older brother is dead; these are the longest human relationships that I’ve ever had with anyone. And they’ve been with me through thick and thin and stood by me in good times and bad times. They’re the kind of people I feel so lucky I got to know. I’ve hung on to their coat tails and let them be funny while I bask in their reflected glory! 

Do you fall into your characters and dynamic filming together very naturally?

Chris will hate me for saying this, but we’re kind of caricatures of our own personalities in many ways. So there’s an awful lot of Dave Lister about me and there’s an awful lot of Arnold Rimmer about Chris. Robert Llewellyn is full of that middle-class guilt and Danny is the vainest man I’ve ever met without any reason to be! So we’re kind of caricatures of who we are and I think that’s why it works because none of us are really stretching that much for our characters - we’re kind of set in place. 

Who has changed the most since your first outing 32 years ago?

I suppose I have really. I was 23 when I started playing Dave Lister and I’m 55 now and I came from absolutely nothing, a council estate in Liverpool and I live a completely different life now. So it’s probably me but hopefully for the best! 

Do you spend a lot of time together when you’re not filming?

We’re not like best mates in each other’s pockets all the time but we do see each other quite a bit and it’s a pleasure. We’re all so different you see, we have completely different interests, politics, attitudes to life but when we get in a room together we all naturally seem to gel which is really quite strange. 

You’ve done so many different things – does this feel like home for you? 

I’ve come to realise throughout the years, and it’s been a tough realisation really, that Dave Lister is my career-defining role. You’re going to get typecast and I don’t mind being typecast as Dave Lister, he’s such a pleasure to play. I did ten years of Coronation Street and Robot Wars for years and years and Takeshi’s Castle and all these things that have been iconic TV shows looking back but people still call me smeg-head in the street. 

What’s the craziest thing a fan has done?

Oh my face has been tattooed on some very strange places – that’s all I’m going to say!

Are your family good at keeping your feet on the ground?

Honestly. I play these massive DJ gigs and I come home and I still have to put the bins out. They keep it real for me, don’t worry about that. 

This is really quite weird; me and my family watched Quarantine, an old Red Dwarf episode last night, and Epideme, which about a virus, just to get things in perspective. It was weird seeing myself so young! I don’t think I’ve seen those episodes in 20 years you know. My kids were looking at me going God dad you look like me! 

It must feel good returning to Red Dwarf when you thought it wasn’t going to come back…

Yeah we stopped doing it in about 1999 and we didn’t come back until about 2010 so we had about 11 years off. I was just getting on with my life raising my kids and thought what a great legacy, hopefully they’ll watch it one day and say dad looks so young! I was happy with what we did and then we came back and I think it stoked the fire in all our belies to say "Guys come on; this is too good to let go. Let’s do some more". So over the last ten years we’ve done four series now, including this special and I believe it’s some of the best work we’ve done. 

Will there be more?

I don’t know. Robert is so old and decrepit; he’s breaking down that lad! I’m the only one with hair now! 

I’d love to do more, it’s one of those things that you don’t want to let go but you don’t want to outstay your welcome. And it would be a shame to mess up the legacy of what we’ve done by turning out inferior work. 

But I don’t think we are, I think we’re on our game. It all depends. If Robert wants to get in the mask, if Doug Naylor wants to write and direct more, if the budget is there because these things take quite a lot of money to make. I’m certainly willing.

 There’s so much to look at and so much fun to be had, and let’s face it the whole world is going to hell in a handcart so everyone needs a laugh. Red Dwarf is satire as well as comedy and a lot of what we’ve done already is so prescient to what’s going on in the world today.

Red Dwarf Promised Land

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Published: 7 Apr 2020

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