The Cast Of Red Dwarf Had Little To No Acting Experience Before The Series

In space, no one can hear you grumble about your s****y job. The title sequence for "Red Dwarf" opens with a guy in a grubby spacesuit, miserably daubing paint on the exterior of the eponymous mining vessel. When the camera pulls back we can see why he's unhappy; he is working on the "F" of the ship's name which must be about 80 feet high. 

It could be a scene from "Dark Star" or "Alien," two movies that showed us that space travel will be pretty boring and arduous for the regular Joes who keep the lights on during long hauls between the stars. Those films provided inspiration for "Red Dwarf" writers Rob Grant and Doug Naylor, who set their cult British show on a spaceship three million years in the future. Only one of its characters is a living human, but that doesn't stop them from following the classic sitcom formula of people getting on each other's nerves in a restricted space.

"Red Dwarf" quickly became the freshest thing on the telly when it first aired in 1988. Funnier and less droll than "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," it was more "Steptoe and Son" than Kirk and Spock, tackling sci-fi concepts while puncturing any nerdiness with its down-to-earth characters. It was also ahead of its time in that half of its main cast was black while shunning the usual stereotypes of the time (via Mirror).

That cast was key to the show's success. Producers didn't want the usual Oxbridge alumni that populated BBC comedy hits like "Monty Python's Flying Circus" or "Blackadder," so the writers turned to a quartet of virtual unknowns with hardly any acting experience between them.

So what happens in Red Dwarf again?

The first episode of "Red Dwarf" opens on an ordinary working day for Dave Lister (Craig Charles), a slovenly technician who is the lowest-ranking crew member on board, and his jobsworth roommate and supervisor Arnold Rimmer (Chris Barrie), the second-lowest person in the ship's hierarchy. Lister dreams of getting back to Earth and starting a farm on Fiji while Rimmer aspires to become an officer, despite already flunking the entrance exam several times already.

Lister gets in trouble for smuggling a pregnant cat onboard and, rather than turn her over, takes 18 months in suspended animation as punishment. When his sentence is complete, he finds the ship deserted. A deadly radiation leak caused by Rimmer's incompetence has killed the entire crew and three million years have passed until it was safe enough for Holly (Norman Lovett), the ship's dim computer, to release him.

Lister is not all alone, though. The ship can support one holographic crew member and Holly has deduced that the best person to keep Lister sane is his old roomie Rimmer. They also encounter Cat (Danny John-Jules), a preening, style-conscious, self-obsessed humanoid evolved from Lister's pet, who was stashed safely in the cargo hold at the time of the leak.

In the second series, the new-look crew of the Red Dwarf picks up a distress signal and rescues Kryten (David Ross), a service android with an overdeveloped sense of guilt. The character became a regular in the third series when Robert Llewelyn took the role. Rather than upset the dynamic between the characters already established by Charles, Barrie, and John-Jules, Kryten added another dimension to the crew, his desire to both serve and become more human providing another battleground for the constantly bickering duo of Lister and Rimmer.

The cast had very little acting experience before Red Dwarf

If the cast of "Red Dwarf" were pretty green, it could have been very different. Alan Rickman and Alfred Molina both auditioned for the show; Rickman wanted to play Lister because he thought Rimmer would be too easy while Molina was cast as the latter before dropping out. That sounds like it would have become a far more mannered affair, so luckily the roles eventually went to Craig Charles and Chris Barrie.

Charles started out as an urban performance poet before finding his way to television, popping up on various shows to deliver his verse. He got the part on "Red Dwarf" when Paul Jackson, the show's producer who worked previously with Charles on "Saturday Live," asked him to check out the script to see if he thought Cat was a racist stereotype (via The Guardian). He loved the character and also asked to play Lister. Jackson's reply "began with an F and finished with two Fs," but Charles wore him down for an audition.

Charles made Lister an instantly memorable character once he got the part. Despite his laziness, questionable hygiene, and dodgy eating habits, Lister became an alternative pin-up with his cheeky grin and gift of the gab. Having grown up on a tough estate in Liverpool, the poet's Scouse accent became one of Lister's most distinguishing features; so much of British comedy is class-bound, and his Liverpudlian dialect was a great class signifier versus Barrie's more Middle England accent. As Charles recalled:

"We just play caricatures of ourselves – it's very method. There's an awful lot of Lister in me, a lot of Rimmer in Barrie, although he'd hate me for saying it. There's plenty of the Cat in Danny, unfortunately. And Rob is just full of middle-class angst and guilt, so perfect for Kryten."

Chris Barrie was the perfect foil for Craig Charles in Red Dwarf

The core relationship between Lister and Rimmer is a typical British odd couple, and it's telling that Rob Grant and Doug Naylor took inspiration from the legendary writing duo Galton and Simpson (via The Guardian). Of all the classic British sitcoms "Red Dwarf" most resembles "Steptoe and Son," the classic comedy about two rag-and-bone collectors, "dirty old man" Albert Steptoe and his aspirational son Harold.

Craig Charles was paired with Chris Barrie, an impressionist who originally played the ship's computer Grant and Naylor's dry run for the show, a regular skit called "Dave Hollins: Space Cadet" on their Radio 4 show "Son of Cliche." After working as a grave filler, he got his break on TV as a celebrity impersonator and went on to appear in sketch shows and provide voice work for "Spitting Image."

Barrie totally nailed the character of Rimmer, who fits right into that fine British tradition of frustrated little men with ideas above their station, from Captain Mainwaring ("Dad's Army") and Basil Fawlty ("Fawlty Towers") to David Brent ("The Office") and Alan Partridge ("I'm Alan Partridge"). He's a monster, but he increasingly became a tragicomic character as we learned of the factors that contributed to his self-loathing, patronizing, bureaucratic personality.

Danny John-Jules brought a completely different energy as Cat. He started out as a dancer, appearing in variety shows as backing for old-school comedians like Jimmy Tarbuck and Norman Wisdom before moving on to West End productions and music videos. He got the part in "Red Dwarf" after showing up in character half an hour late for his audition, wearing one of his dad's old '50s style zoot suits. He wasn't aware of his lateness and so seemed totally nonchalant about it, which convinced the producers he was cool enough to play Cat.

Kryten added the finishing touch

Robert Llewelyn started out with what Charles describes as an "awful comedy troupe" called The Joeys before moving on to his own one-man shows, which led to his discovery for the part of Kryten. At the Edinburgh Fringe, he was performing a set called "Mammon, Robot Born of Woman" about a robot who starts acting up as he becomes more human. Producer Paul Jackson saw the show and invited him to audition for Kryten. All in all, the diversity of the cast's backgrounds helped the show become what it is. As Doug Naylor said (via What Culture):

"There's such an energy between the guys. They're all quite different and they all bring different things to the party. They're all fantastically positive as well and they genuinely do love making Red Dwarf. The teamwork between them is amazing – nobody is bothered about who gets the biggest laugh, they're only concerned about making the best show possible. That's a huge part of what has helped the show remain popular."

"Red Dwarf" arguably hit its peak in seasons 3 and 4, winning an international Emmy Award in 1994. Over three decades later, the show is still a regular fixture on UK television schedules, with cable channel Dave taking over to produce a new series of adventures for the crew. On a few occasions, it has come dangerously close to jumping the shark, but the characters have always saved the day and become almost as beloved as the Trotter family in "Only Fools and Horses" or grumpy old Victor Meldrew and his long-suffering wife in "One Foot in the Grave." It just goes to show that acting experience isn't the most important thing if someone is right for the part.