Sunday, 12 January 2020

It's cold outside... Pinewood.

Greetings, Ghostwatchers!

As I begin to write this, through tightly-twisted, thoroughly-tired tonsils scorched with excessive laughter, it is the evening of January 11th, 2020. I wonder, if the reason this date has the suitable ring of a rather futuristic-sounding preface, is actually due to the fact that earlier today, I was incredibly fortunate-enough to take a trip, 3,000,000-ish years into Deep Space to catch-up with some loveably, scuzzy, space-bums, at Pinewood Studio's second audience screening for the upcoming, as-yet untitled, Red Dwarf Special.

For anybody who missed-out, this time around, on those randomly-allotted, astatine-like tickets, I hope the following helps paint somewhat of a useful picture of the event, as one glorious whole. Why am I talking about the show again, around these here Foxhillian parts? #CraigsInIt, of course.

To pointlessly recap... Big fan since I was a kid, still identify with the characters, enjoy researching Lister's leather jacket, etcetera.

If you've never before had the pleasure of seeing one up-close, film sets are typically whacking-great, enclosed spaces, specifically designed to house controlled, fantastical environments to later be photographed, and in turn, hopefully make a ton of cashola. Oh, and also highlight a number of important social issues, or something.

On arriving at the studio, attendees for Dwarfian screenings such as these are usually ushered from the main entrance, or car park, into a big tent, and asked to wait. This time around, there were a number of added, compulsory security checks in place, from metal detectors, to phone inspections. Fortunately, they weren't checking for biogenically-engineered, auto-live streaming, hyper-ocular implants, or I'd be in real trouble. I wonder how long it'll be, before that actually happens?

Amongst the heaving throng were familiar faces from The Official Red Dwarf Fan Club, the unnecessarily potty-mouthed, though ever-lovable fuckers, Ganymede & Titan, and wouldn't you know it, fellow Pipes-Phobe & Dwarfer, @TimothyShaw Рa familiar face, albeit usually in 2D, to long-time followers of National S̩ance. Over the years, Tim's unforgettable, rapid-fire quips have no doubt earned him a firm place in Kevin Tripp's Cheese'n Pickle-sponsored, Hall of Fame.

I must say, this evening, the staff at Pinewood were, without exception, first-rate. They were pleasant, they were helpful. They braved the increasingly chilly outdoors, in their high-vis jackets, directing traffic, foot and road, to their appropriate meeting points. Plus, those I spoke with were very personable. Cheers, and thanks to them all.

Eventually, your assigned ticket number becomes part of the next-called ticket batch (in this case, fifty fans at a time), and soon after, you are instructed to join the excited/usually-shivering queue of guests, snaking/shaking outside; though this particular screening enjoyed an unusually temperate climate, on the way over. One fortunately short corridor later, and you're faced with either the main set, or big red curtains waiting to part, before the inevitable hubbub is automatically dampened by the arrival of the evening's warm-up act, who then proceeds to introduce the main cast, and occasionally director, or producer, or even producer-director.

It's remarkable just how quickly the mystery and majesty of the Silver Screen Hollywood Machine ebbs into stark reality. But then, the moment everyone has been waiting for, finally happens. One by one, the cast are called out, and this remains an experience that, personally, never fails to astonish. First out, was Robert Llewellyn as an imperceptibly, re-jigged Kryten; all wide-eyed, and stompy. Next up, was Chris Barrie's Rimmer, in typical, reliably-refined, satin threads. Our old pal, Craig Charles authoritatively strode out, still rocking the requisite rawhide, and Danny John-Jules' Cat... well, let's just say, he still effortlessly steals the fashion show, no matter how utterly-fabulous his wardrobe.

Again, I'm not really a believer in the myth of Spoilers. On occasion, advance knowledge of an unknown narrative has actually aided in my enjoyment, as I've been somewhat aware of what to look out for. Nevertheless, no specific plot points from here on out, as per the wishes of the production, but assuming that you'd rather go in, knowing absolutely nothing, at all...

Until next time, Ghostwatchers... try not to have sleepless nights.


... Still with us? Marvellous. So, what does a lifelong fan of anything expect, three decades-plus into their loyal following? Notably, Red Dwarf has made a conscious habit of evolving in line with the times. Series II is more-or-less, a polish of Series I. Series III is in some respects a soft reboot; at certain points, amending continuity on the fly. The following two series also sequentially add polish to that which has come before, reaching an as-yet unbeatable peak, with rightful, all-time, transcendental Series V classic, Back to Reality.

Series VI is another soft reboot, of sorts, as is Series VII, but more so in the way the programme was physically produced; abandoning its tried-and-tested, live audience performance, in favour of championing the so-called 'filmizing' post-production work-flow. Series VIII, was at times, an intermittently-head-scratching regression back to live audience filming, which indirectly or otherwise, resulted in the longest production gap of a decade, before the feature-lite, three-parter, Back To Earth; with all that has followed subsequently, most easily compartmentalised into the figurative, Dave Era, having long-since migrated from BBC2.

Despite its ongoing metamorphosis, the basic premise of the show hasn't really changed that much, since its inception. To be fair, Red Dwarf proudly displayed its kind and thoughtful heart, right from, The End. One always hopes that the constituent elements of anything so cherished shall continue to grow and flourish. What can sometimes be difficult for fans to adjust to, is in reflecting reality, the characters, and the worlds they inhabit, must not only be subject to the occasional upgrade, but in order to carry the requisite emotional heft, still also evoke a playful nostalgia. Guh, easy, right?

The audience on the evening, were understandably in very high spirits; keen as ever to be part of the proceedings. It really is this keen sense of anticipation that has engendered the brand for so long. That, and buying branded merchandise, I suppose. FYI - for those still waiting on the Ghostwatch™ hot beverage thermal mugs, and free balloons for the kids... keep waiting.

The warm-up for the evening, Mark, was strong, and high-energy. In keeping our glucose levels reliably topped-up, he regularly and effervescently challenged those gathered to proffer their preferred two-fingered chocolate bar, motorway services, and even, 'A'-road. When somebody shouted 'Kinder Bueno', as being a potential contender for the former, the guy sitting in front of me wearily grunted, "Fucking hell... kick him out." Oh, and for the record, Mark, Beef Monster Munch is the Devil. Original Pickled Onion, all the way. Additional topics included the benefits of VHS over Betamax, teachers admitting to being lumbered with not-so favourite students, and him being handed a note requesting everyone wish a Happy 40th Wedding Anniversary to two Pinewood staff... who weren't actually celebrating their 40th Wedding Anniversary, at all.

The seating, despite boasting good leg room, was just shy of horrendous. This may seem trite, but the recording went on for at least, three-four hours. Injection-moulded plastic does not change shape in that amount of time. Flesh, on the other hand, and as I am now strongly starting to suspect, eventually bone, does. Sort it out, Pinewood, or I intend on coming down, and personally upholstering each and every last seat, myself, in luxurious, plush velour. At cost, naturally. In fact, I intentionally purchased a lumbar support pillow from Halfords, in grave anticipation of such prolonged discomfort. In retrospect, I really should have brought a recliner. Actually, could you imagine a Red Dwarf screening as a drive-in movie, with internally-mounted speaker grilles hanging from the windows? That'd be wicked. You could sit in your own car, and bring your favourite takeaway, and everything. And fart, too.

Anyway, with those brief introductions done-and-dusted, there was a special, 17-minute sneak-peek for Part One of the special, to help bring us all, narratively-speaking, up to speed. Again, no secrets from the plot, but even in its rough, work-cut state, the proceedings flowed nicely, with a wide, cinematic perspective that would hugely benefit from at least a limited run in theatres, nationwide.

My personal field of view, in principle, should have been close to perfect. Second row in, right in the centre. Sadly, the chap in front of me, quite innocently blocked much of my view of the monitor screen ahead, which happened to be mandatory in viewing the footage being recorded, as the overhead projection screens required a near-impossible neck crick, to view at all. In addition to which, only the Starbug set was really being used, which boasts four, near-solid walls, enclosing the cast within. I managed to lock eyes with Danny John-Jules through its narrow, wooden(!) view-screen slot, a couple of times, as our eye-lines were almost parallel. Something, I've just remembered.

In some respects, this felt closer in scope to the recent AA advert; with multiple camera angles providing a much-needed dynamism to dramatic scenes. The laughs were strong, and frequent, right from the get-go, though I can foresee a small number of continuity issues; one in particular involving the size of a hole. Ahem. Hopefully, they shall be addressed in the edit. I'm sure I heard Rimmer say, "behind the curtain", or "behind a curtain", at some point, too. Just thought that deserved a mention, as much as we did, evidently.

As with most live events, there were a few technical problems throughout, though these seemingly tended to stem from the larger-than-usual scale of the production. Thankfully, delays were relatively short, and otherwise occupied either care of Mark, the warm-up, or at times even the cast; with Craig at one point, defiantly proclaiming the leading goal in the then-unfolding Liverpool match. "Come on..!"

Practically, every opportunity was taken to find a laugh. On flubbing a line, early on, Chris' speech pattern somehow lost all trace of English, leading Craig to ask, "Why, when he fucks up, does he always do it, in Italian?" or words to that effect. In response, Chris' lips and iconic nostrils pouted lemonly, as he turned directly to camera, before unleashing a perfectly-fused Italian-esque, Kenneth Williams, much to everyone's delight. I'd say, most of the evening's Smeg Ups revolved around the cast's inability to roll such florid technical speak over their tongues. Hardly surprising, given the programme's reputation for both discussing and conveying, high-concept, scientific precepts between equally-precise gags.

Encouragingly, any additional retakes seemed only to provide further choices, down the line, in the edit. It was fascinating to watch the process of putting together the show, unfold in real-time. Mentally, I was selecting preferred takes, myself.

Later still, when Craig was asked to repeat another chunk of dialogue, he inadvertently skipped ahead of Norman Lovett's preceding cue, who promptly groaned from the other end of the stage, "You're not taking any of my lines...", which ushered a great response. I think, it's fair to say, Norman brought the house down, on the night. I don't recall, if in previous years, whether he and/or Hattie Hayridge recorded their lines on set, or backstage, but it was equally surreal, as it was wonderful to see his Holly brought to life, in person. Still a big Hattie fan, too, though. x

During, I think, the final piece of VT, one on-screen actor's dialogue suddenly became muted amidst the otherwise well-chosen library score; clearly the result of another technical hitch. When a crew-member asked for the footage to be stopped, in order to explain to us the problem, Llewellyn chortled, "VT! Which stands for Video Tape. Which we haven't used since '97!".

Sorry to be a really heavy bread-head, but the new Starbug cockpit still doesn't quite work as well for me, as does its timeless predecessors. For altogether, sad-act continuity reasons alone, Lister doesn't seem nearly as claustrophobic in this seemingly tinier space, as by rights, he really ought to be, according to Series VII's, Duct Soup. Ironically, I cannot help but wonder if the altogether stellar shoebox might have made a better redress for Blue Midget, instead.

For the most part, the 'new & improved' GUI designs for various consoles and monitor screens, also don't nearly ring as true as they should. They're too slick, too LCARS-like, and almost entirely contrary to the farcical (though undeniably more plausible) notion that the Jupiter Mining Corporation would be so profoundly 'no-frills' and unsympathetic a commercial endeavour, that despite being an undoubtedly high-return enterprise, would rather invest in buzzing CRT screens, and clunkily-clickity-clackity keyboards for its trudging fleet of solar tugs, purely in the interest of saving a few dollarpounds; and certainly over convenience, or even efficient operation. Hell, the tachyon-based holoship, Enlightenment didn't look nearly as sophisticated as the Dwarf does, these days; in some shots, resembling a smegging, luxury liner, or something.

Gone also, is the Re-Mastered Starbug wire-frame graphic that I myself had a third of a hand in producing, now years past; replaced of course, with a decidedly-swankier effort. Bearing not only this in mind, but also my earliest forays into frankly Bansky-rivalling, Dwarfian fan-art, you might think, this is just sour grapes, on my part...

... Yeah? What of it?

In fact, such is my love for the programme's earlier aesthetic quality, that for the past couple of years, I have dedicated as much of my free time as possible to constructing a twelfth-scale replica of Paul Montague's classically-Gothic, Series I sleeping quarters. Precisely when this labour of love finally shall be considered complete is anybody's guess, but until then, and just because I like you, here's an exclusive first look at the unending work-in-progress. I feel it important to say, just how much I genuinely love and admire the late Mel Bibby's work on the series, too.

And, as the final pick-up shot of the evening, a close-up of Cat's hand, was captured forevermore onto some reliable, high-def medium, the ushers began calling for the crowd to rise, and get out. Altogether nicely, I should say. It had been a long, long night for everyone, no doubt. We laughed, until we could laugh no more. The effort of sitting had proven veritably marathonian. But, was it all worth it? We shall have to wait and see until later this year, I understand, for the special's airing. I think, it'll be worth it, though. There are some fairly lofty notions at play here, which fundamentally help to instil a sense of meaning that I feel suits the esteemed calibre and promontory of both the production, and cast particularly well. Plus, it was genuinely funny, which always helps.

With Red Dwarf now in its thirty-second year, if I could make use of a stasis booth for just a few dozen months more, the series would line up with my own operational lifespan. We can all relate to its simple premise, in following a small number of disparate characters surviving a tragedy, and consequently struggling to persevere in the unfathomable wilderness.

Here, this forms the basis of an unstoppable juggernaut of meaningful comedy, which at its best, the show continues to evoke in terms of poignant pathos, extraordinarily well, to this day. Whilst a great many fans wholeheartedly acknowledge the yardsticks of Loss and Pathos in grounding Red Dwarf as a concept; arguably the most memorable aspect from the series, is its humour. But, precisely where that humour is functionally derived, remains hotly-contested. Personally, I think of the show best as being a Sci-Fi Comedy, whilst others favour it more a Comedy Sci-Fi.

Why do I keep returning for more? In recently discussing my lifelong, goitious fandom with somebody who knows me only too well, they posited a compelling analogue to one of my long-favourite local restaurants, now under new ownership, and offering significantly-revised recipes. "You'll always go back there, Rich..." they soothed, "... in the hopes that one day, they'll make the same food you loved, when you were a kid." I'm pleased to report, that last night's repast was nothing short of a highly-enjoyable return voyage to Trip Out City. To whit, a majorly encouraging adventure, indeed.

Until next time, Ghostwatchers... try not to have sleepless nights.

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