Interview: Robert Llewellyn

Nicholas Tufnell 9 October 2011

Nicholas Tufnell talks to Robert Llewellyn about Red Dwarf, Carpool, Scrapheap Challenge and the pros and cons of electric cars.

Robert Llewellyn is an English actor, presenter, and writer. He is best known as the mechanoid Kryten in Red Dwarf and for his role as presenter of Scrapheap Challenge. He has a popular online show called Carpool in which he interviews famous or interesting people while giving them a lift in his car. The series has reached over 4 million downloads since its inception several years ago. Robert has written four novels and has a keen interest in renewable energy and electric cars.

You are perhaps best known for you role as Kryten in the comedy TV series Red Dwarf, a role you have been playing from series 3 in 1989 right up to series 8 and the Back to Earth mini-series in 2009. Did you find it difficult joining the cast of Red Dwarf which was already well established and 3 series in? Did you expect to still be playing Kryten 20 years later and are there any moments in those two decades that particularly stood out for you?

When I started working on Red Dwarf in 1989 it was quite a leap for me. Although I had made a TV series previously (a disastrous early Channel 4 series called ‘The Cornerhouse) I was used to performing my own material on a stage, not someone else’s writing in a TV studio. However I was very quickly absorbed into the cast and they soon became good friends. We have all kept in touch over the years and I see the rest of the cast of Red Dwarf regularly. I can honestly say it would not have occurred to me for a moment that I would still be involved with Red Dwarf 22 years later. When we finished the 3rd series there was a big party because that was it. Three series of a comedy show on the BBC is the average, none of us expected to do any more.

As the years passed we realised that this was not the case, in the mid 1990’s we even joked about still doing the show in 20 years time, we dubbed it ‘Dad’s Army in Space’ and when rehearsing often played our characters as very old men who needed help walking. How that bit of jocular fun is now coming back to haunt us. Chris, Danny, Craig and I are now all dads, all getting on a bit, there’s a bit of grey in the hair, the mid sections have expanded and my knees, oh, don’t even ask. I’m a martyr to my knees. However one advantage of being plastered in rubber is that Kryten looks the same, he doesn’t age, he’s still the svelte robo sex-God he’s always been.

It’s hard to pick out individual moments that really stand out, I know I have laughed so hard during rehearsals and recordings I’ve had to sit down and get my breath back. I can remember the moment when I pulled Craig’s shrinking boxer shorts off in series 3, Polymorph; I can remember wishing Kochanski a ‘happy period’ in series 8, just magical comedy moments for all of us. I also remember Craig and I going out in a big auditorium in Seattle during a PR tour and being utterly blown away by the sheer size of the audience and the reaction from them. That was a stand out moment, up until then I don’t think I had any idea as to the true popularity of the show.

You have been working on your own web-series called Carpool. For those who might not be familiar with this, could you explain the concept and what inspired you to do it?

Carpool came about in a very slow way. I had been messing around with online video since the late 1990’s. I set up a company in 1999 called BwebB, (British Web Broadcasting) and we produced loads of short form comedy clips you could download and watch on computers. The pictures were the size of postage stamps and the quality was fairly poor. More importantly the business model was a bit flawed. We started this before YouTube or iTunes etc. It cost us money when people downloaded the clips, we had to pay the bandwidth charges, so the more people watched, the more money we lost. So many people were watching we rapidly went broke and had to stop, but we knew there was demand, even when people were spending hours using a dial up modem to download 2 minutes of myself and Nigel Planer arsing about.

So skip forward a few years and YouTube changed the world, I tried out all sorts of things on YouTube and realised it had enormous potential. Carpool really came about due to a combination of technology and necessity, I knew I could never do an interview show in a studio; I didn’t have the funds to pay for camera operators, lights, sound engineers. I knew I would never be able to bully guests to come in and record anything. Over the years, however, I have given numerous people lifts to and from gigs, studios and events and always enjoyed the conversations we had.

I also noticed we used little mini cameras on Scrapheap, the crew would strap them to machines and they’d often get a bit mashed during a recording. I got two second hand cameras like these; they are really tiny, the size of a lip balm stick. I mounted them on the corner of the windscreen in my car and did some test recordings. It sort of worked, it was crude, the picture quality was rubbish the sound quality was dreadful but they were weirdly engaging.

Over a few months I recorded shows with half a dozen mates who allowed me to drive them somewhere and we just had a natter while we drove along. It wasn’t an interview because that would require me to remember questions and do research, I didn’t have time, I fitted these recordings in between doing proper telly work.

The first one I released featured Ed Bye, the man who directed most of the Red Dwarf series. I uploaded it on a Friday night, checked that it worked and went away for the weekend. When I got back home I checked it and was about to send out a sort of press release to announce it. Over 5,000 people had found this show via iTunes, I had told no-one, not even the people who’d given me technical help in setting it all up.

So from then on I released one a week, some famous people, some people I met who’d done amazing things. I’ve now done over 100 episodes with over 4 million downloads in total. I did a series for Dave last year which was great fun but I always wanted this show to be an online project. So now I’m about to launch a new, updated and swished up online series this autumn. Carpool is still, I’m very proud to report, going strong.

You have mentioned in your Carpool series that you never went to university, but you were groomed for it by your parents. What made you decide to skip university? In hindsight, would you have changed anything? What do you think you would have studied if you had gone to university?

There is no doubt I made my parents suffer, and now being the parent of an 18 year old who is alarming like his dad has really rubbed it in. I was an exemplary schoolboy, I passed my 11+ and went to a grammar school and was clearly destined to go on to University. However I was always, if you paint it in a positive light, a determined individual who didn’t really toe the line and was rather wilful and creative. If you paint it in a slightly more realistic light, I was a stroppy know all pain the arse who caused loads of trouble, refused to listen and made a right mess of everything.

I was expelled from a fairly benign Grammar school (Henry Box school in Witney, Oxfordshire) when I was just 16. I have one meagre qualification, an Art GCSE, A star I’ll have you know. My parents were devastated, but when I went to live in a wild hippy commune in Mid Wales, I think they gave up all hope.

When I was in my early twenties I did apply to become a mature student, to study English and History at Sussex University. The staff at Sussex were very encouraging but the timing was bad on my part. This was just as I was beginning to make a name for myself on the rapidly blooming ‘alternative’ comedy scene of the era, so I made a very difficult decision and turned down my place.

There have been times when I regretted this decision but I have to say not that often. I’m glad I didn’t go to college when I was 18 as I know I would have screwed up and wasted the opportunity. I now accept that I’m just not cut out for academic life while I have enormous respect and admiration for people who have the focus and ability to study and learn.

One glance at my bookshelves will reveal my lifelong solo education; I’m an avid reader and have never really stopped learning. I am fascinated by science and technology, by innovation and the thinking that goes on behind it. I don’t have any academic or technical ability in these areas, my only contribution is to be interested and try and convey that interest through my work on TV and in my writing.

In the early 1980s you formed an alternative comedy theatre group called The Joeys. Would you consider this your first big break? Do you have fond memories or highlights from this particular stage in your career that you could share and are you disappointed that that particular style of comedy seems to have been replaced by much ‘safer’ and apolitical comedians?

My time in the Joeys was absolutely crucial and an incredible platform to learn about the daft activity of performing. I was very lucky to be involved and a complete greenhorn when I started. I don’t know if I ever thought of it as a big break as I had never imagined being involved in show biz in any way. I never wanted to be on stage, or be famous.

I never had any formal training, I just learned each night, wracked with nerves and insecurity but once I got the bug, once I felt the rush of performing to a large crowd I think I was a bit hooked.

We toured hard for 5 years; I remember that in 1983 we did 243 performances so it was fairly relentless. Great fun though, we were always introducing new material, some of it brilliant, some of it utterly unfathomable and rubbish. We were a very politically motivated group, trying to challenge the sexism and racism that was still very prevalent in mainstream comedy at the time.

I remember when we were appearing at the Royal Exchange theatre in Manchester, I went out of the stage door before the show, there was a queue of people outside the door. I walked across the street and had a look, the queue went right around the building, this was people waiting to see if there were any return tickets, the show was totally sold out. I remember thinking that was amazing, we’d never been on the telly, this was a word of mouth audience and I admit that felt pretty amazing. That evening’s show was fantastic, certainly a highlight.

The general mood has changed so much since that time but I certainly think there are comedians now who still question the status quo, challenge lazy or complacent thinking, make an audience laugh and think. There were always comics who did gentle observational material and I’ve always enjoyed that too, so I wouldn’t say the younger generation of comedians are much safer, there are some comics of my generation who were bloody awful, and some who were brilliant.

You are an advocate for electric cars; indeed, there are videos of you on YouTube becoming increasingly irate at the Top Gear presenters for supposedly misrepresenting the vehicles. Why is this such an important issue for you?

Ahh yes, the curse of the electric car. This has been one of the most interesting journeys I’ve been on. I can honestly say when I first rode in a high performance electric car ten years ago in California I never considered this would be a radical political act. It was a car, albeit a very fast one that had an electric motor rather than an internal combustion engine.

Electric cars represent something, I understand that now. They are disruptive technology, they represent a chance to displace vast corporate empires and are clearly are seen as a threat in some quarters.

The difference comes down to one simple fact. You can drive an electric car without burning anything. In fact you can drive an electric car without giving anyone else money for the fuel. I did it today. The car I’m driving, a Nissan Leaf, is currently charged from solar panels on my roof. I am not saying that a set up like I’ve got is cheap at the moment, it’s the best part of £40,000 for the car and the panels, but it is possible. No matter what you do with a fossil burning car, even if you buy bio fuel, you can’t do that. All I need is a roof, a sunny day (14.7 kWh today) and some solar panels, to drive an internal combustion engine car without buying petrol you’d need to have a farm on which you grew crops to extract the fuel from and some serious kit to do the extracting which I think it’s fair to say would cost a great deal more.

I would be the first to admit it’s early days, the re-charging infrastructure is patchy, long journeys are either very difficult or impossible in an electric car, but the technology is developing fast, the range of cars for sale is growing all the time. It’s a very exciting sector.

Why should the focus be on electric cars and not hydrogen cars?

One important technical point on this question. A fuel cell car is an electric car; the fuel cell produces the electricity for the electric drive motors. Okay, one more point, all HFC cars have very large battery packs as well as the fuel cell.

I recently spent a couple hours with Dr James Courtney at Birmingham University discussing this very topic. He’s building all manner of fuel cell technology and hydrogen producing systems, all truly ground breaking and wonderful. I think the fuel cell could well be a common electricity generating source as well as a form of energy storage or battery. Larger static hydrogen systems make sense, they don’t use rare metals and are easy to manufacture and cheap to maintain. Light weight fuel cells for cars are complex, require a lot of energy sapping backup systems and contain the rarest metals on earth but above all, the big question is still, where does the hydrogen come from?

All the fossil extraction corporations are very keen on hydrogen as they can extract it as part of the oil and natural gas refining process. Most of the hydrogen commercially available today is from fossil fuel. It takes an enormous amount of energy to extract it, but then loads more to compress/store/transport and deliver it.

The quality of components needed to safely store and deliver 350 bar (roughly 5,000 psi) hydrogen is anything but cheap. The cost of installing a nationwide hydrogen distribution chain capable of replacing our existing oil based economy is unimaginable, many hundreds of billions. The current cost of a hydrogen fuel cell car like the wonderful Honda Clarity is several million Euros per car.

The cost of installing a 30 amp re-charge system is a couple of hundreds quid, the cost of a battery electric vehicle is in the few tens of thousands, they are being produced today and they will only get cheaper.

Hydrogen may well be the future, hopefully large machinery, diggers, earth movers, agricultural and harvesting machines, ships, trains but not, I firmly believe, small passenger vehicles.

You were the presenter of Scrapheap Challenge for 10 years. Did you ever find it hard to marry your love of electric cars with the often ‘petrol head’ attitude of Scrapheap Challenge? Are you still a petrol head at heart?

Working on Scrapheap was one of the best jobs I’ve ever had. I did it for 10 years and loved it. I admit that by the tenth series I felt I had witnessed enough welding, grinding and swearing to last a life time but it was always a wonderful experience.

As for the petrol-head/electric car ethics clash, I didn’t really worry about it. I was a petrol head, no doubt about it, but never a full blooded one. I always thought there were major problems with our obsession with the internal combustion engine. I loved and hated them at the same time.

The machines the teams built on Scrapheap were definitely one off; the entire series was surprisingly low impact as in essence the whole series was about re-cycling. There were very rare occasions where new components had to be used but 99% of the time we used cast offs, rubbish, scrap. Even the machines the teams built were cut up and used again. I saw one Rover V8 engine and gearbox used on three different challenges so in our own scrap-tastic way we were very eco and green. I’m smiling as I say this.

The best legacy of all is meeting students now who are involved in amazing engineering and science projects who used to watch Scrapheap when they were school children. I’m very proud of my involvement with the series, generally speaking I don’t think telly has a lot of beneficial effects on the world at large, but I think Scrapheap might have done. A bit.

You documented a year of your life in which you decided to buy nothing new for 12 months, which you named ‘Making Do’. What compelled you to do this? Are you pleased you did it? Was there anything you particularly struggled to refrain from buying?

It was Christmas 2007 that this idea hit me. I think I was depressed, I’d just been Christmas shopping with my children and was overwhelmed by the senseless desire for new stuff that completely dominates out waking lives. Nothing new or profound, just a little glimpse into a world where maybe we don’t always need new stuff, where maybe we shouldn’t think that economies who’s endless growth relies solely on us as consumers continuing to consume, where maybe we should even question the notion of being ‘a consumer.’

It is a truly ugly term isn’t it? Consumer, it’s like some parasitic maggot that can only survive by consuming its host.

So I wanted to try not being a consumer for a year. It was a forlorn task from the outset, I have a family and responsibilities so I had to reduce my target to just myself. I decided to not buy myself anything other than food and medicine for one year. No clothes, shoes, books, computers, newspapers, magazines, tools, cars, bikes or smart phones. No cameras, hard drives, firewire 800 cables, USB dongles, blank DVD’s. Nothing. Just food, soap, toothpaste and painkillers.

I did it; it wasn’t that hard, it wasn’t that interesting either. It underlined the fact to me and my children that we really don’t need three quarters of the things we crave, that life without those things is fine, in fact very rewarding. In that year I finally read all the books I’d bought on a whim but never quite finished, if something broke I’d try and fix it, I had shoes repaired, I sewed patches on my trousers, I darned my socks, (my grandma had taught me how to do that) and I didn’t go into a shop if it didn’t sell food.

To be honest, because it was essentially cheating because I only did it for a year there was nothing I longed for. Some things I wondered about I just put out of my mind. I could wait a few months if I really wanted something.

In the long run it’s made me much more aware of the power the marketing industry has over us, I’m more immune to their siren call than I was before. IPhone 5. Yeah, whatever.

You turned your Making Do series into a book, Sold Out: How I Survived a Year of Not Shopping and you have published 4 novels. Do you consider yourself to be fundamentally a writer or an actor? Do you have a new novel in the pipeline?

I did write Sold Out the following year although in some ways that was a journalistic job rather than a passionate project. I was commissioned to write it and almost refused. I’ve published 10 books in total, as you say, 4 fiction so far. As Dom Bowles, a producer I’ve worked with for many years often teases me, apparently I did say ‘I do primarily see myself as a writer’ in an interview once. He calls me ‘Bobby primarily a writer Llewellyn.’

But yes, I do… primarily wish I was a writer, and I am about to release a new book. It’s science fiction, it’s called ‘News From Gardenia’ and it comes out in March 2012.

Finally, a few more Red Dwarf questions: is there anything you can reveal to us about the new series? Do you think a Red Dwarf film is ever likely to be made?

There is nothing I can reveal about the new series as presently I know nothing… other than this.

There will be six new episodes to be broadcast on Dave from September 2012. The main cast, that is Danny John-Jules, Craig Charles, Chris Barrie and myself are all signed up to do it. It’s being recorded in Shepperton Studios in Middlesex, it is hopefully although this isn’t 100% confirmed being recorded in front of a live audience and that’s about all I know.

In Red Dwarf related news I am updating and releasing a book first published in 1994 called ‘The Man in the Rubber Mask.’ The entire book will be released as an audiobook later this year for a derisory subscription fee, as in dirt cheap.

Nicholas Tufnell