We caught up with the Red Dwarf actor, novelist, YouTube star and all-round “mad uncle” at Comic Con London
Robert Llewellyn is a busy man. On this particular Saturday, at London Comic Con, he is an especially busy man, hopping back and forth between a mobbed signing booth, Vidfest panel discussions, and a small riot taking place outside the stand dedicated to his newest project, Ashens and the Quest for Gamechild.
We squeeze in an interview backstage after one of his panel discussions. He’s happy to sit down, even if it is on a tipped over lighting crate. All of the attention has left him a bit taken aback. “I’m finding it quite overwhelming. This is the most intense it’s ever been,” he says disbelievingly. “Normally I come with a big pile of photographs and a case of books and if it’s a good day, I’m still left with books and a pile of photographs at the end. Today we had nothing by lunchtime – and I couldn’t even carry the bag in this morning! So it’s just been absolutely manic, non-stop.” He’s excited to meet people and genuinely enthusiastic about talking to them; the queues keep backing up as he goes over the allotted time for each fan.
Llewellyn is easily the most beloved figure at this conference – “He’d be the best mad uncle ever,” sighs a woman clutching DVDs at the memorabilia stand – and the queue to get his signature is definitely the longest. What is it that makes him such a hit amongst the denizens of Comic Con? Where to start? Llewellyn is best known for his role as Kryten in the BBC’s much-loved and intermittently-broadcast science fiction series Red Dwarf, which will start shooting again in November. He’s writing the third installment of his science fiction trilogy, which will be his eleventh book, and he’s become a bonafide YouTube superstar, starring in web feature Ashens and the Quest for GameChild and releasing his own web podcasts.
Llewellyn is quick to deflect the popularity, at least of Red Dwarf: “We always say it’s down to the writing, which is such a cliché, but the writing is so amazingly good, and they work so hard on it. Obviously, as viewers you wouldn’t know, but often we’ve rehearsed a whole scene and Doug [Naylor, the show’s head writer] will walk away and rewrite it. It puts quite a lot of strain on the actors who have to relearn a load of stuff last minute, but what it shows is the dedication he has.”
Both cast and crew, he explains, are committed to maintaining the show’s humour, empathy and, especially for Llewellyn, its scientific accuracy. “I have a great interest in engineering. In a sense, that’s what’s kept me going on the days when I’ve been in a rubber mask for 14 hours and just thought I’d never do Red Dwarf again. But it’s such a brilliant show and I feel hugely honoured to have been involved in it all this time.” He digs around for the right words to sum up the experience: “It’s fantastic.”
“I was laughing so hard I had fallen over and couldn’t stand up. There were tears running down my face because Craig had said something so unspeakably obscene, so unrepeatabley vile.”
This series, set to air in autumn 2015, will be Red Dwarf’s eleventh. Llewellyn beams as he talks about going back to the studio. “It’s a sort of family thing. It really hits you on the first day like, ‘Oh god, we’re back, this again’.” The cast enjoy their time on set: “My overwhelming memory from the last series was a piece of sidewalk in Shepperton, because I was laughing so hard I had fallen over and couldn’t stand up. There were tears running down my face because Craig had said something so unspeakably obscene, so unrepeatabley vile. All of them make me laugh so much and we all crack each other up, which is a real joy to be a part of.”
Llewellyn admits that he’s learnt a lot about his audience too. “What really inspired me was talking to the scientists and engineers who worked [on Red Dwarf]. They’d watched Star Trek when they were kids and set out to make a phone like they’d seen on the show – the one that makes that little noise when it’s opened – and they succeeded!” Science fiction fans, he believes, love new ideas. “Science fiction does have an enormous influence, certainly amongst groups of quite advanced physicists and material scientists. They’re often very inspired by the things they saw in science fiction shows when they were younger. I don’t think I understood that when I started acting.”
Before starting Red Dwarf, Llewellyn had some reservations about working in science fiction. ”I was not a big fan of science fiction TV, although I did use to watch the original black and white series of Star Trek. But now I’ve become obsessed with science fiction. I read it all the time and I write it – I think it has a very important role in the world of real science.” His enthusiasm for science fiction and its fans has spilt over into authoring his own successful science fiction trilogy, printed by crowdfunding publishing startup Unbound. His books explore the tricky relationship humans have with scientific progress. I ask about the utopian view in his books and he quickly corrects me: “It’s pro-topian. It’s progressing toward utopia, but it’s never quite there, it’s never perfect. The final book of the trilogy, which I’m writing at the moment, is quite tough. It’s a bit less utopian.”
“If we were alive 1,000 years ago, we’d be having a fairly shit time – but now it’s so different.”
Llewellyn’s own view of the future is nothing less than bright. “I have faith in the human spirit and I think that can be shown in our history. If we were alive 1,000 years ago, we’d be having a fairly shit time – but now it’s so different. The chances of me dying a violent death now are infinitesimally small. Yes, there are loads of examples of where it’s gotten worse or things have gone wrong, but generally speaking it’s better, and I’ve followed that trajectory. In 200 years, it should be just a bit better – not perfect but improved.”
His vision of a happy, healthy relationship between humans and technology has found fertile ground on YouTube, where Llewellyn produces a weekly podcast called Fully Charged, discussing alternative technologies and energy sources, as well as posting a series of occasional rants, entitled Wet Liberal Whatever. He remains amazed at how long it took for people in the film industry to understand the possibilities of the website. “[YouTube] seemed huge to me, but they all just went, ‘We don’t know what that is, it’s just videos of cats and dogs’. I remember thinking that if they continued to think that way they’d go down in flames.”
Llewellyn’s love of YouTube springs from the freedom it gives creative minds: “From my point of view I could be an actor, producer and a director, which gives you such enormous freedom. It’s a real boost when you can do all that yourself.” Llewellyn recently featured alongside Warwick Davies in the aforementioned YouTube-released film Ashens and the Quest for Game Child. Speaking at a panel event at this weekend’s Comic Con, he pointed out that, “It was an opportunity to play a great character in a great film that would never have been made by a studio. How great is that?”
Llewellyn is overflowing with enthusiasm for every facet of science and technology and genuinely interested in the thoughts of his fans. He’s so eager to go back to the Ashens’ booth that it seems cruel to prolong the interview any further. I meet him again, back in the memorabilia signing area so I can get a picture of Kryten signed for a friend, and he’s just about run out of photos for a second time that day. There’s a 12-year-old behind me desperately counting the number of people in front of him in the queue to make sure he gets one. I ask if he’s excited to meet Llewellyn and he informs me: “I checked! He’s Kryten. He knows everything about everything.”
Main image: BBC
Insets: Dave, Hannah Cogan