What is creativity? Red Dwarf’s Robert Llewellyn talks tech, TV pitches and electric cars

In the latest in a series of interviews exploring pure creativity, and how it is conceived, nurtured and grown, The Drum catches up with actor, comedian and writer Robert Llewellyn.

Most widely known as Red Dwarf’s Kryten and presenter of Scrapheap Challenge, Robert Llewellyn has appeared in and presented numerous TV programmes. He is also a prolific producer of online content, largely dedicated to electric cars and renewable technologies, including hugely successful shows Carpool and Fully Charged.

Llewellyn was a pioneer of online video. In 2000 he formed a company called British Web Broadcasting, one of the first online video sites for comedy. The problem with being a pioneer at the start of the entury was that, as they were paying for the bandwidth, and people were downloading via dialup modems, the more successful they were the more money they lost. Bills of tens of thousands of pounds with no income saw the company collapse and Llewellyn return to traditional TV.

Llewellyn was lured back online by the “endless frustration of traditional TV”. He recalls the impossibility of pitching ideas to TV companies even though he’d proved their viability through live performances. “I’d do a talk on stage one night and pitch the idea as a TV show the next day to execs who said it wouldn’t work for an audience, even though I’d seen it work the night before!”

All of this meant he found the prospect of producing his own content particularly exciting, especially as it plunged him into the sort of direct relationship with his audience he had always relished during his live performances, enabling him to tell immediately if the content worked or not.

“This puts you into a whole new relationship with your audience, putting you in the middle of a very complex conversation. People get angry when they think I haven’t produced enough, calling me lazy and acting as if I’ve deliberately stopped producing content as an insult to them!”

He believes one of the biggest unexpected benefits to the entertainment industry delivered by the internet is the incredible longevity it brings to content. For example, an online show he made five years ago about Masdar City, a fully sustainable city in Abu Dhabi, is still receiving over 10,000 views a week.

“You could never get that with traditional TV and it still feels very weird,” he says.

Producing his own content has meant Llewellyn has had much closer contact with brands than during his traditional TV work but he’s found the experience mostly painless. Toyota was the commercial partner for Carpool and the brand’s only wish in providing the car the series was set in was that it would help make electric cars ‘normal’. “It never wanted its brand mentioned and wanted it cut out if we ever did, which I thought was very brave.”

The need for complete authenticity when brands play in this space was highlighted by his work with British Gas, the commercial partner of Fully Charged, his online show dedicated to sustainable energy.

“British Gas wanted to talk about its products, which I was happy about as it has very good products in the space,” he says. “But when they pushed this too hard, they didn’t get many views, and viewers started posting links to competing, cheaper products.

“The move online should be so simple but it’s actually a huge grey sludge of compromise, despite being so exciting.”

So, how do you define your creativity?

“I’m driven by problems and issues in the real world that I don’t have the imagination to do something about in the real world. I’ve written a sci-fi trilogy set 200 years in the future where the world is actually better. The idea was taken from the massive logjam of technology I’d see in labs that had been stymied by entrenched companies like electricity providers. I could walk around a coal factory with a placard protesting or I could alternatively imagine a world without it, where we had moved past it and were OK. The industry are experts in instilling fear of a world without coal so I wanted to help remove that fear.”

Where do your creative ideas come from?

“Always from personal experience. A good example of this is my novel Punchbag. About 20 years ago I was at a Soho production agency in New York, walking down the corridor when I overheard a man’s voice saying appalling things to a woman. Looking in there was a man in a blue padded suit being punched hard by women at a self-defence class. Violence to women was already sadly a part of my life, and this sparked something in me that led me to travel to San Francisco to the place where these blue-suited men got trained, which led to a play and then the book.

“It was a million-to-one chance I’d walk past that room and witness that. My creativity has been a series of unfocused threads that run through my life and get lit up by a catalyst like that.

“This happens a lot during my visits to different laboratories for my shows. A nano-fiber cloth stronger than any other material every known that I was shown, for instance, inspired elements of my science fiction.”

Can creativity be learned or taught or is it purely innate?

“You can encourage creativity but I don’t think you can teach it, it is kind of innate. Creativity is really about making connections, often surprising connections that lead to the birth of something new. So it is possible to encourage people to make connections between things that can seem disparate on the surface.”

How closely do the two sides of creativity – thinking and producing – need to be aligned?

“In my creative work they do need to be absolutely aligned. However the real artists I know don’t give a toss about any of that. They do work for themselves and are not at all worried about the final ‘product’. I’m always extremely excited about the final product. Not just in terms shifting units of things but in terms of people properly receiving my ideas.”

This feature also appears in The Drum's relaunch issue, published on 2 September.

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