How do you go from playing a much-loved mechanoid in one of the BBC’s most successful sitcoms to full-blown electric-future fanatic? Robert Llewellyn talks us through 30 years of TV, technological change and nail-biting moments of British engineering glory.
Photo by James Cheadle @ The Royal Institution
Q In terms of public perception, you’ve moved from actor to innovation enthusiast – how did that transformation take place?
RL Well, once you’ve been on the telly acting, people decide that you’re an actor. Yet, I would say I’m definitely not! I accidentally ‘leant on the backdoor’ of show business and it turns out they hadn’t locked it. I can honestly say that at no point in my life have I had a desire to be an actor… or even to be on television. It took me 20 years to realise the reason people who work in the industry want me for jobs is precisely because I don’t want to be on television!
It sounds bonkers, but my agent had to trick me into seeing the Red Dwarf team by telling me it was a work meeting. She knew I wouldn’t go to an audition. I wrote comedy for other people, I never thought I’d be a performer. That feeling of exposure is not something I enjoy. But then when I did eventually end up getting roped into performing, people laughed and of course that was a curse!
Simultaneously, I have always been interested in science, engineering, technology… how things work etc - and not just how an individual machine functions, but how whole systems do. Why did we build the world we built? The history of engineering was something I was fascinated by as a child. My mum took me to all the museums and interactive exhibitions because I was obsessed with that kind of thing.
So, in a sense when I got the Scrapheap Challenge presenting job, it was this incredible merging of an area I was interested in with something I was good at. I loved that the show had teams asking things like: “How are we going to make a hydraulic digger out of old bed frames and bits of rusty Morris Minor?”
It was an amazing job and I was involved way before it came on screen. My intention was to be someone in the background but, again, I got talked into presenting… and, it was just as well, as my ‘genius background ideas’ were quite terrible as it turned out!
With co-presenter Lisa Rogers on Scrapheap Challenge Photo: Peter Dadds / Channel 4 Television
Q It always seemed as though the teams that gelled together the most did the best, would you agree?
RL Yep, it was all about the team. Almost every group would start out with an idea, which would then go hideously wrong for reasons that no one would have ever predicted… and it was fascinating to watch because success was absolutely down to how the team operated together to solve the issue. The organic human level to it, meant that often the programme wasn’t about the physical manifestation of the machine a team was building, it was actually driven by how those people talked to one another and got on. There was a lot of emotional pain on set. You had to be able to deal with everything just grinding to a halt and people in despair asking “how the heck are we going to make this? It just doesn’t work!”
Teams of people who had been to art college together and hadn’t built anything before could be just as amazing as a team of engineers from Jaguar! When we first started I saw it as a ‘how do you turn a lawnmower engine into something that moves stuff up in the air’ programme, but I soon realised it wasn’t. Ultimately, it was about communication and how people help each other rather than criticise.
Q Were there any standout moments from the Scrapheap Challenge series?
RL In 2003, we had a global special that saw British, French and American teams try to build an aeroplane. It was 100 years after the Wright brothers’ first flight so there were a lot of historical references and the teams had to use tools from the period: no electric drills, or saws, just hand tools to build wooden planes. It was such a delight to be on the set. It smelt of wood chippings and you could actually hear for once because there wasn’t any grinding or welding of metal.
We took their built planes out to the desert to fly. The French one bounced into the air to about 10 metres; you could say that it sort of flew… ish! The American one ploughed a furrow into salt flats so deep you could barely see it. It was a brilliant land-based machine but it never got anywhere close to the sky. The British one, however, went up so high it was mind boggling. We had permission to fly it up to 50 feet, which was hysterical as we didn’t think we would get up to two feet! It’s very hard to judge how high something is in the desert, but as I was looking at this little dot of a plane in the sky, the guy from the aviation authority who was stood next to me just said: “that is above 50 foot, Robert”.
We later found out that it went up to 3,500 feet! The British test pilot, an experienced guy, just couldn’t believe it flew. He’d been sitting in a child’s deck chair tied with strong string to a tiny piece of wood; no safety belt, no parachute. During the course of the series, we’d seen boats that sank, cars that broke down – all great fun. But, to take this leap of faith and for it to be so glorious was just brilliant.
Often the programme wasn’t about the physical manifestation of the machine a team was building, it was actually driven by how those people talked to one another and got on.
Below: Robert founded and hosts Fully Charged, the world’s number-one clean energy & electric vehicle channel.
Q So, tell us about how your YouTube channel Fully Charged came about
RL While I was in America doing the US Scrapheap Challenge, I met some pretty clever people who told me that television was going to be on the internet. This was in 2001 when we had dial-up modems and, if you had an hour to spare, you could download a picture!
I also met engineers who were working on batteries, electric trains, software etc… all that really early electric car stuff. It meant nothing to me at the time, I always thought why are they bothering with this? We have cars. I want a flying car! It took a long time, but slowly I began to understand the reasoning for it.
I was not an overnight eco warrior by any stretch of the imagination. As I started to get interested in the electric future, YouTube was growing and I realised there was an opportunity for a presenter like me to not go down the traditional route. I didn’t have to go through a broadcaster, I just uploaded content. I started Fully Charged because I knew something was going on. I had seen early electric cars and the charging systems that made them workable. It was my passion project though – the first aggregate one million views on my video took two years, now we hit that most weeks.
Q You must have seen such a drastic change in technologies – or at least their viability – in that timeframe?
RL Yep, the speed that technology is evolving is dizzying. Yet it’s also the change in cost that has really excited me. Take solar panels – I put them on my house in 2011. At the time it was a pretty privileged middle-class thing to do. They were so expensive, you were never going to live long enough to reclaim that money.
But now they cost less than a quarter of what they did. They’re smaller and you need fewer of them to do the job. The same goes for wind; in 2010 the biggest wind turbine could produce roughly half a megawatt hour, and that was considered enormous! The ones being tested now produce 20 megawatts, so two will provide more electricity than Battersea Powerstation at its peak. That’s incredible.
Q So, would you say you’re optimistic about the future?
RL I think humanity is facing an existential crisis that we have the potential to overcome, definitely. Compare it to a meteor heading for us; we have barely any control over that… But this climate problem is something we can solve! That’s definitely the source of the frustration we are witnessing in young people. They get it and most are already changing their behaviour significantly. I’m enjoying seeing this big movement grow. So, in short… yes, I’d say I’m a sceptical optimist!
Some pretty clever people told me that television was going to be on the internet. This was in 2001 when we had dial-up modems and, if you had an hour to spare, you could download a picture!