Douglas Adams: The First and Last Tapes.
Part 2 of 3.
By Ian Shircore
By the summer of 1979, the first radio series of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy had been broadcast twice on BBC Radio 4 and this extraordinary mixture of science fiction, comedy and intriguingly speculative ideas was slowly becoming a cult hit.
The proof that it was a genuine cult was the fact that its author, Douglas Adams, was hard up, needing work and fairly happy to grab the lifeline of a script editor’s job working on Dr Who. The proof that it was a hit hadn’t quite arrived yet. Indeed, when freelance journalist Ian Shircore lined up this interview with Adams and tried to get the press interested, the only taker he could find was Penthouse magazine, which eventually printed a few paragraphs and a couple of quotes. Since then, the cassettes of this leisurely three-hour interview have been lost in the back of a cupboard. When the lost tapes resurfaced a few weeks ago, these unpublished insights from one of the 20th century’s top SF writers seemed ideal for the launch of Darker Matter. The interview material is being published in three parts, with the emphasis in this second section on Douglas’s crusade against patronizing comedy conventions, his disillusionment with Dr Who and the multimedia vision that put him 20 years ahead of his time.
By his own account, Douglas Adams started young in comedy. He claimed it began in the maternity hospital in Cambridge, where he brought unexpected joy into the lives of the nursing staff.‘Apparently I was a very strange-shaped baby. The nurse carried me down the ward with a towel wrapped round my loins saying “Look, Gandhi” – and the rest of the world has just taken its cue from that ever since.’But the path from innate talent to wealth, fame and universal acclaim was not entirely straightforward. At the time of this early interview, the Hitchhiker’s phenomenon was only just beginning to show signs of gathering momentum. Douglas was starting to reap the rewards of success, albeit on a modest scale – lashing out to buy a £33,000 apartment in North London, with the help of a £20,000 mortgage, and indulging his dreams of life in the fast lane with the purchase of a modestly sporty MGB tourer. He still needed an income, though, and working as Dr Who’s script editor, in a BBC office at White City, had turned out to be more of a compromise than he had hoped. He’d been a fan of the good Doctor since he was 11 and had been keen to make his mark on the show, both by writing (he’d written four episodes) and through his script editing work. In the event, his time spent with Dr Who had left him disillusioned.
‘I was told: “We want you, Douglas, because of the specific things you’ll be able to bring to the programme,” which I have been systematically not been allowed to do. ‘This season of Dr Who will look just like any other season – and I feel very disappointed about that.’
‘It’s too big a thing for any one person to change. It’s like a big raft in the middle of a lake, and you’re trying to move it by swimming. This season of Dr Who will look just like any other season – and I feel very disappointed about that.’
But if he wasn’t able to bend Dr Who to his will, Douglas was about to taste the kind of success in his own right that usually only happens in dreams. Within a few months, the first book, the long-playing record and the second radio series were to turn Hitchhiker’s into a mainstream hit and make him a household name. Even more importantly, this success would prove he was right to follow his own beliefs, rather than trying to work within accepted broadcasting formats and supposedly commercial formulae.
‘People always make this totally artificial distinction between what is commercial and what is good. They quote that maxim “Nobody ever lost money underestimating the public’s taste” and I think that’s very wrongheaded. I like to believe the audience is actually intelligent, because it’s made up of other people like yourself.
‘People don’t like to have their intelligence insulted. If you do something with sufficient enthusiasm and put enough into it, people are bound to respond, unless your judgement is totally cock-eyed.’
After a lot of disappointments and false starts, Douglas had finally found his voice and his destiny when he stopped trying to follow other people’s guidelines and started writing what he himself would have been surprised and delighted to find coming out of his radio.
‘I thought “What would I really like to hear? What would excite me? Well, let’s write it, because nobody else is doing anything that excites me, apart from the Pythons.”
‘If The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy makes money, I shall enjoy that. But what I’ll enjoy most is having proved that you don’t have to underestimate people. I don’t like the notion that you set yourself up as saying “This is what people like, therefore this is what we’ll do.” That’s patronizing.
‘I just want to kill the idea that you have to be bland to appeal to your market.’ ‘I just want to kill the idea that you have to be bland to appeal to your market, though I know a lot of the BBC old guard still regard Hitchhiker’s as a momentary aberration, a fluke, and not really what radio comedy ought to be about.
‘People kept saying to me when I was writing, “This is terribly esoteric. You’ll only get half a dozen people listening to it. Shove in a few jokes.”‘
Douglas claimed there were actually very few jokes in Hitchhiker’s, in terms of conventional gags and one-liners. But trying to write something that made up its own rules as it went along was always going to be unnerving.
‘In the very first episode, while I was writing it, I kept thinking “There ought to be a joke in here, because I’ve gone three pages without a joke.” I knew I was trying to do something different, but you keep on looking for the odd thing you recognise.’
Douglas explained the problem with conventional ‘jokes’ with an example from a scene in the first episode of the radio series, where Arthur Dent comes out with an obvious, punning gag line (Ford: ‘How do you feel?’ Arthur: ‘Like a military academy – bits of me keep passing out.’). That won an immediate laugh from the cast and crew on the first take, but enthusiasm waned after the first few hearings.
Click to hear a short segment of this interview. There was a far better joke elsewhere in the scene, and that took time to grow on people (Arthur: ‘Where are we?’ Ford: ‘We’re safe.’ Arthur: ‘Oh good.’ Ford: ‘We’re in a small galley cabin in one of the spacecraft of a Vogon constructor fleet.’ Arthur: ‘Ah. This is obviously some strange meaning of the word “safe” that I wasn’t previously aware of.’) This is perfect Douglas Adams humour, rooted in language, character and the sheer control of tone and pacing that makes Hitchhiker’s a genuine classic of modern literature.
At the time of this interview, Douglas had been juggling the day job with writing the first book, editing the first four 30-minute radio episodes to squeeze them onto four 22-minute sides of double LP record, developing ideas for the second radio series and trying to think about the TV version.
‘It’s been a terrible tussle. All these different media demand the story goes in different directions – and this is getting me into all sorts of problems. When the second series is finished and in the can and I get down to the second book, the plot may actually diverge quite widely from one medium to another. At the moment, the radio show generates the material and then I sit down and try to write a book and make sense of the material.’
As Douglas Adams peered ahead in 1979 into the multimedia future he correctly foresaw for his work, he was probably the first major artist to take a full-on multi-channel approach. And he already had an acute sense of the different dynamics of these different media.
‘We’re doing the telly next year, but I haven’t got very far with that yet. We’ll start serious thinking about how we’re going to do it at the end of this year. It’s very important that it looks as extraordinary as it sounded, and it mustn’t look like Dr Who or Blake’s Seven. All I have is a very vague visual sense about it, in the way that I started out with a vague audio sense about how Hitchhiker’s should be. We’ve got to work that through.
‘And I think a film will have to be totally different again. Moving from radio to television, you can take most of the words with you. When you move on to the big screen, you have to start leaving some of the words behind and filling the gap visually, because film is primarily a visual medium. It becomes a different thing. I wasn’t certain that could be done until I saw the stage show.
‘That was very different. It was fairly ramshackle, because it was put together on no budget at all, very, very fast. It was done by Ken Campbell who is totally wonderful. He’s not interested in doing anything that’s possible to do – the possible doesn’t interest him. The show was 90 minutes long and based on three hours of material, so a lot of the words went, but it still worked. It was a totally different thing from the radio, but it worked very well. So it made me think “We can do this on film.”‘
In fact, of course, the film version saw many false dawns before finally reaching the screen in 2005, four years after Douglas’s untimely death. But his original vision of radio, books, records, TV and film, all built round carefully adapted and redeveloped versions of the Hitchhiker’s saga, has largely come to pass. The opera and ballet versions are surely on their way, sooner or later.
For Douglas, the infinite possibilities and the practical difficulties of getting material written and meeting deadlines sat uncomfortably alongside each other.
‘Occasionally, I get a glimpse and think “This can go on for ever.” And then I get bogged down on the very next sentence.’ ‘Occasionally, I get a glimpse and think “This can go on for ever – it’ll be terrific.” And then I get bogged down on the very next sentence.
‘Tennessee Williams would get up in the morning and sit by his pool all day, armed with two bottles of Old Granddad, marinating in the sun until 11pm, when he’d suddenly write furiously for 25 minutes. He said his whole life was dedicated to doing anything he could to get rid of those 12 hours a day when he didn’t do anything at all. I understand that. I find the business of getting up in the morning and going to the typewriter absolutely awful.
‘And when the idea comes, I often can’t remember where it came from. I remember very little about writing the first series of Hitchhiker’s. It’s almost as if someone else wrote it.’