The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a constantly evolving beast; it’s been a BBC radio programme, a ‘trilogy’ of five novels, a TV show and a film. More recently, Hitchhiker’s came full circle by returning to radio... on stage.
RadioTimes.com caught the opening night of this year’s Hitchhiker’s radio show tour at London’s Hackney Empire, and found it an ecstatically weird experience; with actors standing script-in-hand, reading into mics while Douglas Adams’ mind-boggling creations are brought to life around them. At one point, a sperm whale crashes towards the ground, the noise of its doomed fall conjured up from wobble-boards and old rope. RadioTimes.com spoke to the show’s director, Dirk Maggs, to find out more.
The Hackney Empire performance received a standing ovation – surely this means the tour’s going well? “It’s great. [But] we’ve only had three shows, so it’s sort of bedding in still. There’s timing, niceties of timing, which in comedy is all-important.” Maggs is a notorious perfectionist. While working on Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere for Radio 4, he spent weeks creating separate footstep tracks for each of Neverwhere’s numerous characters, just to make sure their personality was reflected in their walk.
For the Hitchhiker’s show, Maggs has a remarkably hands-on approach; not content with script-writing and directing, he also plays drums in the onstage band and creates most of the live sound effects. “I want to make sure we always stay as true as we can to Douglas’s vision...I don’t want it to become too cheap and cheesy.” Being on the spot, and making sure that it stays on track, he explains, is part of the reason for getting stuck in. But it’s also down to his personal connection with the cast: “It’s a family. We’re all mates... If this were a just a cast of people playing parts that we’ve hired them in to do, I wouldn’t be so involved. But everyone in this show was in one of the radio series... so as far as possible everyone on the stage has a personal connection with Hitchhiker’s and therefore Douglas. It’s really a labour of love for me.”
His passion is understandable. Maggs was chosen by Douglas Adams to finish the radio series shortly before Adams’ death in 2001, so Maggs has been immersed in Hitchhiker’s for more than a decade. He is, you might say, a hoopy frood who really knows where his towel is.
“Hitchhiker’s is such a unique creature. It’s – how can I put this? It’s an idea, rather than a story. The novels don’t really resolve at all, even the last novel – the last ending can hardly be called an ending. And Douglas said to me that he felt there was more yet to come. He was rather sorry that he’d ended it rather dramatically as he did in book five... [So] when I’ve inserted material, [it’s] in order to make a plot – because there really isn’t a plot in Hitchhiker’s, and for the purposes of an audience who don’t know it, we really do need a story.”
Surprisingly, much of the material comes from Adams’ later work: “Last year I was evangelising on behalf of the last three books, which I think are brilliant, and i think are often overlooked. There are Hitchhiker’s fans who think that the first two books were the end of Hitchhiker’s and they weren’t. Douglas’s ability didn’t fade with time – it grew. I think Mostly Harmless is the best book of the series.”
Are there any brilliant scenes which didn’t quite make it in? “Oh yes. There’s one in particular. Marvin vs The Frogstar Robot. It’s in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. Marvin is confronted with this huge robot, that’s been told to destroy him and everyone else, and basically Marvin talks it into not doing that. It’s a lovely scene, like ‘talking the bomb out of exploding’ on Dark Star. It’s this moment when Marvin becomes this implacable and extremely depressing force.”
Might fans be annoyed about missing their favourite parts? “We’re offering a lighter version, where we’re not missing anything out that we feel is particularly important. There’s still the voice, there are still serious passages about the existence of God. But we’re there to entertain a public, many of whom won’t know Hitchhiker’s... We’re not pretending that this is everything Hitchhiker’s was, we’re just saying, 'Isn’t this wonderful! Aren’t these concepts funny! Now go off and discover it for yourself, where they really belong, in the radio series, or in the book.'” Why those versions, specifically? “Because your imagination is brought into play, whereas the television series and the film... I mean, for all the hard work that went into them...” He trails off with a sigh. “They have their virtues. I mean, they do have their virtues.”
I almost believe him, but it’s clear where Maggs’s loyalties lie: “I love radio. It’s sort of become my life... And radio lends itself beautifully to [the show], because we involve the audience in a completely different way. As an audience in a cinema, you’re a passive thing. You let it wash over you. And that’s great sometimes... But if you want to engage in something, and feel part of it, I think our show does actually carry this slightly special thing... because you’re part of the creation of it. The audience become the diners at the end of the universe. They become the population of earth as it’s blown up.”
Earlier this year, Maggs adapted another cult phenomenon – Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere – for Radio 4, introducing a new generation of fantasy fans to radio drama. I ask if it was written with a different audience in mind, and Maggs vehemently rejects the idea. “I’m not picking you up on this at all, when you say ‘a different kind of audience’... Audio drama, good audio drama, is as good as film. If I did anything with Neverwhere, it was the same thing I do with all my audio stuff, which is to turn it into a filmic experience.”
His tone softens when I ask about working with Gaiman: “Neil and I – we have two things in common. No, three, because both of us have got fairly epic hair. But Neil and I both came from the world of comic books... We know how the morality works. There is a wry humour in comics. You know, The Joker in Batman really should be a figure of horror, but he has a wicked sense of humour. There’s always a wink and a gag. So, I think that for Neverwhere... you can sell it as a serious idea – there are people being killed – but you can slip in a wry, dry gag somewhere. And it’s a technique to telling a story that you learn by doing comic books... I’ve actually been trying to sell a Neil project to Radio 4 since 1997. Thank God [BBC producer] Heather Larmour finally did it. She persuaded them to take a punt. It was funny to see it happen. Because the BBC, who’d only really experienced the joy of holding hands with ‘The Archers’, were suddenly given a full-blown orgasm. And I don’t think they even knew who Neil was.”
Maggs’ enthusiasm is infectious, and I struggle to get a word in edgeways. He skirts off into long, strikingly visual digressions, before leaping back to finish a sentence he started ten minutes earlier: “I have an approach to scriptwriting which is very cinematic... a lot of radio writing is along theatrical lines, and to me – well, the techniques have sort of moved on. If you imagine that a story, from beginning to end, is like a stretch of terrain in the Lake District; it’s a valley through which a river runs, and you see various animals and plants and flowers and trees and dramatic events happen as you walk the riverbank, that’s one way of telling a story, but it’s a very longwinded way. But if you’re on the cliffs overlooking that valley, leaping from crag to crag, you’ll move much more quickly. You pick out the highlights and you really make sure that you’re taking the essence of the piece... it’s a way of telling a story where we don’t let the countryside get in the way of moving the plot...
"And the third point –” I’m lost. The third point? “The third point about Neil and I, which is quite interesting in light of Hitchhiker’s, is that we’re both protégés of Douglas.” How so? “Because Douglas sort of encouraged Neil to go into writing. And it was Douglas phoning my boss, asking if I was available to finish Hitchhiker’s on the radio, that got me doing what I’m doing today. So we have to go back to Douglas and thank him a bit, I think.”