We cannot be certain what spooky convergence of planetary alignment and destiny was at work on a rather dull Wednesday in March 1978; but something happened that would have a seismic effect on the Earth’s population. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was broadcast for the first time.
It took off like a Grebulon megacruiser. By the third episode, four publishers were battling for the rights. The radio shows and books spawned a TV series, album, video game, feature film, stage shows, T-shirts and towels bearing the words “Don’t Panic” that appeared on the original Guide.
Fifteen million books were sold worldwide in 30 languages. Readers hitherto indifferent to sci-fi became familiar with Arthur Dent, Ford Prefect, Trillian and the two-headed Zaphod Beeblebrox, and with heady innovations such as the Infinite Improbability Drive and brain-numbing Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster.
Douglas Adams wrote five novels, before dying of a heart attack in 2001, aged only 49. In 2008, to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the first radio series, his widow, Jane Belson, commissioned Eoin Colfer, the Artemis Fowl author, to write a sequel.
It was called And Another Thing… and carries the cast into new adventures involving Norse gods, while maintaining the sprightliness of Adams’s quintet.
Ten years on, as Radio 4 airs the sixth series of Hitchhiker (Hexagonal Phase), I met the show’s scriptwriter-producer Dirk Maggs at his Winchester home, together with John Lloyd, the UK’s most successful producer of TV comedy (from Blackadder to QI), who plays the voice of The Book in the new series.
Lloyd knew Adams at Cambridge University. Was his genius detectable then? “If genius means not being like anyone else, yes. If everyone was sitting on a chair, he’d be hanging from a lightbulb. He wrote sketches for the Footlights that were incredibly long, weird and brilliant.”
Adams and Lloyd shared a passion for sci-fi (especially the comedy-SF of Harry Harrison and Kurt Vonnegut) and wrote a radio pilot, Sno 7 and the White Dwarfs, but were told that SF was “very 1950s”.
After university, they shared flats in London. “We wanted to be writers. We used to go to Tootsies [restaurant], stay all afternoon, drink too much and cook up ideas for pilots and film scripts.”
Adams also collaborated with Graham Chapman, but success eluded him until 1977. “I remember the night we saw Stars Wars in Leicester Square,” says Lloyd. “I thought, ‘My God, everything’s turned a corner. SF is not only not 50s, it’s absolutely cutting edge.’ It vindicated what we’d been doing, especially Douglas.”
Adams began to write Hitchhiker while crashing on a friend’s sofa in Islington. “All the ways he’d tried to do science fiction, that couldn’t fit anywhere else, suddenly coalesced.”
“I kinda dismissed the first series as Doctor-Who-with-jokes,” says Maggs. “But when I was a trainee studio manager, on the night shift at Bush House, I listened again and had my mind blown.”
He was thrilled to hear, in 1992, that Adams had enjoyed his ground-breaking sound design on Radio 4’s The Adventures of Superman and Batman: The Lazarus Syndrome, and asked if he might like to produce the later Hitchhiker books for radio.
“I was already knocking on his door before he’d put the phone down.” They discussed how the shows might work, but nothing happened for years – until, ironically, Adams’s death. “All the original cast assembled for his memorial service. Digital editing was just coming of age. And we pitched the idea to the BBC.”
The radio versions of Life, the Universe and Everything, So Long, and Thanks for All The Fish and Mostly Harmless were high-spirited productions and sonically ambitious.
Along with the Hitchhiker “family” (Simon Jones, Geoffrey McGivern, Mark Wing-Davey, Sue Sheridan), many famous names guest-starred: Jonathan Pryce, Joanna Lumley, Christian Slater, Leslie Phillips, Saeed Jaffrey.
The tradition continues in the new series, which features Jim Broadbent as Marvin the gloomy android, Lenny Henry as the Consultant – and Sir Stephen Hawking (a long-term fan of the show) as the Hitchhiker’s Guide Mark 2.
It’s important to both Lloyd and Maggs that Douglas Adams wanted there to be a sixth book in the “trilogy.” In 1992 he told Maggs he regretted killing off all the characters at the end of Mostly Harmless without any hope of their regeneration. “He said, ‘I’d really like to write another book if I didn’t have to film Last Chance to See,’ ” says Maggs.
When he adapted the book for radio in 2005, Maggs took a slightly shocking liberty: he supplied a McGuffin, a means by which all the characters could escape death to live again.
“I thought it was an allowable liberty to end the book with several possible outcomes.” So the Hitchhiker phenomenon rolls on.
“I love the fact that kids are discovering Douglas’s work,” says Maggs. “When we toured the live show, families arrived in dressing-gowns and towels. I watched kids all over the auditorium falling about laughing.”
Where does Adams’s reputation stand today? As a great comic writer, or a 70s phenomenon given an afterlife by SF nerds? “I’ll answer that in two words,” said Maggs. “Elon Musk. When he launched the Falcon Heavy rocket on 7 February, it carried a Tesla Roadster with a dummy spaceman at the wheel and the words ‘DON’T PANIC’ on the dashboard. Musk is a fan. Hitchhiker is currently in orbit around our solar system…”
By John Walsh
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is on Thursday 8th March at 6.30pm on BBC Radio 4