Originally posted on The Unpleasant Lair Of Spank The Monkey 13/10/2004. Reposted now because the radio show's producer, Dirk Maggs, has just adapted another one of Douglas Adams' books for the wireless.
A six-part dramatisation of Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency starts on Wednesday October 3rd at 6.30pm on BBC Radio 4, and each episode should be available via the above website for one week after its initial transmission. Most of my concerns with Maggs' adaptation of Hitch-Hiker stemmed from him trying to hammer a literary novel into a pre-defined audio format. As this one doesn't have to fit an established structure, maybe it'll be more successful. I hope so, anyway.
Typical. The most important announcement in human history is about to be made, and I'm going to miss it because I'm a fieldmouse.
To set the scene. It's a chilly November evening in 1978, the opening night of a Manchester school's production of Toad Of Toad Hall. And I'm about to make my debut on stage in the pivotal role of Second Fieldmouse. To be honest, I've fallen into the typical trap of first-time actors and built my performance around an overabundance of schtick - an incongruous Tom Robinson Band t-shirt under my duffle coat, some carefully worked out comedy singing, and the post-modern irony of basing my mouse ears on the classic Disney design (using a bent coat hanger and some cushion fabric). But it's my schtick, and I'm proud of it. And yet, my abiding memory of the first night concerns things that happened either side of my big scene.
Five minutes before I was due on, I was backstage huddled around a crackly transistor radio with most of the rest of the cast, listening to a show on Radio 4. Annoyingly, it was just getting to the interesting part, but I couldn't stay because I had to go on and do my bit. So it was down to Peter, who wouldn't be required in the production until the second act courtroom scene, to tell me the important news as soon as I'd returned from performing my just-too-sharp rendition of Good King Wenceslas.
"That's right. And now they've got to build another computer to find out what the question was."
And we both laughed like nutters.
Do people still do that? Treat a radio show - not sport or news or music, but spoken-word comedy - as an unmissable event? Because back then, my schoolmates and I were doing just that with The Hitch-Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy. In an age when radio comedy is pretty much a dying art, it's probably hard to appreciate just what an impact the show had. Even the loopy surrealism of The Burkiss Way - my other favourite from around the same time, the sketch show where writers Andrew '2 point 4 Children' Marshall and David 'One Foot In The Grave' Renwick learned their craft - wasn't all that different from any other comedy performed on the wireless in the preceding fifty years. For all the talk about painting pictures with words, you could never get away from the mental image of several people gathered around a microphone with scripts in their hands, talking in funny voices.
HHGTTG was different. Its writer, Douglas Adams, subsequently said in interviews that he was aiming for a radio show that had the sonic production values of a rock album. His timing was perfect: in 1978, people were just starting to cotton on to the idea of stereo FM radio, and nothing showed off your new music centre better than the sounds of interstellar spacecraft roaring across your soundstage. (Well, maybe Dark Side Of The Moon did, but this cost less.) It didn't hurt that at the same time, Star Wars mania was sweeping the planet, and the time was just about right for a gentle sendup of the cliches of space opera. Adams' genius was to marry two very different traditions, as embodied in his story's two lead characters - Ford Prefect (played by Geoffrey McGivern), a galactic traveller doing research for the Guide of the title, and his friend Arthur Dent (Simon Jones), a bumbling Earthman whose home planet is destroyed roughly ten minutes into episode one, a shock he never quite recovers from. It's the contrast between very English whimsy and widescreen sci-fi spectacle that gives HHGTTG a flavour all of its own.
Adams' saga has subsequently been told in a number of different media - novels, television, computer game, records, theatre, comics, and a movie which finally comes out in 2005. But since the second radio series was broadcast in 1980, people have been wondering if it would ever return to its home medium. And now, 24 years after its previous appearance on the wireless - and three years after the untimely death of Douglas Adams - the third, fourth and fifth novels of the HHGTTG 'trilogy' are being adapted for radio. Currently the third book, Life, The Universe and Everything, is being broadcast as the Tertiary Phase of HHGTTG, with the two remaining novels - So Long And Thanks For All The Fish and Mostly Harmless - scheduled to appear in 2005. At the time of writing only three of the six Tertiary Phase episodes have been broadcast so far, but I think that's enough to establish what works in these new adaptations - and, more importantly, what doesn't.
As I've said, in the seventies HHGTTG was sonically cutting-edge stuff, and so it was inevitable that Dirk Maggs would be the man to adapt and produce the new radio series. Maggs has already directed a number of fantasy and comicbook adaptations for radio, notably some of the big Batman and Superman stories of the nineties. Similar to Adams' desire to make radio comedy sound as good as Pink Floyd, Maggs has frequently said he wants to make radio that sounds cinematic: layering dialogue, effects and music in a way that you'd take for granted in your multiplex. I was nervous initially that his filmic approach would swamp the comedy, particularly on the evidence of a somewhat bombastic Real Audio trailer for the series. But for the most part, apart from a little more use of a music score than there was in the original, he's mostly kept it low key, keeping the showy-offy effects to a minimum. (He may well be saving those for a rumoured DVD-Audio version with 5.1 Dolby Digital surround sound.)
Maggs had a couple of major problems to deal with from the outset, when picking up a much-loved radio show like this after a 24-year layoff. One of them arises from the wild differences between the various versions of HHGTTG, notably between the radio series and the books. The nature of these differences, and the reasons for them, are far too complicated to go into here: but this is the result. As this is the third radio series, it would be logical to expect it to follow on directly from the end of the second one. But it's an adaptation of the third novel, whose predecessor ends in a similar fashion to the first radio series (having taken a very different route to get there). Bottom line: Maggs had to rewrite the story in such a way that it followed on directly from the end of the first radio series and the end of the second radio series at the same time. It's a logic problem that can only have one solution, and it's the one Maggs chose: pretending the entire second series didn't happen. More precisely, treating it as a paranoid hallucination in the mind of Zaphod Beeblebrox (Mark Wing-Davey), the part-time President and galactic gadabout who was one of the most popular characters in the show. It's a decision which has been regarded unfavourably in some quarters: but given that Zaphod was eaten by a hyper-evolving creature at the end of the first series, only to return at the start of the second claiming he'd survived because the creature had subsequently evolved into an escape capsule, I don't think Adams could complain about its implausibility.
The other obstacle Maggs had to overcome was the death of Peter Jones, who quite literally was the Guide, or at least its voice in the original radio shows. Jones was a veteran of radio comedy for decades prior to HHGTTG, and his delivery of the narration was pitch-perfect. The key note he struck was one of authority and urbane knowledge, but at the same time there was a reassuring undertone of what-the-hell?-ness which convinced you that deep down, the Guide was just as confused by the nature of the universe as you were. For this series he's been replaced by William Franklyn, who can play authoritative and urbane brilliantly - I'm old enough to remember him doing just that in the Schweppes drink adverts. He's had some great moments in the series so far, notably the exquisitely timed pause in his description of a cathedral literally airbrushed out of existence by the abuse of time travel: "postcards of the cathedral became extremely valuable... and blank". But I miss the sense of uncertainty that Jones brought to the role: sadly, Franklyn's Guide always seems to be completely sure of what he's talking about.
But most of the rest of the cast have been reassembled for the new production, so we can finally get down to talking about the actual story: which starts with Arthur and Ford stranded on prehistoric earth, as we left them at the end of, um, whenever. Happily for them, this situation is quickly resolved when a sudden fluctuation in the space-time continuum catapults them forward two million years. Unhappily, it dumps them in the middle of Lords Cricket Ground, just two days before the earth was due to be demolished anyway. Even more unhappily, they find that the match they've interrupted has a somewhat unexpected ending: a spaceship containing eleven white-suited robots lands, blows up most of Lords, and runs off with the Ashes.
Fortunately, their old chum Slartibartfast (Richard Griffiths, taking over from the late Richard Vernon) is on hand to explain what's just happened. It transpires that the Earth game of cricket has evolved over millions of years from a sordid element of galactic history: the Krikkit Wars. When the peace-loving, tuneful people of the planet of Krikkit suddenly discovered that they were not alone in the universe, their immediate reaction was to declare war on everyone else in it. After eons of long and bloody battle, their planet was locked away inside a temporal anomaly that could only be opened from the outside by a five-section key. Trouble is, someone now knows where those five sections are. The resulting quest for the key will also encompass Zaphod, drunk and alone on the Heart Of Gold starship: Trillian (Susan Sheridan), who's finally escaped the gravitational pull of Zaphod's ego and set off on her own: and the robot Marvin (Stephen Moore), who's been spending far too long conversing with a mattress.
Even though there's much here that's changed in the last 24 years, it's all been handled with sensitivity and imagination to keep the spirit of the original show. (The best example of this is the first appearance of the Guide, which blends recordings of both Jones and Franklyn to give the impression that the change in voice is down to a simple technical cock-up.) And everyone's doing their best to make it work, in memory of its late creator. So why is the whole thing vaguely unsatisfying after three episodes? Personally, I think people might be being just a little bit too reverential to the source material.
For a start, Life, The Universe and Everything never really felt like a proper part of the HHGTTG canon (although to some extent, the same could also be said about its two follow-ups). Look in the appendix of Neil Gaiman's biography of Douglas Adams, Don't Panic, and you'll discover why that is: initially, the tale of the Krikkitmen was going to be a Doctor Who story. Adams wrote it as an outline when he was working as the show's script editor, and subsequently reworked it when he had to write a HHGTTG novel in three weeks because of his usual cavalier attitude to deadlines. If you revisit the novel or the radio series with that knowledge in mind, the references to key HHGTTG characters and catchphrases suddenly feel shoehorned in: and that's because they were. It's most notable with the appearance of Slartibartfast, a coastline designer who's shown no desire in the past to get involved in saving the world. Presumably, he was the only wise old character Adams could think of at the time to replace the role of The Doctor. This sleight of hand just about works in the novel, but transplanted back to radio it becomes all too apparent - somehow we know what HHGTTG should sound like on radio, and this sounds wrong.
Adams wrote the first two series specifically for radio, and used all the devices of the medium to make both the fantasy and the jokes work. Any visual information the listener required was conveyed by having two characters talk to each other in natural dialogue about it: that sort of thing. Notoriously, a couple of lines thrown in for cheap comic effect turned into huge budget-gobbling nightmares in the TV version, like the one about Zaphod having two heads. But when Adams wrote Life, The Universe and Everything it was a novel from the start, and he used the totally different devices associated with the novel: a third person narrator, lengthy descriptive passages, and so on. And these are proving to be as difficult to reproduce on radio as Zaphod's second head was on TV: because Maggs is trying to keep as much of Adams' text as he can, and not doing it terribly well. The description of the Krikkit spaceship making a noise like 100,000 people suddenly saying "wop" is entertaining enough on the page, but for it to work on radio someone has to say that description as dialogue, and it just sounds clumsy. Actually, it's worse than that: it's said as monologue, because frequently in this series characters are stranded on their own, and Maggs has to make them talk out loud to themselves about what they're seeing to make the story work.
And there seems to be a lot of story: the three parts broadcast to date have been ludicrously overloaded with exposition. Episode one had to retcon a whole season out of existence before it could get started properly, while episode three required Arthur and Ford to spend most of it being lectured about the Krikkit Wars. Sure, when we were listening on the opening night of Toad Of Toad Hall, there was a fair amount of exposition to be got through in that episode as well, setting up the mythology of the Ultimate Answer and the Ultimate Question. But there were jokes too. And that's the biggest problem I have with this series - I'm reasonably entertained by it as a narrative, and enjoying hearing the return of some old favourite characters, but... well... I'm not laughing very much. Maybe my sense of humour's changed in the last (I can't believe I'm about to type this next bit) quarter of a century. Maybe the attempt at converting a book to a radio series is as inevitably doomed as the translation of the radio series to TV was. Maybe it's simply lost something in the adaptation, though I'd personally rule that last one out: this is obviously a labour of love for all concerned, and both cast and techies are giving it their all. But it doesn't quite work for me, and that's a shame after waiting this long.
Still, I'm going to be listening for the rest of the run. And we've got the adaptations of the last two books to follow in 2005, which could be interesting as they're more obviously flawed. So Long And Thanks For The Fish is an urban love story roughly battered into the shape of science fiction, obviously a consequence of Adams meeting his long-term partner Jane Belson at the time he wrote it. And Mostly Harmless, though a more traditional science-fiction tale, climaxes with possibly the most mean-spirited fuck-you-you're-not-getting-another-one-after-this ending an author's ever presented to his fanbase. (At least until Thomas Harris wrote Hannibal, apparently to announce to the world that they were idiots for wanting another Hannibal Lecter book.) They're both books with problems, and it's possible that Maggs may have to be less reverent to the text, and monkey around more with the material to make it work on radio. And I suspect, in the end, that's exactly what he needs to do. But then I would say that. Being a monkey, and all.
The BBC are justly proud of their involvement with HHGTTG since its inception, and so it's got a very chunky presence on their servers. There's a Radio 4 microsite for the new series, which among other things is the place where latecomers can go (if they hurry) and listen to streamed copies of the episodes for seven days only after their broadcast - including an experimental stream of the 5.1 surround sound mix, if your machine's up to it. (And if you've missed them, don't worry, they're being released on CD on October 25th.) The site also includes a jazzed-up version of the classic HHGTTG adventure game - it was available as a simple text adventure in the mid-1980s, and they've just tweaked the user interface a bit. Cheats can find a solution for it here, but when it's so much fun finding out all the funny things lying in wait when you get it wrong, why would you need one?
H2G2, meanwhile, is a website initially set up by Douglas Adams himself, but taken over by the BBC when his dot.com went tits.up after a couple of years. It's an attempt to replicate the idea of the Guide on the internet, with people submitting articles on any aspect of human knowledge that takes their fancy. (True story: I was registered as a user on H2G2 back in its Adams days, and had to re-register when the BBC took it over. They told me that the username Spank The Monkey breached the Beeb's taste and decency guidelines, and that I had to go away now. Never been back.)
Above The Title Productions is the independent production company that's making The Tertiary, Quadrenary and Quintessential Phases, and naturally they have a HHGTTG component to their website too. It includes a very nice video clip about the making of the new series, in the form of a 10.4Mb Quicktime file.
Douglas Adams' homepage still persists to this day, despite the regrettable absence of its owner.
Planet Magrathea [dead link - actually, there's a story behind that, albeit an atrociously formatted one] is an excellent fan site run by MJ Simpson, who's written what's generally accepted to be the best Douglas Adams biography on the market, Hitchhiker. If anything Adams-related happens anywhere on the planet, MJ will have a report on the news page before the day's out.
ZZ9 Plural Z Alpha is the official appreciation society for Douglas Adams and his works. I was a member years and years ago: they're a very nice bunch of people, prone to drinking in pubs while carrying towels. They've been known to get some interesting guests at their nights out, too.
alt.fan.douglas-adams is the newsgroup dedicated to the discussion of the man's work. And as if to perpetrate the stereotype of what consititutes your average Douglas Adams fan, have a look at this discussion of Mostly Harmless, which pre-dates the publication of the book itself: i.e. these are Douglas Adams fans who had internet access in 1992. How many of us even knew what it was back then?
The Hitch-Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy: The Motion Picture should be hitting our screens in the summer of 2005. The website has been up since the early days of production, and doubtless will get even more interesting as the release date approaches.
Zaphod Beeblebrox [dead link]. He was once President of the Galaxy: some of his Swedish mates think that his Presidential skills would be better employed elsewhere.