The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, is a wholly remarkable series– more popular than the Celestial Home Care Omnibus, better selling than Fifty-Three More Things to Do in Zero Gravity, and more controversial than Oolon Colluphid’s trilogy of philosophical blockbusters Where God Went Wrong, Some More of God’s Greatest Mistakes, and Who is this God Person Anyway?
To tell the story of the series, in all its various forms across radio, literature, a TV series, several stage shows, a video game, comic books, trading cards and even a movie, it’s perhaps best to start with the original radio series where it all began…
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was an idea dreamt up by ape descendant, Douglas Adams. The story goes that he was nineteen-years-old laying drunk in a field in Austria, clutching ‘A Hitchhiker’s Guide to Europe’ and gazing up at the cosmos. ‘Someone should make a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ he thought to himself.
Adams, along with BBC Radio producer, Simon Brett, pitched the series to the BBC back in 1977. Douglas Adams had experienced previous successes writing sketches for TV and radio, most notably for Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Graham Chapman had spotted Adams at a Footlights Revue, after which they briefly wrote together.
A sketch entitled, ‘Patient Abuse’ was included in the final series of Python while another, ‘Marilyn Monroe’ appeared on the Soundtrack Album of Monty Python and The Holy Grail. They also wrote a sketch show pilot together with Bernard McKenna in 1975 called ‘Out of the Trees’, which just so happened to star Simon Jones. The series was never commissioned but is notable for its Python style sketches, especially this one: ‘The Severance of a Peony’.
However, after these initial successes, work had started to dry up for Douglas Adams. He took various odd jobs whilst he continued to submit sketches to the BBC, and occasionally wrote again with Graham Chapman. According to Wikipedia these jobs included: Hospital porter, Barn Builder, Chicken Shed Cleaner and a Bodyguard to the Qatari family of oil tycoons.
The original pitch for the Hitchhiker’s radio series was called ‘The Ends of the Earth’ a six-part series of self-contained stories where the Earth was destroyed, although each time for a completely different reason. While writing the show, Adams soon realised that he’d need some sort of linking element to connect all the different stories together, so he came up with the concept of an alien who was researching ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ and as he wrote the script he realised that a continuing story surrounding the researcher of the guide might actually be better. He also brought John Lloyd on board as co-writer for the final two episodes of the series.
At the time, Douglas Adams had reservations about using the medium of radio to tell his story. He felt that its audience might have been ‘too conservative’ at the time for a sci-fi comedy series. The BBC were also a little tentative, so a one-off pilot was commissioned before a full series was embarked upon (as far as I’m aware this pilot wasn’t released).
However, almost straight after reviewing the pilot the BBC commissioned a full series. Adams was very clear about how he wanted the series to sound, he said this of trying to orchestrate the series:
“Though it was now ten years since Sgt. Pepper had revolutionised the way that people in the rock world thought about sound production, it seemed to me, listening to radio comedy at the time, that we still hadn’t progressed much beyond Door Slam A, Door Slam B, Footsteps on a Gravel Path and the odd comic Boing…. I wanted Hitch-Hiker’s to sound like a rock album. I wanted the voices and effects and the music to be so seamlessly orchestrated as to create a coherent picture of a whole other world – and I said this and many similar sorts of things and waved my hands around a lot, while people nodded patiently and said “Yes, Douglas, but what’s it actually about?”
Ironically, what Hitchhiker’s is actually about has become one of the most instantly recognisable plot lines in popular culture. Arthur Dent wakes up one Thursday morning to find a group of workmen are attempting to knock down his home in order to make way for a new by-pass.
So, to prevent this from happening he commits himself to lying in front of their bulldozer in the mud. Little does Arthur realise however, that in mere moments planet Earth in its entirety is going to be destroyed to make way for a new hyperspace by-pass.
This famous opening with the hapless Arthur happy to completely degrade himself, still with an air of self-righteousness is ingenious because it tells us exactly who Arthur is and what he’s all about instantly, a characterisation that could have taken up many scenes takes only a few seconds. Adams wrote the radio series with Simon Jones and Geoffrey McGivern in mind for the parts of Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect. Simon Jones recalled that Douglas Adams telephoned him one morning to ask him if he’d ‘play himself’ in a new series he was working on. Although Douglas Adams clarified that he didn’t really mean that Simon Jones has exactly the same personality as Arthur, he did write the part to play to his strengths as an actor.
It’s hard to imagine anyone else playing Arthur Dent other than Simon Jones with his devastatingly deadpan delivery. He became the face of the series (albeit playing the character mainly on radio) and has continued to play Arthur Dent periodically for the past forty years.
Geoffrey McGivern’s casting as Ford Prefect, Arthur’s optimistic, hitchhiking companion was also a similar ‘no-brainer’ for Douglas Adams. Simon Jones commented in a Hitchhiker’s fan interview that ‘Geoff is just like his character.’ While Geoff added:
"The description of Ford Prefect in the first book was read by my father who said “That’s you when you were 21” and Douglas did once say that I could talk for half an hour about a new pair of shoes, so there are some similarities between me and an alien being!" Geoff also voiced ‘Deep Thought’ the computer that successfully calculated the meaning of life, the universe and everything as 42.
Peter Jones, the iconic voice of ‘The book’ was cast after a three-month long search for someone who sounded like Peter Jones, until someone came up with the idea of simply asking Peter Jones himself. Zaphod was played by Mark Wing-Davey who also retained his role in the 1981 TV series, while Susan Sheridan took the role of Trillian.
Stephen Moore portrayed Marvin – The Paranoid Android. Interestingly, Douglas Adams said he based the character on fellow comedy writer, Andrew Marshall, (who most famously wrote 2point4 Children).
Marvin was even called Marshall in the original draft, but it was changed in case it offended him. Douglas Adams also added that the character was inspired by other famous literary depressives, such as A. A. Milne’s Eeyore or Jacques in Shakespeare’s As You Like It and even cited his own depression as an influence.
Another memorable computer, who in my opinion doesn’t get the love he deserves, (overshadowed as he is by the vast popularity of Marvin) is Eddie – The Shipboard Computer who was played by David Tate. Douglas Adams described David Tate as ‘one of the backbones of the series’ as he lent his voice to many other side characters in the show. To me, there’s something really lovable about Eddie and his chirpy American optimism, and the fact that he annoys the crew just as much as Marvin proves that the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation really couldn’t get anything right.
The theme tune to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was not in fact composed for the series, it was a track from the 1975 Eagles album ‘One of These Nights’ although some believe that it was so perfectly suited to being the theme for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that it must have been originally composed for the series by The Eagles who then promptly lost the demo tape when it fell through a freak wormhole landing a few years prior to the series, where it fell back into the hands of the 70’s rock band, who then unknowingly fulfilled their destiny and included it on their album anyway – thus saving the bother of any of that happening in the first place. This of course, is a load of Dingo’s kidneys!
The cult success of the radio series inspired Douglas Adams to write a novelisation of the series. The BBC had apparently passed up on publishing it themselves, it was a decision they must have come to bitterly regret as worldwide the book titled: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has sold over 14 million copies since its publication in 1979. The book doesn’t differ much in comparison to the radio series in terms of the core story, but it ends in a different place, just after the gang had escaped from Frankie and Benji and the cops and are heading for The Restaurant at the end of the Universe.
Such was the popularity of the radio series that it went on to win numerous awards and was re-released as an LP, which had re-recorded elements, but again was almost identical to the radio series. Various stage adaptations had also almost immediately gone into production. It was an instant hit.
But, the truly amazing thing about the first radio series and the book is that despite being forty-years-old they’ve barely dated at all. Of course, there are a few references that may not be quite as obvious as they once were, Ford Prefect’s name, for example, is now ironically more associated with the character than the car. However, the satire the Guide’s entries offer is timeless – take the opening passage from the book:
"Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-two million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea. This planet has – or rather had – a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy. And so the problem remained; lots of the people were mean, and most of them were miserable, even the ones with digital watches."
You could probably change ‘digital watches’ to ‘Apple watches’ and you’d have a perfect piece of satire for 2020 (although, Douglas Adams may have objected to that as he was an early fan of Apple Computers). Still, It’s that sort of perpetual social commentary that has led to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’s enduring popularity over the years. It really is a wholly remarkable book…
Next time we’ll continue our chronological look at The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy with the second radio series, along with Douglas Adam’s follow up book to his first best-seller – The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. But in the meantime, enjoy this charming video of Simon Jones unboxing the recently re-released Hitchhiker’s Guide series on vinyl:
Information collected from https://douglasadams.eu/the-original-radio-series/, Wikipedia, and the BBC website. Previously published on The Comedy Blog.
Written by Rhianna Evans