The Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy’s original cast are back together, reviving their much-missed friend’s “concept album” for a show premiering in Glasgow. By Susan Mansfield
IT IS NOW 35 years since a group of young actors sat in a BBC studio and recorded the pilot for a radio comedy series the likes of which no-one had ever heard. Adventures in space were spliced with down-to-earth humour, madcap twists and futuristic technology. Programme planners were baffled. None the wiser after several readings, they handed the scripts to producer Simon Brett with the instruction: “If you think it’s funny, you do it.”
From these humble beginnings came The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams’s cult radio series, soon to become a bestselling novel. There were albums and audiobooks, a TV series, a computer game and four further novels (though he continued to refer to the series as a “trilogy”). Phrases which started life as jokes found their way into common usage. People all over the world began to chuckle knowingly at the number 42.
Now, for the first time in its original form, the story will be told on stage, by the same actors who sat in that studio 35 years ago. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Radio Show - Live!, which has its world premiere in Glasgow next week, has been adapted by Dirk Maggs, who worked with Adams until his death in 2001. All the old favourites: are included: Marvin the Paranoid Android, Babel Fish, the Infinite Improbability Drive and even the occasional Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster.
Simon Jones, who was recruited by Adams himself to play Arthur Dent, says they realised the potential for a live show when the original line-up of himself, Geoffrey McGivern, Susan Sheridan and Mark Wing-Davey gave a live performance at “Hitch-con”, organised to mark the book’s 30th anniversary.
“There were 2,000 people who’d come from all over Europe, all wearing dressing gowns and waving towels above their heads, it was like a rock concert. Marvin the Paranoid Android went out and said, ‘I want you to know I’m feeling very depressed,’ and the audience went mad.”
Dirk Maggs agrees: “The audience were mouthing the words along with the actors. It was a bit like The Rocky Horror Show without the suspenders. At that point we knew we could do this. Douglas hadn’t written it for a live audience, we didn’t know if people would laugh, but they did, it was genuinely funny.”
The show, which will tour the UK until July, promises robots, audiovisual trickery and a live band, not to mention celebrity guest appearances, including Billy Boyd (at the Glasgow performances), Terry Jones, Neil Gaiman, Phill Jupitus, Roger McGough and others.
“Douglas called Hitchhiker’s his concept album,” says Maggs. “What’s rather fun is that now we can give him the rock concert. His three passions musically were The Beatles, Pink Floyd and JS Bach, and I think we’ve managed to get them all in – the music is fantastic.”
The radio show format provides the opportunity to mix old and new technology: analogue sound effects will be produced live using umbrellas, soggy tissues and thunder drums, but – paying tribute to Adams’ love of technology – audiences at every show will have the chance to download a recording of the performance they have just seen. The team hopes the show will appeal not only to diehard fans but to those just discovering the series.
Maggs, a former BBC producer, faced the unenviable task of shaping material from all five Hitchhiker’s books into an evening’s theatre.
“Douglas would be the first to admit that he was full of ideas but actually working out a plot to string them all together wasn’t his strong suit. I know for an audience the story has got to make sense. I always try to stay true to his original vision, and even where I’ve had to add or slightly tailor things to fit, I’m struck by how much of Douglas is still coming through - he was a genius, his work endures.”
McGivern, who plays Ford Prefect, believes the secret of the series’ appeal lies in the clever mix of the mundane and the intergalactic. “There are a lot of bizarre things happening but they are grounded, it’s really about the irritations of everyday life, the stuff we all have to put up with. It’s very human as well, it’s not just whizz-bang ideas. It was fascinating to be on the sidelines watching a cult grow and grow. This was pre-internet, people passed it by word of mouth because it spoke to them.”
The readiness of the original cast to reassemble for a five-week tour illustrates the regard in which they hold Adams. They speak fondly of his unending struggle with deadlines, confined to a hotel room by a publisher, with an assistant on hand to fax each completed page to the printer as soon as it left the typewriter; or feverishly writing the end of a radio script while the cast recorded the beginning in the room next door.
All recall his fiendish polymath intelligence (“Brain the size of a planet,” says McGivern, quoting Marvin) and his knack in anticipating the future, whether in the growing power of big corporations, global warming or the development of hand-held technology.
Simon Jones says: “What is the Hitchhiker’s Guide – this talking book – but an iPhone or iPad? Small coincidence that he was a friend of Steve Jobs – I don’t know who gave who the idea first. The real pity is that Douglas isn’t here to see where it has all gone, because he would have loved all this.”
• The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Radio Show - Live is at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, 8-9 June. The tour finishes in Edinburgh at the Playhouse on 21 July. For more information see www.hitchhikerslive.com
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