Sohemian Society: lateral thinking and how to steal a book in 1960s London

Last night, I went to one of the Sohemian Society’s increasingly prestigious and increasingly jam-packed meetings.

It was a talk by Barry Miles, there to plug his book In The Sixties. I remember him for his column in hippy newspaper International Times. Not a man who should be forgotten.

I blogged about him (also at the Sohemian Society) back in 2011.

The Sohemian Society billed last night’s event thus:

At the beginning of the sixties Barry Miles was at art school in Cheltenham; at the end he was running the Beatles’ Zapple label and living in New York’s legendary Chelsea Hotel. This is the story of what happened in between.

In the Sixties is a memoir by one of the key figures of the British counterculture. A friend of Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, Miles helped to organise the 1965 Albert Hall poetry reading. He co-founded and ran the Indica Bookshop, the command centre for the London underground scene, and he published Europe’s first underground newspaper, International Times (IT), from Indica’s basement.

Miles’s partners in Indica were John Dunbar, then married to Marianne Faithfull, and Peter Asher (brother of Jane Asher). Through Asher, Miles became closely involved with the Beatles, particularly Paul McCartney, and In the Sixties is full of intimate glimpses of the Beatles at work and play. Other musicians who appear  include the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Leonard Cohen and Frank Zappa. This is the real story of the 1960s, from the inside.

The old Foyles building at 111-119 Charing Cross Road, London (Photograph by Tarquin Binary)

One of Miles’ more inconsequential yet fascinating memories was of Foyles Bookshop in London and an enterprising person he knew.

The old Foyles building in Charing Cross Road was a labyrinthine collection of books, arranged not logically by subject but confusingly by publisher and there was a Byzantine system of buying a book (if you could find it) involving two, possibly three, separate members of staff in different locations, so punters were meandering all over the place, books in hand, with no check on what, where or why.

In addition to the bizarrely arranged publisher sections, there was a Second Hand Books section and a Rare Books section.

If you were enterprising, as Miles’ acquaintance was, you could pick up several books from the Second Hand section and take them to the Rare Books section and sell Foyles’ own books back to them, all without leaving the shop.

It is lateral thinking and enterprising amorality like this that built us an Empire and makes me proud to be British.

1 Comment

Filed under 1960s, Nostalgia

“The Secret Service” – Sometimes even a Gerry Anderson series was too weird

Yesterday’s blog described some of the oddities of Gerry Anderson’s bizarre part-puppet/part-live-action series The Secret Service starring both the real gobbledegook-talking Stanley Unwin and a puppet version of him, shot in 1968 and screened in 1969.

Here is the concluding part of the article which I wrote about it for Marvel Comics’ science fantasy magazine Starburst in 1980.

With such an out-of-the-ordinary series, it was felt that the music, too, should be something special. Composer Barry Gray told me that Gerry Anderson was originally very keen to have a title song similar to the then-popular Swingle Singers style.

So Barry “dashed over to France and got a meeting with Ward Swingle and his agent, who both spoke very poor English — as bad as my poor French — and I got a financial quote from them which I hastily phoned through to Gerry and everything was all set. I was going to sign the thing on our company’s behalf when I said to (Swingle), “Now, this is the rights for the world – tout le monde?”

And he said, “OhI Non, non! Non! Angleterre seulement!” Only for the British Isles. And the price was (going to be) fantastic.

So we had to scrap that. On the plane coming back, I just got a little theme in the style of Bach and started to write and I’d near-enough written a three-part fugue by the time I’d got to Britain. Then I got The Mike Sammes Singers and they did a very good job on it.”

Barry Gray enjoyed what he saw of the series: “I liked it very much, because it was a tongue-in-cheek comedy. And you had a hell of a job to tell which was live-action and which was puppet. I liked the series. There was some reason why it was only shown on ATV in the Midlands. (In fact, it was also screened in the Granada and Southern ITV regions.) I think there was some trouble with the other (ITV) contractors. I don’t know the story.”

Shane Rimmer (the voice of Scott Tracey in Thunderbirds and a long-time Anderson associate) wrote one the the Secret Service episodes. He told me he thought maybe it was a bit too bizarre. There was the not-so-small matter of Stanley Unwin’s famous gobbledegook speech – Unwinese.

Ironically, that is what first attracted Gerry Anderson to the project.

Gerry Anderson at Pinewood Studios, 1979

“I chose Stanley Unwin,” Gerry told me in 1979, “because you are not supposed to understand Stanley Unwin, even if you’re British. I thought if the Americans don’t understand him either what’s the difference? But, once again, it was one of those things where the distributors killed the programme, not the audience.

“The audience might well have done – I wouldn’t pretend that it would have been a runaway success. But it was never given a chance. The American distributors saw the first couple of programmes and said, Ohhhh, my gawd! and – zonk – the whole thing was killed stone dead.”

Shane Rimmer says, “It was a bizarre idea. I don’t know if it really worked or not. I think the talking got everyone confused. I can’t understand what Stanley Unwin is saying when he’s talking straight!”

So how were the scripts written?

“Well,” Shane told me, “a lot of it you just had to leave to him. You have to give him a line of patter that’s going to work with what he does. At that time, they wanted a lot of olde English institutional things like old churchyards and pubs and Dartmoor inns and London Bridge and you just twisted the story into that. They were totally outlandish. I mean, they really were. They were (LAUGHS) very unbelievable a lot of the things. Because he was such a bizarre character, you felt you could really go all the way with him: you could practically do anything. But (LAUGHS) I think we went a bit too far.”

I asked Gerry Anderson why Lew Grade of ATV/ITC had backed such a strange concept as a series. “He did it because he trusted my judgement and I wanted to do it,” Anderson told me.

Gerry Anderson’s Century 21 studios in Stirling Road, Slough, in 1968. (Image from the first episode of The Secret Service)

When I asked art director Keith Wilson what the reaction to this strange format was among the staff at Gerry Anderson’s Century 21 studios, he told me: “We had a unique set-up when we were at Slough. It really was unique. We’d do one complete series and then we’d have a holiday and go straight on to the next series. We just went from one series to another. So, when it came to a series like that, it was just an extension (of what we’d done before).

“This was just another idea that Gerry and Sylvia had thought up. How are we going to do this one? You’re in that way of thinking anyway — you’re used to it. But The Secret Service, I think, (LAUGHS) did take a little longer to grasp.”

The Secret Service episode information file

I asked producer David Lane if the series was only supposed to run thirteen episodes or if it had been cancelled in mid-shoot. He told me he had never been  given a specific series length in advance.

“Basically,” he said, “the studio was going to close down anyway. The produce had got beyond its cost. There is a certain value which that kind of production has. Once it gets beyond that, they (TV companies) might as well buy something else.

“I know Lew Grade always wanted, really, to produce a show for £10,000. He did say to me once: Can you produce me a show for £10,000? to which I said No. Not the way the system was set up at Century 21. It wasn’t possible.

“Overheads were very heavy (there were about 200 people working at the Slough studios). I can’t remember what the programmes were costing towards the end, but it was something like £20,000 which was a lot of money for a half-hour children’s show at that time (1968-1969).”

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

“The Secret Service” – Gerry Anderson’s weirdest puppet/live action TV series

The ‘real’ Stanley Unwin starred in The Secret Service

Yesterday’s blog was a profile of eccentric British performer Stanley Unwinstar of Gerry Anderson’s very bizarre and mostly forgotten 1969 part-puppet/part-live-action series The Secret Service.

Here is the first half of a 1980 interview-based article about it which I wrote for Marvel Comics’ science fantasy magazine Starburst.

The real and the puppet Stanley Unwin drove a Model T Ford

The Secret Service is the story of an ordinary English country priest, Father Unwin, and his slow-thinking yokel gardener Matthew Harding. At least, to the casual observer, that’s what they appear to be. In reality, they are Secret Service agents working under orders from BISHOP (British Intelligence Service Headquarters, Operation Priest). The BISHOP personnel communicate with their operatives via Father Unwin’s hearing aid.

On special missions. Father Unwin and Matthew use a remarkable electronic device hidden in a book left in Unwin’s care by a late parishioner. The device can miniaturise a person or object to one-third life size – thus enabling super-agent Matthew to carry out daredevil missions which would be otherwise impossible.

Problematic miniaturised Matthew and his travel case

When Matthew has been miniaturised, Father Unwin carries him about in a specially-converted suitcase. The case has a chair and periscope so that Matthew can sit and watch the world go by. He can talk to Father Unwin through the hearing aid and has his own hearing aid for communication during missions.

This may seem a little strange.

The series becomes even more outlandish when you realise that it starred both the real ‘live’ Stanley Unwin and a Stanley Unwin puppet (made by Terry Curtis).

Although live-action hands had been used for close-ups in previous Gerry Anderson series, this was the first time that the team had used full live-action mixed with puppets. It was even more complicated because miniaturisation was an integral part of the plot.

Art director Keith Wilson explained to me: “The whole series had special problems because, when he (Matthew) was small, you had to have large sets. When he was large, you had to have small sets. When he was small, he was a puppet and everything else was real. But, when he wasn’t small, he was still a puppet and everything else was puppet sized.”

This was further complicated by the fact that, on location long-shots, the real Stanley Unwin was seen driving a real Model-T Ford. In close-ups, a puppet Unwin was seen driving a radio-controlled miniature model-T.

The miniature Model T Ford on a real road…

Gerry Anderson explains: “For example, we had sequences where the Model-T would drive – for real – into London Airport with Stanley Unwin driving. He would stop, get out and walk into this enormous (real) departure lounge and walk up to the desk. As he walked up to the desk, we would go bang into a close-up of the puppet and they were so cleverly matched, you couldn’t tell the difference.”

Keith Wilson agrees: “It did work. It was impossible to tell the difference.”

“We were able,” says Gerry Anderson, “to do all sorts of things that we weren’t previously able to do. Again, it was an endeavour to make the puppets appear to  be walking properly.”

Executive producer Reg Hill expanded on this to me: “All that happened was that, for certain areas you’d find difficult to do with puppets, we used live-action. It wasn’t a question of a live-action film with puppets or puppets with live-action. It was a question of using whichever was more advantageous at the time. In other words, they were complementary. For ages before, we had been using live hands for inserts, for the simple reason that you can’t get puppets to move their hands, to twiddle knobs or poke buttons. So we had been half the way there previously.”

ITC produced glossy promotions but the bizarre series failed to get a full ITV network screening in UK

Keith Wilson told me he thought the basic idea was “rather good” and Gerry Anderson used exactly the same words: “It was a rather good idea”.

When I talked to the show’s producer, David Lane, he agreed: “I thought it was ingenious,” he told me. “But it was a nightmare – an absolute nightmare – because of the different scales we were using. You can imagine the problems. You’re shrinking a puppet to puppet size on a puppet set and then you’re having to build it live-action size for the puppet because he’s supposed to be a small man in a full-sized environment. And then you’re using the ‘shrunken’ puppet in a normal set. I mean, it was a very, very complicated series. We had to work it out at script stage. It wasn’t always the director who worked it out – we had to work it out at script stage.”

ITC/ATV publicity stills for the “difficult” Secret Service

And, of course, puppets are often more difficult to work with than live actors, as David Lane explains: “Everything is pre-planned in puppets. It’s no good going on (stage for shooting) and saying We’ll change that line of dialogue and we’ll do it this way because you haven’t got anyone there to change the line of dialogue. You’re stuck with what you’ve pre-recorded.”

The one thing the series did arguably have, though, was charm.

Gerry Anderson told me, “I thought it was one of the most charming series I’ve made, but then I was in love with it. It was a beautiful country church and a vicar and young Matthew who used to help out in the garden and they had their regular Sunday services. (The title The Secret Service is a pun.) 

ITC’s Production Notes for The Secret Service

Because it was so strongly connected with The Church, of course, we made sure that the missions were always Good against Evil.”

The production notes for the series say: “Father Unwin is as conscious of his  spiritual responsibilities as any other priest. If his experiences can provide him with any material for his sermons, he conveys it to his congregation in symbolic and well-disguised terms.”

He is described in the production notes as “the sort of man who normally prefers to wear a cassock and is old-fashioned enough to go to bed in a night-shirt and night-cap.”

With such an out-of-the-ordinary series, it was felt that the music, too, should be something special…


This is the first episode of The Secret Service…

and the crime-fighting possibilities of miniaturisation and a mix of puppets and live action were further developed in Gerry Anderson’s later, unscreened pilot The Investigator. There are clips from The Investigator at the beginning of this online video.

Leave a comment

Filed under Puppets, Television

Who was Stanley Unwin in the forgotten and weird Gerry Anderson puppet series

Stanley Unwin – The Secret Service puppet

In 1980, I wrote an article, based on interviews, for Marvel Comics’ Starburst magazine about the little-remembered 1969 Gerry Anderson series The Secret Service.

The lead role was played both by the ‘real’ live version and by a puppet version of eccentric performer and ‘professor’ of gobbledegook Stanley Unwin.

The series only lasted for 13 episodes. ATV/ITC boss Lew Grade apparently thought the Americans would have trouble understanding ‘Unwinese’.

In the next two days, I will be posting my 1980 article on The Secret Service as a two-parter.

But here, first, is a reminder of who Stanley Unwin was.

When The Secret Service was produced (it was shot in 1968), Stanley Unwin was nationally famous in the UK as the inventor and chief exponent of ‘Unwinese’ gobbledegook, an intelligible nonsense language. As the star of The Secret Service he enhanced the general air of weirdness that surrounded the ITV series.

At the time, he was 57 years old. He was born in South Africa in 1911 of English parents but, following his father’s death in 1914, his mother took him back to the UK, could not cope and, by 1919, he was living in the National Children’s Home at Congleton in Cheshire.

Unwin said he thought he had read his first science fiction story under his desk at school in Cheshire. The school master caught him and he “lost an enchanting story forever”. But he maintained his interest in science fiction and became a Ray Bradbury enthusiast after reading part of The Martian Chronicles.

He studied radio, television and languages at the Regent Street Polytechnic which, coincidentally, was where I studied a (totally different) course in radio, TV, journalism and advertising half a century later.

For ten years, he ran his own business as a wireless engineer then, in 1940, he joined the BBC as a sound engineer and part-time war correspondent in the BBC’s War Reporting Unit.

He joined the BBC as a sound engineer and war correspondent

In 1947, he was the BBC technical expert chosen to go on a Royal Tour of South Africa and it was around this time that he discovered his talents for “double talk”. The story goes that he made his first, accidental, transmission, when based back at BBC Birmingham.

While testing equipment, he handed the microphone to broadcaster F.R. ‘Buck’ Buckley, who ad-libbed a spoof commentary about an imaginary sport called Fasche. Buckley then got Unwin to join in and introduced him as ‘Codlington Corthusite’. Unwin started speaking in Unwinese.

The recording was played back to two BBC producers, who added sound effects and it was eventually broadcast on the Mirror of the Month programme in 1948. This was well-received and culminated in another sketch in which Unwin, playing a man from Atlantis, was interviewed about life in the sunken city. The broadcast produced Unwin’s first fan mail, from comic performer Joyce Grenfell and this whetted his taste for showbiz.

He claimed he had developed his talent for Unwinese by telling bedtime fairy stories to his two daughters.

“I found they enjoyed the stories even more when I used double talk,” he explained. ” I was also interested in speaking like this because I had always been intrigued by the lack of communication between people when talking to each other and I realised that they listened far more attentively if you said something strangely.

“As I first used my treatment of language to amuse children to relieve the boredom of fairy stories often repeated, there was a good connection with Gerry Anderson’s puppet films”.

No nonsense: “I prefer to think of it as garbled sense.”

He claimed the reason he could talk ‘nonsense’ whose meaning could be immediately understood was because: “I prefer to think of it as garbled sense… The degree of perception depends on the listener. I believe it works partly because the sounds, inflections and rhythm seem to express ideas to the listener. There are visual components too, like facial expression and occasional hand and head movements. All these are used to communicate as in normal speech. I think a lot of it is partly heredity.”

His mother once told him that, on the way home, she had “falolloped over” and “grazed her kneeclabbers”.

Stanley, though, said: “I prefer not to get too analytical because that detracts from the imaginative side of it.”

Whatever the explanation of Unwinese, his initial broadcast for the BBC in 1948 was such a success that it led on to regular radio and TV appearances in such programmes as Beyond Our Ken and Does the Team Think?

BBC producer Roy Speer also introduced him to the comedian Ted Ray, who said simply: “I want him in my series” – The Spice of Life, co-starring June Whitfield and Kenneth Connor.

In 1956, he ventured into the film industry in the Cardew Robinson film Fun at St Fanny’s.

He became so popular that, in 1960, he resigned his job as a BBC Senior Recording Engineer and, aged 49, began a full-time showbiz career. He appeared in hundreds of TV shows, in commercials, pantomimes, the Carry On films – Carry On Regardless – and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

In 1968, the year The Secret Service was shot, he was also invited to narrate Happiness Stan, a six song fairy tale which took up the whole of Side 2 of the Small Faces’ No 1 album Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake.

When he was approached to star in The Secret Service, he saw it as a challenge to do something new: “Gerry Anderson has a wonderful imagination and I found that he and his team were in tune, so to speak, with my vehicle. This was something new. Why shouldn’t it work? It was an attempt to add a new dimension to the puppet field and the ‘all-consuming’ medium of films and TV surely needs encouragement in new ideas. It was a bit bizarre, but then aren’t many new ideas a little odd at first?”

Unwin did have some doubts about how the series would fare in the US.

“Gerry Anderson,” he said in 1980, “is a better judge of the American comprehension of Unwinese than I am, but I certainly had misgivings because of the preponderance in their population of people of non-Anglo-Saxon origins. If we assume one-third of the American population came from the British Isles, I believe that those in cosmopolitan America would largely understand.

“But it would be difficult to assess idiomatic appreciation across the States as a whole. The Secret Service never succeeded commercially. But there are some minority aspects of humour which are so strong that, in spite of their non-commerciality, they can be worthwhile. I received letters of appreciation from places like Australia, Canada and the Far East right up to last year — ten years after the series was made”.

Stanley Unwin died in 2002, much mourned, aged 90. At the church service after his death, the valediction began: “Goodly Byelode loyal peeploders! Now all gatherymost to amuse it and have a tilty elbow or a nice cuffle-oteedee – Oh Yes!”

He is buried with his wife Frances, who died before him. Their joint gravestone has the inscription: “Reunitey in the heavenly-bode – Deep Joy!”


1 Comment

Filed under Children, Comedy, Puppets, Television

A Simple-to-Understand Guide to North Korea for US President Donald Trump

Changgwang Street, Pyongyang, in 1986

I first visited North Korea in 1986, when the Great Leader Kim Il-sung was still alive. He died in 1994.

I went again in April 2012, shortly after his son and successor the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il died (December 2011).

His son Kim Jong-un had succeeded him and was, at that time, being referred to as the Supreme Leader.

Below are the blogs I wrote in April 2012. I wrote them on paper while in North Korea and kept them in my inside jacket pocket at all times and only posted them once I was back in the UK. I am not that mad.

A North Korean stage production in April 2012

12th April – George Orwell’s pyramid looms over the capital city Pyongyang

13th April – A land of nuclear bombs and satellite launches, but no electricity

14th April – Walter Mitty truth in an anarchic, pedestrian totalitarian state

15th April – North Koreans are not the the mindless brainwashed zombies of US propaganda

16th April – The Leaders’ spectacles

17th April – A beacon of hope for the down-trodden masses of the wide world

18th April – Phallic monuments, war lies, famine and an interview with MI5

19th April – “Confess your crimes against the people of North Korea or you will not be allowed to leave the country tomorrow”

20th April – Return from North Korea to China, land of individual freedom & Keanu Reeves

21st April – My undying admiration for their supreme leader Kim Jung-un

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Douglas Adams talks. Part 4: Science fiction, comedy, re-writes and ambitions

After Parts One, Two and Three, the final part of my 1980 interview with Douglas Adams

Concept by Jim Francis for a Vogon demolition ship in BBC TV’s Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

“…virtually impossible to read science fiction”

JOHN: Are you actually interested in science fiction?

DOUGLAS: Yes and no. I always thought I was interested until I discovered this enormous sub-culture and met people and found I knew nothing about it whatsoever. I always used to enjoy reading the odd science fiction book. Having done The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Doctor Who for this length of time, I now find it virtually impossible to read science fiction, which is simply a measure of the extent of which I’ve been saturated with it. I’m a bit nervous, at the moment, of being pigeon-holed as a science fiction writer, which I’m not. I’m a comedy writer who happens to be in science fiction.

JOHN: There’s the double problem that you’re thought of as a science fiction person and as a comedy writer. So, if you wanted to write a serious book…

DOUGLAS: I don’t think I could do a serious book anyway: jokes would start to creep in.

JOHN: You’re not like a stand-up comic who, deep down, wants to play Hamlet?

“I was being fairly flippant about it”

DOUGLAS: No, you see, I actually think comedy’s a serious business, although I may not give that impression. I was being interviewed the other day by a woman from the Telegraph Magazine who’d read the new book (The Restaurant at the End of The Universe) and was asking me all sorts of questions and I was being fairly flippant about it and I think she got rather disappointed, because she expected me to be much more serious about it than I was being.

I think that comes about because, when you’re actually working on something, you have to take it absolutely seriously; you have to be totally, passionately committed to it. But you can’t maintain that if you’re going to stay sane. So, on the whole, when I talk about  it to other people I tend then to be quite flippant about it. Because I’m just so glad to have got through it. (LAUGHS) You say: Ah well, it’s just that. It’s just jokes. She was saying she thought the second book was much weightier than the first, which surprised me. I wasn’t aware of that.

JOHN: Presumably the reason the first book didn’t include the last two episodes of the original radio series was that you hadn’t totally written them yourself and you weren’t totally happy with them.

DOUGLAS: Yes. I also wanted to keep those last two episodes for the end of the second book.

JOHN: Were you not totally happy with the second radio series?

BBC Radio 4’s The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “Most of the second series was first draft…”

DOUGLAS: No. You see, the first series was written and re-written and re-written and worked on very, very heavily. The second series I had to do under immense pressure while I was doing other things as well. There was an element of desperation in writing it. Also, the first time round, it was my own, private little world which only I really knew about. Writing the sequel series was like running round the street naked because suddenly it’s become everyone else’s property as well. Most of the second series was first draft, as opposed to fourth draft. So about two-thirds of the second book actually comes from episodes 5 and 6 of the first series.

The first third of it was a re-structured plotting of aspects of the second series. I think it works out better like that, although it meant I had to write the book backwards, I couldn’t get the thing started and it held me up and held me up and held me up and eventually I wrote the last bit, then the bit before that and the bit before that – and the beginning was worked out, more or less, by a process of elimination.

Special Effects designer Jim Francis’ concept for BBC TV’s Alpha Centauri

JOHN: It’s all been very successful, though.

DOUGLAS: I now have a company and everything goes through the company. It’s called Serious Productions. I decided most people I know with companies had silly names for them, so I decided I wasn’t. I was going to have a Serious name.

JOHN: How do you get out of the trap of being forever ‘The man who wrote Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy‘?

DOUGLAS: Well, by doing something else, really. I think we’ll probably do a second TV series, although it’s by no means certain. I think it’s on the cards and, if we did, then it would be a totally new series written for television rather than adapted. And that, as far as I’m concerned, would be the end of Hitch-Hiker.

JOHN: And you would go on to .. .

DOUGLAS: I want to write a book from scratch to prove that I can do it. I’ve now written two books which are based on something I’d already written. That’s not quite kosher. And I would like to write a stage-play because that was the one failure Hitch-Hiker had. And I’d like to write a film. These are all fairly wishy-washy ideas at the moment, but that’s what I’d like to do… Oh, and I’d like to be a guitarist.

(DOUGLAS ADAMS, 11 March 1952 – 11 May 2001, R.I.P.)

Leave a comment

Filed under Comedy, Science fiction, Writing

Douglas Adams talks. Part 3: Why he rejected Monty Python’s Terry Jones

In Part 1 and Part 2 of this 1980 interview, Douglas Adams told me about how the radio, stage and book versions of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy came into being. In Part 3 (of 4), he talks about how the TV and movie versions did and did not happen.

Douglas Adams decided to turn down £50,000

JOHN: There was talk of a  Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy feature film.

DOUGLAS: Well, I’ve been into that twice and each time I’ve backed out. I knew we were going to be doing it for BBC TV anyway and I knew we could do it all on telly. In the first film deal that was being set up, the American guy who was going to be directing it… I began to feel we were talking about different things and he wanted to make Star Wars with jokes. We seemed to be talking about different things and one thing after another seemed not quite right and I suddenly realised that the only reason I was going ahead with it was the money. And that, as the sole reason, was not a good enough reason. Although I have to get rather drunk in order to believe that. (LAUGHS)

It had got to the stage where I just had to sign a piece of paper and would instantly have £50,000 up-front, so I was quite pleased with myself for not doing that. I thought: There’s no point in doing a film at the moment. Then the whole thing re-opened when Terry Jones of Monty Python, who’s a great friend of mine, said he’d like to think about making a film of Hitch-Hiker. So I thought That sounds like a nice idea but the original idea was to do something based fairly solidly round that first radio series and I just didn’t want to do that again. I’d done it on radio, on stage, on record, in a book and was now doing it on television. It just seemed a pointless waste of time to do the same story again on film.

So we then thought it would be much more worthwhile to do a new story. But then we had the problem of having to do a story which was, on the one hand, totally consistent with what had gone before for those who knew what had happened and, on the other hand, totally self-contained for the sake of those who didn’t. And that began to be a terrible conundrum and I just couldn’t solve it. So, in the end, Terry and I just said: “It’d be nice to do a film together, but let’s just start from scratch again and not make a Hitch-Hiker.”

(The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – no hyphen – movie was eventually released in 2005, four years after Douglas Adams’ death)

JOHN: I was surprised when I first heard about the TV series and the film because I  thought the radio series was un-visualisable.

DOUGLAS: Well, obviously, there are things you lose when you move onto television in that what you actually see restricts what you imagine whereas, on radio, what you hear provokes what you imagine. On the other hand, there are all sorts of things I think are worthwhile. One of the great strengths of the television series is those wonderful animated graphics. If you’d been sitting down to do something like Hitch-Hiker for television to begin with, there are all sorts of things it wouldn’t have occurred to you to do. Like having a narrator who talks all the time: you just don’t normally have that on television.

But we were committed to that because of its success on radio. Having to translate something from one medium to another, you have to find solutions to problems which normally wouldn’t have posed themselves. Finding those solutions is interesting and that’s how we got those graphics. If you were doing a BBC television programme normally, you would just not gratuitously attempt to have one character with two heads. It just poses far too many problems. But, being committed to that, we had to do it.

BBC TV Special Effects designer Jim Francis tests his radio controlled head for Zaphod.Beeblebrox. (Photograph by John Fleming)

So they built this head which is a quite remarkable construction. It’s moulded from Mark Wing-Davey’s own head and the neck movement side-to-side and up-and-down, the eye and the mouth and the eyebrow and the cheek are all radio-controlled. It’s an extraordinary feat. Something you would not have got except in the process of translating one medium to another. You’re committed to things you otherwise wouldn’t have tackled.

JOHN: Like those wonderful computer read-outs for the book.

DOUGLAS: The computer read-outs are all animated. I’d assumed one would do it as computer graphics and actually use a real computer to do it, but apparently that is incredibly expensive. So it was done by animation, which is more effective.

JOHN: I saw the completed version of the first episode at the Edinburgh Television Festival way back in August. Why was it finished so early? Because it was a pilot?

Concept sketch of Marvin  by Jim Francis for the TV series.

DOUGLAS: Well, a sort of pilot. ‘Pilot’ can mean several things. In some cases, a pilot episode is made and broadcast to see how the audience reacts to it. This was a different sort of pilot. The BBC had said: We’re committed to doing the series. But we want to do the first one separately so we can see we’re doing it right. And then we have the opportunity of changing things. In fact, that isn’t quite how it worked out. When the bills came in for the first programme, there was a certain amount of stunned shock and back-peddling on whether or not they were going to do the rest of the series. Then they said: Yes, we will go ahead, but try to be a little more careful. (LAUGHS)

JOHN: One of the most popular characters is Marvin the Paranoid Android. I believe he came from a specific…

DOUGLAS: Yes, Andrew Marshall. He’s one of the writers of The Burkiss Way and End of Part One. He co-wrote the radio series Hordes of the Things with John Lloyd, which was a sort of parody of Lord of the Rings. Very silly.

JOHN: You’re really part of a third generation of Cambridge comedy writers. There was the Beyond The Fringe and TW3 lot. Then the I’m Sorry I’ll Read That AgainThe Goodies and Monty Python lot. And now there’s The Burkiss Way, End of Part One, Not The Nine O’Clock News, Hitch-Hiker and so on lot. The generation after Monty Python.

DOUGLAS: I suppose so. But in that previous generation one major programme sat on the top of the pile, which was Python. I think all my way through Cambridge I desperately wanted that to happen all over again. I wanted to function as part of a group of writer-performers. But, you see, a radical change had come over the way things were organised.

The Cambridge Footlights’ ADC Theatre in 2005 (Photograph by Andrew Dunn)

In those days – the time that produced Python – the writer-performer was the kingpin. That was true in the Cambridge Footlights and in the shows that those guys then went on to do. So it was the guys themselves who were doing it and they came together and a producer was given to them just to get it onto the screen and make it work. By my day. The Footlights had become a producer’s show. So a producer is there to say what the show is going to be – a student producer or, more likely, someone who was at Cambridge two years previously who’s come back to do it. He says I want so-and-so in it and I want so-and-so to write it and they’re appointed and the producer calls the tune. I think that’s wrong.

That’s what’s true in Not The Nine O’Clock News. I’ll get into trouble for saying this but I think that’s wrong: it just makes it slightly too artificial. My year in the Cambridge Footlights was full of immensely talented people who never actually got the chance to really work together properly, because they were all working for somebody else rather than getting together. So it was very fragmented and you get on the one hand Hitch-Hiker, which is written by one person with actors employed to do it, and on the other hand Not The Nine O’Clock News, which is a producer’s show being sort of driven from the back seat. And there’s nothing central that has come out of my Cambridge generation.

JOHN: How many years of your life have you spent on Hitch-Hiker now?

DOUGLAS: Four. The first time it actually crept into my life was the end of 1976.

JOHN: Are you actually interested in science fiction?

DOUGLAS: Yes and no.


‘Dish of the Day’ concept sketch by Jim Francis for BBC TV’s Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Leave a comment

Filed under Comedy, Science fiction, Television