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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.

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Douglas Adams interview. Part 2: From Hitch-Hiker to Doctor Who and back

Publicity photo of Douglas Adams circa 1980 (Photograph by Mark Gerson)

In yesterday’s blog, Douglas Adams talked about his life before success.

Today, the interview continues. I talked to him for Marvel Comics in 1980.

This is Part 2 of 4.

JOHN: …So John Lloyd (now producer of Not The Nine O’Clock News) helped you write parts of episodes 5 and 6 of the original BBC Radio 4 series of Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

DOUGLAS: Yes. John Lloyd and I had known each other for years and, at one stage, actually shared a flat together and kept on half-producing ideas which never really came to fruition… Actually, there was one thing! About two or three years ago, he and I wrote a couple of cartoons for a Dutch television company. They were making a series called Doctor Snuggles. (LAUGHS) It was being made internationally, so the scripts were being written by British writers and it was being performed in English with Peter Ustinov doing the voices. I gather one of the episodes we wrote actually won an award last year. I think it is eventually coming to British television and it’ll be rather curious to see it.

JOHN: What was it about?

DOUGLAS: Well, if you can imagine a cross between Professor Branestawm and Doctor DolittleIt was quite fun working on that, actually. The writers’ fees were rip-off time. But it was immense fun – there were all sorts of things we could do in  animation.

JOHN: It sounds a busy time.

DOUGLAS: The way things went, yes. I was writing Hitch-Hiker (the first radio series) for a lot of 1977 and we were making it at the end of 1977/beginning of 1978 and it went out starting in March 1978. During that time, I was living at home with my parents and the fee for writing the first radio series was miserable – something like £1,000 for the six episodes – which is not a lot for something over six months’ work. So I was thinking I’m such a slow writer and it looked as though Hitch-Hiker might do OK; but there was no precedent for a radio series meaning very much in the long run.

So I was then offered a job as a BBC Radio producer  and I thought I ought to do it for the money. During the six months, Hitch-Hiker began to be a success and I was producing Week Ending, which was quite fun. In fact, the first job I was given was compiling a programme about practical jokes. I had to go out and interview Max Bygraves and Des O’Connor. I thought: What am I doing here? But I knew people had put themselves out to help me get this job and it was a staff job, not a contract job, so to leave after six months would be ridiculous.

BBC Radio 4 recording of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in July 1979 with (L-R) David Tate, Alan Ford, Geoffrey McGivern, Douglas Adams, Mark Wing-Davey and Simon Jones. (Photo © BBC)

JOHN: Then you were offered the job as script editor on Doctor Who.

DOUGLAS: Yes, which caused an immense rumpus. And I did Doctor Who for fifteen months and it was a terrible, terrible time. It was great to begin with, while I felt I was actually managing to juggle all the balls at the same time. Because, at the end of 1978, I was writing the first Hitch-Hiker book, trying to get down to writing the second radio series, which kept getting put off and put off, and I was script editing Doctor Who and having to produce lots and lots of storylines for writers.

And I was also doing one fairly major last job as a radio producer — a pantomime show for Christmas called Black Cinderella Two Goes East. Everyone involved in it – the writers and all the cast – were ex-Cambridge Footlights. So we had Rob Buckman playing Prince Charming and Peter Cook was his brother Prince Disgusting and John Cleese played the fairy godperson. John Pardoe MP played the Fairytale Liberal Prime Minister – on the grounds that you only get Liberal Prime Ministers in fairy tales. The Goodies played the Ugly Sisters, Jo Kendall played the wicked stepmother and Richard Murdoch was in it too. It was terrific, but the BBC gave it no publicity whatsoever.

Years later, a BBC publicity shot for Black Cinderella Two Goes East with John Cleese and Peter Cook

JOHN: And after that you were able to devote more time to script editing. What exactly does a script editor on Doctor Who do?

DOUGLAS: Everything. Oh god! I was very naive when I wrote Pirate Planet because I’d always assumed that, basically, writing the script is the writer’s job and coming up with all the ideas is the writer’s job. So I worked very, very hard on The Pirate Planet scripts. Then, when I came to be script editor, I discovered other writers assumed that getting the storyline together was the script editor’s job. So, all that year, I was continually working out storylines with another writer, helping yet another writer with scripts, doing substantial re-writes on other scripts and putting yet other scripts into production – all simultaneously.

When you’re doing 26 half-hours in a year, that’s a helluva lot. And, at the same time, writing the first Hitch-Hiker book. And also trying to do the second radio series. It was an absolute nightmare year. For four months when I was actually in control it was terrific – when you feel you’re actually in control of all that and actually getting it done. Having all these different storylines in your mind simultaneously. A writer suddenly phones you up at midnight and you’ve got to know exactly what he’s talking about and exactly what his problems are and sort them all out. You actually get very high on that, as long as you cope. But, as soon as you stop actually coping (LAUGHS), it becomes a nightmare.

JOHN: You finished working on Doctor Who in January 1980 and by then Hitch-Hiker had really taken off on radio and become a cult. It had even been on stage.

DOUGLAS: Well, it’s been on stage three times and the one which got all the notice was the one that didn’t work. Ken Campbell did two. His first one at the I.C.A. (Institute of Contemporary Arts, London) went very, very well. The audience was put on a hovercraft and the action all took place round the edge of the theatre. I didn’t believe it till it actually happened. We were turning away 1,500 people a night from that show, but only getting 80 people in, because that was all you could fit on the hovercraft.

Then Theatr Clwyd did Hitch-Hiker with a touring company in Wales. They would sometimes do two episodes in an evening and, at other times, the whole lot – which was a long evening. That went very well. I didn’t know anything about Theatr Clwyd: I just thought it was going to be a load of Welshmen going round saying Hello, boyoh! But it wasn’t at all; it was a very good production. So they were then offered The Old Vic but, by then. I’d already offered the stage rights to Ken Campbell, who wanted to do another production.

He decided to go for broke and put it on at The Rainbow (in Finsbury Park, London). I should have known better, but I had so many problems to contend with at that time I wasn’t really thinking awfully clearly. The thing at The Rainbow was a fiasco.

JOHN: Why?

DOUGLAS: The first two productions had worked well largely because they’d been performed to relatively intimate audiences. The I.C.A. was only 80 and I suppose the largest Theatr Clwyd audience was about 400. But you put it in something the size of The Rainbow – a 3,000-seater theatre – and, because Hitch-Hiker tends to be rather slow-moving and what is important is all the detail along the way… You put it in something that size and the first thing that goes straight out the window is all the detail.

So you then fill it up with earthquake effects and lasers and things. That further swamps the detail and so everything was constantly being pushed in exactly the wrong direction and all the poor actors were stuck on the stage desperately trying to get noticed by the audience across this vast distance. If you’d put the numbers we were getting at The Rainbow into a West End theatre, they would have been terrific audiences – 700 a night or whatever. But, in a 3,000-seat theatre, 700 is not a lot. particularly when you (the producers) are paying for 3,000 seats. So the whole thing was a total financial disaster.

JOHN: There was also talk of a film.

DOUGLAS: Well, I’ve been into that twice…


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With sketch shows, it is impossible to know who will be famous in the future.

With comedy sketch shows, it is almost impossible to know which, if any, of the performers may become successful – famous, even – in the future.

I am old enough to have been stumbling around in the primeval alternative comedy mists of the last century and seen the Edinburgh Fringe show by the Cambridge Footlights group which included Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson and Tony Slattery. I was aware of their names because it got a lot of newspaper coverage afterwards – that’s one of the benefits of going to Oxbridge. But all I really remember, unless my memory fails me, is Stephen Fry sitting in a wing armchair wearing a smoking jacket and reading a very linguistically convoluted story from a book.

“Well,” I thought. “That’s very literate and he seems to aspire to being someone older than he is, but he’s not going to go very far with that as an act.”

I was also working at Granada TV when they made the long-forgotten sketch show Alfresco. I saw one being recorded in the studio. It starred Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson, Ben Elton, Robbie Coltrane and Siobhan Redmond. The writing was a bit rough-and-ready and the cast made no impact on me at all, except I remember feeling Robbie Coltrane thought a bit too much of himself and Ben Elton thought he was cock of the walk. I am sure they have changed.

Which is all a pre-amble to the fact that I have seen three sketch shows in the last three days at the Edinburgh Fringe. They may have contained the big comedy and/or drama stars of the future, but who can know for sure? Certainly not me.

I went to see The Real McGuffins’ Skitsophrenic because I had met Dan March at a couple of previous Fringes, notably when he performed his Goldrunner show about being a contestant on the TV gameshow Blockbusters when he was a kid.

I saw The Real McGuffins perform at the Fringe last year and, while they were OK and energetic – a better version of the more-publicised Pappy’s aka Pappy’s Fun Club – they were, in truth, nothing special. This year, they are something special. The scripts are sharper, the performances are even sharper and the show zips along at a tremendous pace. They have also kept and improved on a scripted interaction between the three performers which adds a semi-narrative thread – always a good thing in sketch shows which, by their nature, can be very disjointed.

This unification of their comedy sketch show is something The Durham Revue’s 33rd Annual Surprise Party! does not have. They try to paper over the unavoidable gaps between separate sketches with extremely good and instantly recognisable rock music. But choosing such good music turns out to be a mistake as the extracts are so strong it distracts from rather than unifies the various sketches. I mentally opted-out of the live show to bop-along in my head to the music between sketches, then had to opt back in to the live show. Bland music, ironically, would have been better. Or some live running link to creatively Sellotape over the gaps.

At least one of the Durham Revue team appears to have the charisma necessary to get somewhere in showbusiness in the future but (see above) who can tell?

As for Casual Violence’s Choose Death, which I saw last night, I had absolutely no idea what was going on. There were a lot of tears, a lot of shouting, several characters’ deaths, Siamese twin assassins, a clown and a serial killer who looked like Daniel Craig on acid, but what exactly was going on or why was utterly beyond me. Nothing made much sense at all but the characters seemed to believe in what was happening within their own fictional world. Casual Violence could have created a new genre of ‘realistic surrealism’. There was certainly an awful lot of shouting which seemed to work rather well. But I have no idea why.

The six performers and keyboard accompanist were uniformly good and strangely realistic while being totally OTT in a script which was from another plane of reality on another planet. The important factor was that the script seemed to make logical sense to the characters within the show. And, while played straight and getting plentiful laughs from a near-full house, there was such an element of complete surreality permeating the whole thing that I warmed to it after about ten minutes and enjoyed it thoroughly throughout – without knowing what was going on over-all. The words made sense. The sentences made sense. But what was happening had more than one layer of insanity. It had the logic of a long-term inmate in a mental asylum.

The Real McGuffins were slick, smooth and ready for television and Dan March is a star in the making.

The Durham Revue performers need another year at the Fringe but showed promise.

Casual Violence’s Choose Death was so strange it is beyond any sane description and, in a long-shot way, is the most interesting of the three. The show was written by James Hamilton. I think he may need psychiatric help. Though not creative help. He is doing something right. There is something very original in there. I just don’t know what the fuck it is.

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