Tag Archives: Graham Chapman

Douglas Adams talks. Part 1: Life before “The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”

In 1980, I interviewed writer Douglas Adams for Marvel Comics. The result was published as a two-part piece in the March and April 1981 issues of their Starburst magazine. I am republishing the interview in four parts in this blog. Here is Part One…

Douglas Adams at home in 1980. Later, he claimed: “You actually managed to make me sound fairly intelligent, which I think is a remarkable achievement on your part.” (Photograph: John Fleming)

Douglas Adams has made it big. He is 6’5″ tall.

He was born in Cambridge in 1952. When he was born his father, a postgraduate theology student, was training for Holy Orders but friends persuaded him this was a bad idea and he gave it up. He wanted to do it again recently but was again dissuaded.

This philosophical bent seems to have been passed on to young Douglas because, at school, he says, “They could never work out whether I was terribly clever or terribly stupid. I always had to understand everything fully before I was prepared to say I knew anything.”

It was while still at school that he decided to become a comedy writer-performer after seeing John Cleese on BBC TV’s The Frost Report.

“I can do that!” he suddenly thought. “I’m as tall as he is!”

He appeared regularly in school plays and sometimes was asked to write. “I felt I ought to,” he says. “I used to sit and worry and tear up pieces of paper and never actually write anything. It was awful. I’ve always found writing very difficult; I don’t know why I’ve wanted to do it. Sheer perversity. I really wanted to be a performer and I’d still like to perform. I was a slightly strange actor. There tended to be things I could do well and other things I couldn’t begin to do. I couldn’t do dwarfs; I had a lot of trouble with dwarf parts.”

He went to Cambridge University largely so he could join the Footlights, the student group which had spawned many of the people he most admired — the writer-performers of Beyond the Fringe, That Was The Week That Was, I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again, Monty Python’s Flying Circus etc.

During university vacations, he built barns and cleaned chicken sheds to make money and, for the first time, started to write seriously (if that’s the word). He was involved in the creation of two Cambridge revues — Several Poor Players Strutting and Fretting and The Patter of Tiny Minds.

The original idea for The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy had come to him before he went to university, when he was drunk at a camp-site near Innsbruck, while travelling round with The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to Europe in his rucksack. But it was years before the idea came to fruition.

JOHN: After you left Cambridge, one of the things you did was collaborate with Graham Chapman of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

DOUGLAS: That’s right. I wrote with him for about eighteen months on a lot of projects that mostly didn’t see the light of day. And those which did actually didn’t work awfully well.

JOHN: Which ones did see the light of day?

DOUGLAS: Well, we wrote and made the pilot for a television comedy series. The series itself never got made because Graham got more involved back in Monty Python again. This was really during the Python lull and nobody was quite sure what the future of Python was going to be.

So we wrote this sketch show called Out of the Trees which actually had some very good material in it, but just didn’t hang together properly. Graham was the sort of lead and there was also Simon Jones (who played Arthur Dent in BBC TV’s Hitch-Hiker) and Mark Wing-Davey (who played Zaphod Beeblebrox). It was shown once on BBC2, late on Saturday night, against Match of the Day. I don’t think it even got reviewed, it was that insignificant. There were some very nice things in it; it just didn’t stand up. The structure for it hadn’t really been found.

JOHN: What else did you do with Graham Chapman?

DOUGLAS: Curiously enough, the thing we virtually came to blows about was his autobiography. He wanted to co-write it. He actually went through about five co-authors, of which I was the first, and really I didn’t think it was getting anywhere because I didn’t think it was the sort of thing you could do as a pair. It came out recently (A Liar’s Autobiography) and it’s good. I think there’s one very bad section which was the bit he and I co-wrote.

JOHN: It must have seemed a great opportunity. Writing with one of the Monty Python stars.

DOUGLAS: Yes, the promise of that period. I thought: This is terrific! This is my great break! And, at the end, there was nothing to show for it except a large overdraft and not much achieved. And I suddenly went through a total crisis of confidence and couldn’t write because I was so panicked and didn’t have any money and had a huge overdraft paying the £17-a-week rent. So I answered an advertisement in the Evening Standard and got a job as a bodyguard to an Arab oil family.

JOHN: But you were still sending off ideas to The Burkiss Way on Radio 4…

DOUGLAS: Yes. Simon Brett, the producer of The Burkiss Way, asked me if I’d like to write some bits for it and, at that stage, I just felt I’m washed up. I can’t write. I may as well accept this fact now. But he insisted, so I sat down and wrote a sketch which, I thought, would prove to everybody once-and-for-all that I could no longer write sketches. And everybody seemed to like it rather a lot. (LAUGHS) The one thing I’d spent all the summers since Cambridge trying to interest people in was the idea of doing science-fiction comedy; I couldn’t get anybody interested at all.

Simon was the only person I hadn’t gone to with the idea. And, after I’d done these bits for Burkiss, he said to me, quite out-of-the-blue: I think it would be nice to do a science fiction comedy series. It was extraordinary. And so it carried on from there.

JOHN: It was around this same time you got involved with Doctor Who.

DOUGLAS: Well, after we’d done the pilot of Hitch-Hiker, it took a long, long time before BBC Radio decided to go ahead and I was desperate for money. So I sent the first copy of that Hitch-Hiker script to Bob Holmes, who was then script editor of Doctor Who and he said: Oh yes, we like this. Come in and see us. So I talked to them for a long time.

JOHN: You sent it in as a Doctor Who idea, or . . .

DOUGLAS: No, just to sort of say: Here l am – This is what I do. And I ended up getting a commission to write four episodes of Doctor Who (The Pirate Planet)…

…but it didn’t really work out as something which was going to fill in that gap, because that took a long time to come through too. I eventually ended up getting the commission to write the rest of Hitch-Hiker and the Doctor Who episodes simultaneously in the same week. So that became a serious problem. (LAUGHS) And I got through the first four episodes of Hitch-Hiker and then I had to break off to get the Doctor Who episodes done – so I did those at a real gallop. And, at the end of that, I was totally zonked. I knew a lot of what was going to happen in the last two episodes of Hitch-Hiker but I just couldn’t sort of get myself to a typewriter and just needed help and a sounding-board just to get it done.

JOHN: So John Lloyd (now producer of Not The Nine O’Clock News) helped you write parts of episodes 5 and 6…



The BBC Radio 4 production team recording an episode of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to The Galaxy on 19th May 1979. (Left-Right) studio manager Lisa Braun; Douglas Adams; studio manager Colin Duff; production secretary Anne Ling; producer Geoffrey Perkins; studio manager Alick Hale-Monro. (Photograph copyright © BBC)

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Mace & Burton – UK female comedy duo who sniff sandals & love rom coms

Mace & Burton in bed (Photo by Helena G Anderson)

Mace & Burton in bed in 2012 (Photo by Helena G Anderson)

Female comedy duo Lizzy Mace & Juliette Burton are at the Leicester Square Theatre in London  tomorrow night, performing their Edinburgh Fringe show Rom Com Con.

Then, next month, they perform it at the Brighton Fringe.

They first performed the show at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2011. They had no money that year and had to share a bed.

“I woke Lizzy up one night,” Juliette told me in London yesterday, “because I was ‘sleep flyering’…”

“And whispering…” added Lizzy

“I woke her and myself up,” explained Juliette, “because I was sleep-talking about flyering and I was really disappointed at waking up because, in my dream, my flyering for the show in the street was going really well and the people I was talking to said they would come and see the show. I love flyering. I absolutely adore it.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because,” explained Juliette, “if you smile at someone and they say No and you don’t take it personally, that’s fine. They’ve got other stuff going on in their day. It’s not a personal attack on you. But, if they do engage with you in any way, then you can chat to them and brighten their day. Even if they don’t come to see the show, they might love your flyer and that experience of chatting to you.

“Thanks to the Cultural Enterprise Office up in Edinburgh, I have a couple of interns working for me on my new show and one of the potential interns I interviewed had a friend with her who remembered me flyering her on the Royal Mile and she kept the flyer for about three months after the Fringe because she remembered my flyering.”

Mace & Burton are performing as a duo in London and Brighton but, during the Edinburgh Fringe this year, Juliette Burton will be performing her first full-length solo show.

“Why won’t you be there at the Fringe?” I asked Lizzy Mace last night.

“I’ll be doing an intensive improv course at Second City in Chicago,” she told me. “We’ll still be working on things together after Edinburgh. At the moment, we’re writing a feature film version of our Rom Com Con show that will hopefully subvert all the conventions of the genre.”

“And,” I prompted, “you would describe the Rom Com Con stage show as…?”

“A true-life, documentary, stand-up performance,” Juliette replied for her. “It’s not really stand-up comedy.”

“We always call it comedy storytelling,” explained Lizzy, “because the comedy is not in gags. It’s in the truth of it and the situations we put ourselves in.”

Put ourselves in?” I echoed. “That sounds like doing something very consciously.”

Lizzy Mace (left) & Juliette Burton last night

Lizzy Mace (left) and Juliette Burton in London last night

“Yes,” said Lizzy. “Our shows are like Quest shows. With Rom Com Con the quest was trying to find true love by testing out the way people meet in movie romantic comedies. So we deliberately put ourselves in these ridiculous situations from the films.”

Juliette added: “We did lots of research.”

“Sounds like you just went on lots of dates and hoped it would make a show,” I said.

“Yes!” they both laughed.

“And hopefully, by doing the show,” said Juliette, “we would get more dates.”

“Which didn’t happen,” added Lizzy.

“A desperate search for love and affection,” I said. “Like all stand-up comedy.”

“Exactly,” laughed Lizzy. “We were just making that explicit.”

“Wearing our hearts on our sleeves,” said Juliette.

“So you’re basically both single and both desperate,” I suggested.

“Yes!” they both laughed.

“In fact,” said Juliette, “for Rom Com Con it was worse than that. Lizzy had been single for five years and I’d just broken up with my boyfriend of six years.”

“And,” added Lizzy, “just as Juliette’s boyfriend split up with her, three of her best friends asked her to be their bridesmaid. It was just like Uurghhh!…”

“So, for the movie version of this…?” I asked.

“We’re fictionalising things,” replied Lizzy. “We’re taking the emotional journeys we each went on but the events we’re putting the characters into are going to be more suited to film.

Mace & Burton’s Rom Com Con

Mace & Burton’s Rom Com Con stage show

“In our Rom Com Con stage show, each of us goes on our own journey and, as a result, we become closer friends towards the end of it. That’s what we’re trying to get across in the screenplay as well. The thing that’s most important at the end of it is the stronger friendship the two people have discovered through the whole journey.”

“Though not romantically,” added Juliette.

“It’s kind of a homage to rom coms,” explained Lizzy, “but also acknowledging that the traditional, standard kind of rom com might not be relevant any more. Maybe twenty years ago in a rom com, it was just accepted by the audience that the two leads would get together. You don’t have to prove why: the story was about how. But now you have to work a lot harder because there’s less of a belief in that idea of…”

“…two people being perfect for each other,” Juliette added.

“The writer has to work harder,” continued Lizzy, “to build-in those scenes that prove the couple are meant to be together and get the audience behind them. I guess we’re just looking at ideas of romance and how we can make a rom com that looks at romance but is more relevant.”

“Technically, it’s a buddy movie,” said Juliette.

“A female buddy movie,” I said.

“Yes,” said Lizzy.

“And your new solo show?” I asked Juliette.

“Is called When I Grow Up,” she told me. “I’m performing it at the Brighton Fringe and then the Edinburgh Fringe. It’s the first time I’ve done a whole hour of me standing stage alone, which is quite scary. It’s another true-life story like Rom Com Con. It’s a story about me trying to be all the things I wanted to be when I was a child… a ballerina, a baker, an artist, a princess, a pop star and a Muppet.”

“Which Muppet?” I asked.

“I didn’t want to be a specific Muppet. They were all misfits, but they belonged together and were stronger together. I just wanted to be part of that Muppet group and I wanted to marry Gonzo. He is my dream man – or thing or whatever he is. He’s awesome. He’s a risk-taker because he does exciting things like being shot out of a cannon. He ate a tyre to the tune of The Flight of the Bumblebee, showing he was cultured. He’s willing to try new things and he’s very romantic. I’m feeling quite passionate just talking about him. In all of the movies, he’s the one who sings the most poignant darkness-before-the-dawn songs. So he’s a poet. And he’s also very loyal. He was so in love with Miss Piggy, but she kept saying I’m in love with Kermit. And he just kept trying. I completely love him. And Jimmy Carr.”

“Jimmy Carr?” I asked.

“Yes,” confirmed Juliette. “If there were some way we could combine Gonzo and Jimmy Carr – someone with an appalling laugh and a very large nose – that would be excellent for me.”

“And When I Grow Up is going to be another true-life, documentary, stand-up performance?” I asked.

Juliette is torn between Gonzo and Jimmy Carr

Juliette is torn between Gonzo and Jimmy Carr

“Yes,” said Juliette. “I’ve done video interviews with the general public about what they wanted to grow up to be when they were a child… and what they do now. And what a job is and what a vocation is and whether what you do is who you are and what growing up is. And I’ve selected bits from those interviews to show universal stories. Some people have triumphed over redundancy by following their dreams. And there are people who have not followed their dreams but made active choices to do a job that allows them to have a life they love.

“But I don’t want it to be like some Edinburgh Fringe shows where they’re too much prepared-for-TV. I want it to be an interactive stage show. I will interact with what’s happening on the screen.

“I’ve interviewed Lizzy for When I Grow Up, so the show I take to the Gilded Balloon in Edinburgh in August will include Lizzy, she’ll just be on a video screen. It’s similar to Rom Com Con, where we did a two-hander presenting the story and have a screen with video interludes. But this time there will also be videos of the research I’ve done.”

“And you have something unexpected and dark in the show,” I said. “An unexpected twist.”

“Yes,” said Juliette, “but I’m not sure if we should talk about it. I think laughter is the only way to get through anything.”

“It makes things less scary if we can find a way to laugh at them,” Lizzy suggested.

“Comedy,” said Juliette, “is meant to tread the borders between what’s acceptable and what’s not and confronting the tragedies of life is a relief.”

“And,” I asked, “the highlight of your comedy career so far is…?”

“One of the highlights of my life,” said Juliette, “was when we sniffed the sandal that Graham Chapman wore in Life of Brian. We were at the BFI for the London Comedy Festival’s Kickstart Your Comedy Career course.”

“And they had an exhibition,” continued Lizzy, “for A Liar’s Autobiography, the film about Graham Chapman’s life. We were talking to one of the directors and there was this little glass case which had three things from the Monty Python films. There was a shield from The Holy Grail and there was this sandal from Life of Brian.”

“I think he saw how genuine my fandom was,” said Juliette.

“So he opened up the back of this glass display case,” continued Lizzy, “and he took out the sandal and we held it in our hands and I just said I really want to sniff it and so we both took this big sniff. It smelt surprisingly fresh.”

“It did,” agreed Juliette. “My favourite things in life so far have been holding that sandal, meeting Dawn French and meeting Michael Palin.”

“Was he amiable?” I asked.

“Of course he was,” replied Juliette. “He was Michael Palin. If I ever met Stephen Fry, I think I would go to pieces.”

“What about Jimmy Carr and Gonzo?” I asked.

“Oh my god!” said Juliette. “Gonzo!… Any Muppet, really… Any Muppet.”

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