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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.)

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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 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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