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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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