40 Years of Hitchhiking the Galaxy Froods

Listen up Earth-type beings, on 8 March it will be forty years since the greatest book ever to come out of the publishing houses of Ursa Minor made its debut to the people of Earth. I’m referring to that beast of comedy, that happens to use science fiction as its attack vector, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, written by Douglas Adams.

There have been many tales about the creation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. All true, except for the ones that aren’t. Douglas Adams, hitchhiking across Europe, as most would be writers do, or at least say they do, lay down in a field in Austria, drunk (but not like a glass of water), and with the universe spinning overhead thought it would be a neat idea to have a story based on a reporter hitchhiking the galaxy.

Fast forward some years later and Adams pitches the idea for a science fiction comedy series to Simon Brett, who loves the idea and as the idea grows, the Hitchhiker’s Guide becomes more central and prominent. Thus, slowly, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was created. You can listen to Douglas Adams discuss the The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy on this archival episode of Bookclub led by James Naughtie.

The original cast of that first series included Simon Jones as Arthur Dent, Goeffery McGivern as Ford Prefect, Peter Jones as The Book, Mark Wing-Davey as Zaphod Beeblebrox, Susan Sheridan as Trillian, and Stephen Moore as Marvin. If you’ve not heard that original series, I would suggest treating yourself by downloading it from your favourite service and with, say, a nice hot cup of tea, settle in for a real treat.

(Left to Right): Douglas Adams, Geoffrey Perkins (Producer), David Tate (Eddie, Benjy Mouse,...) Geoffrey McGiveren (Ford), Mark-Wing-Davey (Zaphod), Simon Jones (Arthur), and Alan Ford (Roosta). [Image Source: BBC]
(Left to Right): Douglas Adams, Geoffrey Perkins (Producer), David Tate (Eddie, Benjy Mouse,…) Geoffrey McGiveren (Ford), Mark-Wing-Davey (Zaphod), Simon Jones (Arthur), and Alan Ford (Roosta). [Image Source: BBC]
Listening to radio programmes takes a little effort for many people in these days of streaming television and film. We’ve allowed a portion of our minds’ imagination to stagnate and become undeveloped, but once you allow your mind to make up the pictures, you’ll realize that doing The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as a radio series first was a perfect marriage of means and medium. You can really focus on the story and the subtle way in which the actors portray the characters and the emphasis in which they say Adams’ words.

When Adams (and John Lloyd, but that’s a separate issue) was writing that first series, he had no notion of ever continuing the series, but it was such a success that a seventh episode was recorded and aired at Christmas, with a second radio series following in 1980.

Cover of The Hitchhiker's Guid to the Galaxy.
Cover of The Hitchhiker’s Guid to the Galaxy.

Initially the idea of turning the radio series into a novel was offered to BBC Publishing, but they turned it down. Pan Books, however, knew a good thing when they saw (or heard) it and within two weeks of its publication The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy had become a number one seller. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has been in print ever since and has sold over 14 million copies world wide. I’ve had several copies over the years.

With the success of the two radio series the BBC produced and aired a television series based on mainly the first radio series. Directed and produced by Alan J. Bell, it was aired in 1981 on BBC2. The original radio cast returned to reprise their roles for television, with the exceptions of David Dixon as Ford Prefect and Sandra Dickinson as Trillian. For me the television series is just as good a the radio series, and in some ways better, since the Guide itself is brought to life with the brilliant graphic design of Rod Lord.

What is it that makes The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy such an outstanding work of science fiction and comedy? I think, perhaps, it’s the absurdity of it all. Adams did a wonderful job in taking our expectations of what was happening, or about to happen, and twist them in a fantastically warped way. And while Adams writing is wonderful, the way the cast portrays things is a masterclass of wit and timing. Few writers since have managed to capture this same ideal of the absurdly obvious.

The Babel Fish. Designed by Rod Lord.
The Babel Fish. Designed by Rod Lord.

Sadly, on 11 May, 2001, Douglas Adams passed from a sudden heart attack. He was in California at the time trying to get Disney to produce The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy film. This was accomplished in 2005, but with only middling success. While there were some good points about the film, in many ways it was over produced and too Hollywood in style and tone. It lacked the warmth and heart of the original radio series or television series.

After Adams’ death, the BBC also produced radio series based on Life, the Universe and Everything, So Long, And Thanks for All the Fish, and Mostly Harmless.

Now, with the 40th anniversary, the BBC has produced a sixth radio series based on the 2009 novel And Another Thing…by Aretmis Fowl author Eoin Colfer. The core of the original cast returns to their roles to bring this Hexagonal Phase to life starting Thursday, 8 March 2018 at 6.30 pm on BBC4.

A Frood always knows where their towel is.
A Frood always knows where their towel is.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has been a part of my life for so long I can hardly remember a time where it wasn’t. And since the death of Adams I have taken part in Towel Day celebrations each 25th of May. I carry a towel, go to the pub to have three pints at lunch, and keep bags of peanuts at the ready in case a hyperspace bypass is suddenly announced. If you would like to take part in Towel Day celebrations I suggest heading to your nearest Marks & Spencer’s to arm yourself with a good sized towel.

So Froods, if you know where your towel is and you can sass where your Sub-Etha Sens-O-Matic is, join us for a hoopy time next Thursday as we once more delve into the greatest book ever to come out of the publishing houses of Ursa Minor, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

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