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Douglas Adams: The First and Last Tapes.
Part 3 of 3.

By Ian Shircore

Read Part 1 | Read Part 2

This is the third and final part of Darker Matter's Douglas Adams series, based on unpublished interview tapes recorded in conversation with freelance journalist Ian Shircore in 1979 and only recently rediscovered.

Here the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy author talks about some of his favourite comic creations – and reveals that he only felt really happy with two episodes of the original six-part radio series.

Creative discipline was always a live issue for Douglas Adams. One of his very best non-Hitchhiker's quotes is the classic: 'I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.' But despite his hugely inventive, fertile brain and his fondness for weird and wonderful ideas, he was also a thoughtful, deliberate, self-conscious craftsman. Douglas was fascinated by the technique of writing, and he judged his own work with a harsh and demanding critical eye.

While the rest of us were learning to love the unpredictable humour, outrageous wordplay and staggering imaginative leaps we joyfully discovered in the six episodes of the first radio series of Hitchhiker's, Douglas was already agonizing over things he might have done better.

In Episode 1, for example, he always regretted the 130 seconds of valuable radio time he had used up on the speech of Lady Cynthia FitzMelton, the dignitary who is launching the bypass project that demolishes Arthur Dent's house. As soon as he had an opportunity – while editing his material back for the LP record version – Douglas killed her off, and also grabbed the chance to trim the backchat between Arthur and the bulldozer man.

'The earth-bound section is now a lot shorter. The dialogue between Arthur and the man from the council has been cut in half, and the woman who makes the speech has gone. For me, she stuck out like a sore thumb.'

Other changes that were made for the LP included cutting back the scene with the Vogon guard ('I liked it when I wrote it, but it just seemed to turn into a very long, dull bit in the radio show'), the Vogon captain's poetry and some of Zaphod's musings about probability.

In fact, by the time of our conversation in the Dr Who production office at Television Centre in 1979, just a few months after the first series had been broadcast, there were signs that Douglas would happily have rewritten most of his first great masterpiece.

His second thoughts had already built up to the point where he only really approved of two episodes out of the initial six.

'There are only two of the shows I ever listen to – numbers 2 and 3. I just liked those two. 'There are only two of the shows I ever listen to – numbers 2 and 3. I just liked those two.

'All the others worried me, for one reason or another.'

The fact that even the self-critically perfectionist Adams liked Episodes 2 and 3 comes as something of a relief.

Episode 2, for example, introduces Zaphod Beeblebrox, Trillian and Marvin the Paranoid Android ('Life? Don't talk to me about life'), and includes Vogon poetry, over-smug automated doors and Eddie, the shipboard computer.

Episode 3 includes the custom planet-making industry on the legendary planet of Magrathea, Slartibartfast, the coastline designer who was so proud of having done Norway ('That was one of mine. It won an award, you know. Lovely crinkly edges'), the planet inhabited by lost biros, where Veet Voojagig worked as a chauffeur 'driving a limousine for family of cheap green retractables', and important revelations about Man, mice and dolphins ('So long, and thanks for all the fish'). It also introduces the 10 million-year project to find the Ultimate Question.

Each of these two 30-minute scripts is crammed with enough ideas, jokes and twisted perspectives to power a three-hour Hollywood blockbuster, which is exactly the problem the moviemakers ran into when they eventually tried to capture Hitchhiker's on screen.

The sheer density of ideas packed into each show makes listening demanding, as well as enjoyable, and can leave the audience half-dazed at the end of an episode. No-one can pick up all the nuances at a single hearing, but everyone can hear enough to know that this is something that's worth going back to.

This may help to explain why The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy was so good at turning casual listeners into addicts. If the original radio shows contained too much to take in at one go, people were bound to demand that they should be rebroadcast, that recordings should be made available to buy and that there should be some written record of the scripts. This set Douglas up neatly for the publication of the first book, which, in retrospect, marked the moment when Hitchhiker's turned from a cult object into a blazing mainstream hit.

At the time of this interview, two airings of the first series on BBC Radio 4 had hardly begun to make him a star. He was working on the first Hitchhiker's book and hoping for the best, not knowing, of course, that it would go straight into the UK bestseller charts at number 9 and set him firmly on the path to fame and fortune.

'I've always wanted to write a novel because, well, everyone wants to write a novel.' 'I don't want to just reproduce the scripts – that'd be rip-off time. And I've always wanted to write a novel because, well, everyone wants to write a novel. I just know I would never have got round to it, except that someone approached me and said "Will you write a novel based on this?"'

Douglas had his own treasured jokes and sequences in the original radio series. He was particularly proud of Eddie, the shipboard computer, which progresses from over-effusive friendliness to wobbliness under pressure and an eventual near-breakdown, accompanied by a chorus of You'll Never Walk Alone, as the spaceship plunges towards oblivion.

'I like the Eddie bits. But one of my favourite parts of the whole thing is the Galactic News report, " . . . a big hello to all intelligent life-forms everywhere. And to everyone else out there, the secret is 'Bang the rocks together, guys.'"'

The whole business of making science fiction comedy work the way he wanted it to was something Douglas took immensely seriously. He felt he had been through a long and tough apprenticeship in Cambridge Footlights productions and working on the fringes of the Monty Python set-up. His lanky figure had even been seen on screen in one Python sketch, though the surgeon's mask he was wearing meant that few people stopped him in the street for autographs afterwards.

It had been a hard road for him, and there had been some major disappointments.

'I left Cambridge and got in with the Pythons and everyone said "God, he's doing terribly well." Then everything fell down, desperately hard, and I thought "Here I am, aged 24, and I'm totally washed up. This is it."

'At that stage, I felt the last two years or so had been a total waste of time. I hadn't got anywhere and nothing had happened. I thought: "I'm not a writer. I can't survive in this business."'

But he was wrong. He was a writer, and a survivor, and his turbulent professional apprenticeship had taught him some important lessons.

'I think what you actually learn is the art of self-editing. It's that ability to look at a line dispassionately and not feel attached to it just because you've written it.

'It's also a matter of confidence. When you look at something and you don't even know how you managed to write it anyway, and you don't think you can actually write anything more ever again, you don't want to cut bits out, because you think, "That's all I've got."

'When you know that in the past you've had enough good ideas to make things work, you're more prepared to make cuts, because you're prepared to believe you can actually do something better than that.'

Douglas rated professionalism very highly. It was something he consciously developed in himself, and it was also something he recognised and appreciated in other people. His musical tastes – in particular, his fondness for Paul Simon – reflected his awareness of similar professionalism in other fields. Douglas liked the Beatles, the Who and, later, Pink Floyd, with whom he eventually played on stage. But Paul Simon was the first and formative influence.

'I taught myself to play the guitar by listening to Paul Simon records, working it out note by note. He is an incredibly intelligent musician. He's not someone who has a natural outpouring of melody like McCartney or Dylan, who are just terribly prolific with musical ideas.

'He obviously finds that very difficult, and I can identify with that, because I find writing very difficult. He is an incredibly clever, literate musician, but he always makes it sound terribly simple. I like the feeling that he's had to work hard for what he's got and has then been modest enough to disguise it.'

Before his career and destiny as a writer was established, Douglas had been through a wide range of other career ideas. At the age of eight, he wanted to be a nuclear physicist, though that was then followed by a long period of terrible worry because he thought there was nothing he wanted to do with his life.

'Then one day I saw The Frost Report. It was the first time I'd seen John Cleese on television, and I thought "Aha, that's what I want to be."'

Unfortunately for Douglas, that job was already taken. But a lot of his tribulations over the next few years could be seen as stemming from a quest to become John Cleese in a way that would work for him.

The young Douglas's early interest in science obviously resurfaced in the context of Hitchhiker's, which is laden with references to scientific concepts most of us can't begin to understand. According to Douglas in 1979, we are not alone.

He had done science at O-level but not A-level ('I was quite good at physics, but not at maths – my conceptual ability was quite good, but my arithmetic was appalling') and much of what he knew about science was picked up, as a child, from attending the annual Royal Institution Christmas Lectures for Children. Apart from leftover scraps like Boyle's Law and some bits about the behaviour of light, there was little formal scientific background available to him. And anyway, making it up from scratch was always going to be more fun.

'You start from first principles. If you can see the logic underlying those principles, however basic and simple they are, then you can see ways they can be put to work against each other.

'And if you can keep a logical grasp of that but also have the imagination to make the jumps between one thing and another to see how they might be connected, then I think you are liable to be thinking in much the same way the scientist does.

'A good scientist will make complicated things seem simple, because they're all actually arrived at from simple principles. So that's how I set about it.'

Working everything up from basics like this, in the interests of SF comedy, had already led the young Douglas Adams into areas where only experts normally tread. For example, he had unwittingly carried one of his Dr Who scripts to the very frontiers of late-1970s cosmology.

'I had a letter from a guy about something I'd written in a Doctor Who script, to do with super-compressed matter, degenerate matter and gravitational fields.

'That particular bit of the script came from realising, late at night, when I thought I'd more or less got the thing finished, that I had 13 super-compressed planets I hadn't accounted for, which I somehow had to do something with.

'So I sat up and sat up and practically hosed myself down with black coffee and finally came up with a solution, just on the logic of it. And I had a letter from this astrophysicist saying "Where did you find out about this? We're only doing the work now."

'When you write something like that you can place the tiniest piece of information you have so that it sounds like the tip of the iceberg of a vast amount of knowledge. And very often it isn't.'

Read Part 4 now Interview Copyright © 1979, 2007 by Ian Shircore. All rights reserved.

Previous: Editorial | Next: The Connection by Bud Sparhawk and Ramona Wheeler

About the interviewer

Ian Shircore's career went into precipitous decline after this interview, as he travelled round the world, working in exotic places for The Australian and the South China Morning Post, and ended up as Head of Marketing for an artificial intelligence software company in Cambridge. He has written seven books, on English grammar, management psychology and Internet topics, most of them characterised by appalling timing. They include the somewhat premature Mastering the Internet (1998) and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Shopping (2001, the year of the dotcom crash).

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