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Douglas Adams: The First and Last Tapes.
Part 4 of 3. (Yes, it's the fourth part of the trilogy . . . )

By Ian Shircore

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Read Part 1 | Read Part 2 | Read Part 3

In keeping with the best traditions of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Darker Matter is proud to present, this month, the fourth part of our three-part interview with the great Douglas Adams, based on long-lost cassette tapes recorded on a summer's day in 1979.

The story so far is that Douglas has written the first radio series of Hitchhiker's and seen it broadcast twice without making the impact that might have been expected. Pan Books are keen to get the paperback version into the shops and there is a definite groundswell of excitement beginning to build up around the show and its author. Yet the man at the centre of all this is still having to hold down a day job as a temporary script editor for Dr Who, just to keep body and soul together. He's working at the BBC all day and sweating over the first Hitchhiker's book and the second radio series far into the night. And when freelance journalist Ian Shircore mentions his conviction that Adams is on his way to being a household name, the interview wobbles and nearly skids to a halt.

With hindsight, it's hard to see what Douglas was worrying about. Within months he was a best-selling author and trendy vicars everywhere were misquoting his jokes to spice up their sermons. Within a few more years, he had achieved worldwide fame, become known as a passionate advocate of atheism and Apple computers and assembled what he claimed was the world's biggest collection of lefthanded guitars. He never found writing easy, but he never again got himself into the situation he was in in 1979, where the almost unbearable pressure he was under resulted, paradoxically, in the production of some of his finest work.


 
From an early age, Douglas Adams had a fine ear for humorous dialogue – and a genuinely comic ability to grasp the wrong end of the stick. Curled up under the bedclothes, he listened with glee to the punning, surreal, outrageous lunacy of Kenneth Horne, Kenneth Williams, Hugh Paddick and Bill Pertwee in the BBC Light Programme series Beyond Our Ken. He was distraught when the show ended in 1965, and totally failed to understand when it was brought back just two months later in a similar format and with much the same line-up, under a slightly different title.

'I used to love Beyond Our Ken,' he confided. 'Then it came back as Round the Horne and, for some reason, I thought "The title's different, so it's not the same show." So I didn't listen to it.'

It wasn't the only time Douglas jumped to a wrong conclusion or saw things in himself that would eventually inspire his comic muse. As he grew up, he learned to live with the fact that he could be spectacularly clumsy, impossibly unworldly and, at times, irredeemably gloomy. But it's part of the skill of a comic genius to fashion this kind of raw material into the stuff of great art.

Douglas Adams frequently told the world about the source of one of his best-loved creations, Marvin, the hyper-intelligent, hyper-miseryguts robot ('What are you supposed to do with a manically depressed robot?' 'You think you've got problems? What are you supposed to do if you are a manically depressed robot? Gives me a headache just trying to think down to your level'). Marvin was supposedly based on a former scriptwriting colleague of his called Andrew Marshall, who later won fame and fortune with his 1990s TV series 2 Point 4 Children. Having blighted Marshall's early career with this unfortunate slur, Adams admitted that another strand in Marvin's saturnine persona had its origins rather closer to home.

'I get into terribly depressed states, and a lot of Marvin's actual lines come from occasions like that,' Adams revealed. 'There's a certain amount of me in there.'

In fact, according to Douglas, he had been 'fairly neurotic' as a child and was still 'incredibly shy and self-conscious' as an adult. But this was one of the many aspects of his life that was beginning to change as people became aware of The Hitchhiker's Guide and the talent that created it.

'I've suddenly realised, very recently, that it's actually comfortable to go to something public, like a party, and know that some part of you has gone on ahead, so that people know something about you.

'It is difficult to come to terms with seeing yourself in a different and more public light. I felt very lost for a time, and it took a while to settle down and get my bearings again. I'm not even sure I can say that I've found them yet. But at least I've now got used to the process that's going on.'

The progress from this self-effacing introspection to the confident, witty and relaxed star of a host of later TV interviews and conference appearances obviously had a lot to do with Douglas's dawning realisation that people were genuinely grateful to him for the laughter and ideas he gave them. Any majority is made up of smaller minorities, and Douglas was inevitably pigeonholed, at first, with the science fiction writers of his generation, on the one hand, and the post-Python school of British humorists on the other. But once the Hitchhiker's snowball started rolling, it was quickly clear that he was appealing to more than just the SF community or the committed Monty Python fans. His delight at seeing his work transcend all categories until it existed as a unique phenomenon in its own right, with huge international audiences of every age and background, must have gone a long way towards eliminating any niggling self-doubt.

Not having to fret about where the next chunk of income was coming from will have helped, too, especially after the ups and downs of his early career. By the time of this interview, he had already tasted enough modest financial success to know that he would need a lot more.

'I find the difference, for me, between having no money and having quite a bit is that the bills get bigger. And that's it. The lifestyle doesn't change.

'The reason I hope I'll make a lot of money is that I'm actually so hopeless about it. I just don't understand the nature of the beast, so I'm very bad at holding on to it.'

Douglas had managed to spend almost six months writing the six episodes of the first Hitchhiker's radio series 'for an initial fee of about £1,000'. Even though he'd squeezed in four Dr Who scripts as well, he'd still been left working in an office for the BBC and hiding from his bank manager. Now the numbers were starting to get bigger, with a much better fee for the second radio series and the prospect of 'about 9 or 10 grand' for the six-part TV show, and Douglas was starting to think about the real business prospects for his creation.

The TV series, he explained, should trigger much better sales of the book and the LP record. And then, he added, 'It's all a question of sales abroad.' Douglas Adams may not have been good at keeping hold of money, but he was quite well aware of how it was made.

He had, for example, already calculated that the big bucks from US television would not come from the BBC selling its programmes to the American public broadcasting network. They could, however, arrive in the form of a format sale, in which a US company would buy the rights to remake the series with a transatlantic flavour. The inspiration for this line of thinking was the fortune made by the writers of the limp Seventies sitcom Man About the House, which became Three's Company in the US and ran for several years, making a lot of people very rich.

Douglas was not squeamish about the moral dangers of sudden wealth, and he was certainly prepared to explore this kind of future for The Hitchhiker's Guide.

'There's a bloke who's interested in buying the rights to make the show in America. I've been told the guys who wrote Man About the House sold the format rights to American TV and made $700,000 each, over a period of two years. But it's all pie in the sky. Let's see what actually comes in.'

Though he obviously chafed at the need to stay a little longer on the Dr Who staff, Douglas used the experience to sharpen his awareness of the vital differences between radio and television. He had already seen his own Dr Who scripts go through the mill of the TV production process, and had not much liked some of the final output.

'When you're writing something, you have to believe this is the way it should be.

'But you know it's going to go through hundreds of people before it gets to the screen and it'll end up looking totally unlike anything you envisaged. So you also have to learn to divorce yourself from everything you put into it and judge the final product not according to your original intentions but according to whether the thing you see is good. And that's hard to do.

'When you've seen something that's not at all what you envisaged, it's more difficult to go back next time and put yourself in the frame of mind of a writer. So you have to learn to take what satisfaction you can from getting it right the first time.'

This big team, almost corporate, approach contrasted vividly with the 'rock sessions' ethos in which the original radio series had been created. Though he was ready to take on the challenges of putting Hitchhiker's on television, there was no doubt which way of working suited Douglas's soul. Though recording necessarily involves actors' interpretations and technical processes, the radio shows had still ended up 'fairly close' to the author's original vision.

'I was there the whole time, which is fairly unusual. There were very few things I would have objected to – just the odd turn of phrase or the odd sound-effect.

'We'd be down in that dark underground studio for hours and hours every day, just achieving a very small amount of tape – knowing what we were doing was different, but losing all sense of whether it was good or not. Because when you're that close for so long, you have no yardstick to measure it against.'

Working on the bigger, more complex canvas of television appealed to a different part of Douglas's brain. It drew on his professionalism, his problem-solving skills and his delight in the exercise of artful technique. Script editing Dr Who had given him plenty of opportunity to see the characteristic faults of novice television writers – and to thank his stars he'd been able to make his early mistakes in the more forgiving medium of radio.

'Hundreds of people who've never written before send in Dr Who scripts. They may have good ideas, but what they fail to realise is that writing for TV is incredibly complicated. They have no idea how difficult it is and what the financial commitment is.

'On the whole, we have to take on people who know a bit about it. After all, if someone wanted to be a surgeon, you'd want to know they could take out a neat pair of tonsils before you let them loose on a heart transplant. From that point of view, radio is the place to start.'

In practice, the original Hitchhiker's radio series was cobbled together in a much more haphazard way than now meets the eye – and with an arbitrary pragmatism that would have given the TV people the screaming abdabs. For example, the story of the researcher who found a planet inhabited by all the galaxy's lost biros (where they were able to enjoy 'a uniquely biroid lifestyle, responding to highly biro-oriented stimuli') is one of the great solo riffs of Episode 3, one of Douglas's two favourite episodes. Yet it was apparently moved there for the overwhelmingly compelling artistic reason that Ep 3 was 'a bit short' and its original home was in a show that was running long.

Luckily the storylines in Hitchhiker's are what one later critic referred to politely as 'blithely episodic'. Whether this was originally a matter of cause or effect is hardly important any more. But despite both being tagged with the SF label, this is one key area in which Dr Who and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy could not have been more different.

After many hours of raking through these old interview tapes, I think perhaps it's right to end with Douglas's own description of the strange, looping, frustrating writing process that eventually gave birth to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy – one of the oddest and best-loved creations of the late 20th century. The way he tells it, it's a wonder Hitchhiker's ever saw the light of day. And it's certainly a huge sadness that we will never hear that unique voice again, explaining the inexplicable or turning our assumptions inside out in the name of comedy and new perspectives.

'When you're writing Dr Who, which is conceived purely in dramatic terms, you can plot it thoroughly in advance and know exactly what you're doing and what scenes are going to go where. With Hitchhiker's, you can't do that, because you can't calculate in advance what's going to be funny.

Every time you do plot a way ahead, you come to write the next scene and you realise it's not going to work as comedy, because it's not funny. Then you have to put in an extra element or shove it round this way and that, which means that the plot you just worked out goes out of the window and you have to re-plot it again. Then the same thing happens again. So you just do it scene by scene and hope you're going to get somewhere – and that makes it very difficult to write.

'I tend to write myself into corners. I'm in a terrible corner at the moment. I've ground to a halt while I try to work out how to get it back on the right lines. But that's the continual story of writing this show.'



Interview Copyright © 1979, 2007 by Ian Shircore. All rights reserved.

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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).

You can buy Douglas Adams' books from Amazon.co.uk or from Amazon.com


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