Barnaby Eaton-Jones celebrates Towel Day with the man responsible for BBC Radio 4’s serialisation of the last three books and for bringing the radio show to the stage, Dirk Maggs, and with Arthur Dent himself, Simon Jones...
'He felt that his whole life was some kind of dream and he sometimes wondered whose it was and whether they were enjoying it.' (Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy)
Hitchhiker's is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way off the amount of people who bought Fifty Shades Of Grey, but that's just peanuts to Hitchhiker's.
Do excuse the mangling of the quote to fit the article. So, yes, it's TOWEL DAY! If you don't know what that means, ask a German. No, don't. Unless you can speak German. It was a poor and rather clichéd stereotype. Unlike anything that Douglas Adams wrote. You see, some people are touched with genius and I genuinely believe he was one. Sadly, I never got to touch him. Which I'm sure he would have been pleased about.
Anyway, yes, TOWEL DAY. Well, if you've immersed yourself in the universe of The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy (in whatever form), you'll know that a towel is one of the most important things a person can have about them at all times. So, to celebrate this, on the 25th of May every year, there is now a TOWEL DAY. It won't be marked by Hallmark Cards Inc (because they didn't create it and, therefore cannot profit from it) but that's groovy. It's marked by us, the fans. To celebrate the life and work of Douglas Adams, the writer and creator of The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy and a far-seeing visionary who liked nothing more than playing Pink Floyd songs on his guitar or avoiding the thing he was actually the best at – writing.
I could waffle on about Hitchhiker's all day long, and indeed Douglas Adams. But, for once, I'm going to keep my mouth shut and just ask some questions instead. I don't think there could be two more fitting people to pester for their insights than the ones who kindly granted me some moments of their time below. Whether you're a casual fan, a die-hard fan or just nestling somewhere in-between, it's very hard to think of how the Hitchhiker's universe would have survived without the quintessential Arthur Dent, in the form of actor Mr Simon Jones, and the man who kept the Hyperdrive alive with his adapting/directing skills, Mr Dirk Maggs. With these two essential players, Hitchhiker's lives long in the memory and continues to gain new fans and new love. If Douglas was the Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster, then Simon and Dirk were a large brick and a slice of lemon. Which is genuinely the best analogy I could come up with. Hey, I'm no Douglas Adams!
Let's speak with Arthur first. Sorry. Simon. I mean Simon...
BEJ: Simon, hello! How did you get cast in the role of Arthur Dent, which has made your voice is so indelibly linked in the public consciousness as Arthur's?
SIMON JONES: I met DNA (Douglas Adams) at Cambridge; we became firm friends and five years after I'd graduated, he called me to say he'd written this show, and I was the only person he could think of for the part.
He said he wrote the character with me in mind, though the more I got to know Arthur, the more he more closely resembled DNA himself.
BEJ: Did you envisage, when doing the first radio series, that it would have such a mass appeal and lead to you playing the role on television and then, with the later adaptations of continuing novels, back where it all began on audio?
SIMON JONES: None of us had any idea what a world phenomenon it would become, least of all DNA. Very pleased it did, though.
BEJ: Was the transition from radio to television an easy one? Did you find the loss of sparring partner Geoffrey McGivern as Ford Prefect tough to deal with, as well as the re-casting of Susan Sheridan to Sandra Dickinson (which, for me, was the biggest change in how the character was delivered)?
SIMON JONES: The transition from radio to TV was so radical that the change of cast was all part of the rethinking. Naturally I missed Susan and Geoff, but David and Sandra are so different, the characters themselves were radically different, and went beyond comparison.
I'm very grateful to Dirk (Maggs) for his persistence in bringing H2G2 back to its full fruition on the radio, and keeping the flame burning.
BEJ: At any point, did you find you were pigeonholed as an actor because of the success of Arthur Dent or did it enable you to be cast in other roles due to its success?
SIMON JONES: I don't know whether I'd have been pigeonholed as an actor in the UK, because I started to work in the US almost immediately after the BBC TV series. "Brideshead Revisited" came out at the same time, on both sides of the Atlantic, and the two appealed to entirely different constituencies. Both were very high-profile TV events, and in fact proved to be immensely helpful in giving me the start I needed.
After one play Off-Broadway, "Terra Nova" by Ted Tally, I was offered the part of "Max" by Mike Nichols, and ran on Broadway in "The Real Thing" for nearly 18 months.
I could have done any number of popular UK TV series, but if they hadn't been shown in the state, they'd have given me no credit. As it was, I was regarded as a known quantity, and the shows still bring dividends all these years later.
BEJ: As an actor who has had great success on radio, in television and on stage, what's your favourite medium to work in?
SIMON JONES: I know how to do Theatre and also Radio, but I'd really like to have a crack at some more TV, and more than a cough and a spit on Film. Plays can become by their very nature repetitive, and are as evanescent as a bubble. Film and TV only have to be done right once and last much longer - though that could be a source of regret too.
Thank you, Simon!
As many of you will know, Hitchhiker's was a BBC Radio series first. The novels were, essentially, novelisations of the BBC Radio script. Sadly, because of the HUGE success, Douglas Adams was then commissioned/pressured into writing more. In the end, he stopped at five books (with a sixth being officially sanctioned by the Douglas Adams Estate, by Eoin Colfer) – the final two seemingly something of a struggle for him as they stopped him from indulging in other passions and projects. So, it was only fitting that BBC Radio then turned the books that hadn't been dramatised into an audio dramatisation. The Primary and Secondary Phase were the first series, broadcast way back in the late 1970s, which were then followed thirty years later by the Tertiary, Quandary and Quintessential Phases. The main mover and shaker behind these brilliant adaptations was adaptor, director and co-producer, Dirk Maggs...
BEJ: Dirk, hello! How did you get the gig of continuing the audio series, after the untimely passing of Douglas Adams?
DIRK MAGGS: It was Douglas's idea that I should be involved. He had finished the fifth book in the trilogy and felt it was time HHGG returned to its roots in radio. Geoffrey Perkins had moved on and he needed a producer who was interested in pushing the bounds of radio. Someone suggested he listen to my work and, on hearing Superman, Douglas rang my boss asking if I might be interested in bringing HHGG back home. I said yes - of course - and we had several meetings in 1992-3 to discuss how to make the three series and generally set them up. Due to deteriorating rights issues it couldn't be done at that time and, although we met on several subsequent occasions and talked about reviving it, it was sadly only to happen after Douglas's death.
BEJ: The radio series is the definitive version, for many, and the novels and TV serial (and movie) came afterwards. Was it a huge pressure for you to be continuing the legacy and how easy was it to tempt the original cast back?
DIRK MAGGS: I'd been speaking to the original cast about it since 1992 and all were very keen to return to radio with HHGG, especially Peter Jones and Simon Jones. What became scary was Peter dying and Richard Vernon dying (Slartibartfast), and the realization that we could lose more cast members before the rights issues were sorted out. The most awful thing was that I never in all those years thought we would lose Douglas.
The pressure while making the series was immense and I think I approached the Tertiary Phase (3rd series) perhaps a little too reverently for its own good. But when we got to the 4th and 5th series I had listened to the fans' reactions and, having processed that information, made an effort to resolve Arthur's story and the Vogons' role in it without treading on Douglas's sensibilities. I think the end result is more homogenized than the novels and there is a narrative continuity which one needs for "a good listen".
BEJ: Did you have any initial reservations of doing a stage tour with the original BBC radio cast and how did you expand on the idea of putting a radio show recording on stage? Was there a Guest Narrator who you really wanted for a show and just couldn't get?
DIRK MAGGS: The stage tour grew out of Simon (Arthur Dent) and Geoff (BBC Radio's Ford Prefect) saying we ought to sell tickets for the studio sessions because they were so much fun to watch being recorded. The irony of turning Hitchhikers into a live stage show lay in the fact that in 1978 Hitchhikers was (allegedly) the most technically complex thing ever produced on BBC Radio, and every episode took weeks (allegedly) to post-produce and put on the air. But three decades of digital technology had turned everything around so much that in 2012 we could put all those elements together in real time live on stage in front of an audience - including live music. I think Douglas would have loved that - his Mum certainly did. The biggest thrill for me was afterwards when she told me she had no idea how funny his writing was until she was in the audience watching the show. That was magical.
As for guest voices of the book, in hindsight I think we made a rod for our own back. If I was starting again I would prefer to choose a great voice and stick with it, with maybe one or two alternates. The task of choosing voices was onerous and the whole idea introduced a "Guest Star" element that the show actually didn't need. Douglas, the script and the cast were the stars.
BEJ: What drew you to Hitchhiker's to begin with? Or, indeed, the work of Douglas Adams?
DIRK MAGGS: Well I never had any inkling Douglas was going to phone my boss and ask if I would be willing to do the job. But I said yes immediately. I wanted to explore that universe with him and I'm incredibly grateful to him and proud of what we did together - because, although he had moved off this arc of probability by the time we were recording them, he was still with me - in my mind - making sure I didn't drop the ball. I'm very proud of what we made.
BEJ: Are there any plans to turn the officially sanctioned sixth novel into an audio production?
DIRK MAGGS: Yes.
I nearly fell of my chair with excitement at that last answer. Dirk, thank you. It's very exciting to know that, even though the man himself has left us, that there may be more audio Hitchhiker's and that his legacy lives on. I've got my towel. I hope you've all got yours.
BARNABY EATON-JONES (c) 2016
Images - official websites.