Saturday, 21 February 2015

Rule of Thumb

When Douglas Adams heard John Cleese decide that 42 was the funniest number he could think of, who could have guessed where it would eventually lead?

Despite the surprising but still profound disappointment of the film version ten years ago, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy will forever hold a a special place in my heart.

In distant 1980, my English teacher scrawled at the bottom of a review I had written for a Doctor Who novelisation that he had a book which I might like to borrow.  It turned out to be Douglas Adam's sequel to HHGTTG - The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, and I might have devoured it in a single sitting, before quickly buying the first book for myself.

Where it all began for me: not at the beginning - but the end of the universe...

Of course, this wasn't to be the first intersection of Who and Hitchhikers for me.  Earlier that year I had thoroughly enjoyed a serial called The Pirate Planet, obvious even to a fourteen year old me that the script was a blazing star of imagination, wit and fascinating characterisation super-condensed to fit (barely) into a BBC budget. In a story featuring time dams and barely harnessed titanic forces crushing the remains of plundered planets into football sized husks - writer Douglas Adams' imagination was similarly only just held in check by the not-inflexible format of Doctor Who.
It was obvious his vision needed more room and, in a typically extreme application of sod's law, the once 'rejected to the point of near-suicide' writer was finally commissioned to write the first radio series set in his own Galaxy at the same time as The Pirate Planet was green-lit. (Adams's continued and controversial association with Doctor Who is another story, but most fans these days agree that we were unimaginably blessed to have a genius of Adams's stature writing and script editing our little show, whatever the results).

They were never able to pay Douglas Adams enough to novelise his Doctor Who scripts, 
but I was at least able to illustrate the stories for various purposes:

I caught the very end of the first NZ broadcast of the Hitchhikers' radio series, recording and playing the episode featuring 'the man in the shack' and his cat over and over again.  The books brought the imagination, but radio delivered the wonderful performances of Simon Jones, Mark Wing-Davy, Stephen Moore and that unforgettable theme music.  Often called Eagles-like, probably because Journey of the Sorcerer was actually written for their last Album before the breakthrough Hotel California, and chosen for Hitchhikers because it has a banjo in it.

My Hitchhikers experience escalated - a friend bought me the record album of the Restaurant at the end of the Universe and finally, in 1982, TVNZ screened the BBC television series.  It's ironic that Douglas Adams revelled in the freedom that radio gave him to create vast and incredible visions, only to have its success demand that the BBC then find a way of realising the visuals after all.

Radiohead - the TV series' most notoriously unsuccessful, 
but affectionately regarded, special effect.

Results were mixed (the mighty Vogon constructor fleet inexplicably became a single ship) but the shortfalls in budget somehow suited this terribly-British collision of the everyday and Inter-Galactic which is at the heart of Hitchhikers (and perhaps another reason why the heftily budgetted movie didn't work for some of us?).  Like much of British TV, (including Doctor Who), it was the performances and writing which carried it and endeared Hitchhikers to a new, and surprisingly mainstream audience. As with every iteration of HHGTTG, Adams varied the story, apparently to stop himself getting bored, but the programme has a feeling of definitiveness unrivalled in any other incarnation.

Real computer graphics were nowhere near this good back then, and often aren't even now.

Perhaps it's due to so many of the original audio cast taking part, although the TV series has a splendor all of its own: the genius of the 'computer' graphics (actually hand-drawn animation) accompanying the Book's lengthy monologues and the instant-classic opening featuring the hapless spaceman hurtling through the letter 'O' in the title.

And it was here that the unmistakeable image of Arthur Dent forever clad in a dressing gown was created - against his creator's wishes.

The motley crew of stolen spacecraft; The Heart of Gold

Even back then, there was talk of a film version, Adams eventually pulling out when he realised that all the American backers really wanted was 'Star Wars with jokes'.  We fans have always known that Hitchhikers was never really about the science fiction. That was simply a backdrop and facilitator for Adams's wry observations on the absurdities of 'normal' life -  in much the same way as Jonathon Swift satirised his own culture within an epic fantasy (following another hapless traveller - Gulliver - through strange lands) hundreds of years ago. Incidentally, those same American film-makers then pursued their own sci-fi/fantasy idea, which resulted in an obscure little effort called Ghostbusters.  (How very Adamsian for a film covered a couple of blog posts ago to turn out to be connected to the subject of this one)

 Trillian and Marvin - 1982: Sandra Dickinson and Stephen Moore; 
1985: Zooey Deschanel and Warwick Davis (unmistakeably voiced by Alan Rickman)

So - about that movie which eventually did get made twelve years later...  Well, sticking John Malkovitch in anything instantly makes the glow of a texter's cellphone more captivating to me, but the film still had it's moments.  Zooey Deschanel gave us a more proactive take on Trillian, and Bill Nighy's performance and scenes as Slartibartfast lift the entire production. (He could be the best of three brilliant interpretations of the character I've seen - including Richard Vernon in the TV series and my 6th Form classmate Warren Hall.  His backing out of the geography room, protesting feebly about Fiords and waving a roll of dusty Education Board maps, trapping them in the closing door with perfect timing, had me in stitches).
As the books continued I lost interest when my favourite character, Zaphod Beeblebrox, was written out.  Similarly the further radio shows, interactive computer games and comic adaptations all passed me by.

The TV series remains the genuine article for me. I last experienced it on VHS, comforted by the first few episodes while I lay on a friend's sofa, suffering as never before from a post-Pan Galactic Gargleblaster-scale hangover. I somehow think that Douglas Adams, or at least his reprehensible and much-loved characters, might have approved.

Bidenichthys Beeblebroxi, a newly discovered New Zealand fish 
named shortly before Adams's death.

The great man himself passed away in a Santa Barbara gym in 2001, towel in hand at age 49.  The excellent biography by Jem Roberts which I've just finished and inspired this post, sums up such this tragically early loss better than I ever could:

"Dramatically, it just doesn't work at all; it was just wrong, and has felt wrong every day since.
His end was not a 'pleasing punctuation point' or an ironic fate, it was a sudden and totally unwelcome random event in a universe which, by its very nature, only exists because it makes no sense at all."

Douglas Adams: 1952-2001

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