Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Share and Enjoy – The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

I first stumbled across The HitchHiker’s Guide to the Galaxy on one of those early repeats in 1978. The series had first aired in March of that year in a late-night slot on Radio 4 with no fanfare or editorial in that week’s Radio Times. Did radio bosses know the comedy gold they’d unleashed? They soon did when an overwhelming listener response led to a swift repeat, and another one, and another one.

The original Radio Times listing illustration March 1978
By the time the second series was ready to air (well nearly ready, Douglas Adams was still writing when the cast were in the studio) the BBC knew the value of what it had and a Radio Times cover let everyone know that. More books, a stage show, a TV series, LPs, tee shirts and towels followed. Never has a radio series before or since led to so many merchandising deals.

I’d like to say that HitchHikers changed the face of radio comedy. But it didn’t. In truth it was a one-off, well one that lasted five series. The mix of comedy and drama, music and effects, Goon-esque logic and techno-speak, that notion that it’s ideas of the universe were both ludicrously funny but might somehow also be true (is planet earth an experiment run by white mice?) was unique. It didn’t even lead to a slew of space-inspired radio comedy shows; Star Terk II doesn’t really count and Space Hacks came thirty years later.  

By 1980 Douglas Adams was on the chat show circuit. Here he is on John Dunn’s Radio 2 show talking about Arab royal families, biscuits and towels.

The interview with Douglas mentions the forthcoming BBC TV series. This had a certain charm though the effects couldn’t do justice to Adams’s more fanciful ideas. Zaphod Beeblebrox’s second head looked like it was fashioned out of papier-mâché in a school art lesson. Reviewing the series for Radio 4’s Kaleidoscope was Rob Buckman, here speaking to the programme’s presenter Colin Ford and commending the show for having entered “the Teletext era”. How quaint.

That edition of Kaleidoscope was broadcast on 13 March 1981.

I referred to Douglas still typing the script for the second series as it was still being recorded – an interview with The Observer Magazine in 1979 reported that “Adams does not find it easy to write, indeed he describes it as ‘a desperately difficult process fraught with all kinds of mental blocks and worries’ - this lead to some fairly frantic last minute decisions. In subsequent repeats and commercially released versions of the show the production team took the opportunity to re-do some of the scenes. The differences between the initial broadcast and later ones are listed in some detail on this fascinating site.

Most altered was the final programme of series two. Writing in the book of the radio scripts producer Geoffrey Perkins recalled that the show “very nearly didn’t make it on the air. Although the actors were recorded on 13 January the actual mixing of the show was all done on the day of transmission, completed some twenty minutes before it was due to go out and then spirited in a fast car down one of London’s busiest roads, the Edgware Road, the three miles to BBC Broadcasting House, where it arrived just a few minutes before transmission. In fact half an hour before the programme went out the last five minutes of the show were wrapped round the capstan head of a tape recorder and being hacked off in little bits by three people all furiously slashing at it with razor blades. Keen eared listeners might have noticed that some scenes were remixed for the subsequent repeats, since at the time we had no time to do anything on the last scene but add a little rain and some cat impersonations”.  So here’s another chance to enjoy it as it was originally heard on 25 January 1980. (Note Moira Stuart on Radio 4 continuity duty).

And still the HitchHikers band wagon rolls on. A 2005 film was OK, if slightly miscast. In fact I deliberately avoided watching it until a BBC2 showing earlier this year for fear it would somehow taint my memories of the original radio series. And now this month it returns as a touring stage show, presumably without the audience sitting on a hovercraft, with some of the original cast. 

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Radio Show Live!

More on HitchHikers here: http://h2g2.com/dna/h2g2/alabaster/A943184


McTodd said...

Fantastic post! Gosh those clips bring back the memories, thank you! I've just had an old tape recording I made off-air, another Douglas Adams-John Dunn interview from December 1984, transferred to CD by a friend, I'll convert it to mp3 and upload it in some fashion.

McTodd said...

Here it is:

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