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The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1)

This is a blog post about The Hitch Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy, one of the most remarkable radio shows ever to emerge from the great Light Entertainment Department of the British Broadcasting Corporation. It's not going to deal with any of the later iterations of the story, which exists in more forms across more media than almost anything else I can think of. I don't remember much about the TV version, I never saw the stage show, I no longer own a copy of the LP, the film came too late to be of much interest, and I actively dislike the books. But the two original six-part radio series (and the Christmas Special which linked them) were once a big and important thing for me, and I'm sure their influence can still be detected in the stuff I write. So I thought I would have another listen, and try to explain what they meant to me.

The first series was initially broadcast in March 1978. I remember reading the listing for it in the Radio Times, and thinking it looked interesting. There was an illustration too. (I think it's by Alan Brooker, but the name is hard to make out.)

I had turned twelve the previous month, and was just getting into to science fiction (Star Wars had been released the previous Christmas). But the BBC in its wisdom had decided to broadcast HHG in the graveyard slot of 10.30pm on a week night, way past my bedtime, so I didn't get to hear it until it was repeated later in the year. I think it may have been '79 before I heard it all.

I listened to a lot of radio comedy in those days. I had inherited the big old radio that used to live in the kitchen, but for some reason I never went scrolling down the wavelengths to Radio 1, which my friends would have been listening to, but kept it tuned to Radio 4, with its plays, talks, and - at 6.30pm each weekday evening - its comedies. This meant that, while I was very late developing any interest in pop music, I had by the age of eleven or twelve developed quite a knowledge of comedy. Long-running panel shows like Just a Minute and I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue still felt reasonably new and fresh back then; there were occasional repeats of genuine classics like The Goon Show and Round the Horne, there was Andrew Marshall and David Renwick's spectacularly funny and surreal sketch show The Burkiss Way (to which I believe Douglas Adams contributed some early material), and there were anthology shows in which Frank Muir or someone similarly avuncular would play half an hour of tracks from old comedy LPs, introducing me to the work of brilliant comics from across the pond - Bob Newhart, Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Woody Allen, Tom Lehrer. But I had never heard anything quite like The Hitch Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy...

Right from the get go, HHG is a mix of the cosily familiar and the ground-breaking. Peter Jones, who plays the voice of the book, was a performer I knew from Just A Minute and other shows and films, but here he was speaking over a bed of spookily futuristic ambient music - Douglas Adams apparently wanted the show to sound like a concept album, and many of its most effective passages are just Peter Jones spinning flights of absurdist fancy over tracks which I now recognise at Ligeti, Jean Michel Jarre, etc. (Troubles over the rights for the incidental music meant that when HHG was released as an LP a few years later it had to be a new recording with specially composed music - it was only available at Virgin Records, then a terrifying cavern full of sullen punks). In the opening segment Jones tells us a bit about the history of The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy and how it outsells the Encyclopaedia Galactica because of its lower price and the fact that it has the words 'Don't Panic' printed in 'large, friendly letters' on its cover. Then he says that in order to tell the story of the book we should learn the stories of some of the people involved with it - and we're dropped back into very well-worn Radio 4  territory.

The 6.30 comedy slot wasn't all Goons and geniuses. Then as now there were a lot of forgettable sitcoms.  They usually took place in an England that was presumably instantly recognisable to the average Radio 4 listener, but to me, a rung or two down the class ladder and not yet a teenager, seemed as alien as Magrathea. It was an achingly middle-class world where people read the Guardian and ate lunch for dinner and dinner for tea. Arthur Dent, the protagonist of HHG, would have fitted right in, and so would the pompous little man from the council who is trying to drive a bypass through Arthur's house as the story opens. The confrontation goes much as you'd expect, and so does the speech by Lady Cynthia Fitzmelon (The Burkiss Way's Jo Kendall, wasted on a bit of rather weak satire, but worth mentioning as she's one of only three female characters in the whole series.) But it all turns out to be pointless, as a fleet of Vogon flying saucers appears, reminding us that flying saucers were still very much a thing in 1978, and demolishing the Earth to make way for a Hyperspace Bypass.

'But it all turns out to be pointless' is actually a pretty good description of the whole of HHG. Many of the individual scenes have the feel of shaggy dog stories; character arcs end up unfinished, and storylines peter out. But that's not necessarily a criticism. A sense of pointlessness was part of the spirit of the age, at least in comedy. At least one Monty Python sketch, failing to arrive at a punchline, just cut to footage of atom bombs going off. There was an episode of The Goodies called Earthanasia in which the UN decides to destroy the world because its problems have just become insoluble. Tom Lehrer had several cheery songs about thermonuclear destruction ('We Will All Go Together When We Go'). Those of us who grew up in the Cold War knew the world was liable to end with a bang and almost without warning, and while that was scary it also lent itself to a certain sort of pitch-black slapstick. (Now that it's going to end with an Eco-whimper there doesn't seem nearly so much scope for laughs. Or maybe the difference is that Young People Today think they can and should Do Something. When our continued existence depended on somebody in Russia or America not pressing the wrong button the only options seemed to be despair or laughter.)

But usually the comedy apocalypse arrived at the end, Dr Stangelove style. In HHG it's just the beginning. Arthur's friend Ford Prefect, a researcher for the eponymous guide, manages to rescue him by hitching a lift with the cooks aboard one of the Vogon saucers, and they set off on a picaresque adventure across the galaxy. Back when I first heard it, it was my first encounter with a lot of the sci-fi tropes it was riffing on. I had no means of recording it, so I had to listen very intently, desperately trying to catch every word of the Vogon captain's ludicrous poetry, trying to memorise the names as they flew past - Bambleweeny! Maximegallon! Pan-Galactic Gargle-Blaster! - and hanging on through the credits to catch the little extra jokes which were tagged on to the end of each episode. As a result, I still know a surprising amount of it by heart.

Is it still funny? Comedy dates fast: The Goon Show, which I loved, is probably just a lot of silly noises to anyone much younger than me, and if we're honest much of Monty Python is barely watchable now. But HHG holds up pretty well, I think. The representatives from the Amalgamated Union of Philosophers, Luminaries, Sages, and Other Professional Thinkers who object to the creation of the Deep Thought computer feel like a Python outtake, and the 'sensitive' space cops who come gunning for our heroes on Magrathea are not much better, but a lot of it still raises a smile, and probably only fails to raise a laugh because I know it too well. The story is sometimes so tenuous that it's feels in danger of turning into a sketch show, but I don't think Douglas Adams was really interested in storytelling in the conventional sense at all. His plots are just flimsy washing lines on which he can peg out his ideas.

Still, one of the advantages of the radio series is that even when the writing wavers the performances carry it through. Simon Jones is endlessly indignant and outraged as Arthur, but you sense a genuine affection between him and Geoffrey McGivern's Ford Prefect (who sometimes seems underwritten on the page). Trillian is definitely underwritten, but Susan Sheridan gamely manages to make her at least two-dimensional, which is one dimension more than the script gives her. Mark Wing-Davey as Zaphod Beeblebrox was my first impression of a sort of cheesy seventies cool which was already going out of fashion when HHG was first broadcast - he's magnificently arrogant and self-obsessed (though, unless I ear-blinked and missed it, I don't think there's any reference in the first series to him being president of the galaxy, which I remember being important in the second?). There are also expert cameos from veterans like Valentine Dyall as Deep thought and Roy Hudd as Max Quordlepleen. Best of all is Stephen Moore as Marvin, whose lugubrious voice is accompanied by mechanical walking sound effects so perfect that as soon as he appeared I could see him clearly in my mind's eye - a dejected C3PO done in shades of grey. I wonder if a character like Marvin could be written now? I suspect the paranoid android and his doleful refrain of 'Life? Don't talk to me about life...' would be seen as a jibe at people with mental health problems, and a case of 'punching down' (as if comedy isn't at its best when it punches unpredictably in any direction it fancies). But when I was a teenager I suffered several bouts of what I suppose would now be recognised as depression, and I found Marvin's irrepressible gloom both funny and relatable.

And when it hits its stride - when the writing is at its best - HHG can reach a level of sublime nonsense worthy of Carroll or Swift. There are examples in every episode, but episode three is pretty much all great - the lost planet of Magrathea, the nuclear missile attack whose harmless conclusion we are told in advance to save us from unnecessary stress, the transformation of the missiles into a blue whale and a bowl of petunias, the whale's soliloquy as it plummets towards the ground (Stephen Moore again, I think?) and Arthur's meeting with  the magnificently-monickered Slartibartfast.

Someone - Spike Milligan? - once said the secret of The Goon Show was 'taking an idea to its illogical conclusion', and HHG does that again and again, inventing ideas that wouldn't be out of place in a straight SF story and pushing them over the borders of absurdity. Of course the Babel Fish can translate for you if you pop it in your ear: of course the Golgafrinchans have packed all their marketing executives and telephone sanitisers off in a space ark on a feeble pretext to rid themselves of annoying middlemen, and of course they are then promptly wiped out by a virulent disease contracted from a dirty telephone. The Heart of Gold's Infinite Improbability Drive is only a bit more unlikely than the warp drives and hyperspace jumps the USS Enterprise and the Millennium Falcon use to get around. The Magratheans' bespoke planet-building operation and their decision to go into suspended animation to ride out the economic slump make perfect business sense within the skewed parameters of the Hitch Hiker's galaxy, as does the Restaurant at the End of the Universe (where there's no need to make a reservation as you can book retrospectively when you return to your own time). The show throws out so many ideas, and so quickly, that it needs several listens just to catch them all. It's no wonder twelve-or-thirteen-year-old me found it so inspiring.

The first series ends with Zaphod, Marvin and Trillian all eaten by 'a carbon-copy of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal' while Arthur and Ford are left stranded on prehistoric Earth. The bleak joke works - of course the witless Golgafrinchan hairdressers and marketeers end up as the ancestors of the human race - but its hardly a satisfying resolution. A comedy sketch can afford to leave its protagonist in the soup, but after six episodes we've grown too fond of the characters to leave them hanging like this (with no inkling of further adventures at the time of first broadcast). 

I said at the top that I wasn't going to mention the film, but it spotted a happier ending that Douglas Adams either didn't notice or didn't want. The Magratheans have, after all, been building a second version of the Earth, and it's not too much of a stretch to imagine that it might contain new versions of everyone who was vaporised in episode one, just waiting to be booted up. I liked that ending better - watching it, I felt as if somebody had finally taken hold of this wayward, brilliant thing I'd been listening to for forty years and finished it. But maybe that's why I've ended up writing children's books instead of comedy. (I always feel sorry for the whale, too.)

Anyway, as it turned out, there were to be further adventures: the Christmas special and a whole second series lay ahead. More on those in my next post.

The original Hitch Hiker's Guide series, 'The Primary Phase' and 'The Secondary Phase' are available for download or as CDs from the BBC



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