In 1971, 19-year-old Douglas Noel Adams found himself penniless, drunk and lying in a field near Innsbruck, Austria. Looking up at the stars, with a copy of the Hitch-hiker’s Guide to Europe in his hand, he imagined a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy—he, for one, would be “off like a shot”, he thought.
Forty years later, the hazy musings of that inebriated evening would become one of the most popular books of the 20th century. From a BBC radio series in 1978, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books, first published in October 1979, became an international phenomenon. The tale of Adams’ inspiration would grow in the telling; so much so that he himself would admit that he wasn’t sure it ever happened. The Hitchhiker universe would expand to six books, a TV series, a Hollywood movie and the names of two asteroids.
Don’t panic: (from extreme left) Marvin, the Paranoid Android, Zaphod, Ford and protagonist Arthur Dent. AFP
Adams died at the age of 49 in 2001, but the Hitchhiker’s Guide lives on. The official sixth book of the “trilogy” by Eoin Colfer was released this month. We look back at 30 years of towels, paranoid androids and Pan-Galactic Gargle Blasters.
Q&A | Eoin Colfer
The Next Hitchhiker
The author of the new book on why Zaphod Beeblebrox is his favourite character, and his own special towel
Eoin Colfer is the author of the Artemis Fowl series of books. In 2008, he was commissioned at the request of Douglas Adams’ widow Jane Belson to write the official sixth book of the Hitchhiker’s Guide (h2g2) trilogy to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the series. Edited excerpts:
What is it about h2g2 that’s made it so immensely popular?
When I first read it, it was a completely new genre of fiction—sci-fi satire. There was nothing quite like it, and the only thing that resembled it was...Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift, and that was written 250 years ago!
I think it’s the cleverness of the writing that’s made it endure. The jokes are so cleverly set up, and he uses a mix of funny one-liners and also very large, complicated satire set pieces. It speaks to people who follow politics and current affairs, and I think this contributed to the longevity of the series, because I know a lot of people, young people, who say they were introduced to the books by their parents. They’re already being passed down generation to generation.
Do your favourite characters make an appearance in the book?
Starry: Author Eoin Colfer.
I always really liked Zaphod Beeblebrox, the galactic president. He is very eminently suitable to today—he’s a real creature of the new millennium, he is driven by the media, by celebrity culture. He’s in the book, yes. I was a huge Marvin the Paranoid Android fan too. But his death scene was so well-written in the original books that I didn’t think it would be very respectable to bring him back again.
What is your favourite part in the new book?
I think my favourite part is towards the very end, where there’s a big showdown on this new planet called Nano, where Thor the Thunder God fights Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged with unusual consequences. There’s also a new Irish character (in contrast to all the Englishness of the original), and he’s turning out to be quite a favourite.
Will you be working on another ‘h2g2’ book?
I’m not going to do any more. I did this one, and I thought it was a nice thing...but to do more than that would be like taking over the series. But I would like to see someone else give it a shot, though. There are a lot of writers out there who could, and it would be a very nice Douglas tribute.
What would an ‘h2g2’ soundtrack sound like?
Well, I actually listened a lot to the original soundtrack by a guy called Joby Talbot, who wrote the OST for the original radio show, and then the TV series. They loved him so much they used bits of it for the movie as well.
What would you do on International Towel Day?
I’d bring out my special Hitchhiker’s Guide towel ( I have one!), and I’d be lying on that towel on holiday in a nice beach somewhere.
Q&A | Dirk Maggs
The man who adapted the cult series to radio on his favourite ‘h2g2’ moment, and on working with Douglas Adams
Dirk Maggs is a radio producer and director of the radio adaptations of three of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy novels and Adams’ Dirk Gently detective books. He spoke to Lounge about discovering Hitchhiker’s, his favourite moment in the series, and working with Adams. Edited excerpts:
When were you first introduced to ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ (‘h2g2’), and what did you think of it then?
Radio ga ga: Dirk Maggs.
It was the summer of 1978. I was a trainee BBC studio manager (“SM”), learning how to edit and mix radio programmes. Only months before, the first series of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy had finished its run on Radio 4.
Having missed it, but catching some clips on review programmes, Hitchhiker’s sounded to me like a Monty Python-esque Doctor Who, and my Ford Prefect lifestyle of drinking a lot and dancing with girls precluded further investigation. So it was only when we did night shifts in the BBC World Service newsroom that I listened to it. Over the years, bored SMs had put together a tape library of stuff to listen to—comedy programmes, blooper reels, etc., that others could enjoy when things got quiet. The entire first series of Hitchhiker’s was among them, and it was at 3am one night in a dusty corner of Bush House that I realized it was a work of genius.
What do you think the impact of the series has been, 30 years on?
Hitchhiker’s has become iconic. I don’t think Douglas ever dreamed of the success it would have, let alone the global following it has developed since. Very few comic authors find their work survives translation—it’s a triumph only on the scale of Shakespeare or Tolstoy—but Hitchhiker’s is read in more languages and more countries than Douglas ever visited—and he was a great traveller.
What was your relationship with Adams like? Did you ever work together on a project?
I had never met Douglas until he phoned up the BBC and asked if I would be interested in completing the Hitchhiker’s saga—which by then had become a series of novels—back in its original medium of radio. He had heard some of my visual production style on series like Superman and thought I was the producer for the job. Well, you can imagine I was round to his house like a shot.
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He proved to be charming, a wonderful mixture of enthusiastic school pal and all-knowing sage. I thoroughly enjoyed our meetings though they were sadly few, and then he died at the tragically young age of 49. I’m just glad I eventually had the chance to complete the work, though I’m eternally sorry he was not in the studio with us when we did. Though you know, in a way, of course, he was.
Do you have a favourite ‘h2g2’ moment or character?
It’s very hard after three series to think of a particular favourite because there are so many. Arthur Dent is, of course, because he is the lost and lonely person inside all of us, looking for contentment and happiness and getting more and more bamboozled by the strangeness and variety of life.
One of the strange characters I loved was the mystic played in our (The) Quandary Phase by Saeed Jaffrey—Arthur and he sit on poles high above the ground, arguing over philosophical issues, and he gets more and more obtuse until he vanishes. Of course, it helps that Simon Jones and Saeed are such wonderful actors and such a joy to work with, let alone the material by Douglas.
What sort of response did you get for your adaptations?
Overall there was an avalanche of gratitude that we had managed to finally make the series, and that we had stayed so true to the spirit of the originals. Of course, there are always a tight bunch of die-hard fans who behave like Thought Police and feel that nothing must be touched, but I discussed them with Douglas when he was still alive and his dismissive comment about how to take their criticism was brief, pithy and unprintable.