First broadcast in March 1978, Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is one of the most successful and well-loved series to ever hit the airwaves.
Nearly 35 years later the original cast and crew have reunited to perform the original series live to audiences across the UK.
Ahead of the Manchester debut of the show I was lucky enough to chat to Simon Jones, the original space and time-weary Arthur Dent, about how it feels to bring the radio show to a live audience.
After some initial trouble connecting with Simon, I received a voicemail from him: “I didn’t get to the phone in time it seems…”
For a split second I was in fantasy land, Arthur Dent had just left me a voicemail.
Fortunately I was soon able to snap back to reality and get in touch with Simon to begin our interview.
How did the idea of doing the show live come about?
Well it’s very simple really. Over the years we have never performed in front of a live audience because when we did the original radio show it was all done in bits like a jigsaw in the Radiophonic workshop. When we were recording it was as much as a mystery to us as it was to the public.
Then of course we did a TV series and there was no audience there except for the crew who I expect were all looking forward to their lunch break. The first time we actually did it in front of an audience was in 2009. Penguin Books were publishing And Another Thing by Eoin Colfer.
We came along to perform and stepped onto the stage in front of 2,000 people in their dressing gowns, holding their towels, who had come from all over Europe. It was like a rock concert. Marvin said “I want you to know I’m feeling very depressed” and they all stamped their feet and Dirk Maggs and I looked at each other and said, “There’s something in this, I think we should do more of this – we should take this to the people.”
How was the script adapted for the live show?
Dirk’s analysis of the script is astonishing, his knowledge is encyclopaedic. We squeeze all five books into two hours. It’s been so gratifying to know there are people coming to the shows who have never heard it before because that was we wanted to do – spread the word of Douglas’ wit.
Would Douglas Adams be surprised at the cult following H2G2 has developed?
It’s been 35 years so yes I think he would. He would also be so enjoying the technological revolution that he sort of predicted. The Hitchhiker’s Guide is essentially an iPad or iPhone. We’ve learnt to live with doors that talk to us, elevators that talk to us and the Encyclopaedia Galactia is nothing more than Wikipedia – it too is described as being ‘often holy inaccurate’!
How did it feel to perform in front of a live audience?
We made more of a spectacle of it. It’s a little dry to just stand in front of a microphone and deliver a script. We do still read from the script because if you put down the script, people’s expectations rise by about 300% or more. They expect you to fly around or be blown up or be chased by mad flapping bats.
The great thing is that you can download each individual show about 48 hours afterwards and keep it as your individual memento of the show, which is fun because we have different guest voices of the book.
Do you have a favourite narrator?
It’s hard to tell because we’re only half way through the tour and I wouldn’t want to make the others jealous! I may have to work with one or two of them again… But John Cullshaw does a perfect impression of Peter Jones.
Will you be wearing the famous Arthur Dent dressing gown?
We have a rather lighter weight version that I can wear on stage not least because the dressing gown of that era was a particularly nasty object. It seemed to be lined with brillo. I don’t know why anyone would want to wear one next to their skin unless they it was for penance of some kind. It also reeks of mothballs and I don’t think I could stand it for any length of time.
How much of Arthur Dent is you and how much is Douglas Adams?
At first I thought, “I can’t believe he thinks this is me, it must be him, and he’s just projecting this on to me.” He said “I’ve written this with you in mind” which I thought was just his way of getting me to do it, as he knew flattery would get him everywhere.
But as I get older I think I am turning into Arthur Dent – my wife in the background says ‘definitely’ – I get enraged at inanimate objects and I do occasionally say ‘I don’t understand!’ so yes I think I’ve become more like him as I go on.
Are you still fond of the character?
Oh yes and the cast are fond of each other. It’s like a family gathering like Christmas and I’m the quiet decorative uncle.
Are you frequently recognised as Arthur Dent when you’re out and about?
Only when I speak funnily enough. My voice hasn’t changed at all. I spent all that time working in America and that’s probably what ended up helping my voice. I can slip into American when I need to, for reading novels and that sort of thing. But it’s not what people want me for.
Do you ever have strange encounters with fans?
The other day a woman showed me a fresh tattoo that said ‘Mostly Harmless’ which she’d had done that day – that was a little unnerving – to match the one that said ‘Don’t Panic’ on her wrist [Simon shouts with mock panic].
I think it was Mark that said we should all have 42 delicately tattooed somewhere on our anatomy but I don’t think that will happen now we’ve thought over it.
You’ve done the radio show, TV series, a movie, and now it’s gone full circle. Why is it that H2G2 works so well in audio format?
The interesting thing was it was conceived as a radio series so anyone who wanted to do it visually was hoisted by their own petard. For example Zaphod having two heads was purely a stereo joke. It was based on using both microphones so it came out of the each speaker that was all it was for.
Then of course on screen he had to have a second head- that annoyed Mark Wing Davey because the head cost more than his salary. He had to go around with this thing on his shoulder and he hated it!
How does Marvin work onstage?
He is perfect. He’s made of bits of old analogue radio parts and old tape recorder. I think people really adore him. Dirk Maggs’ son operates him from behind, sort of brings him on and manipulates him. He does a very good job too.
So what’s next for you and the rest of the Hitchhiker’s crew?
We’ll have to contemplate if we’ll do it again.
How likely is it that you will return to the stage?
It certainly turned out to be much more of a success than we’d dared hoped. People do love it. It’s extraordinary how many people come up to me and say, “Oh gosh it’s been the soundtrack to my life – you helped me get through A-levels.”
I always think they must have been very distracted when they were going through their A-levels.