The new Hitchhiker’s Guide: come back, Douglas Adams!

I hurried out of work last night so that I could listen to the third series of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy last night (HHGTTG hereafter) on the car radio. I loved the first two series, and some time ago read the books that this third series has been based on.

Yet my reaction to this one? It feels downbeat. There’s none of the sparkle that must have come from Douglas Adams’s obsessive polishing of the original scripts (it’s said he used to start with a page he’d written and then boil it down to a line). There wasn’t any of that shock of the surreal that the first episode of the first series had (“It was on display on the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard.”).

Other people seem to feel the same way, from a quick scan of the BBC Hitchhiker messsage boards.

Oh, Douglas Adams, we miss you. I met him a few times, heard him speak a few times, was midwife for a feature he wrote for The Independent (requires subscription). I treasure the emails we exchanged; they’re direct, sometimes funny, insightful.

Here’s a key part of the feature: There’s always a moment when you start to fall out of love, whether it’s with a person or an idea or a cause, even if it’s one you only narrate to yourself years after the event: a tiny thing, a wrong word, a false note, which means that things can never be quite the same again. For me it was hearing a stand-up comedian make the following observation. “These scientists eh? They’re so stupid! You know those black box flight recorders they put on aeroplanes? And you know they’re meant to be indestructible? It’s always the thing that doesn’t get smashed? So why don’t they make the planes out of the same stuff?” The audience roared with laughter at how stupid scientists were, how they couldn’t think their way out of a paper bag, but I sat feeling uncomfortable. Was I just being pedantic to feel that the joke didn’t really work because flight recorders are made out titanium and that if you made planes out of titanium rather than aluminium they’d be far too heavy to get off the ground in the first place?

I began to pick away at the joke. Supposing Eric Morecambe had said it? Would it be funny then? Well, not quite, because that would have relied on the audience seeing that Eric was being dumb, in other words they would have had to know as a matter of common knowledge about the relative weights of titanium and aluminium. There was no way of deconstructing the joke (if you think this is obsessive behaviour you should try living with it) that didn’t rely on the teller and the audience complacently conspiring together to jeer at someone who knew more than they did. It sent a chill down my spine and still does. I felt betrayed by comedy in the same way that gangsta rap now makes me feel betrayed by rock music. I also began to wonder how many of the jokes I was making were just, well, ignorant.

Then again, he could be enormously funny too. I recall seeing him giving a talk at an Apple Expo, in the day when that company had “Masters”; Adams was one. He was recounting how excited he’d been on receiving his first big LCD Cinema Display, in the days when such things were new and very expensive.

“I called up the Apple people,” he said, “and told them, ‘This is the most wonderful thing I’ve seen since I got my first ggirlfriend’s bra off.'”

3 Comments

  1. I was tech ed on MacUser when he and Michael Bywater were doing the back page (I seem to remember it depended on which of them we could track down, or perhaps Bywater took over when DNA went AWOL). Never worked with him, but heard him speak at events… I’m still royally pissed off that he’s gone.

    As for the show – it got better with a repeat listening. Everyone sounds older, oddly enough. There weren’t enough spot effects and the music was haphazard… and by chance, my iPod picked an old HHTTG episode out on shuffle on the tube this morning. Peter Jones was irreplaceable.

    However: the tone of the show was remarkably close to that of the last episode of the previous series, so score one for continuity. Marvin and the mattress would by now be as fondly remembered as — well, probably not quite the Frogstars and the battle robot, but close.

    I wasn’t ready for, and will never be comfortable with, Zaphod having relationship issues… but I’ll remember the line about the drinks.

    R

  2. Yes, Peter Jones is sadly missed too. I couldn’t get the “Listen Again” button to work on the BBC HHG page this morning; maybe later.

    Less good sound: perhaps the influence of the outsourcing John Birt. Does the Radiophonic Workshop (or whatever it was called) have less expertise now?

  3. The Radiophonic Workshop closed in late 1996 – it seems that while the BBC is happy to keep a few orchestras going, it couldn’t see the point of the workshop once everyone had synthesisers.

    Don’t get me started on that.

    Listen Again for HHG will kick off after the repeat tonight, apparently.

    R

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