‘Others knew me in different forms. I have been quite popular in my time. Some even read my books’. So narrates Professor Stephen Hawking in his role as ‘The Hitchhikers Guide to The Galaxy Mk. II’ in the new series of the cult classic from Perfectly Normal Productions, designed to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the radio series and including many of the original cast. As co-producer (together with Dirk Maggs) on the series can you tell us about how this cameo came about?
Last summer, while Dirk was working on the Hitchhiker’s adaptation, I was in France writing a play for the BBC about David Bowie. I was in the back garden, looking up at the Pyrenees with a glass of wine in my hand and a fantastically bright shooting star fell out of the heavens. That set me thinking about The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy and who we could get to play cameos. As soon as I thought of Stephen Hawking, I just thought “of course!!” I didn’t know for sure that he’d be a fan, but I contacted his PA in Cambridge and asked her if he might be interested to play a small role in the series. She asked him, and he immediately said yes. I think me and Dirk were both jumping up and down with glee, because there was something so right about combining the worlds of Douglas Adams and Stephen Hawking. So we sent him a script, he read it and agreed to the role of the Guide Mk II - a hugely powerful intellect - and then I sent the script to his technical assistant, who typed it into the machine that made his voice and hey presto! Out came the script in Professor Hawking’s voice. Amazing. Dirk edited it into the programme in post production.
Prof Hawking joins members from the original radio, television and stage casts – including Simon Jones who reprises his role as Arthur Dent. What was it like working with not only with members from the original radio series, but also actors that had been involved in the various subsequent adaptations of the story?
The original cast have worked with Dirk on several series since Douglas Adams asked him to direct the third series. This is now the sixth one. There have also been a stage tour of the UK with them, and a live version on Radio 4. Both in some way related to our company Perfectly Normal. So this series just felt like getting the band back together again, as Dirk would put it. The surviving cast are all old friends, and are bound together in the Hitchhiker’s world. Simon Jones actually had the role of Arthur Dent written with him in mind, and he says in his usual self deprecating manner, that he doesn’t have to search too far in the cupboard for the character. They are all relaxed, very bright, and very funny so it’s a joy to be part of it.
Douglas Adams’ friend, co-author and former flatmate John Lloyd was recruited to represent the voice The Book – to what extent was John’s involvement integral in lending authenticity to the project?
John co-wrote parts 5 and 6 of the original series, so yes, he understood the project absolutely and was another way of keeping the series true to the spirit of the previous incarnations. Of course, Peter Jones had been the first voice, then Bill Franklyn. Both hard acts to follow, but John pitches it perfectly. And he’d been the Voice of the Guide for us in the live version on Radio 4, so we knew he worked. John is a comic genius, and I don’t use that word lightly, how else can you describe someone who invented The News Quiz, Not The Nine O’Clock News, Spitting Image, QI, Blackadder and a zillion other shows. He just gets comedy and understands how to bring out the joy and comedy in the written lines.
The series is adapted from Eoin Colfer’s And Another Thing …, the work commissioned by the Douglas Adams Estate in 2009 to mark the 30th anniversary of the first novel and includes a host of unpublished materials. What were the challenges and opportunities of using archival resources that were not otherwise known to the public?
When Douglas died his family donated his papers to his old college, St John’s. So we sent Kevin Davies, probably the world’s leading expert on Douglas and his work, to look through it and find new material that Dirk could use for the series and I could use for an accompanying Radio 4 documentary. Obviously, the challenge in using work that was either rejected by Douglas, or at least put aside, is to make sure that the quality threshold is still as high as in the final versions of other series. I think Dirk has done that brilliantly in this series.
The original radio series was notable for its use of sound - Adams apparently said that he wanted the programme’s production to resemble to that of a modern rock album. How did you approach issues of sound and sound effects in the production?
The reason Douglas approached Dirk to direct series three was because he had heard Dirk’s radio version of Superman. The original two series had been outstanding for their time, but Douglas didn’t want to rest on his laurels, so he contacted Dirk to bring a new dimension to the project. Dirk’s “audio movie" techniques lead the world, and are absolutely key to keeping Hitchhiker’s at the cutting edge of audio drama. The sound Dirk created in post-production is intense, multi-layered and puts you right in the middle of the action. Hitchhiker’s wouldn’t work if it sounded like The Archers!
Very broadly where do you see future opportunities for Douglas Adams’ work, including across stage, radio, TV?
Hitchhiker’s started on radio, became novels, stage plays, tv, and even a movie, but for my money it’s best where it started - audio only, where it can really get inside your head. Zaphod Beeblebrox only has two heads because Douglas wanted to use stereo to make a joke. I hope that audio will lead it somewhere new and exciting in the future.