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A History of 'The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy'

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Zaphod Beeblebrox from The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy TV Series.

Updated 9 April 2010

One night in 1971 a 19-year-old English hitchhiker named Douglas Adams lay drunk in a field in Innsbruck, Austria. He had with him a borrowed copy of Hitchhiker's Guide to Europe by Ken Welsh.

... and when the stars came out it occurred to me that if only someone would write a Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy as well, then I for one would be off like a shot1.

Seven years later Douglas was able to write the Guide himself...

The First Radio Series

After completing a BA in English Literature and working on various writing and performance projects2, Douglas started working on a science fiction/comedy radio series. Originally, he had the idea of writing a series called 'Ends of the Earth' in which the world was destroyed in various ways. However, as he began to write the first episode he introduced an alien named Ford Prefect and in a flash of inspiration decided that he should be a researcher for the fictitious Guide, and the series was renamed The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

The producer of the first episode was Simon Brett but he left and was succeeded by Geoffrey Perkins:

Douglas Adams knew from the start that he wanted to do something very different with the sound of the show. He wanted to apply the kind of production techniques used on, say, a Pink Floyd album to a radio show.

Douglas recalled spending weeks in an underground studio with Geoffrey and the sound engineers, sometimes taking as long on a single sound effect as other people took on a whole series. Douglas later said:

... I felt that myself and the other people working on it... all created something that really felt ground-breaking at the time. Or rather, it felt like we were completely mad at the time.

Geoffrey Perkins also commented:

Douglas went into it with a whole load of ideas but very little notion of what the story would be. He was writing it in an almost Dickensian mode of episodic weekly instalments without quite knowing how it would end.

The Story

The main character is an Englishman named Arthur Dent, who wakes up one morning to discover that his house is about to be bulldozed by the local council to build a bypass. His problems rapidly increase, however, when he discovers that the entire Earth is about to be demolished by aliens called Vogons, ostensibly to make way for a hyperspatial express route. Arthur escapes with help from his friend Ford Prefect3 and soon meets up with Ford's semi-cousin, the two-headed three-armed ex-Galactic President Zaphod Beeblebrox, as well as an astrophysicist named Trillian (or Tricia McMillan), a human who left Earth with Zaphod some time before the Vogons arrived, and a chronically-depressed robot named Marvin, a prototype from the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation with a 'Genuine People Personality'. Ford has with him his electronic copy of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which contains entries on just about everything4. They all explore the universe in a stolen starship powered by an Infinite Improbability Drive, and learn the ultimate answer to life, the universe and everything, which, improbable as it sounds, turns out to be the number 42.

The Importance of Towels

One of the themes of the series is the importance of towels:

A towel is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have... any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the Galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through and still know where his towel is, is clearly a man to be reckoned with.
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams

Douglas explained where the idea came from:

I was vacationing with friends in Greece some years back. Every morning they'd have to sit around and wait for me because I couldn't find my blessed towel... I came to feel that someone really together, one who was well organised, would always know where his towel is.

Dates

There were originally six episodes (or 'fits', as they were known) in the radio series, which were broadcast in 1978 on 8 March, 15 March, 22 March, 29 March, 5 April and 12 April. Douglas's friend John Lloyd co-wrote the fifth and sixth episodes. Later that year, a seventh episode was recorded and it was broadcast on 24 December. It became known as the 'Christmas episode' despite the fact that it didn't contain any references to Christmas. In later replays of the radio shows and releases of recordings, it was bundled in with episodes from the second series (see below).

The Cast

  • Simon Jones (Arthur Dent)
  • Geoffrey McGiven (Ford Prefect)
  • Mark Wing-Davey (Zaphod Beeblebrox)
  • Susan Sheridan (Trillian)
  • Stephen Moore (Marvin)
  • Peter Jones (The voice of the Guide)

Paddy Kingsland of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop provided music and sound effects for the series, including the theme music, a reworking of 'The Journey of the Sorcerer' by The Eagles.

The Awards

The series rapidly grew in popularity. It won three awards: the Imperial Tobacco Award in 1978, the Sony Award in 1979 and the Society of Authors/Pye Awards 'Best Programme for Young People' in 1980. It was also the only radio show ever to be nominated for the Hugo science fiction awards, in 1979, in the 'Dramatic Presentation' category.

The First Book

An English publisher, Pan Books, became interested in the series and commissioned Douglas to write a book based on it. Like many writers, he suffered from writer's block and found it very difficult to get going:

After a lot of procrastination and hiding and inventing excuses and having baths, I managed to get about two thirds of it done.

The first book was an expanded version of the first four episodes of the radio series, though - setting a trend for future adaptations - the story diverged from the radio version in a number of places. It was published in September 1979 and soon reached number one on the Sunday Times mass market best-seller list. Douglas was at this time just 27 years old.

By 1984, 1,000,000 copies of the book had been sold and he received an award from his publisher, a 'Golden Pan'. The book was translated into a number of languages: Dutch, German, Hebrew, Finnish, French and Swedish. In 1996, it was selected by Waterstone's Books/Channel Four for their list of the 'One Hundred Greatest Books of the Century', at number 24.

The Second Radio Series

In early 1980, Douglas created another five radio episodes, continuing on from where the previous ones had left off. They were again broadcast on BBC Radio 4, on January 13, 21, 22, 24 and 25. Unlike the first series, which had received no publicity, it was advertised on the front cover of Radio Times. Despite the name of the publication, it was almost unheard of by this time for a radio series to be promoted on the Radio Times cover.

The journalist Nicholas Wroe wrote:

It is possible to track the movement of Adams's life even between the first and second series of the radio show. In the first there were a lot of jokes about pubs and being without any money. The second had more jokes about expensive restaurants and accountants.

The first series had ended with the two main characters Arthur and Ford trapped on prehistoric Earth. Using Ford's towel they escape and rejoin the others on the starship. The listeners discover the real reason the Earth was destroyed, Zaphod finds out why he convinced himself to run for Galactic President and he, Arthur and Ford meet the real ruler of the universe...

The Second Book

Douglas wrote a second book titled The Restaurant at the end of the Universe, based on episodes from both radio series: 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 5 and 6 (in that order), which was published towards the end of 1980. The title refers to an extravagantly-expensive restaurant (that appears in episode 5 of the radio series) that the characters visit in which they watch the universe explode for their pleasure. That idea came from a song, 'Grand Hotel' by Procol Harum. The book ends with the characters splitting up and Ford and Arthur being trapped on prehistoric Earth once more with a group of unwanted hairdressers, management consultants, 'telephone sanitizers' etc from another planet (episode six of the radio series). The book was as successful as the first one. Douglas received another 'Golden Pan' award for it and it was translated into five foreign languages.

The TV Series

In January 1981, the BBC broadcast a television mini-series of six shows based on the first six episodes of the radio series. Alan Bell produced it while John Lloyd was the associate producer. Some of the actors from the radio series appeared on the television shows too. Arthur Dent, Zaphod and the Voice of the Guide were played by the same people. There were, however, some changes and additions to the rest of the cast:

  • David Dixon (Ford Prefect)
  • Sandra Dickinson (Trillian)
  • David Learner (Marvin's body5)

Also appearing were Richard Vernon as planet architect Slartibartfast, Peter Davison as 'the Dish of the Day'6 and Douglas Adams as a man who gives up on modern life and returns to the sea(!). Music was once again provided by Paddy Kingsland.

Awards

The series won three BAFTA (British Association of Film and Television Arts) awards for 'Best TV Graphics', 'Best VTR Editing' and 'Best Sound'.

The Third Book

In 1982, Douglas's third book, Life, the Universe, and Everything, was simultaneously published in England and the USA. The book is mainly about Arthur and Ford, but Zaphod, Trillian and Marvin appear in it too. It has a strong cricket theme. In the book, Arthur and Ford escape from prehistoric Earth by jumping on a passing Chesterfield sofa and meet up with their friend Slartibartfast, vice president of the Campaign for Real Time. They travel around the universe searching for parts of the Wikket Gate to save the universe from destruction by robots from the planet Krikkit. By the end of the year the book and the previous two books were all on the New York Times and Publishers' Weekly bestseller lists. Douglas received another 'Golden Pan' award and the book was translated into six foreign languages.

The Computer Game

Two years later, Infocom, the computer game company, released a text adventure game based on the first Hitchhiker's book. Douglas developed the ideas and program flow while Infocom's Steve Meretzky did the coding. It was the company's first game based on a novel and was very successful, selling 350,000 copies and winning an award from Thames TV the following year. Its difficulty level was 'extreme'. The game starts with the player taking on the role of Arthur Dent waking up just as a bulldozer arrives to demolish his house. Later on, the game diverges from the plot of the book and the player can then take on the role of other characters (it has to be said, the gameplay requires a strong sense of lateral thinking). The game was written as a data file which could be read by an interpreter program. Interpreters were developed for a number of different computers: Acorn, Apple, Atari, Commodore, Gameboy, IBM PC (DOS, OS/2 and Windows), UNIX systems etc. A version was also developed in Java and can be played on Douglas's website. However, it doesn't allow the player to save the game as the other versions do. A newer, BAFTA Award-winning game can be played at the Radio 4 site.

The Fourth Book

A fourth book, So Long and Thanks for All the Fish was published in late 1984. With typical humour Douglas still called the series a 'trilogy'. This time round, Arthur Dent arrives on a version of the Earth that dolphins have retrieved from another dimension to replace the one that has been destroyed. Most of the book is about Arthur's relationship with his new girlfriend Fenchurch rather than the wild and zany galactic adventures of the previous books. It ends with Arthur, Fenchurch, Ford and Marvin visiting another planet to view God's final message to his creation. Douglas wrote the book because he had been asked to but said a few years later:

... to be honest, I really shouldn't have written [it], and I felt that when I was writing it. I did the best I could, but it wasn't, you know, really from the heart.

The Fifth Book

Douglas took a break from Hitchhiking to work on other things, but eventually wrote a fifth book in the 'trilogy', Mostly Harmless, which was published in 1992. In it we meet two versions of Trillian: one living on Earth in an alternative reality and one working as a time-travelling galactic reporter. Arthur wanders around the universe lost before settling down on a planet to make sandwiches, only to be confronted by a daughter whom he didn't know he had. Meanwhile, Ford attempts to stop the Vogons from using a corrupted version of the Guide to destroy all of the parallel Earths across the dimensions. The book has a sad ending. Douglas said of it:

... it was a bleak book. The reason for that is very simple - I was having a lousy year, for all sorts of personal reasons that I don't want to go into...

The Website

In 1999 The Digital Village, a company co-founded by Douglas to explore the possibilities of the emerging New Media world, created the website h2g27. Their aim was to create a real-life version of the Guide. In February 2001, they handed over control of h2g2 to the BBC. In October 2011, the BBC handed control to Not Panicking Ltd, a company chaired by Stamp, former CEO of The Digital Village. People from all over the world can register as 'Researchers' and write short articles (or 'Entries') on different topics. Examples of existing topics are: 'Etiquette for Chess Spectators', 'Evil from a Western Perspective', 'Alaskan Fish Plants' and 'How Soap Works'.

The Film

One medium in which Hitchhiker's struggled to materialise was film. Douglas Adams travelled to Los Angeles in 1983 to write a script for a movie based on the first book, but that deal failed to progress to production. He wrote many revisions of the script over the years, discussed the project with a number of people in Hollywood including Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman, and tried hard to get it produced but without success. He moved to Santa Barbara with his family in 1999 and was working on the project at the time of his death. He once compared the process of having a Hollywood film made to 'trying to grill a steak by having a succession of people coming into the room and breathing on it.' However, his former-agent Ed Victor said:

Ironically since Douglas's death things have started to look better for the film because a lot of people like me have determined that this film must be made in some kind of honour to him...

It turned out that this sentiment was to spur on the movie production to its release in 2005. With material from Douglas and Karey Kirkpatrick and directed by Garth Jennings, the film loosely followed the plot of the first book, with the extra additions and adaptations you would expect from a DNA script. It contained some famous names in the cast, such as Martin Freeman as Arthur, Sam Rockwell as Zaphod and Zooey Deschanel as Trillian.

Fans were divided in their opinions of the film – some felt that it had lost the Douglas ‘spark’; others thought that the changes were in the spirit of the originals. It was nominated for six awards of which it won the ‘Most Original’ Golden Trailer Award.

The Tertiary, Quandary and Quintessential Phases

In September 2004, Radio 4 played host to a brand new radio series, 25 years after the original had been broadcast. Starring most of the original cast, but with William Franklyn replacing the late Peter Jones as Voice of the Book, the series adapted material from the remaining Hitchhiker books and was produced and directed by Dirk Maggs. After the success of the Tertiary phase, the Quandary and Quintessential phases, based on the remaining books, were broadcast in 2005.

The Final Book - Eoin Colfer

In 2009, another chapter in Hitchhiker's history was created - another h2g2 novel. This time, however, it was not written by Douglas but by Irish children's author Eoin Colfer, who was asked to write the book by the Adams' estate. Opinions were mixed as to whether it would be great to have more adventures with the characters we know and love, or whether they should be allowed to rest in peace after the very definite and final ending to Mostly Harmless. Despite misgivings, many people enjoyed it, although it was very clear that it wasn't written by DNA:

'And Another Thing' doesn't suffer greatly through not being written by Douglas Adams. It does have its weaknesses, but they are far outweighed by Eoin Colfer's strengths. This is a well-written and tightly plotted book that uses Adams' characters brilliantly.
-h2g2 Researcher Psycorp, writing for The Post.

Popularity

To date, over 15 million copies of Douglas's books have been sold worldwide, including the Hitchhiker 'trilogy' and five non-Hitchhiker books. Versions of Hitchhiker appeared in a number of other forms: record albums, a book of the radio scripts, stage adaptations, cassette recordings read by Stephen Moore and Douglas Adams, CDs, videos and DVDs of the TV shows, comics (including electronic versions) by DC Comics and even a bath towel.

When Douglas was asked by a fan club in 1998 the reason for the enduring appeal of Hitchhiker's he said:

Well, I don't know. All I know is that I worked very hard at it... I suspect that the amount that people have liked it is not unrelated to the amount of work I put into it.

One reviewer, Christopher Cerf, said:

He seamlessly blended world-class intelligence - and a daunting knowledge about an impossible variety of subjects... - with transcendental silliness; technophobia with a lust for, and fascination with, every high tech toy imaginable; deep cynicism about virtually everything with an effusively joyful spirit; and one of the quickest wits on the planet with a relentless perfectionism in pursuing his craft.

Douglas's friend Stephen Fry said:

Douglas has in common with certain rare artists... the ability to make the beholder feel that he is addressing them and them alone: I think this in part explains the immense strength and fervour of his 'fan base'...

Long-time fan, James Cullen, said: 'Hitchhiker's Guide has entered into the collective consciousness.' What he liked most about the book was 'the use of language to enable strangeness to seem quite possible and perhaps probable. There was a strong sense that it was founded in a real understanding of physics'.

Tributes

Douglas Adams passed away on 11 May, 2001, following a sudden heart attack. He was 49 years old. He left behind his wife Jane and six-year-old daughter Polly. As news of his death spread around the world, thousands of people posted tributes on the message forum of his own website, his Personal Space on h2g2 and on numerous other websites, email lists, newsletters, newspapers and magazines. Fans suggested that a day be declared Towel Day in his honour, and 25 May was chosen, fairly arbitrarily. Memorial parties were held in a number of countries: Australia, Austria, Brazil, Canada, Czech Republic, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Mexico, the Netherlands, Norway, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland, the UK and the USA.

Douglas had been working on a new novel at the time of his death, provisionally titled The Salmon of Doubt. He originally intended it to be one of his spoof detective novels, but decided that it wasn't working and considered using the material as a sixth Hitchhiker book instead. That will never happen. However, some of Douglas's friends and associates put together a book titled The Salmon of Doubt which was published in 2002 as a posthumous tribute. It contains a biography, speeches and articles Douglas wrote on various topics, a short story he wrote about Zaphod and some of the material from drafts of his novel.

1Although this is the official explanation Douglas always gave as to how he came up with the idea of his most famous work, he has also admitted that this might just be because it's how he remembered telling it the last time. It's entirely possible that this never in fact happened.2This included script-writing and script-editing for Doctor Who.3Ford's real name is something unpronounceable, but when he arrived on Earth he called himself Ford Prefect after a model of car, believing it to be a suitably nondescript Earth name.4It even has an entry on Earth. The original version just read 'Harmless' but Ford was able to persuade the editors - never the most flexible of people - to expand this to 'Mostly Harmless'.5Stephen Moore still played the voice.6Davison, at the time married to Sandra Dickinson, was about to begin his tenure as Doctor Who and accepted the small part of a talking cow because he would be unrecognisable to the viewers.7This is more or less an abbreviation of 'The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy'. Other commonly-used abbreviations are 'HHGG' and 'THHGTTG'.

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