Peter Jones died this week, and those who knew and worked with him will remember him, as I do, with enormous affection, pleasure, and astonishment at the sheer number of ways he was able to mispronounce the word 'encyclopaedia'. Well, probably not - that last was a gift he reserved for a privileged few, those of us who were lucky enough to be there to hear him record his extraordinary performances as the voice of the Book in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
I remember the first time I met him (well, I don't in fact, so I'm just going to make it up and keep going till something rings true). He had the air of a bank manager who had been fired for being too nice to people: a rumpled raincoat, black glasses and a kind of genial 'oh well' quality, as if we were all going to be awfully brave and cheerful about something dreadful that had just happened, though he wasn't quite certain what it was or if it really was going to matter terribly much. He wasn't quite certain where, in the circumstances, to put his umbrella.
He sat and peered at the script, as if it was an application for a loan to buy an ostrich farm in Shrewsbury. Feeling very nervous I leapt in and tried desperately to explain things. You can imagine:
'There's this kind of fish, you see, they have to wear in their ears, and it absorbs brainwave energy...'
'It's this vicious race of alien poets, you understand, I think it'll work, and what they do is...'
and he would sit there saying
'Yeesss... yeesss... yeeeeessss...'
and finally, a terrifyingly long time after I'd finished explaining;
'Hmmm. I see'.
Another pause, then at last a very slight chuckle and
'Yes, I like that, that's quite funny'.
That's the moment, of course, when the bank manager would have lost his job.
'Well, we'd better give it a go'.
And then, after a bit of chatter and fiddling with mikes and glasses of water, he started to read it.
Now, of course, 20 odd years later, the sound of his voice reading these passages is so indelibly imprinted on my mind - the recordings in all the different media, the many times they've been repeated around the world, the many times they've been copied in commercials, etc, etc, - that it's quite odd to realise that there was a time when I had no idea at all what they would sound like, that there was an actual first time when I heard him say
'This is the story of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy...'
and knew that something, rather unexpectedly, was going to work.
He found the tone almost immediately - a mixture of Olympian detachment and cosy chat, as if god had unexpectedly popped in for a cup of tea and a gossip. And where the tone was bemused it was clear that he - whoever this unspecified character was - was bemused by very different things than we, mere mortal Earthlings, were. But the secret to his performance was the usual pair of twins - brilliant comic timing mixed with enormously hard work.
Peter worked tirelessly and patiently, poring over the scripts for hours, finding the rhythms, finding - more importantly - the full stops and occasionally, plaintively, asking for a few more. A man has to breathe, after all. We recorded take after take after take, Peter cheerfully trying anything and everything we asked, chasing down every last nuance in the performance which then, of course, after all this effort, sounded effortless. The only thing that kept tripping him up was the word 'encyclopaedia'. He just couldn't say it, certainly not the same way twice. Encyclep...encyclic...encyclodep. It drove him crazy, and the more frustrated he became the worse it got. In the end I think we'd just have to edit the word together from individual syllables.
I remember when we came to record the same passages a third time round. We had done radio, then record album, now television. Peter arrived at the sound suite at TV centre and breezily cantered through his first speech which he must have known by heart - bit of a fluff on that damn word again, but otherwise perfect. He was just warming up. At which point the TV director piped up over the talkback:
'I'm sorry Peter, love, I'm going to have to ask you to do it again, I'm afraid. This isn't radio now, you know, it's television and we have to get it right.'
Peter didn't say anything but our eyes met just for a second, and I think we both knew that I had made a mistake in bringing it to this medium. However genial and vague Peter might like to appear to be, he had a shrewd and appraising gaze.
Towards the end of his life it was clear, listening to his increasingly sublime incompetence on Just a Minute, that he was getting a little more vague than usual but it was also clear that it was becoming an increasingly potent weapon in his comic armoury. His timing was now so exquisite that he could allow himself all the time in the world to do anything he liked, and get away with it.
I confess that I didn't know him well, but he seemed to me to be an almost impossibly nice man, and touched with comic genius. I think he hugely enjoyed his role in Hitchhiker, and that's something of which I am, just now, extremely proud.