Looking Back At THE HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Looking Back At THE HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY

Tony’s looking for a lift.
The history of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy is such that each individual version of it is the absolute last word favourite version of it to someone.

The original radio show from 1978 has been touted as the best version by almost everyone who heard it on its original broadcast.

The novel from 1979 became a must-read introduction to a whole way of thinking – deep, but also deeply irreverent – for generations.

And in January and February, 1981, the BBC decided to capitalize on the ever-so-polite frenzy of fandom that had begun to grow up around The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide, and translate the radio show into a television version.

It would not, by any stretch of the imagination, be an easy task.

Hitch-Hiker’s had been the first radio comedy to be broadcast in stereo, and its construction was intensely odd, interspersing action from the characters with extracts from ‘The Book’ – meaning the in-universe copy of the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy – to explain the various science fiction concepts and dangers the cast were encountering – as well as a kind of over-narration by the same narrator who read the extracts from ‘The Book.’

(Let’s not waste time pointing out that the narration had subsequently become part of the Earth publishing phenomenon…or ‘book’…that was The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, or we’ll be here all day…)

The music and sound design of Hitch-Hiker’s on radio was staggeringly innovative. How would that transfer to TV?
As it happens, it transferred exceptionally well, but only because the TV adaptation more or less took on the radio version head on, and innovated like its life depended on it, bringing the entries from the Guide to vivid technicolour life, using computer graphics that still hold up today in a charmingly retro, slightly blocky sort of way, but which in 1981 probably took a computer the size of 3 BBC buildings to run.

The transfer from radio to TV was an intriguingly mix-and-match affair. Many of the radio cast, including Simon Jones as perennially hapless Earth man Arthur Dent, Mark Wing-Davey as two-headed, three-armed Galactic President Zaphod Beeblebrox, Stephen Moore as Marvin, the not-especially-paranoid-but-always-very-depressed android, and Peter Jones as The Book transferred straight across from one medium to another. But other crucial radio cast members Geoffrey McGivern as alien Guide researcher Ford Prefect, and Susan Sheridan as cute astrophysicist Tricia McMillan (Trillian) were recast for the visual version, with David Dixon stepping into Ford’s shoes, and American Sandra Dickinson becoming the TV Trillian.

The TV Hitch-Hiker’s is a heady mix of resilient cross Britishness in Arthur Dent and the gloriously alien aliens pretty much from the word Go – while McGivern’s Ford on radio had been relatively avuncular, David Dixon is alien, not so say a little Doctor Whoish, right from the start, and between them, this pairing hook us in immediately and take us into Douglas Adams’ absurdist, but always fairly philosophical universe with ease.
Apart from the new casting chemistry, part of the joy that makes Hitch-Hiker’s work in its TV incarnation is in the cutting back and forth between scenes and Guide entries. While the graphics that provide such entries in and of themselves are still pretty high-class today (not least because of the ridiculously funny detail they frequently include if you freeze-frame them to read the entries), some of the entries are delivered in dialogue from Peter Jones, with specially filmed sequences intercut. The sheer, unadulterated randomness of these film sequences is what makes them work so well as interludes from the main action.

A sequence in the first episode includes a quick filmed moment with a long dinner party table full of well dressed, perfectly made-up guests…and one chimpanzee, to illustrate a one-line gag about Earthmen not being proud of their ancestors and never inviting them round to dinner. A whole bunch of extras, fitted and made up, plus a chimp on loan from God-knows where, committed to film just to underline that gag.

Similarly, a sequence describing the effects of drinking a Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster (the best drink in existence, naturally) involves two fully made-up, green-painted aliens taking sips of a golden nectar, then immediately passing out. The line in Adams’ script is funny anyway, but the seemingly cavalier inclusion of filmed sequences to bolster the reality described by The Book added a loose, quirky feeling to the TV version, as if there really hadn’t been a budgetary constraint in filming, and the production team just shot whatever they could to keep the tone of the TV Hitch-Hiker’s buoyant and bouncing along.
When we eventually meet up with President Beeblebrox, the money and the innovation ramps up a level, with Mark Wing-Davey saddled with acting through his real head, while having an extra, animatronic head cast in his image and carried on his shoulder. While probably nobody would argue that the animatronic Zaphod-head is a runaway success, it is good enough that you quickly stop questioning why it should be there at all. That might sound like a trivial thing, but when the long-mooted and eventually made movie was released, they skirted the whole two-headed thing by having an extra head ‘pop up’ from time to time. While that was a perfectly valid move, once you’d seen the Mark Wing-Davey version, it could never look entirely ‘right’ because the TV version nailed it.

The combination of Adams’ invention with a fairly tight line on where it could go and what it could do meant the show felt anarchic, but simultaneously structured. The realization of the text-heavy radio show in a highly visual way with superbly detailed infographics and specially filmed sequences meant that the seemingly unfilmable radio show simply flew off the screen. And a cast that went all the way and then some to deliver the comedy and the philosophical underpinnings of Adams’ universe did something impressive and special, nailing a radio dream onto your TV screen.

It all combined to make a comedy that was as surreal as the Goons had been, but with a degree in staring philosophically out of windows pondering the meaning of life. And besides that, it turned it into something that worked as a TV comedy. It was seldom if ever ‘sitcom,’ and there were plenty of times when the TV version followed its radio forebear down an alleyway and clubbed reason to death for the sake of a great line or reveal. But the TV version of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy sold the internal consistency of its story, complete with its comedy and its drama.

The story that started when the council wanted to knock Arthur Dent’s house down, expanded to the destruction of the Earth, visited a planet that built other planets, in a spaceship that moved about the vast distances of interstellar space based on the fact that such a thing was really very improbable, took in dinner and a show at the end of the universe and eventually, to cut a twisted story short, got stuck on prehistoric Earth with a load of telephone sanitizers would never be quite the same again once it had been turned into a TV comedy.

It shouldn’t have been possible. Which means it was very, very improbable.

Which in turn means that, with the help of many cups of hot tea, the TV version of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy was more or less guaranteed to be an absolute triumph – a blend of joy and genius that lit up the Eighties and stands today among many of the classics of TV comedy.
Being relentlessly, agreeably funny isn’t easy for anyone. Being relentlessly, agreeably funny with a swirling fund of philosophically profound ideas behind the laughs – Do Androids Dream Of Electric Suicide? How would compound interest work if you survived till the end of time? Would it be possible to avoid paying taxes if you were voluntarily dead for a while? What is the ultimate answer to the question of life, the universe, and everything? And why do petunias think “Oh no, not again” when plummeting to the surface of an alien planet? – is harder still.

Making that kind of comedy both extremely funny and visual takes a whole lot of geniuses working at the top of their game.

Don’t

Panic.

The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy is often referred to as ‘a wholly remarkable book.’

The 1981 TV version of the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy is a wholly remarkable translation of a work of comic genius into an accessible six-part series that stands the test of time today as much as any other comedy show in the history of the world, and better than most. Barring unfortunate demolition by some bureaucratic aliens, it will still stand the test of time a hundred years from now – which is more than can be said for you. Catch it again right now – while you’re standing on a conveniently unexploded planet.

Watch The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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