No one listens much to the radio any more. In fact, for many of us, it is but a distant memory – in my case of sonorous waves of sitar, to the accompaniment of which my obese, constipated uncle waddled his way to the loo every morning. But if there’s one thing we should be grateful for, it’s that Douglas Adams came out of it.
Well not literally, of course, seeing as how he was an extremely large and mainly unathletic person, with a mysterious tendency of leaping on top of tables and lecturing people while waving his arms about. And an inordinate appetite for sandwiches. And towels.
But all this is beside the point. The point is, one morning he woke up and decided to do a radio show. This in itself was not unusual. Many people before and since, have done the same thing, strange as it may seem to the rest of us. Douglas, though, had been much inspired by Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, and wanted to do a radio show which sounded like a rock album. And so was launched an odyssey involving sandwiches, missed deadlines, bemused actors, hysterical sound engineers, and several busted recording machines.
Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was, both on and off the air, like the Marx Brothers on radio. Douglas loved to end each episode with a dramatic flourish, leaving the listener to think, "Geez, how are they going to get out of this one?" This tended to be problematic, as Douglas quite often actually couldn’t figure out how they would. In one episode, for example, having been insufficiently appreciative of the truly unspeakable poetry of Vogon Prostnetic Jeltz, Ford Prefect and Arthur Dent are shoved out of the airlock of a Vogon spaceship by a Loud Vogon Guard. Having puzzled over much of the week as to how he could save his heroes, Douglas came up with the idea of the Improbability Drive – an engineering device specially tailor-made to camouflage thin plot devices.
Ideas, of course, was what Hitchhiker’s was all about, with about three weird ones on every page. From the Total Perspective Vortex, out of which only Zaphod Beeblebrox ever emerged sane ("I’m hungry, man"), to Marvin the Paranoid Android ("Life, don’t tell me about life!"), to the Dish of the Day, to Robot Disco Dancers, to The Captain Who Spent All His Time In The Bathtub.
Although it may not be apparent, Douglas was a great satirist, with a burning need to expose the injustices of his time. At one point, Arthur comes across a civilisation where the whole race of a planet has devolved into scrawny, bedraggled birds, their entire economy destroyed by rampant competition on the part of shoe manufacturers. So they finally eschew the ground altogether and become the aforementioned scrawny, bedraggled birds, amongst whom the word ‘shoe’ is never to be uttered. Evil shoe manufacturers and their poorly shod soldiers still roam the planet, ruthlessly seeking customers. This episode was triggered by Douglas spending an entire afternoon at dozens of shoe shops on Oxford Street, and completely failing to find anything decent in the right size. So don’t let anyone ever tell you that he wasn’t alive to the major social issues of his day, and that it was all just mere entertainment or something shallow like that.
For those of you interested in odd things like factual accuracy, it ought to be noted that Hitchhiker’s went on to become one of BBC’s most successful radio programs ever. Many letters were received at BBC’s Bush House, addressed to Megadodo Publications, asking for copies of the guide. One enterprising customer even enclosed a penny, suggesting that BBC deposit in the bank, and then go forward in a time machine and collect all the interest at the end of time, arguing that the handsome profits would more than cover the cost of both the book and its delivery. Throughout the series, the recording was always done in bits and pieces, and Douglas was finishing scripts page by page (the rumour was he used toilet paper, to save costs, presumably) , so the actors never had the faintest idea what was going on. In fact, two of the cast members met on a BBC talk show, and one of them told the other that he was in some show where no one seemed have the faintest clue, to which the other one said, "Oh, yes, that must be Douglas’s thing, I’m in it too, actually…"
Hitchhiker’s went on to become a book, a record, a TV show, a computer game, a source of several hit songs, inspiration for a pop group (Level 42), Fox Mulder’s address (No. 42 once again), a massive towel franchise, and a movie that never gets made. Adams did other things too, creating Dirk Gently, the holistic detective, and pondering on grave issues like What Happens If You Don’t Clean The Fridge Long Enough And Then You’re Too Scared To Open It.
He passed away a day or two back. We can only hope his spirit is out there somewhere, roaming the galaxy. So long as he has a towel, a copy of the guide, and enough sandwiches, he should be OK. And if not, well, that’s Belgium, man, really Belgium.