Just slightly more than 42 years since the radio show appeared, a friend of mine and I, on a long journey back to Cambridge from Northumberland, listened to the first six episodes. Such fun to revisit this astonishing programme, one of those high-watermarks that sometimes happens and is never repeated.
A few thoughts
The genius creativity
All this appeared in the first series:
- Earth demolished for a hyperspace bypass,
- the Hitchhiker’s Guide as an electronic book (before ebooks were a thing)
- Vogon poetry
- The Infinite Improbability drive
- Appliances with personality
- A depressed robot
- Magrathea, site of bespoke planet building
- The Restaurant at the End of the Universe
- The Ultimate Answer and the Ultimate Question
- Jokes about misunderstandings of scale – -beweaponed battlefleet eaten by small dog
- A people so unbelievably primitive that they still thought digital watches were a pretty neat idea
- Cosmic hitchhiking
- The Babel fish
- A long-awaited saviour turning up late, having got caught up with things
- A philosophers’ trade union protesting about the arrival of computer-generated certainty.
No wonder (in my view) Douglas Adams never was as good again:he just poured creativity into the first series. Perhaps, in comparison, there wasn’t much left over for later use.
A few things I didn’t notice earlier
- Adams’ can’t create women characters (only Trillion in Hitchhiker’s Guide). She was redeemed, quite a bit, in the movie but in her original radio script she was insipid and rather useless as a character, sadly.
- Tech goes wrong. For me, this was the most deeply attractive thing about Hitchhiker’s Guide. In the SF I had consumed till then, tech worked. The doors never jammed in the Star Trek elevator. Arthur Clarke’s often revisited 23rd century had solved many of the world’s problems and its characters looked down on the 20th century. How refreshing in Douglas Adams to find mayhem, marketing and meaninglessness.
- Earth is English, and the Universe is American. Zaphod is American, the police chasing him are American, as are radio stations ‘broadcasting round the Universe, round the clock’; The Sirius Cybernetics Corporation; Eddie the shipboard computer and his backup personality. A lot of the humour is actually played across the fault lines between English and American. (‘What is your name?’ ‘Dent. Arthur Dent.” ‘Well, Dentarthurdent…’). In this Adams follows other fantasy: Narnia is English, Tolkein’s Shire is England, JK Rowling’s wizarding world is (now with a splash of colour) is traditionally British, a Britain of amateurism, understatement, deference, bullying, cocoa and pyjamas.
- Jeeves appears. The unflappable waiter in the Restaurant at the End of the Universe is a cut-and-pasted Jeeves. Adams was a fan.
- Douglas Adams had great fun pursuing absurdity to the end. The computer Deep Thought is disgusted when compared to other computers and spends quite a bit of dialogue insulting them. The trigger-happy police spend a lot of dialogue explaining how they are really sensitive and caring individuals. Off-piste, off-plot conversation burrowing down into absurdity while the plot waits in the background, is comic gold.
Longevity and creativity
This whole piece is beyond the scope of the blog in which I’m putting it, but it is interesting to see how people sustain, or don’t, humour and genius. In my erratic and unsystematic reading, I can divide English humourists into two camps, the shooting stars and the planets- the burst of light, and the steady orbit.
The shooting stars Are the people who write one brilliant comic thing and though they may extend it in different ways, are never as good again. Into this go Kingsley Amis (did he ever do better than Lucky Jim?); Sue Townsend; Evelyn Waugh (very arguably, but did he do anything better in comedy and satire than Scoop?). Douglas Adams fits here of course. I found the later series of Hitchikers disappointing, even embarassing.
These are the humourists who manage to sustain a life of writing comedy. They just go round and round, spinning off books every few months. Think of P G Wodehouse or Terry Pratchett. How did they do it? I wonder if there weren’t several parts:
- Comic characters, and even single jokes, that they keep reusing
- A plot that usually ends with the stage reset for the next performance, like many successful TV series. Things either don’t progress at all (Wodehouse) or the world develops only slowly (Pratchett). In either case, it doesn’t get very far. Pratchett seemed to learn this lesson not long after writing the first Discworld novel, the Colour of Magic.
- They are often retelling the same story, just with minor variations. This does chime perhaps with human nature.
I don’t have one. But what a genius Douglas Adams was, and how much he enriched the lives of so many: not a bad legacy.