An illogical conclusion: why Radio 4’s resurrection of Hitchhiker’s Guide falls flat

As the sixth full-cast series of Hitchhiker’s Guide ended, it was hard not to mop one’s bleeding ears and think what a sorry task it had been.

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“The Hitchhiker’s Guide is 100 per cent accurate. Reality, however, is not as trustworthy…” As the sixth full-cast series of Hitchhiker’s Guide drew to a close (10:30pm, 30 April) – marking 40 years since the first BBC radio Hitchhiker’s series – it was hard not to mop one’s bleeding ears and think what a thankless and impossible task it had been. Some unpublished material by Douglas Adams had been used, but for the most part it was taken from the 2009 novel written “in the style of Adams” by Eoin Colfer. “Whatever you do, finish this a hero or a martyr,” was one of the episode’s parting shots, which reminded me of an online review of Colfer’s book that went something like, “In places it’s a reasonable impersonation – but mostly it just makes me sad.” Me too.

Like all great comedy, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was entirely inseparable from its era. Specifically 1978: a moment one step on from the little England of Monty Python. If the Pythons’ humour had been supported by knowing such things as 14th century history, Adams’s mind was better – he understood Aristotle and mathematics, and was a great logical comedian like Buster Keaton or Jonathan Swift; people with beautiful minds writing comedy that is supremely formed, gags with an underpinning coherence (not least Hitchhiker’s central idea: that the earth is a computer designed to work out the meaning of life).

When Hitchhiker’s first appeared it bestrode the world because it was so tonally on point. Its feel was a very late-Seventies optimism, about a kind of Englishness that is rational, classical and not too political but interested in thought, knowledge and science as a force for good. (There would be no such shows as The Infinite Monkey Cage without Douglas Adams. Brian Cox pretty much owes his whole career to him.)

More than anything, it’s this tone that is impossible to replicate; more than anything it’s this tone that people miss. “You can’t repeat the past,” Nick Carraway warns Gatsby. Too often, arts commissioners insist – as did Gatsby, as the green light flickered queasily at the end of Daisy Buchanan’s pontoon – “Why of course you can!” 

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Hexagonal Phase
BBC Radio 4

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn ultimatum