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8 March 2018

A new series of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy begins tonight. Please don’t screw it up

Life, the universe and everything. 

By Jonn Elledge

I honestly can’t remember a time before I knew The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. There logically must have been a first time I heard the series, probably on a Sunday when my dad decided to listen to his off air cassettes in sequence, like some kind of primitive radio box set. But I have no memory of it: those characters, and the worlds they inhabit and the music and the sound effects the BBC Radiophonic Workshop devised to describe it, all seem somehow to have always been in my head somewhere.

As my childhood progressed, those five cassettes tapes became my most treasured possession, something I’d play over and again, from the demolition of the Earth to make way for a bypass to the man in the shack who ruled the universe on behalf of his cat. I could, if I wanted to, quote large chunks of the series to my friends (though I don’t, because I want to keep them). I even remember asking my parents if Jim would fix it for me to meet the writer Douglas Adams and ask him if there’d ever be a third series. There are probably several reasons why it’s a good thing that this never happened.

The most exciting thing to happen to me in the whole of the 1980s, though, was when a friend of a friend of my parents who happened to work at the BBC managed to procure a sixth tape, which contained the two episodes we were missing. This was mind-blowing: it was long before the internet made it possible to get hold of any bit of pop culture you wanted, probably immediately; before you could even assume widespread commercial release. To my eight year old self, it was as if someone had found a copy of Love’s Labour’s Won down the back of the sofa.

As I grew older I read the books, based on the radio series, and then the books which weren’t, and I came to know those inside out too. Then there was the TV adaptation, the latter radio series, that terrible film with Martin Freeman which managed to entirely miss the point, assorted bits of Dirk Gently… I’ve had a slightly obsessive interest in many bits of pop culture in my time, but I’m pretty sure the work of Douglas Adams is the thing of which I’ve been a fan longest. 

Hitchhiker’s celebrates its 40th birthday this week, and to mark the occasion Radio 4 is broadcasting the first of a new series. You’d think, given everything I’ve written so far, that I’d be excited about this. And I want to be – I really do. 

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And yet.

The first two series, dating from 1978-80, were written by Adams himself. The third to fifth (2004-5) mostly weren’t, but Dirk Maggs adapted them directly from his books, and, after a weak start which caused me to flounce off and refuse to listen to the rest for about eighteen months, recaptured the tone and soundscape of the originals, and turned out to be incredibly good. 

The adaptation even, in that last episode, managed to address the two biggest problems with Adams’ last book, Mostly Harmless: the way protagonist Arthur Dent’s love interest Fenchurch disappeared from the narrative, and the fact it ended by demolishing the Earth, again, and killing most of the regular cast. (Adams was, by all accounts, pretty depressed in 1992.)

Without changing Adams at all, simply by adding a scene, Maggs found an excuse for the characters to survive, and to find Fenchurch once again, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard that scene without getting a lump in my throat. This is strange, in its way, as if you’re listening to it back to back she’s only been gone for a couple of hours. But, as occasional New Statesman writer James Cooray Smith once pointed out to me, she hadn’t really: if you read the book on publication, she’d been gone for 23 years.

Anyway: it’s not that I don’t trust Maggs, as he’s worked wonders before. But this time the book he’s working from isn’t by Adams at all: Eoin Colfer’s sequel And Another Thing was an object lesson in how difficult it is to write like Douglas Adams if you don’t happen to be Douglas Adams. The Max Landis Dirk Gently series suffers from much the same problem: the lead is recognisable, the plot and new characters are in keeping with the books, but the tone is off, somehow. By replacing a very English mix of existential angst and whimsy with a more American and more violent form surrealism, the whole thing just feels wrong

So: enough people have screwed up when attempting to imitate Adams that I’m worried someone else is about to do something dreadful to something I’ve loved for thirty years. But Maggs has nailed it before, and he does at least have some scraps of previously unused Adams material to throw into the pot. More to the point, his previous radio series’ have felt like Adams in a way most other adaptations haven’t.

Maybe it’ll work. And if it doesn’t – well, it’s not the end of the world.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Hexagonal Phase begins tonight at 6.30pm on BBC Radio 4.

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