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Classic TV Revisited: The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

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Written by Douglas Adams

What was it all about?
Seconds before the Earth is demolished to make way for a galactic freeway, Arthur Dent is plucked from the planet by his friend Ford Prefect, an alien in human form and researcher for the revised edition of the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. They hitch a ride on a Vogon spacecraft (Vogons from the Galactic Hyberspace Planning Council are handling the demolition job) and embark on their adventures just as Earth is destroyed. So no, it’s not based on a true story.

Who were the main characters?
Arthur Dent; Ford Prefect; the two-headed Zaphod Beeblebrox; Trillian (real name Tricia Macmillan), Zaphod’s girlfriend whom Arthur tried to pick up once upon a time zone; Marvin, the paranoid android; and the elderly Slartibartfast.

When was it on?
Six episodes were broadcast on Radio 4 in 1978 with a second series of five shows in 1980. It transferred to BBC2 for a six-week run in 1981.

Who wrote it?
Douglas Adams, former member of Cambridge Footlights, one-time bodyguard for the Arab royal family and a man determined to come up with something new in the world of science fiction. ‘My house is full of sci-fi books,’ he once said, ‘and I’ve read 15 pages of lots of them.’

What about the books?
The first book was a spin-off from the radio series.

Who were the star turns?
On TV, Peter Jones read the book, Simon Jones played Arthur Dent, David Dixon was Ford Prefect, Mark Wing-Davey played Zaphod Beeblebrox, Sandra Dickinson was Trillian, Stephen Moore was Marvin and Richard Vernon played Slartibartfast. On radio, Geoffrey McGivern played Ford Prefect with Susan Sheridan as Trillian.

How did it come about?
In 1971, Douglas Adams, then aged 18, was hitch-hiking his way across Europe armed with a copy of, appropriately enough, The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to Europe. By the time he reached Austria, he was too drunk and too broke to afford a room at a youth hostel and was reduced to spending the night in a field near Innsbruck. While gazing up at the stars, he thought: ‘Somebody really ought to write a Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.’ He forgot about the experience for five years until he set about writing a radio science fiction comedy which was going to be titled The Ends of the Earth. Trying to think of a legitimate reason for an alien to visit Earth, he remembered Innsbruck 1971 and decided to make the alien a researcher for The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Who watched it?
Doyens of the radio series although most (Adams included) professed to be a mite disappointed by the TV version. HHGTTG is a worldwide phenomenon. The concept is huge in America and has even been translated into Croat. Closer to home, the Oxford University Douglas Adams Society boasts a Hitch-hiker’s Guide role-playing pub crawl.

What was the biggest headache with the TV series?
Zaphod’s. The mechanism inside the second head was constantly breaking down. And sometimes actor Mark Wing-Davey forgot to turn it on (there was a tiny switch in his costume) which meant that while he was acting his head off, the second skull was just sitting there inactive on his shoulder. The contraption was also extremely heavy. It would have been even tougher for Wing-Davey had he gone along with requests to wear an eye-patch. In the end he refused, insisting that the patch be put on the other head. ‘It’s hard enough acting with another head,’ he explained, ‘but with one eye as well…’

Did the actors understand what they were doing?
Peter Jones maintained he hadn’t a clue what was going on but was able to translate this bewilderment into his brilliantly under-stated narration.

Were any of the characters based on real people?
Douglas Adams says that Zaphod Beeblebrox was loosely modelled on someone he knew at Cambridge although a noticeable difference between the two was that the student only had one head. And he modelled Marvin on a robotic version of comedy writer Andrew Marshall. In the first draft, the robot was actually called Marshall. Overblown rock star Hotblack Desiato took his name from a firm of estate agents.

What’s all this about towels?
According to the guide: ‘A towel is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitch-hiker can have.’ Special towels were later sold as merchandising to promote the books.

Any distant cousins?
Apart from Red Dwarf, sci-fi sit-coms tend to be an American speciality, as in Third Rock From The Sun, Mork and Mindy and even My Favourite Martian. Still, there was always Mollie Sugden in Come Back Mrs. Noah.

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Kick-Ass TV Heroines: Xena – Warrior Princess

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Xena Warrior Princess

What was not to love about Xena? As Lucy Lawless says: “Xena is a bad-ass, kick-ass, pre-Mycenaean girl.” Evildoers, clearly, must stand down, but not only bad guys (and girls) have Xena-phobia. Even heroes quake when she swings her broadsword.

Originally created as a syndicated complement to Kevin Sorbo’s Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Xena pretty much kicked Herc to the curb. It was like when the Bionic Woman made us lose interest in the Six Million Dollar Man–only more so.

Unlike Lindsay Wagner’s early half-woman, half-machine, Xena wasn’t prone to frailty. Nor did she need robot parts. In fact, the Warrior Princess never lost. If she’s down, it’s not for long.

Plus, she was in touch with the dark side: This big-boned bruiser had definite moments of blood lust, as well as lust of some other varieties. Garbed in a leather miniskirt and armed with her trademark razor-edged, boomerang-action chakram, we watched Xena single-leggedly kick down entire platoons of Roman soldiers.

Sure, there were murmurings about Xena and her softer female sidekick, Gabrielle (actress Renée O’Connor). So what if they liked to conserve bathwater by doubling up? And what’s wrong with close friends frenching once in a while?

Then again, maybe it was true–and there’s anything wrong with that.

Actress: Lucy Lawless
Show: Xena: Warrior Princess
Character: Xena

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Classic TV Revisited: McMillan And Wife

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McMillan And Wife

Starring Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James, McMillan and Wife was a super cute crime-solving saga from the 1970s made for the NBC’s Mystery Movie series.

Who were they?
Hubby was the debonair San Francisco police commissioner Stewart McMillan.

And wifey?
Sally was a foxy, rather scatterbrained dame with a knack for finding corpses.

Worked down the morgue did she?
Hardly. Sally’s finds were usually in some glitzy mansion which the couple were frequenting for a weekend cocktail party. She also had a habit of getting her life threatened or being kidnapped.

Who was in it?
Tragic Hollywood star Rock Hudson no less. He took on Stewart McMillan in his first TV role, after years as a matinee idol with movies such as Giant.

Tragedy?
Fans of the lantern-jawed star were dismayed when he went public about having Aids. He had long kept his homosexuality secret. He carried on working in ’80s glam drama Dynasty, but make-up could not disguise the deterioration of this once-statuesque man. He died in 1985, aged 59.

What about Sally?
That role fell to raven-locked Susan Saint James. The Ali MacGraw lookalike was previously in shows such as Alias Smith And Jones and The Name of the Game.

Other characters
A vital ingredient to McMillan And Wife was sharp-tongued housekeeper Mildred, played by Nancy Walker. Somebody needed to keep the place tidy while they gallivanted about solving crime.

Famous guest stars?
Kim Basinger

The couple’s conception?
Like Hart To Hart, the idea was borrowed from Dashiell Hammett’s Thin Man books of the ’30s.

Gritty crime drama?
Hardly. These were cosy whodunnit cases, where the brutality of murder was never portrayed. The show was more about the interplay between McMillan and Sally.

Had viewers arrested?
Certainly in the US. It was the fifth highest-rated show in 1972 and 1973.

Fate of the golden couple?
Susan Saint James quit in 1976 over a contractual dispute. Nancy Walker also packed away her duster as housekeeper Mildred.

The dame’s exit was a fatal blow?
Certainly for the character of Sally – she was killed off in a plane crash. But Rock soldiered on with new assistant Sgt Steve DiMaggio (Richard Gilliland). The show became McMillan.

A winner?
Audiences dwindled and the plug was pulled.

Distinguishing features?
Cosy pillow talk, cocktail parties, Rock Hudson, pyjamas and numerous corpses.

Do say
Let’s go to bed. Turn the light out, darling.

Don’t say
Must you eat toast in bed, darling. Apologies, but I’ve got terrible flatulence. Separate bedrooms.

Not to be confused with
My Wife Next Door, Harold Macmillan, The Merry Wives Of Windsor and Mr And Mrs.

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Classic TV Revisited: The Royal

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The Royal

The Royal was an ITV drama commission and was inspired by its sister programme Heartbeat.

The lowdown: This nostalgic family drama is set in the swinging 1960s and centres on the staff of a cottage hospital in Yorkshire. Newly qualified doctor David Cheriton (Julian Ovenden) is determined to make a difference to the world and arrives at St Aidan’s Royal Free Hospital in Elinsby full of big ideas. But he clashes with the hospital’s secretary TJ Middleditch (Ian Carmichael) who is determined to run things his way. Then there is the Matron (Wendy Craig) who rules her nurses with a rod of iron and tries in vain to stop them being distracted by the handsome arrival.

Memorable moments: Watch out for former Heartbeat favourite Bill Maynard who crosses dramas and continents as Claude Jeremiah Greengrass. Greengrass has returned from a Caribbean holiday with a mystery illness but that doesn’t stop him trying to earn a fast buck. It doesn’t take long before Claude attracts Matron’s ire.

Trivia: The Royal is a family affair for real life husband and wife Robert Daws (Ormerod) and Amy Robbins (Weatherill). No fewer than seven members of their clan have appeared in the series including their daughters and stepson.

Michelle Hardwick, who played receptionist Lizzie, says her favourite moment in the whole series didn’t come on screen but in the actors’ green room. She says: “I was sitting in there with Wendy Craig and Honor Blackman and we were having a lovely conversation. I sat back and thought ‘Wow, this is great, I can’t wait to tell my gran’.”

A modern day set version called The Royal Today aired 7 January – 14 March 2008.

First broadcast: 2003

Starred: Wendy Craig, Ian Carmichael, Michael Starke, Robert Daws and Julian Ovenden

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