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



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.