It’s Towel Day, which as Douglas Adams’ fans will know, is a time to wax lyrical about the man and his books. Over to you, Gabby Hutchinson Crouch.
Last year I wrote a piece for Standard Issue about my love of Discworld after Terry Pratchett was taken away by Old Boney. In a way this is a companion piece, as my love of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy began at around the same time, when I found a friend at school with whom I shared a naughty little secret: that, against the say-so of peer pressure and media aimed at young teenaged girls, we liked sci-fi and fantasy. She lent me her copy of Mort & I lent her my taped-off-the-radio C90 cassettes of Hitchhiker’s.
In my experience, people who love Hitchhiker’s Guide tend to believe the version they were exposed to first was the best version. Sadly, all these people are wrong unless they believe the radio series is the best – which, by pure coincidence, was the first version of the story I was exposed to.
Radio could truly create the impossible images used in Douglas Adams’ wild, whimsical journey through the universe in my mind in ways that the 1980s BBC TV series and the more polished but slightly off 2005 movie never could.
The books came a close second, but they physically described some characters in ways that didn’t match my mental images from the more sparsely narrated radio series. Most importantly, I think it boils down to the fact that nothing quite compares to Simon Jones’ Arthur’s horrified cry of “Ford, you’re turning into a penguin, stop it,” and the mental picture that creates. That, friends, is Pure Radio.
If you’ve never indulged in one of the many different formats of Hitchhiker’s Guide, it’s the story of Arthur Dent, a deeply mundane Englishman who accidentally becomes the last Earth man alive after the planet is demolished to make way for an interstellar bypass.
He ends up on an extra-terrestrial road trip with his best friend Ford, who turns out to be an alien freelance travel journalist; Ford’s cousin Zaphod, an egotistical criminal who intends to get back to his job as President of the Galaxy someday; Trillian, a very nice girl Arthur met at a party once and a severely mentally ill android called Marvin.
“In Douglas Adams’ universe, bureaucracy is what destroys the Earth – which, it turns out, was created in the first place by jobsworths, whose bosses are mice.”
It’s an utterly surreal and fanciful journey, which beautifully combines the enormity and endless possibilities of a fantasy outer space with the minutiae of day to day living. There’s something terribly British about this way of approaching science fiction and fantasy,
Hitchhiker’s Guide slots in between Doctor Who and Red Dwarf in that respect – in the British sci-fi family tree, it is a sort of stoned older cousin who still goes travelling but somehow has a mortgage.
Like Pratchett, Douglas Adams uses his fantasy world to satirise our own, only while Pratchett’s targets are vast social problems such as racism and poverty, Adams largely lampoons more middling issues such as bureaucracy and media. In his universe, bureaucracy is what destroys the Earth – which, it turns out, was created in the first place by jobsworths, whose bosses are mice.
Elsewhere, a whole alien planet is utterly destroyed by the economics of shoe shops, with a handful of survivors left in a hellish eternal stasis since the apocalypse left the aircraft they were supposed to travel on without Lemon Scented Wipes. They will be freed from their torment when civilisation has returned to the point that there are Lemon Scented Wipes once more.
In Douglas Adams’ world, at the root of all evil is a box to be ticked, a fucking form to be filled out in triplicate. Middle men, disc jockeys, ad execs and telephone sanitisers all exist in his universe to be mocked. It’s just a pity that, given Adams was able to pre-empt lots of 21st-century creations such as ebooks (the eponymous Hitchhiker’s Guide itself, initially described in 1978, is essentially a Kindle, only loaded with Wikipedia), he didn’t quite manage to envisage Social Media Gurus. If he had, they’d have been on the B Ark along with all the other useless suits.
When I got into Hitchhiker’s Guide, I didn’t quite get the satirical element. What I fell in love with was the sheer joyful silliness of it all: poor Arthur, perpetually baffled in his pyjamas, the smug doors, the missiles being turned into a surprised, airborne killer whale and an oddly weary bowl of petunias, the terrible Vogon poetry – so bad that it causes fatal internal haemorrhaging in its listeners. The pure, daft fun of it all is the reason why I will always love the TV show, the film, the books, and most of all, the radio series. (Which is definitely the best version.)5733 Views
Gabby Hutchinson Crouch is a comedy writer, mum & nerd. She writes for BBC Radio Comedy and Huffington Post UK, and once saw Dawn French coming out of a toilet.