The Stage Play That Almost Made Douglas Adams Panic

Celebrate three decades of The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, by reliving some of the oddest adaptations of Douglas Adams' classic works. We've got an exclusive excerpt from the revised and expanded edition of Neil Gaiman's Adams biography Don't Panic.

The Stage Play That Almost Made Douglas Adams Panic

We're actually lucky enough to feature two chapters from the new edition of Don't Panic: Douglas Adams & The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy by Neil Gaiman, pubilshed by Titan Books. The first chapter is from fairly early on in the book, and deals with the various stage adaptations of H2G2, including the absolutely disastrous Rainbow Theater run, in which a 3,000 seat venue failed to find a big enough hovercraft for the audience.

And then the second chapter we're featuring is from towards the end, and deals with the 2005 movie adaptation of Hitchhiker's, and the reasons why it was also not terribly successful. It's sort of a nice book-end.

Oh, and the new material in the 2009 edition of Don't Panic is written by author Guy Adams, who I believe is no relation to Douglas.

10 ALL THE GALAXY'S A STAGE

There have been three major productions of Hitchhiker's in the theatrical world. Two of these have been successful. The other was a disaster of epic proportions. It is somewhat unfortunate, in this case, that the disaster is the one that got noticed. The first production was put on at the ICA [Institute for Contemporary Arts] in London on 1st-9th May 1979, presented by Ken Campbell's Science Fiction Theatre Company of Liverpool. ‘Staged' might be the wrong word for this production. The actors performed on little ledges and platforms, while the audience, seated on a scaffolded auditorium that floated around the ICA on air skates, filled with compressed air, was pushed around the hall at the height of 1/2,000th of an inch by hardworking stage hands.

The ninety-minute-long show was a great success.

Pan Galactic Gargle Blasters were on sale in the bar, and, for the eighty people who fitted into Mike Hust's airborne seating system, it was a great evening. Unfortunately, every hour brought 150 phone calls for tickets, all doomed to failure as the 640 tickets for the show's run had been sold out long before it opened. (Apparently an organisation with the same initials as the ICA, the International Communications Association, got so fed up with misrouted calls for tickets that they wound up closing their switchboard for a week, and stopped Communicating.)

The reviews were unanimous in their praise. A typical review from The Guardian, having praised the costumes and hovercraft, stated, "Chris Langham is an utterly ordinary Arthur… and is thus a beautiful counterpart to the cunning Ford (Richard Hope), the two-headed schizophrenic Beeblebrox (Mitch Davies and Stephen Williams, as a space-age version of a pantomime horse with two heads, two legs, and three hands) and the pyrotechnics of Campbell's production." At the time it was announced that they were hoping to revive the show "as soon as they could find a hall large enough to accommodate a 500 seater hovercraft".

The Stage Play That Almost Made Douglas Adams Panic

Image from Douglas Adams fan page

This was, it should be borne in mind, before the publication of the book or the release of the first record, when nobody knew how much of a cult success Hitchhiker's was or was going to be.

The next performance began life some 300 miles due west in the Theatr Clwyd, a Welsh theatre company. Director Jonathan Petherbridge had taken the scripts of the first radio series and transformed them into a play, performed around Wales from 15th January until 23rd February 1980.

Announced as the "First Staged Production of Douglas Adams's Original Radio Scripts" the company would either perform two episodes an evening, or, on certain long evenings, the entire three hours of script in ‘blockbuster' performances, during which "essential space rations" were handed out to the audience at half-hourly intervals. (Not only did the bar sell Pan Galactic Gargle Blasters, but the Coffee Lounge sold Algolian Zylbatburgers.) The Theatr Clwyd performance was so successful that they were offered the opportunity to take their production to London's prestigious Old Vic Theatre. Unfortunately, by this time Douglas had offered the stage rights to Ken Campbell, who had decided to stage another production at the Rainbow Theatre in London, a rock venue that seated three thousand people, in August.

Douglas Adams, displaying perfect hindsight, said, "I should have known better, but I had so many problems to contend with at that time I really wasn't thinking clearly. The thing at the Rainbow was a fiasco."
Douglas wrote additional material for the play (including the Dish of the Day sequence in Milliways, which subsequently found its way into the literary and televisual version of the show).

An article appeared in The Stage, the theatrical newspaper, about the Rainbow production, in July 1980:

A five-piece band backs the twenty-strong cast of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a musical* based on the radio series that opens at the Rainbow for an 8 week run on July 16th 1980. Production has a £300,000 budget, and the front of the Rainbow will be redesigned as an intergalactic spaceport. Tickets £5, £4 and £3.

[footnote]* No, it wasn't a musical, although there was a backing group.

The foyer of the theatre is being converted into the control deck of a spaceship, with banks of video screens, flying saucers hanging from the ceiling, and possibly a talking computer to advise passengers when the trip is going to begin. There will be usherettes dressed like aliens - ‘Probably coloured green,' says co-producer Richard Dunkley - and a ‘space bar' selling galactic-sized burgers and the now famous Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster.

One of the diversions will be rock musician Rick Wakeman, soaring down from the roof on a flying saucer and dressed like the legendary Mekon, SF's most endearing little green man.

This week workmen installed a vast revolving stage while others completed a backdrop for the day the Earth gets demolished.

In California, the people who brought the Laserium to the London Planetarium were devising a spectacular new bag of tricks. Co-producer Philip Tinsley said, ‘This will be the first show since Rocky Horror to appeal directly to young people.'

As the publicity for the show gained momentum a twenty-five-foot inflatable whale was thrown off Tower Bridge into the Thames, and made almost no splash in terms of news. ("The police were very, very cross", said The Standard in the 3⁄4 of an inch they devoted to it.)

Then the show opened.

In retrospect this may have been a mistake. Such descriptions as "I cannot imagine a more tedious way to spend an evening" (Daily Mail), "clumsy without ever being cheerful" (Time Out), "embarrassing" (Observer), "never-ending and extremely boring" (Standard) melt into insignificance when placed beside the actual reviews, most of which dissected the show with fine and sharp scalpels and left nothing wholesome behind. A fairly average example of the put-downs was Michael Billington's in The Guardian, which stated that, "What happens on the Rainbow stage is certainly inchoate and barely comprehensible… Ken Campbell has directed this junk-opera and I can only say he gave us infinitely more fun in the days of his Roadshow when the highlight used to be a man stuffing a ferret down his trousers"*.

[footnote]* The man who stuffed the ferrets down his trousers was Sylvester McCoy, later the seventh televisual Doctor Who.

What went wrong? A number of things. The length, for one. The laser beams, sound effects and backing band for another. What was almost universally acknowledged as appalling acting for a third.

Douglas Adams explained it as, "The size of the Rainbow - a three thousand-seater theatre - and, because Hitchhiker's tends to be rather slow-moving and what is important is all the detail on the way… you put it in something that size and the first thing that goes out the window is all the detail. So you then fill it up with earthquake effects and lasers and things. That further swamps the detail and so everything was constantly being pushed in the wrong direction and all the poor actors were stuck on the stage trying desperately to get noticed by the audience across this vast distance. If you'd put the numbers we were getting into a West End theatre they would have been terrific audiences - 700 a night, or whatever. But 700 people isn't much when the producers are paying for three thousand seats. So the whole thing was a financial disaster."

Ken Campbell, a man almost impossible to get hold of, claimed the reason for the success of the ICA and failure of the Rainbow was simpler than that. "In the ICA we put everybody on a hovercraft. We just never found a hovercraft big enough for the Rainbow," he told me in the shortest interview I did for this book*.

Four weeks into the run the show was in financial difficulties.

On 20th August The Standard reported co-producer Dunkley as saying, "I think we should struggle on. The cast and crew agree with me, and a certain number of them agreed to wait for their money. We had a very negative press, and it wasn't known at the beginning how many Hitchhiker's fans there were." The next day, however, The Standard reported that, "Last night the big musical** version of the cult radio show did not go on and after playing at times to twenty percent capacity [ie. 600 people] its season has been ended three weeks prematurely. Richard Dunkley reported that everybody concerned had lost a lot of money, but it was impossible to say how much."

[footnotes]* That was it.
** It wasn't a musical, honestly.

It is easy to be wise after the event, but it would appear that the biggest mistake was that of trying to create a Cult Success. You don't gain a cult following for something big and bold and heavily hyped: a smaller, less flashy, less expensive production might well have succeeded where the galumphing Rainbow production failed.

As indeed, it has. Helping the fans and public to get over the Rainbow disaster was the Theatr Clwyd production. It surfaced again quietly a year later, and has been regularly and successfully staged by other theatre companies since. This adaptation, which, alone of all post '79 versions includes the Haggunenon sequence, and indeed actually has an inflatable Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal, is uniformly popular with critics and public alike, and will, one hopes, still be revived and performed when the Rainbow fiasco has completely been forgotten.

FORD AND ZAPHOD: Zaglabor astragard!
Hootrimansion Bambriar!
Bangliatur Poosbladoooo!
ARTHUR: What the hell are you doing?
FORD: It's an ancient Betelgeuse death anthem. It means, after this, things can only get better.
THEY START TO SING AGAIN.
THE COMPUTER BANK EXPLODES.
END CREDITS.
- Alternative version.

The Stage Play That Almost Made Douglas Adams Panic

(Image from 2003 San Francisco staging of H2G2, via Laughing Squid.)

At least twenty amateur stage productions are known to have been performed around the world over the years, variously adapted from the novel, the radio scripts or the Petherbridge script. Hitchhiker's has been presented on stage as far afield as Bermuda, Australia, Hawaii and Germany; it has been performed once as a one-man show and once as a musical*. There was also a stage production of Douglas's novel Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency - retitled Dirk - in Oxford in 1995, which has enjoyed periodic revivals.

[footnote]* This actually was a musical, although the audience wished it wasn't.

34 POSTCARDS FROM DAVELAND

"It seems to me that we can either slip into the traditional stereotypes - you're the studio executive who has a million real-world problems to worry about, and I'm the writer who only cares about seeing his vision realized and hang the consequences - or we can recognize that we both share the same goal, which is to make the most successful movie we possibly can.

"You have a great deal of experience nursing major motion pictures into existence. I have a great deal of experience of nursing The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy into existence in every medium other than motion pictures… Why don't we actually meet and have a chat?"
- Excerpt from a letter written by Douglas Adams to David Vogel at Walt Disney Pictures, as reprinted in The Salmon of Doubt.

The Stage Play That Almost Made Douglas Adams Panic

On 28th April 2005 a rather startling thing happened. A big budget* movie of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy appeared in cinemas. Unfortunately, to quote that most remarkable of source material, "this has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move."

[footnote]* Well, relatively big budget anyway, the word ‘big' when relating to cinema budgets enters a whole new sense of scope which the human mind cannot truly encompass. Certainly it cost the sort of money that if found on one's doorstep one morning, say in several large skips guarded by men with machine guns, would force you to delicately lose your mind for a month or two, just while you decided what country to buy.

Douglas had spent many years trying to make such a thing happen. In fact, many years, many phone calls, many draft scripts, many contracts, many lawyers arguing about those contracts, many directors signed up, many directors signed off again, and much moving to LA then moving back to Islington because LA just wasn't very nice then moving back to LA again anyway because, well, you live in hope and at least the sun shines there…

It is forgivable to assume a project stranded so long in Development Hell (that peculiar creative graveyard where movie ideas go to have the spirit beaten out of them by film producers) will never see the light of day. Jay Roach, director of the first two Austin Powers movies as well as Meet the Parents and its ‘Focking' sequel, was attached to the project for many years, ultimately stepping down from the director's chair (due to other commitments) but retaining a role as producer. Roach passed Douglas's last script draft on to Spike Jonze, director of Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Where the Wild Things Are. He declined the offer to shoot it, but suggested Hammer & Tongs, a British production company comprised of director Garth Jennings and producer Nick Goldsmith, known for their innovative pop promo work. And there the film finally took root.

The script was passed to screenwriter Karey Kirkpatrick, writer of the stop-motion animation movies Chicken Run and James and the Giant Peach, to produce a final version to put in front of the cameras.

The Stage Play That Almost Made Douglas Adams Panic

The casting seemed rock solid, with Stephen Fry as the Voice of the Book, Martin Freeman as Arthur Dent, Sam Rockwell as Zaphod* and Zooey Deschanel as Trillian. The only slightly controversial choice - and it must be clear here that when we say ‘controversial' we mean ‘likely to get people who know a little about movie-making saying belligerent things online' - was actor turned rap artist turned actor again Mos Def as Ford Prefect.

[footnote]* Who claimed, somewhat jovially, in the DVD extras that the only reason he got the part was that they couldn't afford Jim Carrey.

Much was made in the movie's press releases about how closely the film was based on Douglas's own most recent draft, though caveats were given with regard to the film's divergence from established Hitchhiker's narrative (like we needed to be told. Since when has one form of Hitchhiker's shown the least concern for how similar it is to the last? We really don't care…). Robbie Stamp, Douglas's friend and CEO of The Digital Village, was an executive producer on the picture* and, in an interview on the Slashdot website, said, "All the substantive new ideas in the movie… are brand new Douglas ideas written especially for the movie by him… Douglas was always up for reinventing Hitchhiker's in each of its different incarnations and he knew that working harder on some character development and some of the key relationships was an integral part of turning Hitchhiker's into a movie."

[footnote]* As was Douglas himself, the film also being dedicated to him.

Which is no doubt true, but doesn't change the fact that the film doesn't really work.

One can level a number of criticisms at Douglas's writing. Yes, the comment about character development is valid, as would have been an accusation of flimsy plotting. But to mention these flaws is rather to miss the point of Douglas's writing. When he does it, it works. Douglas is one of those inspired creators who is impervious to such overarching technical issues - his genius lay in the detail. And it is precisely in the film's adherence to the broad, sweeping generalities of Douglas's work, rather than paying attention to what it was in the minutiae that made it so effective, that it fails.

The Stage Play That Almost Made Douglas Adams Panic

In the same Slashdot interview, Robbie Stamp commented that, "I know how easy it is to see every decision to cut a scene as ‘studio' pressure, but it was always much more to do with pacing and rhythm in the film itelf." And here we see perhaps the most telling issue with converting Douglas's work to the big screen. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy never much concerned itself with the need to be fast-paced. The gems found in both the books and the radio series are often in the asides, the guide entries, the small moments of absurdity. The rhythm of Douglas's writing is that of a comedy writer hitting his punchlines; an obsessive ear for comic dialogue and the best way to sell his unconventional ideas.

It is this rhythm and pacing that the film loses, sticking instead to telling the story in a dynamic fashion. Jokes were cut, dialogue was trimmed and, arguably, this is where the spirit of Douglas's writing fell by the wayside.

Perhaps it is a sad fact that Hitchhiker's just doesn't work well in a visual medium. Certainly the BBC TV series was Douglas's least favourite incarnation of the work. Film places different demands on its source material and in doing so it played to Hitchhiker's weaknesses rather than its strengths.

The film performed adequately at the box office and was released later the same year on both a single disc DVD and a double disc gift set (which included a copy of the original novel). It is unlikely that we shall ever see a sequel.

Don't Panic © 1987, 1993, 2002, 2009 Neil Gaiman.