TV 1981: The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy

Article by Chris Hallam. First published: 2017.

It was the TV version which got me first.
Yes, I know this isn’t what I’m supposed to say. The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy was, first and foremost, a radio series. It was here Douglas Adams first introduced us to Arthur Dent, Ford Prefect, Marvin, life, the universe and everything and all the rest back in 1978. In fairness, as I was less than two years old then, I think I can be excused for not tuning in on the opening night. However, yes, I am fully aware that it was original I should have come to first, not the TV re-tread.
But, to be honest, I was never a big radio listener as a child or even now really. It was thus inevitable I’d find it on TV first, after glimpsing a tantalising extract of a sequence about Vogons on Noel Edmonds’ Telly Addicts first.
The series itself was a repeat showing. I was again (probably) too young for the original screening when I was just four in 1981, particularly as my younger brother seems to have been born virtually simultaneous to the broadcast of the first episode. I was nine years old by 1986. And while, I know, the TV version has its critics, it remains one of the greatest viewing experiences of my life.
Why?
Well, let’s begin at the beginning. The title sequence is brief but strangely brilliant. There’s just something wonderful about the use of The Eagles’ Journey of the Sorcerer. Check out the full version on You Tube. To be honest, I think the way it is used very sparingly as the theme tune to both the show on radio and TV works much better than the full-length version which to me sounds overlong and overindulgent.
Why is there an astronaut floating around in the titles when there aren’t any in the actual series? I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. I still like it.
Then there’s the late Peter Jones’ masterful narration. A clever trick is how the narrative of Adams’ overall story is cleverly merged with that of the contents of the book, that is The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, the book within the book. And Jones did a great job. Even Stephen Fry, a real-life friend of Adams, couldn’t really compete in the film version.

Then there’s the book itself! So marvellously realised on screen, it still looks great today, thirty-six years later. If there is anything better in existence than the Babel fish sequence, I am not aware of it. And the book. A portable digital source of information? Remind you of anything? You probably have something very similar in your pocket right now.
Then, there’s the cast. With the exception of the excellent (and still very prolific) Geoff McGivern who was replaced by the equally wonderful (but for some reason, far less prolific) David Dixon as incognito visitor from Betelgeuse Ford Prefect and the late Susan Sheridan who was replaced by Sandra Dickinson in the perhaps underwritten role of Trillian, the main cast were mostly drawn from the original radio series too. And while Martin Freeman did a reasonable job as the hapless Arthur Dent in the 2005 film version, for me, Arthur Dent will always be the exasperated but well-mannered version played by the wonderful Simon Jones.
The series is not perfect, of course. The terrible prosthetic on Zaphod Beeblebrox (played by Mark Wing-Davey, son of the late Anna Wing, best known for playing EastEnders matriarch Lou Beale) proves definitively that two heads are not always better than one.


The story also fizzles out somewhat. There was talk of a second series which never came but in truth a narrative arc was never the greatest strength of a story originally conceived as a weekly serial by an overworked twentysomething Douglas Adams.
There are other quibbles. Marvin, the paranoid android, who gave his name to a Radiohead track isn’t strictly speaking paranoid. But again, who cares?
Forty-two. So long and thanks for all the fish. Don’t panic. Life, the universe and everything. The Restaurant at the End of the Universe.
I would argue the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series in whatever form it takes, has injected more memorable phrases into the English language than anything else in the past fifty years.

THE WIT AND WISDOM OF DOUGLAS ADAMS (1952-2001)

“Anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job.”

“For a moment, nothing happened. Then, after a second or so, nothing continued to happen.”

“Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.”

“I refuse to answer that question on the grounds that I don’t know the answer.”

(On religion): “Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?”

“Reality is frequently inaccurate.”

“The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t.”

“I’d far rather be happy than right any day.”

“All opinions are not equal. Some are a very great deal more robust, sophisticated and well supported in logic and argument than others.”

“I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”

“It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on earth has ever produced the expression, ‘As pretty as an airport.”

DVD review: This Life: The Complete Collection

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BBC Worldwide

Out now

Cast: Amita Dihri,  Jack Davenport, Jason Hughes, Andrew Lincoln, Daniela Nardini, Ramon Tikaram

It has now been twenty years since we were first introduced to the five twentysomething London lawyers who made up BBC drama, This Life.

Who could forget them?

Anna (Nardini): perhaps the most memorable character, sharp tongued feisty, yet ultimately vulnerable and totally fixated on her end of term one night stand, Miles (Davenport), posh, misogynist, homophobic and snobbish, but one senses, as human as anyone else underneath. Then there’s Egg (Lincoln), perhaps the nicest character in the house although clearly not as cut out for a career in law as his sexy, ambitious girlfriend Milly (Dhiri) seems to be. Last but not least comes gay Welshman, Warren (Hughes), inclined towards  regular visits to a therapist and occasional moments of madness. He is later joined by troubled bisexual, Ferdy (Tikaram).

The show did not really catch fire during its first eleven-part run in 1996, perhaps because many episodes were written by Amy Jenkins, who despite receiving much acclaim for creating the series was never actually one of its strongest writers. But during its longer 20 episode second series in 1997, something magical started to happen. This Life grew to be cult viewing: totally unmissable and was much mourned after its spectacular Series 2 finale.

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Has This Life dated? Yes, of course. It would be odd if it hadn’t. Everyone seems to smoke more than they do today (at least on TV) and the house enjoys a constant backdrop of music by the likes of Radiohead, Suede and the Sneaker Pimps. The internet is spoken of only as a distant futuristic thing as demonstrated when Miles becomes one of the last people on Earth to post a dating ad in an actual magazine.

On the other hand, the “shaky” naturalistic camerawork much commented on at the time is barely noticeable now (though the camerawork remains interesting and occasionally prone to close-ups). A young, then unknown Martin Freeman crops up in one episode, as a party guest who won’t leave. But the show was ahead of it’s time in its attitude to gays and drug use and one suspects it has dated far less than a 1976 drama series would have had that been screened twenty years later in 1996.

Twenty years on (and ten years after the  underwhelming 2006 This Life +10 one off  which is also included in this DVD set). the saddest thing is that while the principal male cast are all still a regular presence on our screens  – particularly Andrew Lincoln who now stars in hit US zombie drama, The Walking Dead – Nardini and Dhiri have never become stars. Still, the smaller female parts such as Natasha Little (who plays the bane of Milly’s office existence, Rachel) and Luisa Bradhaw-White (sassy office temp Kira, but now an EastEnders regular) have all done well.

And the really good news is that This Life is either a) as good as you remember or b) very watchable if you’ve never seen it before.

As Warren would say: “Hysterical.”

This Life

First Among Prequels

Once stories had a beginning, a middle and an end. Not anymore! Today, the trend is for the middle and the end to come first, then the beginning to come along later. For this is the age of the prequel.  Stay tuned for Part One of this feature next week…!

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The Hobbit (Book: 1937. Films: 2012-2014)

Strictly speaking, this isn’t a “prequel” to the Lord of the Rings saga in the sense that we’re using the term here. The book of The Hobbit was published well before the later trilogy (1954-55). But the films (the second Hobbit film is due out in December) are a different matter appearing a full decade after the Rings saga came to the screen (2001-2003). Got that?

Does it work?: Gandalf is greyer, Gollum a shade less green and Bilbo is Tim from The Office (Martin Freeman) rather than the one from Alien (Ian Holm). But so far, most complaints have been about the Hobbit saga being needlessly padded out into three films rather than about any inconsistencies n the chronology.

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Star Wars Prequels (1999-2005)

This attempt to explain the origins of Darth Vader was less well received than the original trilogy (1977-1983), many fans finding it more boorish, cartoonish and perhaps even racist than the original three. The last film Revenge of the Sith (2005) does wrap things up neatly though, ending around twenty years before 1977’s A New Hope. This trilogy also probably did spark off the modern fad for prequels too.

 Hannibal  (2013-?)

This acclaimed recent TV series focuses on the life of Thomas Harris’s serial killer Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen), before the events of the very first book, Red Dragon (1981).

 Young Sherlock Holmes (1985)

This film does cheat a bit imagining Watson and Holmes meeting at school: in fact, they clearly first meet as adults in the first Sherlock Holmes story A Study In Scarlet. But it is a fun film and features the first ever computer animated film character (a stained glass knight who is hallucinated at the start). The movie was a flop though.

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Young James Bond (2005-2008)

The adventures of the future 007 have been depicted in five books by Fast Show star Charlie Higson set in the 1930s when Bond was still at Eton. The books are: Silverfin, Blood Fever, Double Or Die, Hurricane Gold and By Royal Command.

The Magician’s Nephew (1955)

This was actually the sixth of CS Lewis’s Narnia novels but is actually set much earlier than the others. It opens in late Victorian England and explains the birth of Narnia. Some Narnia series today rank it as the first book in the saga, order-wise.

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Star Trek Enterprise (2001-2005)/Star Trek films (2009-?)

The Star Trek franchise was briefly killed off by the unexciting Scott Bakula series which chronicled the early days of the Enterprise in the 22nd century. The JJ Abrams series of films which detail the early lives of the characters from the original series (including a previously unmentioned liaison between Uhuru and Spock) have thus far proven far more popular.

Smallville (2001-2011)

Despite, rather oddly, being set in the present day, this TV show starring Tom Welling as the young Superman proved remarkably popular and enduring.

Endeavour (2012-?)

Before Lewis, there was Morse. And before even that, this recent 1960s set ITV series sees Shaun Evans playing Endeavour Morse at the start of his police career.

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Monsters University (2013)

Monsters Inc ended rather neatly. So this prequel flashes back to Mike and Sully’s (child-friendly) college days.

Muppet Babies (1984-1991)

The Muppets in cartoon-form in one nursery supervised by a giant nanny. Basically rubbish.

 

The Indiana Jones Chronicles (1992-1996)

Taking its inspiration from the short sequence starring River Phoenix as a teenaged Indy at the start of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, this star studded  TV show saw the young adventurer played by several different actors (notably Sean Patrick Flanery) enjoying high jinks across a range of early 20th century locations. A pre-Star Wars example of Lucasfilm prequeling.

 
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X-Men Origins Wolverine(2009)/ X-Men: First Class (2011)

The first X-Men prequel (exploring Wolverine’s past) wasn’t great. The second one set in the Sixties (and featuring a cameo from Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine) was better. Despite James McAvoy’s Professor Xavier (the young version of Patrick Stewart’s character in the original X-Men trilogy (2000-2005) occasionally spouting lines like: “I suppose I am a real professor, aren’t I? Next thing you know, I’ll be going bald!” Ooh! The dramatic irony!

 

Prometheus (2012)

Very clearly a prequel to the Alien films despite various official attempts to deny it. Still not very good though.

 

The Godfather Part II (1974)

A sequel and a prequel, unusually. On the one hand, we see Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) continue to build his crime empire in the 1950s following on from the first film. On the other, we flash back to the start of the century and see his father Vito (Robert De Niro when he’s an adult) coming to America and slowly getting the family business started. Unlike the Michael stuff, these early bits are in fact derived from Mario Puzo’s original novel. The film ends just after Pearl Harbor (1941). The first film starts just after the war’s end (1945).

 

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

An excellent prequel set in the near future which explains how the apes of Planet of the Apes (1968) managed to usurp humans as the dominant race on Earth.

 

First of the Summer Wine (1988-1989).

Prequel to the long running comedy set just before the Second World War. Peter Sallis (Cleggy) plays his own character’s father and Seymour appears even though none of the characters met him until a mid-80s episode of the original series. Not as bad as it sounds, as the young actors are well cast (including an extra one called Sherbet who we can only presume was killed in the war). It does rather miss the point though as “young men acting like children” isn’t quite the same as “old men acting like children”.