Simon Brett on Life, the Universe and Everything

Posted: October 3, 2009 | Author:

As we continue the countdown to October 12 and the 30th anniversary of Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, here are Simon Brett’s words on the third book in the trilogy, Life, the Universe and Everything:

I am unique in the history of the world – and indeed the entire universe. I am the only person who ever got a manuscript from Douglas Adams on time. The reason for this rare distinction is that I was the BBC producer who commissioned the first radio script for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and since the pilot episode could not be recorded until we had some words to record, Douglas duly delivered on time. Thereafter, of course, his propensity towards procrastination and missed deadlines became legendary.
I had first met Douglas with a bunch of other Cambridge revue writers and performers, including John Lloyd, Griff Rhys Jones and Mary Allen. He had contributed a few surreal sketches (including a classic about an unsuccessful kamikaze pilot) to a Cambridge Footlights revue to which a group of young radio Light Entertainment producers (including me) had paid a visit. I subsequently produced a radio version of that stage show.
So I saw a lot of Douglas round the BBC. I was aware of his comedy potential, but also of his huge frustration that he couldn’t find a niche for his unusual talents. Most radio comedy round that time was very stratified. Sketches were carefully constructed with beginnings, middles and punchlines, and formats like that didn’t suit the sprawling, insatiable intellectual curiosity of Douglas’s mind.
I was also then producing the topical comedy programme Week Ending, and tried to get him to contribute to that. Never had there been a greater mismatch between programme and writer. A brain like Douglas’s is singularly incapable of writing wacky thirty-second quickies about Margaret Thatcher. Some of his material did appear in The Burkiss Way, another show I was producing, and that was closer to the Adams style, But the show’s main writers, David Renwick and Andrew Marshall (both subsequently to have stellar careers in television comedy), were developing the programme in a way which left little room for outside contributions.
I still thought there was untapped potential in Douglas Adams, and so I asked him to come up with some ideas of his own. On Friday 18 February 1977 we met for lunch in a Japanese restaurant, where he presented me with three ideas. I said that I thought the most promising was the science-fiction comedy which he had entitled The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and that I would try to persuade my bosses in the Light Entertainment Department to commission a pilot script. The rest, as they say, is history. (And incidentally, neither Douglas nor I could ever remember what the two ideas we rejected were.)
So, on Tuesday 28 June 1977, in the Paris Studio in Lower Regent Street, we recorded the pilot script of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It was to be the first and last episode that I produced. Not that I wouldn’t have wanted to continue, but I had recently agreed to take a new job at London Weekend Television. And the ensuing series couldn’t have been in better hands than those of the person I recommended should take over from me – Geoffrey Perkins, a brilliant comedy producer, whose death, like Douglas’s own, came far too early.
On the 12 July I played back the edited recording of the pilot to my immediate bosses. The three of them sat in stony silence for the full half-hour. At the end of the playback the Head of Light Entertainment, Con Mahoney, recognizing that what he had heard was rather different from the department’s usual output, asked me, ‘Simon, is it funny?’ I assured him it was, and from that moment on he gave the project his full support.
Of course it was from that pilot script that The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy developed into an international publishing sensation, the ‘trilogy of five’, of which Life, the Universe and Everything is volume three.
In this book you will find all of the trademarks of Douglas Adams’s writing, of which probably the most striking is his sheer glee in the potentialities of the English language. Sometimes the effects are very simple, as when he says of the party spaceship, ‘It tried to right itself and wronged itself instead.’ Other images are more complex, but always note perfect. Here’s a description of the Norse god Thor: ‘He expanded his chest to make it totally clear that here was the sort of man you only dared cross if you had a team of Sherpas with you.’
Then there are the words Douglas makes up. In a characteristic scene where a mattress engages in conversation with Marvin the Paranoid Android, we encounter ‘flolloped’, ‘globbered’ and ‘vollued’, none of which would have been out of place in Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky.
I think Douglas’s was the most original mind I’ve ever encountered. He had a unique ability to make connections between disparate ideas. In the world of Hitchhiker it appears quite logical that a drinks party should hurtle endlessly through space, or that a new mathematical system should be based on people’s behaviour in restaurants.
Life, the Universe and Everything is the book in which Douglas gets closest to actually having a plot. But as he would readily admit, he wasn’t really good at plots, and it isn’t a very good plot. That couldn’t matter less, though. You don’t read Douglas Adams for his plots any more than you read Raymond Chandler for his. You read both authors for their language and the imaginative world that they create.
So enjoy this book. The writing process for Douglas was an agonizingly slow one, but the results were always worth waiting for. And Life, the Universe and Everything has another rare distinction. It is one of the very few books featuring cricket ever to have been a success in the States.
Simon Brett – Producer of the Radio 4 pilot episode of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Category: Douglas Adams

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