After I posted a TV theme from my childhood on Sunday, which attracted some rather lovely comments about the memories hearing it brought back, I started thinking about other TV themes which evoked the same kind of memories for me.
And I came up with this:
For those of you who don’t recognise that, it was used as the theme tune at first for the BBC Radio series, and then as the BBC TV Series, of Douglas Adams’ peerless The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which, as luck would have it, first aired, on 8th March 1978, forty years ago today.
I first encountered it in 1982. How am I able to say that so confidently? Well, because my brother recorded them all onto C60 cassettes, one episode on each side, and drew his own cover art for each of them. There were thirteen episodes, which meant that one blank side was left over, which he filled with songs taped off the Top 40. And amongst those songs, were Status Quo’s Something ‘Bout You Baby I Like and XTC’s Senses Working Overtime. And guess which of those two I’m going to post? Yup:
When my brother left home to join the RAF, I claimed those cassettes, and they stayed with me right up until the final year of my degree course, when one of the options was a Creative Writing for Radio, which I took. At some point in one of the lectures, the subject of The Hitchhiker’s Guide… came up, and, eager to please, I happened to let slip that I had all of them, should anyone wish to borrow them. I don’t think there was one person who didn’t borrow the set and come back to the next lecture gushing about how brilliant they are. So brilliant, in fact, that I never got them back again.
Although it didn’t occur to me at the time, one of the reasons that I took that course was because of how awe inspired I was by Adams’ work, and how I wanted to emulate him. You can tell by the fact that I’m writing this, that I was never successful.
But I digress. One of the biggest misconceptions that people make about the The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – and by people, I mean people who have never read, listened to or watched it – is that it’s something for nerds, of sci-fi fans. Wrong, wrong, wrong. I mean, yes, it is set in space, and yes, there are aliens and robots, and yes there are characters with funny names (Slartibartfast is a favourite, specifically because Adams wanted a character whose name sounded very rude, but which was still actually broadcastable. He therefore started with the name Phartiphukborlz, and changed bits of it until it would be acceptable to the BBC) but above and beyond all of that it’s a very, very funny work, often satirical in places.
Here’s the premise: Arthur Dent is rescued from Earth’s destruction by his long-standing friend, Ford Prefect, who, until his rescue, Arthur has no idea whatsoever is not a human at all, but rather a human-like alien from Betelgeuse, working as a writer for the titular electronic travel guide. The two escape by hitchhiking onto a passing Vogon spacecraft, who have been sent to destroy the Earth to make way for a new Hyperspace By-pass. Together, and along with the President of the Galaxy, Zaphod Beeblebrox, and his companion, Trillian (not forgetting the depressed Marvin the Paranoid Android) they explore the galaxy and along the way discover how, why, by and for whom the Earth was created in the first place.
Okay, so it is sounding a little sci-fi-y, I suppose.
For those of you who are able to listen to it, there’s a rather wonderful episode of Bookclub available on the BBC iPlayer, an hour long special to mark their 20th anniversary, which includes an interview with Adams. If you’re in the UK (and pay your licence fee, of course), it’s here. In it Adams is asked whether or not he considers himself to be a sci-fi writer or not. His answer is rather illuminating:
“Well, I’ve always denied this, I’ve always said I’m primarily a comedy writer, but I have to say that virtually everything I ever write turns out to have something to do with science or science fiction, and anytime I try to right something else, very quickly spaceships and robots start creeping round the edges, so I think I probably do have to own up and say maybe I am a science-fiction writer after all.”
But it’s weird how some science fiction can come true. For example, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a book that….well, I’ll let The Book itself explain (these are the first words you hear in episode one of the radio series):
“This is the story of ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’: perhaps the most remarkable – certainly the most successful – book ever to come out of the great publishing corporations of Ursa Minor. More popular than ‘The Celestial Homecare Omnibus’, better selling than ’53 More Things To Do in Zero Gravity’ and more controversial than Oolon Calluphid’s trilogy of philosophical blockbusters ‘Where God Went Wrong’, ‘Some More of God’s Greatest Mistakes’ and ‘Who Is This God Person Anyway?’
And in many of the more relaxed civilisations on the Outer Eastern Rim of the Galaxy, The Hitchhiker’s Guide… has already supplanted the great Encyclopaedia Galactica as the standard repository of all knowledge and wisdom, for though it has many omissions and contains much that is apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate, it scores over the older, more pedestrian work in two important respects.
First, it is slightly cheaper; and secondly it has the words
inscribed in large friendly letters on its cover.”
Does that sound familiar? A digital portable reference book which gives you access to all of the information and knowledge, and quite a lot of disinformation and ignorance, in the known world?
(If it doesn’t sound familiar to you, then might I suggest you have a look at what you’re reading this on, and reconsider your first answer.)
Here are some other great quotes from the series, some funny, some thought-provoking, many both:
“In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.”
“There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened.”
“The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t.”
Arthur: You know it’s at times like this, when I’m trapped in a Vogon airlock with a man from Betelgeuse, and about to die of asphyxiation in deep space that I really wish I’d listened to what my mother told me when I was young.
Ford: Why, what did she tell you?
Arthur: I don’t know, I didn’t listen.
“On the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much — the wheel, New York, wars and so on — whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man for precisely the same reasons.”
“It is known that there are an infinite number of worlds, simply because there is an infinite amount of space for them to be in. However, not every one of them is inhabited. Therefore, there must be a finite number of inhabited worlds. Any finite number divided by infinity is as near to nothing as makes no odds, so the average population of all the planets in the Universe can be said to be zero. From this it follows that the population of the whole Universe is also zero, and that any people you may meet from time to time are merely the products of a deranged imagination.”
“Nothing travels faster than the speed of light with the possible exception of bad news, which obeys its own special laws.”
As I mentioned, there’s often a satirical bent to Adams’ writing:
“The disadvantages involved in pulling lots of black sticky slime from out of the ground where it had been safely hidden out of harm’s way, turning it into tar to cover the land with, smoke to fill the air with and pouring the rest into the sea, all seemed to outweigh the advantages of being able to get more quickly from one place to another.”
And perhaps most famously and appropriately for our times, this:
“It is a well known fact that those people who most want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it. To summarise the summary: anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job.”
But apart from predicting the creation of the internet and the rise to power of Bush, Trump, or whoever we all think is an incapable idiot this week, Hitchhiker has inspired many other things. Take the Babel Fish. More quotes, I’m afraid:
“The Babel Fish is small, yellow, leech-like, and probably the oddest thing in the universe. It feeds on brain wave energy, absorbing all unconscious frequencies and then excreting telepathically a matrix formed from the conscious frequencies and nerve signals picked up from the speech centres of the brain, the practical upshot of which is that if you stick one in your ear, you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language: the speech you hear decodes the brain wave matrix.
Now it is such a bizarrely improbable coincidence that anything so mind-bogglingly useful could evolve purely by chance that some thinkers have chosen to see it as a final and clinching proof of the non-existence of God.
The argument goes something like this:
“I refuse to prove that I exist,” says God, “for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.”
“But,” says Man, “the Babel fish is a dead giveaway, isn’t it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don’t. QED.”
“Oh dear,” says God, “I hadn’t thought of that,” and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic.
“Oh, that was easy,” says Man, and for an encore goes on to prove that black is white, and gets killed on the next zebra crossing.”
And that has led to online translation service Babelfish.com
The world of music hasn’t escaped the influence either; £1 million-insured thumb-slapping bass based 80s popsters Level 42 take their name from the answer to Life, The Universe and Everything, and Radiohead had their biggest hit in the UK with this, inspired by the aforementioned Marvin, which reached #3 back in 1997:
Of course, there are other, less critically acclaimed musical moments inspired by the great book, not least this, voiced by actor Stephen Moore, who played perhaps the most memorable character in both the radio and television series. Listening to this now, it sounds like the Not The Nine O’Clock News gang doing a comedy send-up of Kraftwerk:
You know Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the book on which Blade Runner was based? Well here’s your answer: No.
In case you haven’t guessed by now, I bloody love the universe Adams creates in The Hitchhiker… series. So if this is your first exposure to it, and you decide you want to investigate further, then I envy you and the journey you’re about to embark on.
If I were you, I’d start with the radio series, then track down the TV series (which visually hasn’t aged that well, but of all the differing platforms it is the most faithful to the radio series, and is available on DVD, and probably on YouTube if I could muster up the energy to check), then read the five books in, as Adams himself put it, the increasingly inaccurately titled trilogy, and then, if you really must, watch the film (I’m not saying it’s bad, it’s just…disappointing. Not a patch on the radio series, which you should then revisit to remind yourself just how great it is.)
“But how can we hear them?” you (hopefully) ask.
Ok, well if you want to dip your toe in and try them one at a time, here you go:
Or, if you want to download the whole lot in one go:
Finally, one last thing, and we’re popping back to the BBC iPlayer and to this, the ironically titled: Boring Talks #01 – The End Of The World where Steve Cross close-reads The Hitchhiker’s Guide… to try and work out the specific date of the end of the world. You will be surprised by his conclusions…
(NB – you will need to have a (free to set up) account to listen to either of the BBC iPlayer links, and the programmes are only available for a limited period of time.)
Anyway, that’s my bandwidth shafted for a few days, so I’ll see you at the weekend.
Or rather, so long, and thanks for all the fish.
Or, put another way: more soon.