That he was born is just one of the many undeniable facts about the life of the late Douglas Adams - author, humorist, raconteur, speaker, and thinker (although it should be noted that, on at least one parallel Earth, Mr. Adams was born a spring-toed lemur with a predilection for grassy fields and the works of Byron - a poetic lemur whose work was not terribly springy).
Another fact which comes to mind is that, of the 7 novels he wrote in his all-too-brief lifetime, by far the most popular is The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and its four sequels - which make for a fine trilogy if you’re somewhat numerically impaired. Please don’t take this as a slight against Adams’s other novels, featuring detective Dirk Gently (Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency and its sequel, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul), as they are both fine pieces of writing, and should also be read. Your reading list should also include the spoof dictionaries he co-wrote with John Lloyd (The Meaning of Liff & The Deeper Meaning of Liff), as well as his book on endangered species, Last Chance to See (with Mark Carwardine).
Sadly, Douglas Adams passed away on May, 11 2001 in California, where he had spent decades trying to get Hollywood to comprehend (and realize) a big screen version of Hitchhiker’s. Thankfully, he left behind a legacy in print that will not soon be forgotten, as well as a few deadlines that are still pending.
On the eve of the release of the big screen version (Iteration? Interpretation? Desecration? You judge…), I asked a few of Douglas’s friends, colleagues, associates, and vague acquaintances (for the sake of balance, naturally) to provide an anecdote they feel best described the Douglas they knew.
As a poet once said, “My enemy is hopelessness, my ally honest doubt. The Answer is a Question that I never will find out…”
In all fairness, another poet once said, “Don’t you know how sweet and wonderful life could be?… So let’s get it on…”
(author, director, Python)
I was lucky enough to buy two tickets for the first ever screening of Abel Gance’s Napoleon in Kevin Brownlow’s restored version. I don’t know why I bought the tickets, because I’d never heard of either the film nor Abel Gance, however the idea of a five hour silent film with a final sequence that prefigured Cinerama with three screens interlocking sounded pretty intriguing.
However, when the day of the screening came (a Sunday), I had a hangover and so did my wife. She decided she didn’t feel up to sitting in the cinema watching a silent movie from 10.00am until 5.00pm. So I rang Michael Palin. He said he had a hangover and didn’t fancy the idea of sitting in the cinema watching a silent movie from 10.00am until 5.00pm. So I rang up Douglas. He said he had a hangover and didn’t fancy the idea of sitting in the cinema watching a silent movie from 10.00am until 5.00pm.
So I gave up, and decided that since I’d bought the tickets, hungover or not, I’d have to go on my own.
Just as I was leaving the house, however, the phone rang. It was Douglas. He said he’d been thinking about it, and the idea of sitting in the cinema watching a silent movie from 10.00am to 5.00pm sounded so dreadful that he just had to do it to see if it was as dreadful as it seemed.
So that’s what happened. Douglas and I met up, thinking we’d give the middle of the film a miss, but instead finding ourselves riveted and at each interval impatient to get back into the film. It was, in short, one of the cinematic events of my life.
But for me the interesting thing was Douglas’s fearless curiosity. He came precisely because it sounded like such a bad idea! That really was Douglas.
(producer, writer, co-author of The Meaning of Liff)
The Hitchhiker movie was almost 23 years in turnaround.
I spent September of 1982 with Douglas (and his then girlfriend, Jane) in Donna Summer’s beach-house in Malibu.
We were supposed to be writing a book called The Meaning of Liff, but Douglas spent much of the time in meetings with movie people, trying to find someone he could get on with.
One day he returned from one of these encounters distracted and bewildered. He had just met a grotesque caricature of the archetypal Hollywood producer - a squat, toad-like man with an enormous cigar.
This creature, so Douglas reported, had the following proposal:
“So Doug,’ he growled, ‘We’re gonna eat a little lunch, maybe take a few moments to go over the idea and the money - and then we’re gonna talk about what kinda animal ya like to sleep with…”
(actress, “Trillian” in the Hitchhiker’s radio series)
I certainly admired Douglas, for his dedication to his causes, and his “‘off the wall” sense of humour.
“Goodbye and thanks for all the fish” was a stock phrase in our house for years!
But the concept that we are in or among not just one but many dimensions is just the most wonderful thought - and who knows, it might be true.
I suspect D thought so…
…and ruled by white mice… how brilliant is that?
And of course, memories of him rushing the scripts in at the last minute…no wonder we didn’t understand it half the time!
I envy the film cast having scripts in advance!
(singer/songwriter, Rutle, one of the many legitimate claimants to the title “7th Python”)
Douglas Adams and I share the distinction of being the only two people - other than the team themselves - ever to have put pen to paper with Monty Python. It was while I was writing with Graham Chapman that I first met him… he would regularly join us for “lunch” - very lively and jolly occasions, often the highlight of the day.
Somehow or other the idea was spawned that Douglas and I should write a musical together, and a couple of years later, no sense in rushing these things, he drove up to Suffolk for the weekend. The family and I had only just moved to the country and we literally lived up a riverbed that was also a road - most of the time. It was wild and the kids adored it.
Douglas arrived with his guitar and fashionable London shoes in a style aptly named “slip-on”. Wide-eyed, he got out of the car and began to enthuse about Nature and Being. As I escorted him across the lawn, the only way to the house at that time, his feet suddenly slid from under him and he did the best impression of an Oliver Hardy fall I have ever seen!
A big man in so many ways, I shall never forget the sight of Douglas lying flat on his back, precious guitar held safely aloft, still extolling the beauty of the English countryside.
(writer, author, ex-Python)
(Mr. Chapman could not be reached in time for deadline)
I was working on Don’t Panic! and that day I was at Douglas’s brand new Islington house going through dusty filing cabinets, pulling out early drafts of the TV series scripts and notes and old fan mail and such.
Douglas himself was off doing the sort of things that Douglas did, like contemplating writing something for the Comic Relief Live programme booklet, and then having lugubriously contemplated, taking a bath. There was a sudden scurrying and commotion as a Douglasy sort of noise came from upstairs, followed by the arrival downstairs of Douglas’s stepmother. “He says there aren’t any towels in the bathroom and he’s in the bath. Where are the towels?” she asked, and Douglas’s assistant went off with her to locate the linen closet and find Douglas a towel.
I thought, of course. You have to be the kind of person who doesn’t know where his towel is to notice that the people who do are the truly cool people. And I was glad Douglas didn’t. And I went back to the filing cabinets.
(actor, stage and TV “Marvin, the Paranoid Android”)
Warm from the day. The sun exploded into the china clay pits in Carclaze. Twenty-five years on and they’re so close to the Eden project. The Douglas project? Jim Francis was propping up a model of the “Heart of Gold” on stones. Special effects? Yes, given the budget. None of your movie money here.
Way way back up the hill stood Simon (Jones), sweltering in his dressing gown. Mark (Wing-Davey), complaining for the thousandth time about the other. David (Dixon), the best dressed of all of us: Ford always had it easy. Sandra (Dickinson), actually Sandra wasn’t wearing an awful lot, sleek and cat-like in red. Me, bringing up the rear, in the suit. The suit and I had no relationship whatever. Previously Jim and Perry had taken the usual forty minutes to screw me into the thing, leaving just the top of my head sucking in the Carclaze air. Now it was on. Bad mood? I should say so.
Down there, Douglas and Alan. Mike with a megaphone. “Roll!”
We ambled down the track. Breakfast was a long time away. I was getting hungry. “Cut! That’s a wrap.”
Simon said, “Bollocks. I still had my sunglasses on. Do you think anyone noticed?” It was very Arthur Dent.
Douglas’s choice at last of where we were eating. Actually, he always chose what we ate. The Mevagissey fish restaurant was fantastic. His choices were blindingly accurate. Usually. “It’s called …..”
I daren’t say what it was called. It’s probably still going. “It’s forty miles away!” I said.
It mattered not a jot. We piled into the motors, headed out across the moor. Everyone trying to keep up with the Porsche and failing admirably. The sun had slid down the sky. Even Marvin would have sighed at its beauty.
What was wrong with the meal? Don’t know. The place had a superb reputation, the service was excellent; it just didn’t … gel. We were expecting to give it ten out of ten; heck it was expensive.
For the first time that night I heard Douglas tell the story of the railway café, the bloke, the biscuits, the other bloke opposite. You know that story: it’s in one of the books, somewhere, of course. It was the end of meal. We’d been listening to a brilliant story teller tell a brilliant story. A general sigh of appreciation, the warmth of the evening, the company, the pleasure at having created another piece of television history.
In a sweeping gesture, Douglas paid for everyone. That was his way.
(assistant floor manager, Hitchhiker’s TV series)
Towards the end of filming the TV version of the Guide, my wife and I adopted a homeless dog from the RSPCA.
He was thought to be an Irish Wolfhound crossed with a German Shepherd. He was gigantic, hairy and bore his oversized face and nose regally. They said he was about three years old.
He was an amazing dog; faithful, adventurous and completely fearless. He was able to escape from anywhere with amazing ingenuity and could be completely distracted whilst planning his next escapade.
He wrestled with enormous toys and, being extremely strong, would drag people along with him on a whim. At the same he would exhibit great naiveté and be surprised by the simplest of things. He was fearfully protective, but incurably curious.
He would disappear completely and we would search the streets and lanes for hours growing frantic with worry, sure that some terrible fate had befallen him. Then he would shoulder through the door, often followed by some amazing new friend who he had discovered on his travels.
Somehow we all laughed with him and not at him, because he allowed us to see the humour from his point of view, rather than clowning.
He was run over outside our house by an articulated lorry and died much too young.
We had named him Douglas and the parallels, for me, are inescapable….
(Zoologist, Conservationist, Environmentalist, co-author Last Chance to See)
Both Douglas and I have very low boredom thresholds. We spent an inordinate amount of time talking about everything under the sun. Funnily enough, Douglas didn’t read much while we were travelling. I don’t think he could concentrate on something so different and far-removed from the situation in hand. But the first thing he did on getting back to civilization was to buy books and ready solidly for hours.
When we got back to Sydney after our visit to Komodo, he went to his hotel room and disappeared for an hour - shaving, showering etc. - and then went off to find a bookshop. He bought at least 20 books on an incredible variety of subjects and then went back to bed for three solid days and nights to read the whole lot in one sitting.
His other great thing on returning to civilization was the phone - he made loads of phone calls.
The thing about Douglas was that he thoroughly enjoyed roughing it and life in the wilds for a week or so, but then he pined for the comforts of civilization. Completely understandable, of course.
(author, actor, director, bon vivant)
Douglas and I, as the first two owners of Apple Macs in Europe, played for years (before the internet would have made it easier) like kids with train sets, swapping software and routines and programmes. No colour, no hard disks for some years: but damn it was fun.
Downstairs lurked Sue Freestone, DNA’s publisher, wishing that I would go away so that Douglas would get on with his latest novel. As a way of getting rid of me she offered me an advance for a book of my own.
So I went off and wrote one.
When I came back Douglas was no further forward with his. As is well known, he HATED writing.
He was a huge man: when he was in a house it rattled and you always knew he was there. He did the same to the earth. It doesn’t rattle any more now that he’s gone.
(singer/songwriter, producer, author, entrepreneur)
Douglas Adams could see connections between things, people, and ideas that ordinary people either never saw, or finally saw long after Douglas had seen it. It was a singular talent, intuitive to Douglas, and developed to a unique and extraordinary extent. As a result Douglas had many friends who never would have met each other were it not for him. Douglas himself was the hub. His ability to discern these unseen connections made him a friend to a remarkably broad array of very different people.
When I was a teenager I saw a cartoon by Paul Crum of two hippos in a remote jungle stream with just their nose above water. They were talking, and one was saying to the other “I keep thinking it’s Tuesday”.
The cartoon impressed me deeply. I thought the cartoon amazingly funny. It captured something special.
I listened in astonishment one afternoon as Douglas told a group of reporters of having seen that same cartoon when he was a teenager, and how much it had meant to him. Douglas and I had never mentioned it to each other before that moment, although we had been friends for ten years.
It didn’t surprise Douglas. For him it was the final appearing of something he had intuitively known since we first met. Fortunately for me Douglas offered his friendship based on that hunch, and I will always treasure it.
When I met Douglas Adams - for the briefest of moments - I was a broke grad student at Indiana University who had most of his books memorized but only an aged, dog-earned Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul amongst my possessions. I’d seen a small poster advertising a lecture being given by Adams at IU and went - book in hand hoping for an autograph - expecting a throng.
The lecture wasn’t exactly a sell-out, but for those of us who showed up, it was a truly great night. Adams came down off his podium when he noted the attendance, invited everyone to move up close, and started off by saying he would have to amend his typical Q&A as he always answered the question, “Where
do you get your ideas?” with: “A small mail-order company in Indiana.”
Though the lecture was mostly about the environment - somewhat in conjunction with the book Last Chance to See - Adams talked about the nature of humor, recalling a story about driving in the American Southwest and passing a sign reading: “Strong Winds May Exist.” He extrapolated on this for awhile, making eloquent use of his trademark humor, but then told us a story that, he explained, would have a funny set-up, but a horrifically disappointing ending. I won’t recall it anywhere near as well as Adams did, but it went something like this.
Adams was driving around London and ended up talking to a police officer/bobby - the kind that wore the large, pointy helmet. Anyway, he went off in his car, only to find himself soon chased by the police, people in the neighborhood, little kids, buses - you name it - everyone pursuing him. That’s when he realized that the bobby’s hat - the theft of which was an arrestable offense - was on top of his car.
So, he stopped and gave the helmet back.
He told the story brilliantly and everybody got a laugh. At the end of the evening, Adams signed autographs and chatted with fans. I got up to him and talked to him about radio-theater, something we agreed was a great way for a young writer to cut their teeth. He was curious about where they practiced it in America and we got on the topic of Austin, Texas - a place Adams thought was pretty nifty. And that was it. When I found out he had passed away, it was the first time the death of an author really made me feel truly regretful of what writing may have yet been still to come.
I distinctly remember the first time I “met” Douglas Adams - I was 13 years old and had decided that I was going to write for Doctor Who. After several phone calls (a story unto themselves that will be recounted elsewhere), I was put through to the Doctor Who production office and turned over to its new Script Editor, one Douglas Adams.
Either I was far better at disguising my age over the phone than I believed possible or Douglas was so intrigued that an American would show any interest in writing for Doctor Who at the time to give it a second thought. Whatever reason he had for not hanging up the phone the instant I came on the line, it began a series of phone calls wherein we discussed pretty much anything that came to mind and very rarely the task at hand, which was writing stories for Doctor Who.
At the time, the US market was considerably behind the BBC and the series hadn’t yet taken off in America the way it would a few short years later. My first request was to ask Douglas for a copy of the Writer’s Guide for the series, the story bible that writers use as a framework for submissions.
There was a long pause.
“We haven’t got one”, he finally replied.
“That’s okay,” I said, “just get me the one for last season and I’ll go off of that one until the one for this season is ready.”
Yet another long pause and a deep breath followed.
“It’s not that we haven’t written one for this series, Ken,” he started off, almost sheepishly. “We’ve never had one. I’m really sorry about that and I know you must think we’re very unprofessional for that but I can try to work you up something to use.”
I couldn’t believe it - I had one of the people responsible for producing a series I was practically begging to write for apologize to me for not having a writer’s guide! I think he mistook my stunned silence as some kind of indictment of Doctor Who, the BBC and himself as a person. “I’ll make sure you’ve got something to work with by the end of the week,” he told me and he was good to his word. A remarkable accomplishment considering how legendary his inability to meet a deadline became in the years that followed.
The “writer’s guide” that appeared in my mailbox nearly two weeks later was three typewritten pages, each weighed down by at least a few ounces of Liquid Paper. Douglas, it seemed, would “edit on the fly” and the extra postage reflected the extra weight. It was hilarious, reflecting the personality of the man I’d been speaking with on the phone and almost completely useless for its intended purpose as it gave no directions whatsoever on characters or settings. Still, Douglas Adams had a great influence on my life and my career simply for being who he was and being gracious enough to give someone he didn’t know a chance.
KEVIN JON DAVIES
(Hitchhiker’s TV series animator, documentary maker, and concept artist of The Illustrated Hitchhiker’s)
During one studio session for the 1981 BBCTV series of The Hitchhiker’s Guide I sat with Douglas for a while behind the director, Alan J.W. Bell, up in the control gallery. Alan was speaking to his Floor Manager via the talk-back system as they diplomatically wrestled with an awkward actor who was holding up the proceedings. This guest star (who’d better remain nameless) had, frankly, been having trouble remembering his lines since the rehearsal period and his latest excuse was to blame his uncomfortable seating arrangements. Douglas fumed as his precious script was mangled yet again.
“Why doesn’t he just prop himself up a bit?” I murmured.
“Why doesn’t he just f*** off!” barked Douglas, loudly. The comment shot straight down the director’s microphone and out to every pair of headphones on the studio floor. I later learned that even those without headphones could hear the remark.
“Who said that?” demanded the rather compromised F.M., “Was it Kevin?”
(I don’t think he liked me…!)
Alan glanced round at Douglas and replied ruefully, “No, I’m afraid that was our writer…!” Douglas just grinned, unashamedly.
In January 1984 I attended a glittering ceremony where Douglas was to collect his first Golden Pan Award as the youngest author under 30 (apart from poor little Anne Frank) to sell a million copies in the Pan Paperback edition alone. His publisher, making the presentation, spoke at length about Douglas’s famous inability to meet deadlines. They used to wonder whether, come each delivery date, Douglas was actually at home finishing the latest novel or out somewhere wrapping another Porche around a lamppost (the fate which befell his first - within a fortnight). To rapturous applause, Douglas accepted his prize statuette and turned to the audience; “I’ve known about this evening’s presentation for sometime,” he grinned, “And I’m pleased to say my acceptance speech is very nearly ready!”
(writer, author of Hitchhiker: A Biography of Douglas Adams)
I didn’t know Douglas Adams socially; I just met him professionally a few times. But when I did meet him I found him to be enthusiastic, amiable and polite. I think he was slightly bemused by being a ‘celebrity’. He used to worry that it wasn’t normal for writers to be recognizable, but at the same time he was a frustrated performer who loved giving readings and interviews. I always summed it up as: he didn’t really like ‘fans’ but he was always happy to talk with ‘a fan’.
I wrote a huge article about the history of Hitchhiker’s Guide in SFX magazine for the series’ 20th anniversary in 1998. The movie deal had just been announced and Douglas very kindly wrote a few paragraphs about it for the feature. No agents involved, no hassle, no fee - he was that approachable, although I’m sure he wrote the stuff for me in order to avoid having to write something else for someone else. Nevertheless, I take pride in being almost the only person on Earth to have commissioned some writing from Douglas Adams and received it before my deadline.
I think it is interesting, and a little sad, that Douglas’s name has been so low-key among all the publicity and hype for this movie. The trailers just said “From the celebrated best-selling novel” - but omitted to mention who wrote it. On the other hand, it may be best for Douglas Adams’s reputation that he isn’t linked too closely with the film. Despite what many people are saying, he didn’t write it. He wrote a screenplay which Disney rejected, then he died, and then another writer came in and wrote a new screenplay incorporating material from Douglas’s version. WGA rules mean that both writers are credited, though they never met.
A much better tribute to Douglas is the new, final radio series based on the fourth and fifth Hitchhiker books. The reason those books don’t work very well is because they were rushed so there is almost no editing. Douglas needed a good editor or producer to make his work really shine and what Dirk Maggs has done with these final eight scripts is extraordinary and exactly what an editor would have done with the books had there been time.
(Adapter/Director, The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy Quandary & Quintessential Phases)
In the early 1990s I was, like Douglas Adams and Geoffrey Perkins before me, a Producer in BBC Radio Light Entertainment. As well as comedy programmes our output included ‘Light Drama’, and whilst making action serials featuring the DC Comics characters Superman and Batman I was able to develop a radio production style which layered lots of sound effects and music onto a tightly written, cinematic script. It was, and is, an incredibly labour intensive way to work, and at times I still wonder what rod I made for my own back. But these early efforts had caught Douglas’s attention, and he was in talks with the BBC about further radio series of Hitchhiker’s. One spring morning in 1993 he called my boss Jonathan James Moore and asked if I would be interested in taking on the job of producing them. I was floored. Apart from marriage and children, nothing before or since has so wonderfully and unexpectedly trumped my expectations of life.
That proposed first series ground to a halt due to script problems and contractual difficulties. Then talks I had with Douglas and Robbie Stamp in 1997 to restart the process through their Digital Village company were scuppered by the long-awaited Movie Deal coming through. When we last met, in Broadcasting House Reception in 2000, we were still making hopeful noises about finishing the saga on radio. And then, overwhelming any such petty concerns, Douglas died. Against all odds it was a chance meeting at his Memorial Service which revived the idea, and this time it actually happened.
I did not know Douglas as a friend, but on the occasions we met I liked him enormously, whether he was enthused, taciturn, distracted or utterly pissed off. I can only thank him for having faith in me, and recall a moment when perhaps I helped maintain his faith in himself. After the Tertiary Phase collapsed in 1993 I was ‘poached’ to produce Ned Sherrin’s Radio 4 chat show Loose Ends. Mostly Harmless had just been published in paperback and I invited Douglas in as a guest, as well as Sir Ranulph Fiennes, who had just manhauled a sled across Antarctica, losing useful items like fingers and toes to frostbite. As the great explorer told an epic tale of suffering and endurance, Douglas’s face fell.
Afterwards, in the pub, I asked if something had upset him.
“Oh, not really,” said Douglas. “It’s just that talking about being locked in a hotel room to write an overdue novel seems pretty tame stuff compared to trekking across a thousand miles of icy crevasses.”
“Well you need to put things in perspective,” I replied. “First of all, your struggle was on a more human scale, and the result is a unique achievement no-one can match. Secondly, just before we went on air, Ran Fiennes got lost in the basement of Broadcasting House looking for the toilet.”
Douglas smiled and picked up his glass. “That makes me feel much better.”
I want to thank everyone who shared their thoughts and anecdotes about Douglas, especially those who set aside crippling deadlines of their own to make sure this piece had their input. Of course, I could have gone through with my original plan - in honor of Douglas - and run this piece four months late…
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