When I grew up, I wanted to work at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Partly because of the name: an intriguing and exciting combination of the exotic and the everyday, the hi-tech and the homely, like Dr Who’s sonic screwdriver. But also because the people there produced – working, as I fondly imagined it, with hammers and saws and bric-à-brac, and perhaps a couple of sonic screwdrivers – the wonderful unearthly sound effects for TV and radio programmes like Dr Who and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. But even if I’d had the right talents, I wouldn’t have got the opportunity: the BBC, short of money, scrapped the Radiophonic Workshop in 1996, just short of its 40th anniversary. A documentary about it was broadcast on BBC4 last year – small consolation.
The legendary shows to which the workshop made such an inestimable contribution, on the other hand, are being resurrected in more corporeal form. Dr Who has returned to the small screen, after a 15-year absence, with Christopher Eccleston – a huge improvement on the Doctor’s last four incarnations (in reverse order: Paul McGann, Sylvester McCoy, Colin Baker, Peter Davison), though obviously no match for Tom Baker – at the controls of a souped-up Tardis. As I write, he’s at the mercy of a gang of obese aliens who’ve long been lurking behind the scenes at Downing St, and for complicated reasons have just staged the crash-landing of a UFO in the Thames, knocking out a chunk of Big Ben on the way down. The prime minister’s corpse has been discovered slumped in a cupboard by the only competent politician in the story, a backbencher called Harriet Jones who’s far more interested in her constituency’s cottage hospitals than a place in the cabinet. The Doctor asks his assistant, Rose (played by Billie Piper), who the PM is. She doesn’t know, because they’ve come back to Earth a year in the future, after the general election.
The big-screen version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – which has been variously incarnated as a radio show, a pentalogy of novels,[*] a stage play and a TV series, so it only seems right there should be a film, too – hasn’t been made by the BBC; it’s been made by Disney. It’s said to be true to the spirit of its predecessors, however: it uses a script based on the one Douglas Adams was working on when he died in 2001; it stars an Englishman (Martin Freeman, perhaps still better known as Tim from The Office) as the picaresque hero, Arthur Dent; and it has the same theme tune.
I say ‘it’s said’ because I haven’t managed to see the movie yet: I intelligently arranged to go to a screening three days after the LRB goes to press. But that, in its way, is true to the spirit of The Hitchhiker’s Guide, which, like all the best adventure stories, and the best jokes, relies on a constant sense of deferral. The ultimate answer to life, the universe and everything, for example, is revealed to be 42, but that only begs the question. And the giant supercomputer that was built to discover the question (a.k.a. the Earth) is destroyed to make way for a hyperspace bypass shortly before completing its calculation. The story begins with the end of the world. Or, to be exact, it begins with Arthur Dent lying in the mud in his dressing-gown in the path of a bulldozer that’s about to knock his house down to make way for a bypass. Then his friend Ford Prefect, who turns out not to come from Guildford but from a planet somewhere near Betelgeuse, drags him off to the pub so they can fortify themselves with beer and peanuts before hitching a ride on one of the ships in the Vogon destructor fleet: Ford is a researcher on The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (but this is the only bit of deliberate galactic hitchhiking they ever do).
Ford and Arthur are soon discovered and taken prisoner by the Vogons, forced to listen to the captain, whose name is Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz, reciting a few of his execrable poems, and then thrown out into space. This left Adams with a bit of a problem at the end of his first episode, as nothing could be less likely than his heroes’ being rescued, and he didn’t like the idea of a deus ex machina. The solution was to make the improbability of their being picked up precisely the reason for it: Ford and Arthur are rescued by a prototype spaceship powered by an ‘infinite improbability drive’. In an absurd concatenation of coincidence, the ship has just been stolen by Zaphod Beeblebrox, a friend of Ford’s and currently president of the galaxy, and Trillian, a woman Arthur once chatted up at a party in Islington, until Zaphod came along and gazumped him by telling her he came from another planet. Also on board is Marvin the paranoid android.
Another notable thing about The Hitchhiker’s Guide is its sense of perspective, a continuous zoom out: Arthur’s house is destroyed, then the Earth is destroyed, and eventually the whole universe is annihilated, an event the characters observe from the comfort of the Restaurant at the End of the Universe. (Zaphod is at one point cast into the Total Perspective Vortex, a device that shows a map of the entire universe with an arrow saying ‘you are here.’ It destroys the victim’s brain with the realisation of their insignificance; Zaphod survives because he has such an enormous ego.) The Earth’s entry in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy used to read, in its entirety, ‘harmless’; shortly before the place is blown up it was updated to ‘mostly harmless.’ Yet as the planet recedes, Arthur remains at the centre of the narrative, never losing sight of his petty human concerns. And the whole galaxy is remarkably like a version of England. In three days’ time, I’ll know what the movie makes of it all – just so long as the world isn’t destroyed over the weekend.
[*] The first of them, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, has been reissued to coincide with the film, under the Young Picador imprint. That Macmillan feel obliged to publish it as a children’s book perhaps says more about the industry’s embarrassment in the face not only of science fiction, but of popular, comic science fiction than it does about the novel.