Hitchhiker’s Guide points the way to a new stage in life

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Dirk Maggs is clearly a very brave man. He’s re-writing The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

“I’m just rewriting a few sections and pulling different bits together from the five books, so it can make sense on stage,” he says.

Isn’t he a little worried about the fans – the many, many fans –- who hold the book very dear to their hearts?

“Douglas always told me that if you’re not making the fans cross, then you’re not doing it right.”

And there’s the reason Maggs is confident in rewriting one of the most loved cult books of the last half century – he is doing so with the approval of the original author. Maggs is a multiple-award winning radio drama director and producer and writer, who has worked with some of the country’s biggest stars on radio productions – or “audio movies”, as he likes to call them.

In 2003, Douglas Adams asked Maggs to produce a new radio version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide. Working together on the updated radio series with Adams meant Maggs was able to see up close the irreverence of the author, a sensibility he brought to his work, making it so incredibly popular. Maggs also discovered that, although Adams was eager to see the story told in lots of different media (he famously spent years trying to get a movie made), the radio was where he felt the tale really belonged.

“Douglas always used to say that he considered The Hitchhiker’s Guide a concept album. It’s seven years since he died, so he can’t do a reunion tour à la Black Sabbath, which is why we are doing this,” says Maggs – “this” being a stage production of the radio show currently touring the UK and coming to York next week.

Presented in theatres as a radio show, it is being directed by Maggs and performed by the original cast, including Simon Jones who played the Arthur Dent in 1979, Susan Sheridan as Trillian and Mark Wing-Davey as Zaphod Beeblebrox.

“We keep saying that the tour should be sponsored by Saga. Everyone is a bit older, but they were all really keen to be involved in this,” says Maggs.

“I think it really works as a radio show being presented on stage because of what you do with the medium. Television is actually quite boring - what you see on screen is what you get, but with radio you can create magnificent pictures and take the audience absolutely anywhere.” It is probably just as well that radio shows requires the audience to have limitless imagination, because the story of The Hitchhiker’s Guide is so difficult to realise in a physical form. The tale’s hero, Arthur Dent, ends up literally bouncing around various different galaxies, being dropped off in the middle of space and being rescued by a Vogon spaceship.

The 1979 radio series, dreamt up apparently when the Cambridge graduate was lying in a field in Innsbruck while backpacking, is the story of a guide to the galaxy. The audience “meets” the book through the bemused eyes of Arthur Dent, who is rescued from Earth just before it is demolished to make way for a “hyperspatial highway”. He is rescued by his friend Ford Prefect, a writer for the Hitchhiker’s Guide who is travelling the universe collecting material for the guide.

What rescued the book from languishing in the sci-fi genre strictly for serious fans was its mixture of high concepts with knockabout humour – and Adams’s ability to explain some quite complex ideas simply.

“Genius is such an overused word now, you have to be careful with it,” says Maggs.

“But it’s fair to say the ideas that Douglas explains in the book are really far ahead of their time. He seemed to have this unique combination of schoolboy curiosity, an almost child-like wonder at the world mixed with a knockabout sensibility – the sort of humour you got with The Goon Show and a brilliant mind that allowed him to understand these incredibly complicated ideas.”

It’s those ideas that are being brought to life on stage with the show next week – ideas like the Babel Fish – a fish you put in your ear, which feeds on brainwaves and allows you to understand any language you hear.

“That idea is like a solar flare and to then go on and use the idea to prove the non-existence of God, as Douglas does in the universe of his book, and do it in the middle of a comic tale, is something really quite incredible,” says Maggs.

“Some of the concepts remind you of someone like Arthur C Clarke. And it’s incredibly funny too.”


The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Radio Show – Live, York Grand Opera House, July 5.