In the wake of a smash hit UK tour last year, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is back on the nation's radar in a ground-breaking new stage production – a radio show live on stage, so you can watch as well as hear.
Simon Jones, who played Arthur Dent in the original 1978 radio series and its 1981 television incarnation (not to mention the radio productions of the subsequent novels and a cameo in the 2005 Hollywood-funded film), is back as Arthur, with comedian Mitch Benn as Zaphod Beeblebrox and top impressionist Jon Culshaw as the VIP guest Voice Of The Book.
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Radio Show Live plays the Lighthouse, Poole's Centre for the Arts, on Sunday 24 November and Simon Jones reveals how the show came about and what he thinks he is friend Douglas Adams would have made of its continued popularity.
How did you end up playing Arthur Dent?
I haven't so far "ended up" playing Arthur Dent, though, I dare say, mention of him will probably be in the first paragraph of my obituary when it comes. That's no bad thing. I'm very fond of Arthur – much more, it seems than other "real life people" on which literary characters have been based. Christopher Robin Milne hated the Pooh books, Alice Liddell found it hard to live down Wonderland and The Looking Glass, and JM Barrie's Peter Pan was simply tragic. But then they didn't find themselves playing the character that had been written for them, before they were turned into literary icons. I think it made all the difference …
It must be great to have a role created especially for you, but did you think he would stay with you as long as he has? He casts a long shadow.
H2G2 (my shorthand) started as a radio series, 35 years ago, before it became a literary phenomenon, so all that Douglas had seen in my performance and in his mind's eye went into the books. By now, Arthur's been an alter ego for so long I hardly notice. I'm still not sure that he isn't more a projection of Douglas's own persona which he passed on to me to embody. But then we always had a great deal in common - among other things we both liked long baths; searched (often in vain) when travelling, for a decent cup of tea; found petty bureaucracy exasperating and could only work to deadlines (though he was more easily able to ignore them).
How does it work taking the radio show and staging it live?
In all its forms, we realised that despite a few noble efforts at stage shows, the original cast had never performed before a live audience. The revelation came when Penguin staged a book launch for Eoin Colfer's sequel, And Another Thing, at the Royal Festival Hall in October 2009. The Saturday night of the two-day event was reserved for a live recreation of some highlights of the first two series of H2G2 in the style of a concert, carefully put together by Dirk Maggs, who had previously triumphantly reassembled us to record the final three books, which he had adapted for Radio 4.
The reception was the sort usually reserved for the triumphant return of old rockers, singing their greatest hits. It was a virtual frenzy and immediately Dirk and I discussed how we could take the show on the road. It took until June 2012, but it was worth the wait. The tour was a triumph: there was such warmth and enthusiasm coming at us over the footlights we felt our whole careers were being given vindication, a seal of approval.
We discovered that, quite unknowingly, we had been touching many people‘s lives over all these years in quite unexpected ways, and their gratitude was loudly expressed. It was just great. In a way, though we do want to take the show to all those who missed it last year, we, the cast, just can't wait to get another fix of all that affection.
You have some great guest voices as The Book – we've got Jon Culshaw for the Poole run – do they bring different things to the show? Did anyone try to get your famous cousin?
I always say that when we have Jon Culshaw as the Book, we have everybody else, including the elusive Tom Baker – so Poole audiences are getting even more value than usual. All the guest voices bring individual flavours to the evening – Hugh Dennis, Miriam Margolyes, Dame Harriet Walter, Phill Jupitus, John Lloyd, to name but a few, with Neil Gaiman kicking us off in style at the Hackney Empire.
Daniel Craig wasn't approached as he's appearing on Broadway (my usual stamping ground) in Harold Pinter's Betrayal for the entire duration of the tour. But I'm sure had he known he'd have cut short his engagement regardless, and come to Grimsby or Rhyll to cheer us on…
What do you think Douglas Adams would make of the show and the continuing popularity of ''Hitchhiker's?''
Douglas would have been delighted and amazed at the show's reception up and down the country and would probably think we were mad to be embarking on such a crazy tour – 60 shows in 50 different venues in three months. I think it's crazy; I'm sure he'd agree.
Did he have an idea of how Hitchhiker's might develop? I believe there might be an unfinished sixth novel?
And Another Thing is a possibility for a radio series, but the suggestion that there's a sixth unfinished H2G2 book by Douglas is I'm afraid wishful thinking.
The fans are incredibly protective of all things related to Hitchhiker's, does that make it difficult to take risks, is that a blessing or a curse?
We were a bit concerned as to how the dedicated fans would respond to our stage version, but to them and to us, the only "real" version is the one for radio – the original and best – in many opinions, mine included. We are the radio version, and I've heard that the audience gets a real buzz from seeing the actual people connected to the voices they've heard, in some cases, all their lives. The real wonder of it all is that even after 35 years and the ravages of passing time, we still seem to look much as they'd imagined we'd be. We're also, Dirk especially, careful to stick to Douglas's text as we think he'd have put it together in the time available. "WWDD" is our regular refrain ("What Would Douglas Do?")
What are you doing after the Hitchhiker's tour?
After the tour, if I still have the strength, I intend to take a few days in Venice with my wife Nancy to celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary. If the city is experiencing its seasonal floods, we may need extra towels. All the more need to know where they are.
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Radio Show: Live! The Lighthouse, Poole 24 November 2013
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