This article, with lots of lovely illustrations, appears in Mustard issue #06 »
DOUGLAS ADAMS WAS FUNNY. REALLY FUNNY. YOU MIGHT THINK THAT COMIC STRIP ABOUT A DOG IS AMUSING, BUT THAT'S JUST PEANUTS TO ADAMS.
Adams was a tall, amiable creature fond of Apple computers and nice hot cups of tea. The best way to get a novel from Douglas Adams was to lock him in a hotel room for three weeks and refuse to let him out until he's finished.
In the beginning, the universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry, and is generally considered to have been a bad move.
Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so.
No one has ever managed to duplicate the exact circumstances under which it happened, and many people have ended up looking very silly, or dead, or both, trying.
The major difference between a thing that might go wrong and a thing that cannot possibly go wrong is that when a thing that cannot possibly go wrong goes wrong it usually turns out to be impossible to get at and repair.
This must be a Thursday,’ said Arthur to himself, sinking low over his beer. ‘I never could get the hang of Thursdays.
The large yellow ships hung in the sky in exactly the same way that bricks don’t.
Marvin calculated to ten significant decimal places the precise length of pause most likely to convey a general contempt for all things mattressy.
The commander of the Vl’hurgs, resplendent in his black jewelled battle shorts, gazed levelly at the G’Gugvuntt leader squatting opposite him in a cloud of green sweet-smelling steam, and, with a million sleek and horribly beweaponed star cruisers poised to unleash electric death at his single word of command, challenged the vile creature to take back what it had said about his mother.
The knack of flying is learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss.
He hoped and prayed that there wasn’t an afterlife. Then he realized there was a contradiction involved here and merely hoped that there wasn’t an afterlife.
There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers 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 which states that this has already happened.
Art by Andrew Waugh
Adams was more interested in science than the arts until his notoriously tough English teacher gave him 10 out of 10 for a composition. Adams said: ‘Even now, when I have a dark night of the soul as a writer and think that I can’t do it any more, the thing that I reach for is not that I have had bestsellers or huge advances, it is the fact that Frank Halford once gave me ten out of ten.’
As a child, Douglas lived with his grandmother and her houseful of sick animals (playing havoc with Douglas’ asthma). Known locally as ‘the RSPCA lady’, she could often be seen cycling along the high street with an injured swan under her arm.
Conspicuously tall for his age, Douglas’ legs stuck out so embarrassingly from his Prep School shorts that he asked for special permission to wear long trousers. This was turned down on the basis that he’d soon be wearing them when he started Main School. When the new term started the school shop had no trousers in his size, so to his horror he spent four weeks as the only boy in his class still in shorts.
Adams primary influences were The Beatles and Monty Python: ‘both were messages out of the void saying there are people out there who know what it’s like to be you’. He broke out of Prep School to buy a copy of Can’t Buy Me Love and was found listening to it on Matron’s record player, knees bleeding from climbing through her window.
Between high school and college he hitchhiked around Europe. Lying in a field in Innsbruck, so the story goes, he looked up at the stars and thought ‘someone should write a hitchhikers guide to the galaxy’. Or possibly it was Santorini.
His family had wanted him to become a doctor but Adams had his heart set on comedy. His hitchhiking trips abroad resulted in regular visits to the hospital with some hideous disease or sprained limb, leaving him to wonder whether fate was trying to tell him something.
Adams went to Cambridge primarily so he could join Footlights, but found them ‘grand and aloof, rather cold and unencouraging’ so instead formed guerilla revue group Adams-Smith-Adams, with whom he had his first notable hit, The Patter of Tiny Minds.
At Cambridge he met John Lloyd, Clive Anderson and Gryff Rhys Jones, as well as the inspirations for1 Zaphod Beeblebrox (flatmate John Simpson) and Marvin the Paranoid Android (Andrew ‘Burkiss Way’ Marshall).
Adams interviewed John Cleese for the university newspaper. Said Adams: ‘I wanted to be like the Pythons... in fact I wanted to be John Cleese, and it took me some time to realise that the job was taken.’
Having met him through Cleese, Adams wrote with Graham Chapman on the last series of Monty Python, then on various other projects including a failed show for Ringo Starr, thus working with members of the two groups he idolized. However, working with the alcoholic Chapman was a strain and little of their material saw publication.
Discouraged and broke, he answered a job in The Evening Telegraph for bodyguard to an Arab royal family, ‘standing around a lot then running away if I saw a gun’.
His luck changed with another dream job as script editor of Doctor Who, writing several stories for Tom Baker’s incarnation.
Adams met Simon Brett, then working on Radio 4’s The Burkiss Way, and they agreed to produce a science fiction comedy show. Mulling over ideas, Adams remembered that catchy title from Innsbruck. Or Santorini.
By the time the pilot episode hit the airwaves, Star Wars had opened and the world had gone sci-fi mad.
After long period of inactivity Adams suddenly had to write three more Hitchhikers episodes, four of Dr Who’s Pirate Planet and then two more Hitchhikers, for which he drafted in John Lloyd to help.
To get him to write a Dr Who story on deadline, the producer ‘locked me in his study and hosed me down with whisky and black coffee for two days’.
‘I do find writing terribly, terribly difficult’ said Adams. ‘I’ve never liked pressure. I eventually did go mad at one point... spending an entire day behind the sofa crying.’
The Hitchhikers radio series featured David Jason as the B-Ark captain. This was possibly the character Adams most identified with, seeing himself – as a writer – part of the ‘useless third of the population’.
By the end of the first radio series Adams had spent a year writing and producing the show and had earned a total of £1,065.
The show gained excellent word of mouth and a cult audience, being repeated twice within eight months due to huge demand.
Having missed several deadlines for the first Hitchhikers book, the publishers told him to just finish the page he was on and sent a bike round to pick it up, which explains why it finishes a bit abruptly. The book went straight to the top of the UK Bestseller List. ‘It was like having an orgasm without the foreplay' Adams grumbled later.
During the Corfu holiday where he started writing the first book, Adams and John Lloyd came up with The Meaning Of Liff, a compilation of place names with definitions such as ‘Ely: the first, tiniest inkling you get that something, somewhere has gone terribly wrong’ and ‘Farnham: that feeling at four in the afternoon that one has not done enough work’.
Adams cameos several times in the TV version of Hitchhikers, most famously as Naked Guy Walking Into Sea Throwing Money Away.
The computer screen images on the TV show were all done with traditional animation.
Hitchhikers has existed in various incarnations including two radio series, two LPs, five novels, an illustrated edition, three stage plays, a computer game, comic book and film. And that’s not counting the towel, which had extracts from the book printed on it.
After passing several deadlines for the second book, the publisher contacted him to say that they had to have it in four weeks. He still hadn’t started it. His then-girlfriend rented a house and locked him away in it so nobody could find him. Every book from then on was written after deadline in a state of panic, with Adams locked away in some hotel or other.
Adams was always dissatisfied with each book when it was published, but by the time the next one appeared he’d have revised his opinion and decided to hate the new one.
From the second book onwards he was determined not to write another one.
The third book, Life, The Universe And Everything was ‘written under conditions in which I wouldn’t have wanted to build a bookcase, let alone write a book’. In one interview he explained that ‘my girlfriend went off with this bloke on, to me, the spurious grounds that he was her husband’.
Adams suddenly discovered computers in 1984, ‘whereupon it swept over me like a tidal wave’. He claims to have been the first person in Britain to own an Apple Mac. Though so does his good friend Stephen Fry.
Adams went to several Sci-Fi conventions. Asked why by a friend he said it was because he ‘might get laid’.
To write the fourth book, Adams booked himself into a small Devon hotel where he could get away from distractions and really get some work done. He spent the time drinking wine with the proprietors and eating large English breakfasts. With publication date looming, the publisher booked him into a hotel next to Hyde Park: ‘I sat at the desk and typed and he sat in an armchair by the desk and glowered’.
A committed Christian during his childhood, Adams became an agnostic and eventually a radical atheist.
Adams intended to write Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency and its sequel back-to-back. At deadline for the first book a year later, he had written precisely one sentence. He finished writing the sequel, long past deadline of course, whilst on a signing tour of Australia.
The book he was most proud of was Last Chance To See, an account of traveling the globe with zoologist Mark Carwardine, seeking out species on the brink of extinction. It was his poorest selling title.
Three years past its deadline, the fifth and final Hitchhikers book was once again completed under publisher ‘house arrest’ in a hotel room over a three week period.
Douglas appeared a few times with the all-author rock band The Rock Bottom Remainders, along with Stephen King.
On his 42nd birthday Douglas appeared on stage with Pink Floyd as a present from Dave Gilmour. This year also saw the birth of his daughter Polly.
Douglas was a founder-director and Chief Fantasist of The Digital Village, which built the online guide h2g2.
In 1999 he moved with his family to California to work on the long, long delayed Hitchhikers movie. 'Making a film in Hollywood is like trying to grill a steak by having a succession of people come in and breathe on it' he complained. The film was still in script development stage when he died.
On May 11th 2001, Adams died suddenly of a heart attack. Coincidentally, that same day The Minor Planet Centre announced that it had named an asteroid Arthurdent.
At 7.30pm on May 16 2001, Douglas was cremated along with his towel.
our interview with John Lloyd (Mustard #06), he says:
"The story goes that Marvin is based on Andrew, but the truth is that all Douglas' characters were based on himself.
Douglas was a very rich, complex personality, and tremendously bi-polar. In one mood, he was ridiculously overconfident, incredibly ambitious and daring
– a large, bombastic, cocky sod – and that's Zaphod.
And at other times, he'd be sunk in gloom, his back always hurt – Marvin's "diodes all down my left side", that's Douglas.
Even minor characters like the captain of the B Ark, who spends all day in the bath, are Douglas.
I know; I shared a house with him. He would sometimes be in the bath for seven hours, having endless cups of tea and musing about stuff.
They were all him, apart from the girls, who are the least well drawn characters, because girls to Douglas were,
'Ooh, she's gorgeous over there, the one at the bar,' – that's Trillian."
Read the full 10-page interview with John – talking in depth about Blackadder, Spitting Image, QI, Not the Nine O'Clock News and Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy – in Mustard issue #06 »