In 1981 a six-episode series adaptation of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy appeared on BBC television. An immediate success in the UK, it took a longer path to popularity in the US but has become a classic on both sides of the pond. The BritTrack at Dragon Con launched its 2021 virtual programming on YouTube Thursday evening by examining (and reminiscing) about the series and its impact. Nathan Laws, Brian Doob, Robert Bowen, and Keith R.A. DeCandido joined moderator Caro McCully in a rollicking and informative look back at the series.
The serialization of Adams’ book began as a radio broadcast on BBC4 in 1978. Its broadcast origins were the product of Adams’ circumstances. He was employed by the BBC and, according to DeCandido, first envisioned a radio adaptation. That presentation was tremendously successful. While many in Britain knew the work best through the radio production, in the US his book drove audience interest. The radio series spread slowly in America, mainly through bootleg cassette recordings. Eventually it made its way to college radio stations who were searching for late night content. Thus, the radio production became what Robert Bowen referred to as an “underground phenomenon.” The grassroots nature of the growth of the radio program’s popularity only drove the growth in interest. By the time production moved from radio to television, the demand was there.
The series is rooted in, and driven by, that quintessential British sense of humor. It is critical, declared DeCandido, that while the humor is ageless, you must be open to its British sensibility. Bowen added that the television series strength came, in no small part, from the fact that so many of the actors who performed on the radio broadcast moved over to the television production. Of those, no one was more significant to the television series’ success than Simon Jones who was, in the words of DeCandido, the “perfect” Arthur Dent. His expressions, the subtle variations in his face, empowered his performance. More broadly, Levy sees tremendous nuance in the acting as a whole. Laws pointed out that the humor is timeless, and the key to that is the brilliance of Adams’ writing. That led DeCandido to concur, pointing out that he saw the word play in the scripts as among its greatest strengths. Beyond all that skill, Levy declared: it is just “bonkers fun!”
The panel then turned to the 2005 film version, which received mixed reviews. The strongest defense of the film came from DeCandido who argued that while he enjoyed it, the weaknesses so many found crippling are rooted in the fact that the story isn’t suited to the limits of a two-hour movie. He felt that while every other version had “room to breathe,” and “space to roam,” the movie was limited by its format. That lack of freedom had an impact on the storytelling and on the audience’s reaction to it.
Contemporary audiences can not only look to the BBC radio and television series, the books (now at 6 volumes), and the 2005 film for their Hitchhiker’s fix, they can look forward to a remake produced by Hulu/Disney. So, if you’re interested in the Hitchhiker’s Guide, “Don’t Panic!” It is still going strong.
This classic BBC series is currently available to stream on Amazon Prime. Adams fans can find this informative and entertaining panel by visiting the BritTrack at Dragon Con You Tube Channel.