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Grab a towel and pour yourself a Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster because The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is 42

Oh, and beware of the leopard

The weekend marked the 42nd anniversary of the first broadcast of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the hugely influential BBC radio show.

42 is a significant number for fans of the innovative series by Douglas Adams so (carefully) pour yourself a Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster, wrap yourself in a towel and join The Register for a trip back to 1978, when the BBC decided to do something quite different.

Writing in the introduction to the Pan Books' 1985 publication of the radio scripts (which differ from the books, which differ from the television series, which differ from the film…), series producer Geoffrey Perkins described his first meeting with the author. Adams was giving a speech despite being aggressively heckled by the cast members of the Cambridge Footlights show he'd just directed.

He'd also elected to stand on a rickety chair to deliver the speech.

"Here," recalled Perkins, "was someone prepared to stick his neck out further than most people, someone who would carry on in the face of adversity, and someone who would shortly fall off a chair.

"I was right on all three counts."

Perkins went on to join the BBC, while Adams worked with the Monty Python team as well as contributing to Doctor Who as the 1970s went on. He pitched the idea for a science-fiction comedy radio series to radio producer Simon Brett. Brett recommended Perkins to the BBC as a potential producer and the series was given the go-ahead on 31 August 1977 (after the first episode was commissioned on 1 March 1977).

"We both owe him an enormous debt," said Perkins of Brett.

The show, which famously kicks off with the house of Arthur Dent being knocked down to make way for a road development before something similar happens to the Earth, was quite unlike much of the BBC's comedy radio shows up until that point.

"Amazingly," recalled Perkins in the introduction to the scripts, "there was some debate when the programme started about whether we should have a studio audience."

It would have been tricky, since it took around a week to make one episode, with scenes being recorded out of order and sometimes less than half of the cast for a given scene actually being on stage together. Mark Wing-Davey, who portrayed Zaphod Beeblebrox, described it as "cupboard acting", with various actors shut up in cubicles to record their lines so that voice treatments could be applied later. Occasionally the crew would forget, and much later a plaintive "Can I come out now?" would echo through the control room.

As well as the writing and performances, the sound effects produced by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (housed in a converted ice rink in Maida Vale, according to Perkins) contributed hugely to the success of the series. Most of the sounds heard were created by playing around with some of the thousands of ordinary BBC effects discs, with much of the synthesised effects and music being done on an ARP Odyssey.

Many background noises (such as the walk of Marvin) were put on loops of tape, with three or four running endlessly at a time. "The cubicle", said Perkins, "would look as if it had been strewn with grim black Christmas decorations."

The adventures of Arthur Dent, Ford Prefect, Zaphod Beeblebrox, Trillian and Marvin were an unexpected success; Perkins noted that since fan mail addressed to "Megadodo Publications" found its way to the production team, "if the British Post Office knew about the show, then we really must be on to something."

As for the concept itself, legend has it that Adams came up it with while lying tipsy in a field in Innsbruck, looking at the stars and pondering "if only there was a HitchHiker's Guide to the Galaxy". In a section of the scripts book entitled "Where do you get your ideas from?", Adams gives a literary shrug: "The constant need to repeat the story has now completely obliterated my memory of the actual event."

Adams wanted the radio show "to sound like a rock album." Writing in the same section, he said he wanted "the voices and the effects and the music to be so seamlessly orchestrated as to create a coherent picture of a whole other world".

It is hard to describe the effect of hearing the debut in 1978 (nor the desperation of a 1970s home taper when a cassette recorder's battery failed just as the opening strains of the Eagles' "Journey of the Sorcerer" began). The listener (at least this one) was indeed transported to an entirely different world.

The show has since spawned cassettes, LPs, CDs, television shows, games, books, stage shows, a film and even additional radio series a quarter of a century after the initial two series and twelve "Fits" were first broadcast.

However, it was the first run, kicking off on 8 March 1978, that this hack remembers best. It also formed the basis of the 1981 television adaptation. The second series, which ran daily during January 1980, would be the last until 2004.

The second series infamously ended with a cliff-hanger. Adams said of it that things had been brought to a very definite close at the end of the first series, which he then had to write himself out of for the second series. So this time he left things very open so the gang "could get off the ground straight away."

"Of course," he wrote in a footnote to that last episode, Fit the Twelfth, "we never did a third series."

Adams died in 2001, aged 49. Geoffrey Perkins would go on to head up comedy at the BBC, producing the likes of The Fast Show and The Royle Family before his death in 2008 at the age of 55.

Both Adams and Perkins paid tribute to others, such as Paddy Kingsland and John Lloyd as well the studio managers and production team behind the series.

As the 42nd anniversary arrives, and we grasp a towel in these troubled times, the last word should go to Adams, again from the script book: "The way you get really good ideas is from working with talented people you have fun with."

Further reading

We plundered The Original Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy Radio Scripts for this piece. The footnotes alone are excellent.

For more insights, we'd also recommend a look at Jem Roberts' The Frood, Nick Webb's Wish You Were Here and Neil Gaiman's Don't Panic: Douglas Adams & The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Companion. ®

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