The musings of Marvin the Paranoid Android seem to sum up neatly some of the trickier bits of the lives we ourselves lead. (The quote is from Life, the Universe and Everything (1982), London:Pan Books, p. 45).
Douglas Adams, the author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide, created a genre-busting cross-platform cultural epic in the late 1970s when he first started to write the series.
Genre-busting because it was, as far as I know, the first sci-fi series to be a comedy. Or the first comedy/sci-fi, depending on your view, orientation, or carbon-based life-form combination. Cross-platform because it started out as a BBC Radio 4 series, then Douglas Adams began writing a trilogy of five books, next it was a BBC TV series (with some questionable ‘special effects’, including the not wholly convincing extra head and third arm for Zaphod Beeblebrox), a number of stage shows, a video game, a comic book, and then a rather disappointing movie version. The radio series still gets occasional repeats on the digital station BBC 4Extra, and the CD versions can be found on sale at various online retailers as well as terrestrial shops.
2018 marks the 40th anniversary of the show’s first radio broadcast – and the BBC says it has plans to mark the event.
Hitchhikers gets at least three inter-textual mentions in the US sitcom Big Bang Theory, with Sheldon expressing his love for the series (if you must know, they’re in s7:ep6; s7:ep16; s8:ep8).
And this eventually brings me to my point. Buried within the almost 1,000 pages across the five books are references to, and mentions of, radio which display Douglas Adams’ gentle – almost sentimental – sarcasm towards the medium in general and the BBC in particular. For him radio represents English middle class life. There’s descriptions of the odd otherworldliness of BBC middle management who seem to be disengaged from both the reality of running a broadcast department and the wellbeing of their own staff; there’s the depiction of the gentle struggle that listeners have with radio receivers (which has always been so); and there’s the quintessential sound of English summers embodied in BBC Radio’s Test Match Special, which seems to speak to a different, quieter, age of deference and cream teas.
In book one of the series (The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979), London:Pan Books, p. 9), Arthur Dent – the hero of the story – is introduced as working in local radio,
“…which he always used to tell his friends was a lot more interesting than they probably thought. It was, too – most of his friends worked in advertising.”
I’ve spent four decades working out whether, as a former local radio journalist, I should be offended. I’m still not completely shure. And then, on p. 77:
“A loud clatter of gunk music flooded through the Heart of Gold cabin as Zaphod searched the sub-etha radio wavebands for news of himself. The machine was rather difficult to operate. For years radios had been operated by means of pressing buttons and turning dials; then as the technology became more sophisticated the controls were made touch sensitive – you merely had to brush the panels with your fingers; now all you had to do was wave your hand in the general direction of the components and hope. It saved a lot of muscular expenditure of course, but meant that you had to sit infuriatingly still if you wanted to keep listening to the same programme.”
Which, in an odd way, neatly describes my experience with trying to tune modern car radios which now all seem to lack a rotary tuning knob. In book three (Life, the Universe and Everything (1982), London:Pan Books, p. 20), Arthur, Ford and the sofa they’re sitting on, materialise in the middle of an Ashes Test in front of thousands of spectators at Lord’s Cricket Ground in London:
“Reactions to all this from the crowd were many and various. Most of them couldn’t cope with watching it, and listened to it on the radio instead.
‘Well, this is an interesting incident, Brian,’ said one radio commentator to another. ‘I don’t think there have been any mysterious materializations on the pitch since, oh since, well I don’t think there have been any – have there? – that I recall?’
‘Ah, now what happened then…?'”
Which is just how Test Match Special commentators would react. Finally, in book four (So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish (1984), London:Pan Books, p. 46), Arthur finds himself back on earth.
“He had lost The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Well, he told himself, this time I really won’t be needing it again. He had some calls to make. He had decided how to deal with the mass of contradictions his return journey precipitated, which was that he would simply brazen it out. He phoned the BBC and asked to be put through to his department head.
‘Oh, hello, Arthur Dent here. Look, sorry I haven’t been in for six months but I’ve gone mad.’
‘Oh, not to worry. Thought it was probably something like that. Happens here all the time. How soon can we expect you?’
‘When do hedgehogs stop hibernating?’
‘Sometime in spring, I think.’
‘I’ll be in shortly after that.’
I rest my case. And as Ford Prefect observed, “Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.” (The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979), p. 22).