Terry Jones on Douglas Adams
Terry Jones remembers Douglas Adams, 'the last of the Pythons'
Thirty years ago, the first Hitchhiker’s Guide book was published. But before that Douglas Adams was sinking pints with Monty Python
From The Times
October 10, 2009
That’s Douglas peering down at the camera, wearing a surgical mask and a green surgeon’s gown, and that’s also Douglas helping me to load a guided missile on to a rag-and-bone man’s cart — the only records I know of Douglas as an actor. Both fleeting glimpses are from the fourth and final series of Monty Python. You note I say Monty Python and not Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Because John Cleese had left the show, the BBC (for some reason best known to themselves) insisted that we drop the “Flying Circus”.
Douglas got involved as Graham Chapman’s writing partner. Since John was no longer writing with Graham, and Graham needed someone to do the actual writing while he sipped some unidentified clear liquid from a glass, I guess you could say Douglas was filling John’s shoes.
Now John Cleese is a tall man, but Douglas was a large man. He had a large frame. He had a large head. He had a large nose. He had a large heart — even though, in the end, it was that organ that let him down. When I think about it, perhaps he seemed too large for comedy. How could anyone with that amount of body mass to manoeuvre through life be nimble enough to prod your funny bone?
Nevertheless, as Graham’s writing partner, Douglas sat in on our script meetings, and I wish I could report that he set the table alight with thought-provoking laughter that gave us all some intimation that he would go on to become one of the world’s best-loved humorous writers. He may have done, but I honestly can’t remember. He became, however, the only person, outside the original members, to get a writing credit on the TV shows.
Oh! Actually I do remember one sketch that he and Graham produced, in which I played a patient who walks into a doctor’s consulting room with blood pouring from his abdomen. “I’ve just been stabbed by your nurse!” I complain, whereupon Graham, as the doctor, makes me fill in a form (full of questions on history and literature) while I pathetically dab at the growing pool of blood on the carpet.
Douglas and I shared an affection for real ale, which, in 1974, was becoming harder and harder to find. So, after the writing sessions, he and I would search out a pub and it was during those sessions that we became real friends.
During that fourth series of Monty Python Douglas came out filming with us and that was how he came to play the occasional small role. Since Douglas wasn’t so busy acting, he took it on himself to drive Mike Palin, Eric Idle, Graham and myself around in his minivan. One night, after we had all been to dinner at some remote country restaurant and had imbibed a fair amount of real ale and wine (Douglas included), Douglas drove us back to the hotel. He took us up a deserted bit of road that fed on to the main highway, and we drove for about a mile before we saw another car. It was driving in the opposite direction.
“Why on earth was that car flashing its lights at us?” complained Douglas. There was a bit of a pause. And then Eric said, very quietly: “Douglas, we’re on the motorway, and we’re going the wrong way ... in the fast lane!” At which point we saw more lights approaching, heard horns blaring, and Douglas just managed to pull over on to the hard shoulder, as the traffic roared past.
Curious to think that Douglas’s generous offer to play chauffeur might well have wiped out four-sixths of the Monty Python team as well, of course, as the future author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
During the next few years that Douglas and I saw quite a bit of each other, as his writing career began to sort of flourish. Then, one day in 1978, Douglas rang to say that they had just finished recording a radio series he had written, and would I like to listen to it? I guess Michael Palin and I must have been writing Ripping Yarns at the time, so we decided to sacrifice the morning’s writing to go and listen to Douglas’s efforts.
“There are six half-hour episodes,” I told Mike. “I expect they just want to listen to the first.” The series was to be called The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, though I couldn’t have told you that when we walked into the office in Broadcasting House, where Geoffrey Perkins, the producer, and Douglas were waiting to greet us.
We sat down and Geoffrey turned on the tape recorder, and then he and Douglas sat opposite us, and we realised, to our horror, that they were going to watch our every reaction throughout the half-hour show. It’s very difficult to respond spontaneously to a work of humour when you have the creators sitting in front of you, desperate for you to like their baby. I think, under the circumstances, Mike and I put up a good show of enjoying the first episode. It was with some relief, however, that we heard the end music, and our ordeal was over.
But it wasn’t. Geoffrey leapt out of his chair, grabbed the next tape, and — before we had a chance to say our goodbyes and congratulations — it was on the machine and we were back on the rack: every grunt of appreciation, every snort of amusement lighting up Douglas and Geoffrey’s eyes, and every frown or quizzical look casting them into the slough of despond.
After the third episode we managed to plead another commitment. As we walked down the road, recovering from our ordeal, I said: “Actually, it wasn’t that bad, was it? It was quite funny in places . . .” Such it is to be blessed with foresight and discrimination.
A year later Douglas was coming to dinner at my home in Camberwell. The other guests arrived around 7.30pm and we waited for Douglas. Eventually he arrived — at 9.30pm. He looked shell-shocked.
“What’s the matter, Doug?” I said. (It was only shortly before he died in 2001 that I discovered I was the only person who called him “Doug”.) “On the way here, I dropped in at Forbidden Planet to sign a few copies of the book of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. They said it would take half an hour ... But there were a thousand people waiting to have their books signed!”
It was the first intimation Douglas had of the phenomenon he had created. His science-fiction comedy — revolving around the eponymous hand-held electronic travel guide — went on to spawn five radio series, two screen adaptations, various stage shows and video games, and of course five novels. A sixth — And Another Thing . . . by Eoin Colfer, the first “official sequel” — is published on Monday, 30 years after the first. Pan will reissue all five novels with new forewords, and the Southbank Centre will host a “Hitchcon” festival.
I think part of the appeal of Douglas’s books is that his voice is so strong, and Douglas’s voice is the voice of an enthusiast. It may not be cool nowadays to be openly enthusiastic about anything, but Douglas’s fans loved him for it. I saw this when he and I went on a tour of the US to promote the only book we collaborated on, Starship Titanic.
In shopping malls across the country I saw fans come up to Douglas as if they’d always known him and were picking up on a conversation they’d been having with him only last week. Many of them, quite frankly, looked to me like nerds, but, when I come to think of it, Douglas himself was a bit of a nerd. That is to say he was an enthusiast who embraced his enthusiasms with an unfashionable openness. He was an enthusiast about hi-fi, cars, guitars, Apple Macs, the writings of Steven Pinker and Richard Dawkins, atheism, saving endangered species and anything that dealt with how we understand the world about us.
Indeed, Douglas was enthusiastic about almost everything apart from writing. Not that you would guess it. His writing bursts with vitality, constantly surprising the reader with new ways of putting things such as: “a sunset that no one with any sensibility would dream of building a city like Los Angeles in front of . . .”
He could come up with wonderful similes that make the reader stop to reassess their own assumptions: “the huge yellow Vogon ships which had hung in the lunchtime sky as if the law of gravity was no more than a local regulation, and breaking it no more than a parking offence”.
And he created new forms of metaphor, as for example: “Her hair felt as if she’d bought it at a fairground on a stick.”
How could someone capable of writing like this not actually enjoy it? For Douglas writing was torture, and the more money he was offered to write the next book, the worse the torture became. It reached its zenith when Simon & Schuster advanced him $1 million (or was it $2 million?) to write Starship Titanic. Seven years later, he finally convinced them to accept a computer game in lieu of the book, but they still insisted on having a book, whether written by himself or someone else. That was how I became involved.
Douglas’s writer’s block, I believe, was not because he was short of ideas. It was because he set himself such a high bar for writing that he was forever failing to clear it. He approached prose as if it were poetry, in which every word counts, every phrase must bring together a new and original combination of ideas, and every sentence must justify its place in the book by achieving some sort of surprise or revelation. Perhaps that accounts for the fact that, for all the extraordinary success of The Hitchhiker’s Guide, the book that gave him the most pride was the one that he co-authored with the zoologist Mark Carwardine, Last Chance to See, in which the two men journeyed around the world drawing attention to animal species that were threatened with extinction. Here, maybe, he felt he was using his unique ability to get us to see things in a different way in a real cause that justified the book’s existence beyond any imaginary, selfimposed yardstick of humorous writing.
Apart from the fleeting glimpses of him in the fourth series of Monty Python, Douglas never attempted more acting, but as he became more successful he seemed to feel increasingly “on show”, and at any social gathering — even a dinner party — he felt the need to turn in a performance. The unfortunate result was that he tended to repeat himself in company, almost as if he were rehearsing stories that he would eventually retell.
I remember him telling me once of something that, he said, had just happened to him at the railway station. He was early for a train, so he bought The Guardian, a cup of coffee and a packet of biscuits, and sat down at a table, putting the folded newspaper down so he could do the crossword. The packet of biscuits was in the middle of the table.
There was another man already sitting at the table and this man now leant calmly across, tore open the packet of biscuits and ate one. Douglas said he went into a sort of state of shock, but — determined not to show any reaction — he equally calmly leant forward and took the second biscuit. A few minutes later, the man took the third and ate it. Douglas then took the fourth and tried his best not to glare at the man.
The man then stood up and wandered off as if nothing had happened, at which point Douglas’s train was announced. So he hurriedly finished his coffee and picked up his belongings, only to find his packet of biscuits under the newspaper.
It’s actually a profoundly philosophical story. With one slight adjustment of the furniture, the victim becomes the aggressor and the aggressor the victim, and one is left with the untold story of the true victim hanging in the air. It’s exactly the sort of shift in perspective that fascinated Douglas — as a way of not just telling stories but also of looking at ideas.
He told me the same story many times, and it eventually ended up, much embellished, in So Long and Thanks for All the Fish.
It was this ability to make us see things from a totally unexpected perspective that is the most characteristic feature of Douglas’s writing, and the one which elevates it above most other writing in the genre.
Douglas was obsessed with the idea of ideas, and he was brilliant at taking complex concepts and making them fun. In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, for example, he postulates that civilisation goes through three stages: the “How?”, the “Why?” and the “Where?”. “The first phase is characterised by the question, How can we eat? the second by the question, Why do we eat? and the third by the question, Where shall we have lunch?”
Eight years after his death, I still find it hard to believe that Douglas is not with us, because his insights, his ways of looking at the world and at how we think, and his humour are still so alive in my mind.
For my birthday he once gave me a wooden peg with the mysterious word “Bolsover” scrawled on it, because, he explained, someone had given it to him many years ago and now he felt he’d looked after it long enough and it was time to pass it on.
I passed the peg on shortly after he died.
Stephen Fry and Mark Carwardine retrace Douglas Adams’ journeys for Last Chance to See at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival, today, Saturday, October 10, 2009. 0844 5767979; cheltenhamfestivals.com