Having celebrated Charles Dickens (though I’m sure we’ll be returning to him throughout the year), it’s time to look at the career of a more recent writer, less prolific than Dickens, whose works have also entered our collective subconscious… or at any rate the collective subconscious of those of us of a certain age: the great Douglas Adams, one of the few scriptwriters to become a household name, who was born 60 years ago last weekend.
First the basics, which can be found at the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (linked from the Biography section of the Westminster Libraries Gateway). After boarding school, a stint in the Cambridge Footlights and an introduction to Monty Python’s Graham Chapman, Adams was introduced to Simon Brett, now a brilliant crime writer but then a brilliant and innovative radio comedy producer, who commissioned a comic science fiction series, despite this being an idea that must have seemed completely barking to most people.
The result, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, was like nothing that had been heard before, being the story of dressing-gown clad everyman Arthur Dent, who travels the world with his alien friend Ford Prefect after the Earth is destroyed to make room for an inter-galactic bypass. They meet with a motley selection of travellers on the way, notably the two-headed Betelgeusian Zaphod Beeblebrox, and are guided on their journey by the eponymous book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a sort of proto-tablet computer, memorably voiced by the actor Peter Jones. Remember, this was written in 1978, more than a decade before the World Wide Web was invented. A television version soon beckoned along with the start of Adams’ near legendary writer’s block.
There was also a memorable stint script-writing for Doctor Who, then being played by Tom Baker. Adams scripted City of Death, in which a time-travelling alien tries to steal the Mona Lisa, and comedian John Cleese and Eleanor Bron feature as art critics not at all put out by the sudden appearance of the TARDIS in the Louvre. Check out Leonardo and the gallery for yourself (though don’t steal the paintings – they really don’t like that…) at the Art & Design section of the Gateway. Oxford Art Online (one of our Exclusive Resources that you can access at home if you have a Westminster library card) now includes the famous French art encyclopaedia – Benezit Dictionary of Artists which, among other useful features contains auction records. Apparently the last Leonardo to go on sale was in a three inch silverpoint which fetched £7,400,000 in 2001.
No doubt some of you will be watching the excellent Dirk Gently on BBC4 (if not, there’s still time to catch up via the iPlayer) a quirky series about a self-described Holistic Detective with a particularly bad-tempered (and unpaid) assistant) Why not check out the Dirk Gently books and see what Adamsian themes you can spot?
Adams was a long-time pioneer of the computing industry (as mentioned, the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was really an iPhone with attitude) and spent years working on his own company developing a real, virtual Guide named h2g2 which was eventually taken over by the BBC and which still exists as a quirky, interactive alternative to Wikipedia.
Adams later developed an interest in, and concern for, endangered species which lead to a book, radio series and television series (since followed up by Cawardine and Stephen Fry) in which Adams and zoologist Mark Carwardine travelled around the world, following a method pioneered by Dr Dolittle. According to Cawardine,
“We put a big map of the world on a wall, Douglas stuck a pin in everywhere he fancied going, I stuck a pin in where all the endangered animals were, and we made a journey out of every place that had two pins.”
Sadly Douglas Adams died tragically early at the age of 49 in 2001 but his legacy lives on with a film of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy released in 2005. His books have been reissued and guides to the Guide published. Here’s a clip of the man himself, talking about Life, the Universe and… Parrots.