The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Saturday, 10 October 2015

Don't Panic

Just finished reading The Frood: The Authorised and Very Official History of Douglas Adams & The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Jem Roberts. I’m an Adams completist, you see, which shouldn’t be that difficult, unless you are pedantically thorough about it, which I am. From where I’m sitting I can see the radio script book, the Comic Relief book and the American edition of Life, The Universe & Everything I bought because it has a page which isn’t in the UK edition.

This biography builds on, and mostly supplants, the earlier biographies by Neil Gaiman and Nick Webb. Pretty much all of Adams’ contributions to Gaiman’s Don’t Panic are in The Frood, and it revisits all of the ground covered in Wish You Were Here a little more thoroughly, due largely to the fact that Roberts has had access to the Adams archive.

This, has to be said, was the main selling point of this book for me. In the appendix there are a few pages cut from the Hitchhiker’s novelisation, extracts from the largely-abandoned first draft of Life, The Universe and Everything, mostly various false starts, and some discarded ideas from Mostly Harmless. It’s all interesting stuff, and there are some witty lines and potentially mind-boggling ideas, but it’s all clearly been rescued from Adams’ bottom drawer.

While the books’ coverage of Adams’ pre-Hitchhiker work and the genesis and success of Hitchhiker will be familiar to readers of the other biographies – and MJ Simpsons’ meticulous critical biography Hitchhiker – thanks to the archive material it casts new light on his work in the early ‘80s. There are tantalizing extracts from Adams’ script for the first episode of the second TV series of Hitchhiker and his first draft for the film (full of lengthy, witty and almost entirely unhelpful scene descriptions). While there isn’t much more to be discovered about his Dirk Gently books or Last Chance to See, it also reveals a few tantalizing notes about Adams’ ‘trying to grill a steak’ years, where it turns out he found time to develop half-a-dozen or so other projects and to write screenplays for Starship Titanic and Dirk Gently. If they come to nothing, it would be lovely to see them published (alongside Adams’ drafts of the film and his scripts for the TV Hitchhiker’s).

Following on, the other area where The Frood breaks new ground is in detailing Adams’ surprisingly (and uncharacteristically) prolific posthumous career. What comes across very strongly is that these projects are not borne out of a desire to cash in or fleece the fans, but borne out of the fact that Adams’ work (and his own humanity) has inspired so many people to pay tribute by carrying on his legacy, whether by making radio adaptations, a film, stageshows, novels and novelisations, or by checking up to see whether all those endangered species he visited in 1989 are still around.

Of course, I have one or two quibbles. The author occasionally referring to Adams as ‘The Frood’ is cutesy and irritating. Also cutesy and irritating is the borderline illegible handwriting typeface used for some extracts of Adams’ work; I can only assume this is some sort of attempt to confound people trying to scan it in.

And it wouldn’t be an Adams book without containing a little that was apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate, in this case repeating the story of people queuing around the block for a signing of the Hitchhiker’s novelisation at Forbidden Planet; as MJ Simpson exhaustively covered in his biography, it didn’t quite happen like that.

In addition, wearing my Doctor Who pedants hat (accurately speaking it’s more of a cap than a hat) there were a some bits on his Doctor Who work where I raised my eyebrows with a thought of ‘Really?’ For example, it makes the common – mistake is too strong a word but it’ll have to do – of overlooking that Graham Williams claimed to have co-written Shada; similarly, I’d be wary of attributing any specific lines from City of Death to Adams given how much ‘plumpening’ of the script went on by Tom and Lalla. There is also some doubt about whether Adams wrote the feeble comedic opening scene of Destiny of the Daleks – Terry Nation was happy to take credit for it until he realised that people didn’t like it – and, finally, K-9 is not actually in City of Death.

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