On another planet...

Simon Jones on the return of Hitchhikers\' Guide

When Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy star Simon Jones left California following the funeral of his friend Douglas Adams in May 2001, it was with a heavy heart.

The creator of the cult sci-fi classic had died after suffering a heart attack at the age of just 49, and Jones was devastated. Trudging into the airport, he fished out his boarding pass for his flight back home … and began to chuckle.

“At that moment I realised that I was booked on to Delta Airlines flight 42. I thought, ‘Ahh, Douglas is trying to tell me something,’” he says, as 42 is, famously, Adams's answer to life, the universe and everything.

More than 25 years since the series was first broadcast, Radio 4 is transmitting dramatisations of the last three Hitchhiker’s books – Life,The Universe And Everything, So Long And Thanks For All The Fish and Mostly Harmless – none of which were originally produced.

They feature many of the original cast, including Jones as Arthur Dent, Geoffrey McGivern as Ford Prefect and Susan Sheridan as Trillianm, and even Adams himself

Jones said: “It was weird! I was acting next to a box out of which Douglas’s voice was coming. He had always intended to take the role of Agrajag and had recorded the part several years before with such passion. So it was nice to hear him … but very strange.”

The 54-year-old Wiltshire-born actor had no problems gelling with the rest of therncast, despite the two decades that had passed since they last gathered round a mike. “I wondered whether it would be a bit of a jolt, but it felt perfectly natural," he said. "We picked up the threads almost immediately.”

“[Director Dirk Maggs] conducted the whole thing as if it were a party and all sorts of stars turned up – Leslie Phillips, Joanna Lumley, Fred Trueman and Henry Blofeld. With Hitchhiker’s being what it is, you can ask all sorts of people to come and make contributions and they will.”

Jones and Adams met at Cambridge University in the early Seventies. They were both members of the Footlights, where Adams first began writing sketches and performing. They kept in touch after graduation; Jones treading the boards and Adams penning gags for Radio 4’s Weekending and, later, scripts for Doctor Who.

Then, several years later, Jones received a call from his college friend, asking if he’d consider taking a role in a radio series he’d written. The story, he claimed, had come to him while he was lying drunk in a field in Innsbruck, gazing at the stars; it was called The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy.

“He asked if I’d be interested in playing the last survivor on Earth – he couldn’t think of anyone else who could do it. I’ve wondered for years whether that was a compliment or not,” says Jones. “I’ve come to the conclusion, though, that Douglas thought I was probably the nearest equivalent to him. I think Douglas was perhaps more Arthur than I am.”

The first series was broadcast in March 1978, but quickly picked up an enthusiastic following. No one – least of all Adams – anticipated it.

“It was incredible,” recalls Jones. “The public response was so intense that Radio 4 repeated it immediately.”

Soon after, Adams turned Hitchhiker’s into the first of five bestsellers and it transferred to television three years later. But Jones is pleased to be returning to its radio roots.

“The wonderful thing about science fiction is that it’s perfect for radio. It enables the audience to listen and imagine anything. And if Douglas says, ‘This man has two heads and one speaks French’, you believe it

“That’s what made it so difficult to do the TV series. Douglas wrote all sorts of things specifically because it was radio and we could get away with it. Then, suddenly, we were pinned to the actual earthly realisation that planets might not really all look like North Wales.”

Jones has recently finished working on the first big-screen adaptation of Adams’s masterpiece, although Disney’s 2004 effects team has faced considerably fewer logistical problems than the BBC’s graphics department of 1981. Bound by confidentiality agreements, Jones can’t reveal his role in the film, which is due for release early next year, but says that he is relieved that one of Adams’s last projects has, at last, come to fruition. The film was, he says, Douglas’s “particular obsession” for some time and he was finally making headway on it when he died.

“I’ve an awful lot to thank Douglas for and it all came out of one chance phone call. Who knew that 25 years later I’d still be talking about it? It’s been a delight recording the new radio series and I’m looking forward to doing the next two. It feels good to be completing the job. But, after that, I shall feel a bit bereft – there will be no more unfinished business.”

First published: September 3, 2004

Published: 22 Mar 2009

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