A former member of the Cambridge Footlights, that was where Simon Jones met Douglas Adams, himself an associate of the Monty Python team and later a script editor on Doctor Who, but it was Adams’ own radio show, the legendary The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, for which Jones is best known. Having played Arthur Dent since the first episode, broadcast March 1978 across five series to the final episode in June 2005, and also made a cameo appearance in Garth Jennings‘ film adaptation, he has also worked with Terry Gilliam twice, on Brazil and 12 Monkeys, has worked extensively on Broadway and as a reader of audio books. Jones has now returned to his best known role in the touring Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Live show, with his original colleagues Geoffrey McGivern as Ford Prefect and Susan Sheridan as Trillian, and on the afternoon of Friday 20th September was good enough to chat with Geek Chocolate about the tour.
Geek Chocolate – This is your second national tour with the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide, sold out venues, crowds waiting at the door to greet you, get an autograph, get a photograph. It must be nice to suddenly realise that you have the career of a rock star?
Simon Jones – It’s pretty amazing, frankly. Yes, I’ve been anxiously carving out my career in other directions all these years and little did I know. As we discovered back in June, July of last year, this was sitting there, waiting for us all the time, this enormous reservoir of goodwill.
GC – The best known story is obviously the origin, having been broadcast on radio, novelised, released as a double LP, broadcast on television, recycled as firelighters, and so on. Considering that you are playing to an audience who most likely know that material very well, does it become a burden on the show?
SJ – There is perhaps maybe a tendency to put rather too much into the show out of deference to the die-hard fans, but we also have to try balance that with the knowledge that there are people coming to see it for the first time out of curiosity. We’re still working on that balance, I think it’s fair to say.
It’s sort of referential, but they often get loud laughs, like “There are whole chapters in your life that you have missed out” is one particular line, and the audience roars with laughter because they know because they’ve read the five books, or six now if you count Eoin Colfer.
Or when I suddenly say “I’m having this terrible problem with my lifestyle,” those people who know the books or the show on the radio know that’s usually an opening into one extraordinary digression from the book – I can’t even remember which one it is!
GC – The wormhole?
SJ – It’s the wormholes in space, isn’t it? Yes, that’s right, and the two nations coming to frightful war. I remember that one now. We just do that, and then there’s a moment, and then Zaphod says “Well I’m not interested,” and we move on, and the audience laughs at that.
So in a way we could sort do it in code, and people would probably get it, but we do have to remember there are people out there who don’t necessarily know what we’re talking about and they have to be given a bit of help.
GC – The Guide has been part of your life since the start, in many different iterations. How do you keep them all straight in your head, or do you just go all Arthur Dent, look for somewhere to lie down and hope for a cup of tea to be given to you?
SJ – That’s the thing, really. I don’t hope for it to be given to me. I spend a lot of time in America where they don’t even know the meaning of a decent cup of tea, and Arthur Dent’s search is totally justified. A cup of hot water with a Lipton’s tea bag next to it does not constitute a cup of tea. We import vast quantities of Marks and Spencers’ extra strong because it’s the only thing I can bear to drink. My wife agrees with me.
GC – As I speak to you, you’ve just completed the first week of the 2013 tour, and you have a night off tonight. How is it going?
SJ – Yes, indeed. Well, so far so good. We’ve got to have a bit of stamina. It’s going to be a little more hectic when we start going up and down the country. I think the longest distance we have to travel in a day is from Scarborough to Dorking. That does sound rather bizarre, doesn’t it? We go as far as Truro in the west and Grimsby in…
GC – The middle?
SJ – Sort of. Belfast, which we’ll have to fly to, we can’t go there by bus. And Inverness, so we’re sort of covering the map. And that’s good, reminding me of the size and shape of the country, and there’s some places I’ve not been to, so that’s kind of interesting. And it’s suitable for the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide, to be doing that, actually. At least we’re not hitch-hiking or we’d never get to the venues on time.
GC – Compared with many touring shows, it is a low key production, reflecting the radio origin, but that also means you can charge a very reasonable ticket price compared with other touring shows of similar stature. Was that a consideration, that the show should be accessible?
SJ – Oh, I think certainly, we want to people to be able to afford to come and see us, but at the same time people are always continually surprised that it’s not just us standing in front of microphones holding our scripts in our hands, there is quite a lot going on.
It’s quite a complicated show, and the crew work like demons because they pull it to pieces, get on the bus, live on the bus, and go and then assemble it at the other end, fit it into all sorts of different size venues. Leamington Spa was very small, and then the size of the stage in Cardiff was enormous.
GC – I remember the excitement when the television series was first broadcast, finally being able to see what we had previously only imagined. It was hugely well received and won the Royal Television Society award for Most Original Programme – ironic for an adaptation –
SJ – Indeed!
GC – And several BAFTAs, but the BBC never progressed on the second series.
SJ – No, they didn’t, did they. It’s possible that Douglas’ enthusiasm was not strong for a second series. It’s odd that, there was just that series. It was his fervent ambition to get it made into a movie, but in fact it only happened after he died, and opinions differ as to how successful that was.
I think one of the most reassuring things about the TV programme was that people seemed to think that I did actually embody what they had imagined Arthur Dent to look like. That was a bit of a relief. I imagine you’ve seen some of The Archers and you think “that’s not how I think so-and-so is.” Those radio voices, suddenly when you see their faces you think, “well, they’re not how I imagined them at all.”
GC – As well as returning to Arthur numerous times down the years on radio and in a couple of documentaries, you also had a small role in the 2005 film as the Magrathean automated warning. It was always going to be a compromise, squeezing that much narrative into a two hour Hollywood movie. Do you feel it achieved what it set out to do?
SJ – I think in its own terms it did, yes. Incidentally, they filmed me with two cameras and said I was going to be in 3D, and I’ve watched the DVD with 3D glasses and I’m not, so I don’t know what that was all about, I’m simply out of focus, but never mind.
I think it disappointed Disney, I think they wanted to make more out of it, they wanted to sell lots of toy Marvins, but there Marvin design was too cute and cuddly. I think the fans had already established their loyalty, there was one version and one version only they wanted. What did you think?
GC – I enjoyed it very much. I saw it at the cinema twice.
SJ – It’s full of very interesting referential jokes about Douglas and his life.
GC – I thought Sam Rockwell was excellent as Zaphod, I loved the visual effects, they were astonishing, particularly the scene where they go out –
SJ – I thought Magrathea was magnificent.
GC – On Magrathea. Seeing that on the cinema screen was just breathtaking.
SJ – It was nice to see those things realised properly with all the technology we now have. It was nice to see what the technology could do, goodness knows if they made it again now, it would be even more impressive.
When you think back to the TV series, even the computer graphics were done by hand, we take that all for granted now. I’m sure there will be more iterations of the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide. It’s not going to go away. It’s hard to see.
Maybe the musical? And then a movie of the musical? Though I don’t know how much of that I should be involved in. Getting on a bit. Thirty five years, I couldn’t believe it. I remember Kenneth Williams saying “thirty five years” on Beyond Our Ken and thinking, god, that’s an uncomfortably long time. And it is, and we’re still here, and people seem to be quite glad we are, and that’s rather reassuring.
GC – It’s twelve years since we lost Douglas Adams, and last year a celebration was held for what would have been his sixtieth birthday. How do you think Douglas would have felt about this show?
SJ – I’m sure he would have enjoyed it. I hope he would, it’s a bit hard to say. I think he would be delighted that it’s still going on, and astonished. He was always astonished by the success of the whole thing. He said it was like climbing a mountain without going through the foothills. Getting to the top of Everest. He had another slightly more risqué description of it, too.
Now, seeing it institutionalised, so much of it has entered the language. The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy itself is in fact a smart phone, with Siri talking to us, or whatever it is.
GC – And it’s about as helpful as that.
SJ – Yes! And he foresaw it all. The only thing he wasn’t right about was computers. He said it will be so easy, it will be like turning on a lightswitch. But he was right about a lot of other things.
GC – Well thank you so much for your time, Simon. It’s been wonderful to talk to you.
Thank you to Simon Jones for his time and to Arabella Neville-Rolfe of Target Live for making the arrangements
Our conversation with Mitch Benn, the current Zaphod Beelblebrox, can be found here, and with Dirk Maggs, writer and producer of the later radio series of the Guide and director of the touring show, can be found here, while our review of the show is here.