On the Road with The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy part three: Dirk Maggs

On the afternoon of Friday 20th September, we were delighted to have a lengthy chat with one of the pioneering producers of contemporary radio, Dirk Maggs, about his career and the latest version of the project with which he is most associated, the live touring show of The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy, which had at that point was nearing the end of its first week. As well as the Tertiary, Quandary and Quintessential stages of the Guide, Dirk has also produced adaptations of Superman, Batman, Judge Dredd and most recently Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere.

Geek Chocolate – The show last year was very successful, very well received, but it was also only a small portion of the wealth of available source material. Out of all that, how do you choose which scenes will work to create a stage show?

Dirk Maggs – I think the trick was and try to find a cohesive narrative involving the main characters that we love in Hitch-Hiker’s, and because of that this year we’ve revisited the books and gone back to really the key narrative involving Ford, Arthur, Zaphod, Trillian, Slartibartfast.

I think this year’s show has got more of a, if you like that pretentious phrase, story arc. There is a resolution at the end, very much the same as last year, but in between there is a little bit more characterisation, all drawn from the books, particularly in act two where we’ve altered the first half to involve episodes which are much more traditional Hitch-Hiker stuff. I think people who loved the first and second books or first and second radio series will find that this is more mainstream for them.

Last year I wanted to get some stuff from the later books in because I think that the later books are fantastic, but then I would do, wouldn’t I? But on the other hand, it is impossibly hard to find a satisfying plot in Hitch-Hikers, because Douglas didn’t write plot, he wrote ideas and funny lines and great characters.

I think as a reader you accept that, and as a listener to the radio series, and the film tries very hard to get a cohesive narrative out of it, and it was a hell on an effort and very impressive. I think we’ve gone at it a slightly different way to try and encapsulate Arthur Dent’s plight in two hours and give it some kind of closure at the end, even if it’s only to say to people “now go and listen to it/read it/watch it again.”

I think we’re celebrating the very best of it this summer. I have to say, we’re only a week into the run, but the feedback has been that this is a much tighter, leaner show and there is a real story and we really are enjoying the characters a little bit more this year, which is fantastic for us because our job is to surprise and delight our audiences. That’s what we’re there to do, and if we’re managing to do that with something that many people have already seen once and are now surprised and delighted again, then we’re getting it right.

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 the material very well, does that become a burden on the show?

DM – Yes. It does. Simon dreads the poetry scene. He dreads having to emote agony for thirty seconds to two minutes a night. There are certain things it’s hard to keep doing over and over again, but the thing is of course this is what people come to see, and we can’t deny them it. It’s the origin story. It’s a bit like Christmas. If you celebrate Christmas in a religious sense, trying to remove the Nativity play, you can’t really do it.

It’s a very good point, but when I say “yes” and sound cynical, we’re not cynical, because Simon and Geoff and Sue and Mark when he’s around were in at the birth of this, I came a little bit later on, but it’s no less important to me. There’s three songs in the second half and it gets quite lively, and I was saying offstage in the wings at half time, you know what, I wish I’d put a song in the first half just to kick things off, because the audience do seem to enjoy the songs. They’re all basically from Douglas, the new song is Douglas’ words with Philip Wright setting music to it.

But of course you can’t tear up what’s there, and the origin story needs to be told. The problem is telling it in a slick way. We’ve slightly trimmed some of the bits but then we squeeze in other bits, because we’re trying to tell more of a story, we’re trying to get a little bit more of a cohesive thing going, because obviously we have to please the fans but what we want to do is turn new people onto Douglas. We want to perpetuate his genius, and it gets harder to do as more and more stuff appears. It would be awful if Douglas, his grand oeuvre, disappeared into the mist of time.

GC – Were there any moments from any of the books that you very much wanted to use, but that you wanted to do a more comprehensive staging of than the existing show allows?

DM – Yes. Next question.

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?

DM – I appreciate that. Check you noticing that. Yes, it was, although also I have to say the theatres we go into are gobsmacked at the amount of stuff we bring in. We’re actually quite a large show. What are we, eight or nine cast, five in the band, FX and a big crew, and the whole set and the lights.

I suppose standing at microphones holding scripts sort of looks low key, and there’s no question we could get the cast off the book, get rid of the scripts, get rid of the mikes, get them all on headset mikes, but then we get into a funny area where I’ve got to start asking the cast to be the people they were thirty years ago, and look like those people, and then I have a problem, because although they sound the same, bless them, they don’t look the same.

So, in a way, this radio thing, because also I love radio, I evangelise for radio, we record our shows and so that people can download them, in a way it works perfectly for what we’re doing here. There’s a sort or theatricality to radio where the audience is complicit in the arrangement, where they see where the glue goes, where the bolts are, they see the whole thing put together and become part of it themselves, because all audience radio shows are to do with having the audience as part of the show.

That’s a very interesting question, because actually it looks simple, but you should see the racks of computers backstage, just to run the things we’re doing. It’s amazing. I keep thinking “Hang on a minute, where does all this come from,” but we really do need it to do the show.

I think also the thing is we’ve got one of the top designers for lighting and set, which has built the show up, but also Gareth Owen, our sound designer does huge stadium tours, so there’s no expense spared on the skill level of the people working on it.

GC – With almost sixty dates and a sold out opening night at London’s Hackney Empire, it is a huge undertaking. All things being equal – which they never are – would you like to do a third tour?

DM – I’d like to. I’d like to grow the show a little bit. It’s been very hard to get a second show going with the present financial climate, people don’t see something like this as an investment. I see it as an investment in the nation’s mental health, because if you come and see our show you come away feeling lifted and happy and having had lots of Douglas’ wonderful imagination pumped into your brain, so I think it’s great.

For a third tour we would love to take the show overseas, we would love to play slightly bigger venues. What I personally would like is to get more publicity, where people know it’s on, because I know I’m the kind of person that I need to see about five posters before I actually register something. I got so many people coming up last year afterwards saying “Oh, if I’d known it was on, I love that kind of show, I love Hitch-Hiker’s, I love radio comedy, I would have come,” there are a lot who are in sackcloth and ashes about it.

I would just like to grow it a little so that we really have a presence. We would love to do more. We’ve certainly got more in and the show gets better every time we do it. All the time we’re refining. I was rewriting on Tuesday, rewrote a speech, Anita [Dobson] debuted at Norwich for us, which introduced a character who was mentioned later, and I realised only the cognoscenti in the audience were getting the joke. We’re always gauging, we never relax.

This was a deliberate choice not to go into the West End and sit there in a big theatre and expect people just to come to you and eventually it’s all just Japanese tourists and everybody is just going through the motions. Nobody is just going through the motions, nobody is just a hired hand, everyone on stage either knew Douglas or worked on Hitch-Hiker’s in one incarnation or another, including myself, because I’m in the band.

We’re all there in an act of solidarity, and there’s a great deal of love in the room to do with the fact that this is something we’ve all worked on and cared about and still care about. There is an amazing dedication to it and the quest for perfection goes on. Mitch has been working his socks off to find a Zaphod that really pays off all the gags, and he’s been wonderful.

GC – You’ve been associated with the work of Douglas Adams for a decade now, between the final radio series of the Guide, Dirk Gently and now the touring show. His writing has inspired incredible adoration and devotion which has given it this longevity. I realise you can only give a personal answer, but what does Douglas mean to you?

DM – Well, it’s certainly not a meal ticket. My wife, every time we work on it, she says “Not more Hitch-Hiker’s, every time we get poorer!” The financial rewards are strangely elusive, but I’ve always loved great comedy and great writing, and here you have both.

I’m incredibly lucky Douglas made a call when he did. I’m lucky that Geoffrey [Perkins, original radio producer] went off to telly and wasn’t available to pick these things up and Douglas heard my work and thought I could do it. And the thing is, this is wonderful stuff, the challenges.

It’s scary to keep going into the lion’s den with the absolute die-hard fans who won’t forgive the slightest lapse from what they feel is the perfection that lies in there somewhere, and yet all of us who’ve worked creatively on it and with Douglas know that he was the last person to let anything fossilise.

We play some Douglas at the start of the show and he says in one of the clips it’s very important to change things. He also said it was very important to annoy the fans! Because if you keep repeating the same thing it becomes ritual, and I suppose this is the reason that act one, we give it our best shot, and believe me, I’ve got notes for the cast for tomorrow night, just to tighten up a couple of bits and leave room for a gag to breathe.

We’re not going to be around forever. This is the other thing. If this was the last tour, and conceivably it could be, then we don’t want to look back on it as something we could have done better.

GC – Looking at your resume, it is impressive, to say the least, but there is no defining theme. While there are a lot of comedy shows, there are also adaptations of Agatha Christie, liaisons with Superman, Batman and Judge Dredd, and award winning celebration of the Goon Show, and projects that, while equally ambitious, are poles apart, your adaptations of 2001 A Space Odyssey and An American Werewolf in London. Is there a process whereby you pursued these projects based on how outrageous they were, or do people come to you with crazy ideas knowing that you’re the man who can make them work?

DM – Well, you know, having a mortgage to pay is a great incentive to do work.

I have two kinds of work in my life, I have work that I enjoy, and I have the work that transcends work and just becomes an act of love and devotion. The work that I enjoy is any kind of radio drama, for example, this week on Radio 4, over two days we had a play about the police which I directed and did post-production on, which I think was an important play to do because it’s about the issue of how the government treat the police, how the police see their jobs, and so on and so forth. It’s an interesting piece by Michael Eaton.

That and the Agatha Christies and the various afternoon plays I’ve done over the years have been work that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed, it’s very worthwhile and I totally believe in them, I’m working with talented actors and it’s super-duper, and occasionally in those work jobs I get something like The Ragged Trouser Philanthropists with Johnny Vegas and a fantastic cast, where I’m doing something that I actually believe is a towering piece of literature, not only because it’s a great book but also because it was an engine of social change.

There are those pieces of work which I would be lucky enough to do anyway, and generally speaking, people come to me and ask me to do. Then there is the work of devotion and love, and that is Hitch-Hiker’s, it is working with Neil Gaiman, it is working with great British comedy like doing the resurrected genetically engineered Goon Show, it is all the comic book stuff I did in the nineties.

This was when I was at the BBC, having done a couple of docudramas about Superman and Batman, I was asked by the controller of Radio 4 if I could do a series of Superman. This was when Radio 4 were a very different kind of radio station to now, we’d never get away with that now, but that was fantastic, because I basically spent about three months, all my lunch hours at Broadcasting House I went down to the cinema, I had popcorn lunches, I would watch films, and I was watching with my ears.

It was about the time Terminator 2 came out, and I was listening to what the sound designers were doing. I was already aware of what people like Ben Burtt had achieved on Star Wars and Dolby Pro Logic and then Dolby Digital revolutionised the industry, and I was going back to Broadcasting House and saying “Right, guys, how the hell can we bypass this gear so we can make it sound as big as these guys in Hollywood are making it sound.”

That was the start of a quest to make radio very cinematic, and then the chance to work on comic books, it turned out there was this huge synergy where the sounds we were making could compliment the imagery of the comic books, and the guys at DC at that time were chuffed. I remember having great conversations with Scott Peterson and Denny O’Neil about how we could… what does Gotham City sound like? I would really like to know, what does Gotham sound like in your ears when you’re drawing those strips? We’d agree a scenario and then I’d create it in sound and that was just fantastic fun, I loved that so much, and that was the beginning.

American Werewolf, funnily enough, was a bit of an aberration, because normally I didn’t want to do something that was already a film, but John Landis was involved with it and was charming and I couldn’t resist, and we had fun doing it.

Those are the jobs that I do for love, and at the moment I’m very lucky because there was a period where I wasn’t able to do those, where I was doing an awful lot of the work that I love projects, like the Agatha Christies and the plays in the afternoon, which I love, love, love, but there is this yearning in you. It’s like this think I love is relative, and I was thinking one of these days I want to get back into comic books, and for about fifteen years I was trying to get Radio 4 to take a Neil Gaiman piece, I was pestering them, and then this wonderful producer Heather Larmour from BBC Northern Ireland managed to get them to consider a Neil piece, and she and Neil asked if I would adapt and direct, and that was the birth of Neverwhere.

GC – You got an astonishing cast for Neverwhere, James McAvoy, Natalie Dormer, Sophie Okonedo, Benedict Cumberbatch, Anthony Head, Christopher Lee.

DM – I just couldn’t believe it. That was Heather.

GC – I know Neil was never satisfied with the limitations and compromises of the original television production. How did you gather these amazing people, and was Neil happier this time?

DM – Heather did the heavy lifting. She’s just a genius. I have had one other collaborator that I’ve had as much empathy with, and that was Paul Deeley who engineered all the Superman and Batmans. Heather, I empathise on a production level, and her instincts are spot on, she’s really good, and she actually was the one who kind of said “How high can we aim?” We traded names, basically, but it got sillier, and I was saying “There’s no way on god’s green earth you’re going to get James McAvoy, but hell, try!”

When we were at the read through at Broadcasting House, when we called lunch, I went up to James and we were having a chat about the part, and I said “You’ve got to tell me why you’re doing this, man, because what you’re earning on this whole thing, you earn that on lunchtime on a movie,” and he said “I know, but I fucking love it!”

And that’s the thing, like all of us, we’re all fans of great writing in this genre, and Neil is one of the absolute giants, and I love that this is becoming his annus mirabilis. We were talking last weekend at the Hackney Empire, and I cannot express… I would envy him if I didn’t like him so much, if he wasn’t disarmingly just plain bloody nice. And wise. He’s like an old soul, really. He’s a really easy guy, and I don’t know how he deals with the pressure in his life, but he does with such grace. His books and his stories are very, very good, and this is great because although I do write original material myself, my strength seems to have been in adapting other people’s works.

Neil and I both met Douglas at different parts in our careers, but Douglas influenced both of us very much, he encouraged Neil to write and he encouraged me to do more of the stuff that I wasn’t sure anybody liked, which was really pushing the boundaries of radio. We both owe Douglas something, and we both worked in comic books, because he was obviously writing genius things like Sandman and I was getting into the mainstream stuff, he was slightly darker, but we both have a sensibility about that darker material, that sort of sinister humour. Everything is balanced within it, it’s a very subtle feel.

I’ve made friends with a lot of comic book people over the years, and I was talking to Dave Gibbons the other day, because Dave and I are working on a project which is in radio, as it happens, but Dave was very funny, because Dave is very much a meat and potatoes guy whereas Neil is more imaginative. Dave is more into the “how does the physics of this work?” and so on.

All of us still tell a story in a kind of shorthand, you don’t trudge through the valley, you leap from crag to crag over it, you scope it out more quickly, you don’t sit and waste time on anything.
I’m such an enthusiast for this. You’re lucky if you get someone you work with in your life that you’re happy with. If I s
tack shelves in Tesco as a student, if there was someone to work with that you really enjoyed their company, it’s great, and it’s the same kind of thing with Neil. We’re both stacking shelves in different aisles, but we have a bit of a laugh through the potato crisps. It’s very rewarding. It’s bloody hard work, I’ll say, because you cannot drop your game and coast in this lark, but it’s worth every minute, I love it.

GC – Excellent. Thank you so much for your time, it has been absolutely fantastic talking to you.

DM – You too, Michael, I really appreciate it.

Dirk’s enthusiasm for the show was obvious throughout our conversation, and The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Live show was to have continued until 30th November, but the regrettably despite a handful of sold out venues, the nationwide tour struggled in the poor economic climate, and on 21st October it was announced the remaining dates would not take place.

A personal note from Simon Jones and Dirk Maggs was posted on the show’s Facebook page reading –

With infinite regret, despite happy audiences and 5 star reviews, we have been forced to curtail this tour ahead of schedule due to economic adversity. Having worked so hard to put on a show worthy of Douglas Adams and his devoted fans, we are utterly devastated.

It has been a pleasure to be a part of a company, band and crew who have become a close knit family. We know people hoping to see the show will be as horribly disappointed as we are, and offer our heartfelt apologies for any inconvenience this has caused.

We would like to take this opportunity not only to thank Dirk Maggs for taking the time to talk with Geek Chocolate and his graciousness at the stage door but for his boundless enthusiasm with which he has approached his many productions, his drive for perfection which is reflected in all his projects, and his continued dedication to the work and memory of Douglas Adams, whom we all still miss deeply

Thanks also to Arabella Neville-Rolfe of Target Live for making the interview arrangements

Our conversations with Simon Jones, the original Arthur Dent and Mitch Benn, the current Zaphod Beelblebrox, are already online, as is our review of the show