Comedian, musician and radio personality turned science fiction writer, where in the world – or out of it – will Mitch Benn turn up next? Having previously worked with producer Dirk Maggs on a number of projects, including a small role in the Quintessential Phase of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy radio show, it is perhaps not a surprise that he now finds himself in the touring live show, though not in any supporting capacity but in one of the lead roles, taking over as Zaphod Beeblebrox from Mark Wing-Davey, who originated the part in 1978. On the afternoon of Friday 20th September, Mitch was good enough to take a call from Geek Chocolate to discuss the role and tour.
Geek Chocolate – You’re the new Zaphod Beeblebrox –
Mitch Benn – I’m the current Zaphod Beeblebrox.
GC – While the role has been played by many actors, the most well-known are Mark Wing-Davey and Sam Rockwell. Those are big shoes to step into. How are you finding it?
MB – I’m enjoying every minute of it. It’s early days, I’ve only done five shows out of about sixty, so all manner of stuff could go off in the meantime, but so far I’m enjoying myself immensely. They’re a wonderful, wonderful bunch of people to work with, they’re the easiest guys ever to get along with, and fortunately the general critical reception to me, and certainly the fan reception, has been very positive.
I was pleasantly surprised by how forthright the PR was about the fact that it was me taking over as Zaphod for this tour, because I thought one of the selling points was that wherever possible it was the original radio cast. I thought there might be a trifle apologetic about it, “the original radio cast except we couldn’t get a couple of them, never mind,” but they actually seem quite keen on promoting me.
And the fans seems to think I’m legit ‘coz I’m a Radio 4 guy, I write science fiction novels in my own right. I think they think I’m a legitimate addition to the Hitch-Hiker’s gang rather than just somebody who’s parachuted in and doesn’t necessarily know what it’s all about.
GC – What did the Guide mean to you, and how were you approached for the part?
MB – I kind of approached them by accident. Dirk Maggs is the brains behind this particular version of the Guide, he’s directing it and has adapted the script and plays the drums in the band because Dirk’s just this guy, you know. He used to produce this thing I used to do on Radio 4 called It’s Been a Bad Week, so I’ve known Dirk for a long time.
We were working on this other thing in February and I just said “So what’s next, man?” and he said “Well, we’re taking Hitch-Hiker’s back out on the road in the autumn,” and I said “Ooh, can I come and be a guest book?” because they have rotating guest narrators, and he said yeah, we could probably do that. And I’ve no idea why I said it, but then I said “Hey, if you ever can’t get Mark, I’ve pretty much based my entire personality on Zaphod Beeblebrox.”
And there’s this weird moment, and Dirk said “Right, are you being cute or is that a suggestion?” And I said “Well, I thought I was being cute, but you can’t get Mark, can you?” Mark Wing-Davey, the proper Zaphod, if you will, is now a Professor of Drama at New York University, so he did the last tour because it was across the summer but he can’t do this tour because he’s got to be back in New York. I think Dirk had just found that out that week, when I opened my big gob and said “Oh, what I really want to do is play Zaphod.” And so that kind of planted the seed, and a few phone calls and meetings later and I was Zaphod. It was a pure blag on my part, really. So yeah, that was lovely.
GC – You have extensive stand up experience; is a touring stage show as part of an ensemble all that different, or is it just another facet of the same thing?
MB – It’s very different in many ways. Obviously there’s overlap and connections, it’s not like I’m completely a fish out of water, it’s not like I’ve never been in front of an audience before, but it is both more and less pressure than anything else I’ve ever done. It’s less pressure in as much as I didn’t write it, it’s not being promoted solely on my involvement which is the case with pretty much everything else I ever do, touring under my own name or whatever, so in that respect it’s far less pressure, because how well it’s doing is not necessarily reflecting on me.
But on the other hand it is more pressure because I have a great responsibility to the people around me, and that actually didn’t really dawn on me until quite late because it’s a long time since I’ve done something with an ensemble cast like this, because the capacity to mess stuff up for other people is there, which it isn’t in most of the things I do. I can let the side down here!
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?
MB – I honestly don’t know what the ticket price is, that’s not something I concern myself with. It’s true that it’s a very idiosyncratic production, but that’s also because Dirk has, I think, finally cracked how you do Hitch-Hiker’s as a live thing, because there have been stage adaptations of it back in the eighties, and I think more recently, but with very limited success, attempts to do it as a stage play, and this has elements of a stage play in it but basically it’s a live show.
I describe it as an insane hybrid between a radio recording, progressive rock concert and space pantomime. It’s done after the fashion of a radio recording, with the cast holding scripts and standing at microphones, but there is a live band, there is a big projection screen, there is a Foley table covered with objects that Ken, our sound ef
fects guy, makes live sound effects with. Then the thing which makes it a radio show is, a few days after each show, it gets uploaded as audio, and you can actually download the show you were at.
GC – As I speak to you, you’ve just completed the first week of the tour, and you have a night off tonight. How is it going?
MB – It’s going splendidly. We started off in Hackney Empire, which is the most beautiful theatre, a nineteenth century playhouse.
GC – And you had Neil Gaiman as the Voice of the Book.
MB – And we had Neil, who is a really good friend of mine, and has been a big help with me getting my own books written and published and everything which was nice. He wrote the cover quote for my book Terra in which he mentions Douglas Adams, so it’s all good, it all connects together. Yes, we had Neil, and we had Polly, we had Douglas’ daughter, being the cow, the Dish of the Day.
Then we had Jon Culshaw, who, delightfully, more or less for the whole time, did the voice of the original Book, because of course, Jon being an amazing mimic, did Peter Jones, but just threw a couple of spare impressions in, which I won’t give away in case he ever does it again. It’s hilarious, the way Jon does the Book.
One thing which is also great about the show, the show is obviously in a constant state of flux because all the narrators do it in a very different way, they all have a slightly different take on it. Miriam Margolyes who we’ve got with us for these few days is really doing it as marvellously fruitily commanding as possible. She’s lovely.
We’ve got some other people coming up, we’ve got Anthony Daniels, we’ve got C-3P0 coming in for one show, which I think is hilarious, and we’ve got Clive Anderson and John Lloyd, some amazing people. All the guest Books give their own little spin on it, but also similarly every theatre is different, so the atmosphere in every theatre is different. Sometimes the set is a slightly different shape because of the space we’re in, sometimes the audience is very different.
One of the things that some of the venues have pointed out to us is that we’re getting people into this that don’t necessarily ever come to the theatre, because if you think about it, if you’re a sci-fi nerd there’s not a lot on for you at the theatre. You’re very well catered for in movies and books and television again, but there’s not an awful lot on stage for you.
GC – You just mentioned it briefly, but as if juggling comedy and theatre wasn’t enough, you’ve recently released your first novel, Terra, through the legendary sci-fi publishers Gollancz, and it has been very well reviewed. Can you tell us a bit about it and how it came about?
MB – The reviews have been astonishing. It’s the story of a little human baby who’s inadvertently abducted by a UFO and ends up being adopted and raised by aliens. And that’s what it’s about. It’s about a little human girl growing up on another planet and all that that entails.
And yes, the reviews have been astonishing. I’ve genuinely was taken aback by how good the reviews are. I was holding out for creditable first attempt reviews, I was hoping for “not bad for a first attempt, let’s see what he comes up with next” reviews, and I was getting feel good hit of the summer reviews. It’s selling wonderfully, reviews have been great, I’m now doing revisions for book two which comes out next summer.
I’m having fun being an author but I’m also having fun being Zaphod. I can’t really complain at the moment. With the possible exception of Mark Gatiss I’m nerding out for a living more than just about anyone I can think of.
GC – Life is good. It’s well known that Douglas Adams had an aversion to deadlines. Did the writing process on Terra increase your appreciation for those who write for a living?
MB – Deadlines are something I’m very used to. Deadlines are what I work to all the time because although this is my first book I’ve been creating stuff for twenty years, particularly for my own show. When I’m writing the songs for that, that’s a massive deadline, I have to write two songs a week for that. It used to be three, it’s just two these days, and it has to be done absolutely without fail.
It’s not so much I have an aversion to deadlines or that I like them, I’m entirely dependant upon them. Were it not for deadlines I would never get a damn thing done, and I have to impose deadlines upon myself. For example, I’m trying to get fitter at the moment, and I entered that 10K in July, because it was going to happen, and I was going to let the side down if I wasn’t ready, so I got fit enough to run the 10K and I ran the 10K, and the reason I did that is because it’s a concrete objective and an unmoveable deadline.
One thing I’ve discovered about myself is that if I have a concrete objective and an unmoveable deadline I can do pretty much anything I need to do. If something’s just a good idea, then it will never happen. I had to impose deadlines upon myself to write the books, and I’m starting work on book three now, so again I’ll have some deadline imposed upon me or that’s never going to happen.
GC – I’m also given to understand that amongst everything else, you’re also the 37th Beatle?
MB – That’s what I did in the Edinburgh Fringe, I did a show about the Beatles. Give vent to your obsessions and it will keep you motivated. I kind of grew up with the Beatles, I grew up in Liverpool in the seventies in the immediate aftermath of Beatlemania, and my parents kind of knew them a bit in the fifties, so I grew up drenched in Beatles lore.
I was looking for a theme for the Edinburgh show and I thought about this idea that was triggered specifically by a guy called Tony Sheridan who died in February. He was another rock and roll singer who was living in Hamburg at the same time as the Beatles at the very top of the sixties, and he actually put a record out while they were out there, and the Beatles were drafted in to be his backing band.
It was the first record they were on, and so when he died a lot of the obituaries began “Sometimes referred to as the fifth Beatle…” How many fifth Beatles are there? Mathematics alone would determine they can’t all be fifth. If there is a fifth, there has to be a sixth, seventh, eighth, and by that rationale I’m probably about 37th or something, and that’s where we got the title from.
It was great, it was really successful, really good reviews, really good houses, so we’re going to be touring that next year, first half of next year. Things are kind of mapped out for the next six months.
Thank you to Mitch Benn for his time and to Arabella Neville-Rolfe of Target Live for making the arrangements
Our conversation with Simon Jones, Arthur Dent himself, can be found here, our chat with Dirk Maggs, writer and producer of the later radio series of the Guide and director of the touring show, can be found here and our review of the show itself is here.