The story of Last Chance to See begins with Douglas being telephoned by the World Wildlife Fund and asked to go to Madagascar and look for the rarest form of lemur then known — the Aye-Aye. He was to do this in the company of zoologist Mark Carwardine who would act as the expert foil to Douglas who would be writing about the trip. The trip took place in the Spring of 1985, and the photographer Alain le Garsmeur went along to provide the pictures, and Jane Belson who was later to be Douglas’s wife also joined the group.
The article duly appeared in the Observer Sunday Magazine (9th June 1985) with plenty of pictures of other lemurs, nice photogenic ones that were active during the day, like the ring-tailed lemur shown on the cover, and the sifaka lemur in the body of the article. However, much to everyone’s surprise they did manage to capture the nocturnal Aye-Aye on film as well, and so a grainy picture of it was also published in the article. The aim of the project was to promote conservation in Madagascar, and to that end it was sponsored by a Fiat, which donated a pound to the WWF for every person that called an advertised phone number.
Incidentally, Douglas used the expedition as the basis of a chatty ten-minute radio programme of him speaking over a background of wildlife sounds that was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 1st November 1985 under the title Natural Selection: In Search of the Aye-Aye. Douglas returned to the subject of the Aye-Aye, specifically the evolution of its distinctive middle finger, in a one-minute programme in a 1998 BBC2 series called Natural Selections, with his contribution broadcast on March 28th.
An account of the Madagascar trip, and how it led to the others, is given in the introductory chapter of Last Chance to See entitled ‘Twig Technology’. After successfully finding the Aye-Aye, Mark was telling Douglas about some of the many other endangered species and Douglas goes and gets his Filofax and says, “I’ve just got a couple of novels to write, but, er, what are you doing in 1988?” The preparation for these later trips is discussed in Neil Gaiman’s book, Don’t Panic: The Official Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Companion, published in 1988, and mentions three particular species that they planned to look for: the Kouprey, the Quetzal and the Kakapo. The last of these did make it into the final selection, but the Kouprey, an ox-like creature found in Vietnam, and the Quetzal, the national bird of Guatemala, did not. Choosing where to go and what to see was somewhat haphazard with Mark and Douglas horse-trading over a map of the world about where they wanted to go and what they wanted to see. “The Congo? The Seychelles? Split the difference — Mauritius”, reported Gaiman’s book, which also said that initial thoughts were to produce a television series, but the first place they asked about filming was in China and as the permit was going to cost £200,000 they quickly shelved that idea, and turned it into a radio series. The radio series was eventually funded by the advance on the book, with the authors paying the expenses of the BBC sound engineers that accompanied them: Gaynor Shutte and Chris Muir.
The various trips to search for the animals eventually took place in 1988 and 1989 after Douglas wrote the two Dirk Gently novels and Mark had to change all the arrangements because the books took a little longer than expected. The book of Last Chance to See is still in print, but the full radio series seems only been to have been broadcast in the UK in October / November 1989, with a repeat of four of the six episodes the next year. A clip from the show made the prestigious Pick of the Year BBC radio selection for 1989. The full set of episodes did receive an airing in Australia in 2001, and the Fruit Bat episode was included in the three-hour tribute to Adams broadcast on BBC7 in 2003.
The episodes went out at 12.25pm on Wednesdays with a repeat at 8.00pm on the following Sunday. In the absence of a commercial release, all the episodes should be available to listen to at the National Sound Archive. In May 1997 Radio 4 broadcast another set of five fifteen-minute programmes under the title Last Chance to See. These were Douglas reading from the Komodo Dragon chapter of the book, and a companion website which was created at the time is still available.
The radio series was made with each episode having three or four Hitchhiker’s Guide style vignettes read by Peter Jones, but with the majority of the content coming from the on the spot recordings made on their travels. These provide their instant reaction to what they are seeing allowing Mark to describe the creatures and Douglas to give his commentary. There are also some more considered comments that were recorded by Douglas after their return that has a background of typewriter noises. The radio programmes featured in a two-page article in the Radio Times (30/09/1989) that quoted Douglas as saying, “The intention of the series is to be serious, but because I’m a comedy writer the tone will be light. The aim is to bring these issues to a broader audience: greens tend to preach to the converted on green issues.”
Writing the book to accompany the series was somewhat of a struggle. Mark and Douglas planned to do this over the course of four months at a villa in Juan-les-Pins in the South of France. With Mark commuting weekly and Douglas there full time, they managed to produce a solitary page, although they did do a great deal of planning and lunching. Returning to London the pair were locked into Douglas’s house in Islington in order to produce the book, which, so the story goes, the publishers took as soon as they thought it was long enough, and the page written in France didn’t make the final edit. This is one of the reasons that two of the species they searched for did not make the book at all: the Juan Fernandez Fur Seal and the Amazonian Manatee. The audio version of the book further excludes a couple of the book chapters in order to fit the double cassette format.
A CD-ROM followed in 1992, produced by The Voyager Company. This has audio recordings of Douglas reading the whole of the book as well as some contributions from Mark about the individual animals and extracts from their on the spot recordings. There are also over 800 photographs from the trip included in the multimedia package. In 2001 a German company re-released the CD-ROM, the book having been successful in translation into German, and a German audio-book also being available. Other translations of the book include Dutch, Polish, Czech and Hebrew editions.
The trips that he and Mark undertook awoke within Douglas a sense of wonderment at the natural world that can be seen in his subsequent writings. Both Mostly Harmless (1992), with the section about Perfectly Normal Beasts, and The Salmon of Doubt (2002) with the Rhino’s point of view of a rampage, reflect the development of his ecological awareness. In a March 1998 interview with Matt Newsome, partly reproduced in The Salmon of Doubt, Douglas mentions the impact of his trip to Madagascar on the first Dirk Gently book, “I recast it for various reasons as Mauritius”. The interview also touched on the possibility of a Last Chance to See TV series, although Douglas presaged that part of the interview with “I probably shouldn’t say this” as the discussions were only just beginning, and at the time came to naught. After publishing the first Dirk Gently book, Douglas became friends with Richard Dawkins who had written Douglas a fan letter after reading the novel, and this again reinforced and developed his interest in evolution and natural history. Douglas eventually became a patron of both Save The Rhino and the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, charities for which the annual Douglas Adams Memorial Lectures have raised money.
A set of follow-up trips were touted and an article appeared in The Times (19th February 1991) which indicated that the pair were to be even more intrepid than on their previous trips and look specifically at species whose predicaments had been caused by their proximity to war zones. Again the Kouprey was mentioned by name, described as living “on the borders of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, which has been devastated by minefields”. The article also mentioned the pair having researched the plight of animals in Afghanistan, Uganda and Nicaragua, and the potential of looking at the plight of fish and birds in the oil spills of the (First) Gulf War zone. This is as far as the second series seemed to get. However, the Last Chance to See story does not end there…
At a lecture in London in November 2006, to raise money for tiger conservation, Mark Carwardine was introduced as “the author of 54 books, and shortly to film a series with Stephen Fry”. Asked about it after the lecture Mark confirmed that he was in the process of arranging the filming dates for going to visit the people and animals that he had seen with Douglas and hoped the series would be broadcast in Spring of 2008. Stephen Fry would be filling the role of enthusiastic amateur now Douglas is no longer with us, and was not only a great friend of Adams, but also has his own environmental pedigree with his TV programme, book on the Spectacled Bear, as well as a charity to help protect it. The TV series had quite a long gestation. Stephen Fry mentioned on a webchat that he was in discussions about this project with Mark back in June 2006. The series seemed to take a major step forward when the TV company Iostar announced it on their website as part of their launch at the TV trade show MIP-TV in Cannes during the second week of April 2007. Part of the text ran: “This time it’s Stephen Fry at the helm with Carwardine, as they revisit the six featured endangered species and bring their stories right up to date. From Madagascar to Mauritius, and from China to the Congo, the pair will be guided by the ethereal presence of Douglas Adams whose voice lives on, loud and clear in scene-setting audio.” The company then went spectacularly bust soon afterwards. However, the project was far from being dodo-like, with both Mark and Stephen publicly talking about it, and the expeditions still planned. Eventually, Last Chance to See was broadcast as a television series on BBC Two in 2009.
A version of this article first appeared in issue #105 of Mostly Harmless, the magazine of ZZ9 Plural Z Alpha, the Official Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Appreciation Society.