The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a wholly remarkable radio play. It is witty, it is thought-provoking, it is far-fetched and it is laugh-out-loud hilarious. It is one of my all-time favourite things, and it’s indelibly etched onto my memory.
I remember the first time I listened to the radio play. I had watched the television series during a sleepover at a friend’s house at the age of about 12, and I got the radio cassettes as a gift, for either my birthday or for Christmas. I had a Sony Walkman, and I wandered around the house compulsively listening to the cassettes. I remember being confused when towels didn’t come up for a very long time (I feel like they appear later in the radio series than in other incarnations of the Guide) and laughing loudly at all the jokes, except for those that I didn’t get until years later1.
If you’ve never listened to the radio series, the basic storyline of the first four episodes is almost identical to that of the first book, because that book was based on those episodes. The final two episodes of the Primary Phase2 are similar to parts of the second book, and similar to the last two episodes of the television series, except that the Hagunnenons (a race of shapeshifting and warlike creatures who have a score to settle) are replaced by Disaster Area in every other version of the story (owing to John Lloyd having created them). Although I love Disaster Area (I have Disaster Area ribbons which I give out at conventions!) I do think it’s a shame that the Hagunnenons appear nowhere else except for those two episodes.
The thing I miss most about the radio series is the Secondary Phase. This story diverges massively from every other version of Hitchhiker’s, taking Arthur Dent to Brontitall, a planet only mentioned in this version of the story. I won’t spoil what happens there, but suffice to say that the jokes I laugh at hardest are all in the Secondary Phase. It’s by far my favourite part of Hitchhiker’s, and the subtle references to it in the movie3 are one of the few redeeming features of that work.
The later radio series aren’t quite as good as the first two. This isn’t to say that they aren’t excellent, because they are, and I hugely enjoy hearing the books brought to life: but they aren’t written by Douglas Adams, which is a really high bar for anyone to clear. I did enjoy all four of the later series, though, and I was so excited to listen to the first episode of the Tertiary Phase, live on BBC Radio 4 all those years later, that I got tingles up and down my spine. Since I first listened to it I have become a much larger aficionado of Test Match Special, so relistening to it and hearing Fred Trueman and Henry Blofeld as the cricket commentators always makes me smile. In later series, the actress who plays Fenchurch in the Quandary Phase is so perfect that I love to listen to those episodes, and the conclusion of the Hexagonal Phase is a perfect ending to the series which makes that series worth listening to on its own.
In short, go and listen to the radio series. You can buy it at most reputable retailers (and quite probably some of the retailers that Ford Prefect would frequent), and it’s a very good investment of your time. It will also mean that you won’t get confused when you go and see The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Radio Show Live!.
I recently spoke at a conference, and someone read my T-shirt and asked, “What’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Radio Show Live!?” I explained that it was a live version of the radio show of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and this did not appear to clear his confusion, so I explained in more detail. It doesn’t sound like a live version of a radio show, with barely any props and people reading from scripts, should be any good: but there’s a magic to seeing it performed live which is difficult to beat. I saw the live performance at the book launch of And Another Thing… from which the eventual tour was born, and also saw the tour itself when they came to Leicester. It was well worth seeing twice, and if they ever resurrect it, I’d highly recommend going. But I’d also highly recommend listening to the originals first: I suspect the show makes a bit more sense that way.
- “What’s so unpleasant about being drunk?” “You ask a glass of water.” ↩
- The name of the first series of the show, which went from the Primary Phase to the Hexagonal Phase (based on And Another Thing… by Eoin Colfer). Speaking of jokes I didn’t get until years later, who knew what a hexagonal phase was? ↩
- We don’t talk about the movie. ↩