The late and much missed Douglas Adams threw some spectacular parties, triggering complaints about noise from sentient beings all over the Milky Way.
Now family, friends and fans of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy are marking what would have been his 60th birthday this Sunday with another bash, this time at the Hammersmith Apollo in London, which will celebrate the author’s diverse talents and passionate interests via sketches, music, tributes and a rhino raffle.
Assuming the venue is not demolished by evil Vogons for a hyperspace bypass in the meantime, Terry Jones, Clive Anderson, Professor Brian Cox, zoologist Mark Carwardine, Stephen Fry (by videolink from New Zealand) and Stephen Mangan (Dirk Gently in the BBC4 series) will be among those discussing Adams’s unique takes on the environment, comedy, music and, in the case of co-writer John Lloyd, the Meaning of Liff.
Save the Rhino will feature strongly; Adams was the charity’s patron. Sketches dating back to 1974 will be fished out, and the “Partially Plugged” sessions of distinguished musicians who played at his parties will be recreated on stage.
As Adams’s 42nd birthday present, David Gilmour invited him to play guitar with Pink Floyd at Earls Court. Subsequently Adams’s younger half-brother, James Thrift, heard a rumour that a film existed of this one-off moment from rock history. “I found it a month ago,” he rejoices. The clip will get its first public screening.
Sunday’s party is Thrift’s brainchild. “After Douglas died [in 2001, aged 49], my sister Jane and I set up, for Save the Rhino, the Douglas Adams memorial lecture every year on his birthday. Always at the back of my mind was the idea that we were going to get a big venue with music and comedy and gather all his friends together.”
“It will be a bit like an end-of-term concert,” says Dirk Maggs, one of the event’s organisers. Maggs was a producer of the Radio 4 Hitchhiker series which gave birth to the novels, TV adaptation, computer game and film.
He is also director and scriptwriter of the Hitchhiker tour which takes to the road in June with cast members from the radio version. For six weeks this team will breath new life – or liff – into those familiar themes: the unknown question to which the answer is “42″; the infinite improbability drive that powers spaceships; the command “don’t panic”; and the life-saving properties of a towel when in trouble in deep space.
“Douglas found the world a fascinating place,” Maggs says, attempting to explain what it is that makes Adams’s work such an astronomical success, 34 years after the first broadcast of Hitchhiker in 1978. “He had a sense of discovery. We live in such a fascinating world and we are slowly killing it off. The rhino is an example, a wonderful yet so vulnerable mammal.”
Adams was not so hot on deadlines: he famously loved the “whooshing sound” they made as they passed him by, without his having written much on his extensive collection of computers. Years after receiving a publisher’s advance for Starship Titanic, he delegated the entire book to Terry Jones, who wrote it from Adams’s 16-page synopsis.
“He’s not famed for his characterisation – there’s no character arc,” says Jones. “It’s about ideas. He had a totally different take. Maybe it comes from being very large? [Adams was 6ft 5in] He’s the only novelist who can make ideas into page-turners and make philosophy funny. For example, he says every civilisation goes through three phases: survival (‘how can we eat?’), inquiry (‘why do we eat?’) and sophistication (‘where shall we have lunch?’).”
So will Adams be at the Apollo party in spirit? “He belonged to a strict order of atheists,” Maggs points out, “but it’s amazing how many references there are to the afterlife or ‘aprés vie’. There is an awful lot of escaping from death.”
God features, too: the Babel fish (an in-ear instant translation device) is used both to disprove and prove the existence of the deity. But if, after the candles are blown out, the partygoers sense a tall, ghostly figure astride a rhino materialising on stage, they shouldn’t panic, just check their improbability drives.
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