The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Radio Show... Live! beams down to Sunderland this month. Kevin Clark speaks to lead man Simon Jones
Speaking down the line from New York, Simon Jones is remarkably relaxed for a man who has spent more than three decades in his dressing gown.
Simon first played Arthur Dent, the man who is rescued from the Earth seconds before it is demolished and tours the universe still in his pyjamas, in the radio production in 1978.
Everyone involved in that original Radio 4 run had been amazed at the show’s popularity – and none more so than author Douglas Adams.
“We thought we might get a series if we could just get past the pilot,” says Simon.
“Douglas certainly did not imagine it would turn out to be something that would transform his life.”
Hitchhiker has become a series of best-selling novels, a TV series and even a Hollywood movie, but is still attracting converts in its original form.
“People do keep discovering it, they discover the radio version.”
The current production, which kicks off in London next week, follows a shorter live tour last year, during which the cast were touched to discover how much Hitchhiker means to fans new and old.
“People would come up to us and say ‘You’ve been part of our lives,’ which is nice, or ‘My grandfather introduced me to it’ – that one’s a bit more painful, I have to say.”
Simon believes the series’ timeless quality is down to the fact Adams never patronised his audience.
“It is not only funny, but it is clever,” he says. “It works on a series of different levels.
“Douglas had the gift of being able to come up with really bizarre ideas and juxtapose them – I mean, obviously there’s a planet somewhere that all the Biros disappear to and that’s why you can never find them.”
Hitchhiker originally ran for two series, from 1978 to 1980, and Adams subsequently expanded the adventures of Arthur, Ford Prefect, Zaphod Beeblebrox and others in a series of five novels.
The show returned to the airwaves in 2004, after producer Dirk Maggs adapted the later novels, and ran for a further three series.
In 2008, Artemis Fowl author Eoin Colfer produced the sixth instalment of the saga with the support of Jane Belson, Douglas Adams’ widow, and the original cast found themselves briefly brought back together.
“We had never done it live before 2009,” recalls Simon.
“When Penguin Books wanted to launch the Eoin Colfer book, one of the festivities was to reunite the cast.”
The reaction to the first ever live production of Hitchhiker was a revelation.
“We were amazed ourselves. People wanted more,” said Simon. “All their favourite lines were cheered.”
The show’s fervent fanbase had turned out in style.
“People had come from all over Europe, wearing their dressing gowns and waving their towels,” says Simon. “We thought, ‘there’s something we should take up here.’”
Taking the show on the road showed the actors how much their work had meant to people.
“There was one guy who came up to us and said ‘I have been to five continents and sometimes, when I feel low, I can put The Hitchhiker’s Guide on and it reminds me of home.’
“We also had an email from a man who was brought up in Belfast during the troubles and said ‘For a geeky kid like me, Hitchhiker’s Guide was the bright light through the tough times in which he found himself.’
“I’m looking forward to going to Belfast.”
So how does performing the material for an audience differ from the days of studio recording?
“I think it expands when you do it live. When you do it in the studio, you do it in bits, a bit like a film, then it’s taken away to be treated electronically and you have no idea how it’s going to sound until you hear it yourself.
“Now we have lights and sound effects going on before your very eyes.”
Of course, performing such a well-loved text requires a certain amount of faithfulness, but Simon is happy to give the fans what they want.
“The inflections are pretty much the same,” he says. “What we did all those years ago doesn’t strike me as too bad – I can actually hear myself saying the lines.
“People always want their favourites and we try to give them a mix – the first half is pretty much all the first series-and-a-half and then the second half riffs a bit more.
“It works even for people who don’t know the story at all. We still get people who don’t know anything about it.”
Audiences can also get a very special memento of their performance.
“You can actually download your particular production 10 days later,” says Simon.
“If there’s a particularly funny ad-lib on the night you’re there, you can keep it forever.”
Also returning from the original cast are Geoffrey McGivern as Ford Prefect and Susan Sheridan as Trillian, while Stephen Moore again provides the voice of Marvin the Paranoid Android.
One voice will be conspicuous by its absence, however, with Mark Wing-Davey unavailable to recreate his role as Zaphod due to his duties as Professor of Graduate Studies at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.
“That’s why our tour was at such an odd time last year,” says Simon, “to fit in with his summer break in June and July. He’s working this time.”
In keeping with the show’s Radio Four roots, the role of the two-headed, three-armed fugitive President of the Galaxy will be taken by a familiar voice from The Now Show. “Mitch Benn has stepped into the breach, which is rather nice,” explained Simon.
“Everyone else who was on the tour is back because we all had such a great time.”
Mitch Benn is not the only new voice this time around, with a host of celebrities filling Peter Jones’ role in the original series as the Voice of the Book, including Miriam Margolyes when the tour reaches Sunderland, which Simon is particularly pleased about.
“Miriam is an old friend of mine,” he said.
“We’ve got Hugh Dennis, Clive Anderson, John Lloyd and Neil Gaiman, who was very good in Edinburgh last year.
“We have even got Dame Harriet Walter somewhere or other.
“It’s going to be great fun and that will make it different for us.”
The science fiction connection is out in force this time around, too, with Red Dwarf’s Danny John Jules, Anthony “C3PO” Daniels and sixth Doctor Who Colin Baker all taking a turn in the chair.
“I just hope we can keep it going,” says Simon.
“Sixty shows, 50 venues, 12 weeks. The most strenuous trip is from Scarborough down to Dorking in one day – that’s a bit of a trek.
“It’s the crew I feel sorry for – they have to take the set down, put it in the van, take it to the next venue, put it back up so we can do our stuff, then take it down....”
* The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Radio Show... Live! is at Sunderland Empire on September 25 and 26.
Tickets, priced £19-£25 can be purchased in person from the Box Office on High Street West, Sunderland, the Ticket Centre on Tel.0844 871 3022 and online at www.ATGtickets.com/Sunderland.