As well as being a best-selling author, scriptwriter and the mind behind The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams is celebrated for such killer quotes as “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”
Indeed, Adams, who died in 2001, was happy to lay open his own creative struggles, and even make a joke of them. His work has spawned radio, TV, theatre and film adaptations, and four major biographies. Now, Adams’ life, and those pesky deadline issues, have inspired a new stage play, We Apologise for the Inconvenience, by writer Mark Griffiths. Speaking to Northern Soul, Griffiths reveals that audiences for the play can expect “pain, misery, fear, loneliness and a man arguing with a duck”.
Characters created by Adams include Arthur Dent, Zaphod Beeblebrox, Marvin the Paranoid Android and Dirk Gently, but here he becomes a character in his own right. Griffiths says: “He’s one of those writers around whom legends have accumulated, often legends he himself put about. It’s well known that he had terrible problems with meeting deadlines and that his books were sometimes written in very unhappy personal circumstances. Looking at that from the outside, you immediately see a possibility for drama there.”
But there’s the issue of whether Adams as a character will do what Griffiths as the writer wants him to. “Much of the play is about the things Adams did to distract himself from having to write. I didn’t feel I had to coerce the character into doing what the story demanded, as it were – ironically, something Adams had a problem with when constructing his own plots – because the story is very much about someone trying to escape an uncomfortable situation, which is a natural way to behave, and within certain, fairly enormous, factual liberties I take in the play, more or less what happened in real life.”
The events in question are the circumstances in which Adams wrote the fourth Hitch-Hiker novel, So Long and Thanks for All the Fish, during the summer of 1984. Having been paid an eye-wateringly large advance, Adams struggled to apply himself to the task in hand and instead occupied himself with almost anything except writing. Eventually, as one deadline after another whooshed by, with the cover designed and the book itself barely started, Pan’s editorial director Sonny Mehta took drastic action. He booked himself and his author into a suite in the five-star Berkeley Hotel in Knightsbridge and locked the door for a fortnight until the manuscript was finished (as for the factual liberties that Griffiths mentions, it’s well documented that Adams liked to take refuge in a long, hot bath when the pressure was on, but there’s no known evidence that his rubber duck began to converse with him).
This celebrated incident is detailed in the 2003 Adams biography Wish You Were Here by Nick Webb, in which Webb equates it, light-heartedly, to a ‘kidnapping’ and remarks that ‘at times it much have been like a dodgy hostage situation’. In a footnote, Webb even suggests ‘would make a two-hander play?’
Griffiths says: “I read that and thought ‘I’m a huge Douglas Adams fan, I write plays – if anybody’s actually going to write this thing it has to be me’. There’s an appealing mixture of comedy and desperation there. It’s like Stephen King’s Misery with laughs. And it’s the perfect vehicle to look at Adams’ whole life and interests.”
It has to be said that Adams had a highly distinctive writing style, and anyone who attempts to imitate his voice risks falling flat on their face. Here, Griffiths is literally putting words into Adams’ mouth, which must have been a cause for concern.
“Getting things right is always a worry, but I did relish the opportunity to offer my own impression of his voice. I don’t think anybody else has really captured it. People remember the funny multi-syllabic alien names, but they always miss the loneliness and alienation in Hitch-Hiker. Without that, you’re just left with shallow whimsy. You need real pain and loss for the cosmic absurdities to be effective. I was very pleased when [Adams biographer] Jem Roberts complimented an early draft of my script for its fidelity to Adams’ voice.”
Griffiths himself has had a rich and varied career. By his late teens he was already contributing material to BBC comedy shows such as Alas Smith and Jones. In fact, he was inspired in this by reading about Adams’ own early dabbling as a scriptwriter, although in the event their paths didn’t cross. “We never met, sadly, although I was very happy that the first bit of professional comedy writing I ever sold – a joke to the old Radio 4 series Week Ending when I was 17 – was performed by David Tate, famous – to me, at least – for playing Eddie the Computer in Hitch-Hiker.”
More recently, Griffiths has balanced occasional theatre pieces with fiction work for younger readers.
“I mainly write children’s books these days. Currently, I’m working on a series for Bloomsbury called Spy Toys, which I write under the name Mark Powers. But I’ve always liked to write plays as a bit of a side line, usually one-act studio pieces that can be produced easily. It allows me to delve into deeper and darker areas than I would usually in children’s fiction. It’s really nice to have that alternative outlet and I love the fun and teamwork of putting on a show.”
Directed by Emma Bird, We Apologise for the Inconvenience – the title, incidentally, borrowed from So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish itself, where it’s revealed as God’s Final Message to His Creation – stars Pete Gibson as Adams and Rachel Howard as the duck. In writing the play, Griffiths has had the curious challenge of forging an entertaining, engaging piece of drama out of personal inertia and stasis.
“It’s remarkable how creative you can get when you have writing to do and are looking for distractions,” he says. “There is of course a grand theatrical tradition of Not Very Much Happening on Stage starting with Waiting for Godot, and that’s a bit of an influence on this piece. Two lonely people bickering absurdly. That’s life, innit?”
We Apologise for the Inconvenience launches in Liverpool on November 21 and 22, and Manchester on November 25, 2017. For full details and tickets, click here.