Dirk Maggs is best known for his award winning audio production work. His credits include the later Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy radio dramas, the audio version of the classic Batman story Knightfall and the recent adaption of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere for the BBC and AudioGo. Starburst caught up with him to talk about his work.
What challenges did you face when you were adapting the original Hitchhiker’s radio shows?
When I was asked to do it, it was so out of the blue. When we were writing the script, Douglas wanted to start at the beginning of the third book, and the second radio series ended in a different place to where it does in the books. I asked Douglas if he thought that would confuse the fans and he said “Blow the fans”.
Originally I wasn’t adapting it, it was some other chap and that version had a pet talking dinosaur. I had biked over to Douglas in Islington and round about lunch time you could hear the explosion across London. The phone rang and I had to come straight round. I went round to the house and Jane let me in, and he was typing furiously on his little Apple laptop and reworking the entire thing, because he wanted to stick fairly closely to the book. When it came to the Tertiary Phase I knew what he wanted the radio play to be like. Even though he wasn’t around when they finally produced it; the project was stalled due to contractual issues and by the time they were resolved Douglas had died and I was on my own. I took very few chances on the adaption. It was kind of a safe option and I find the third series slightly slow moving as a result, because I’m trying hard not to upset Douglas in some way.
We did talk about the fourth and fifth series and he thought they only needed four episodes each because they were shorter books, which steered me in the right way. It also felt that because we hadn’t discussed them so much in detail, maybe we could square the circle with a few plot problems between series two and three on radio. Really, Hitchhiker’s does resolve around the details because that’s what the fans are really in to.
Do you still get a lot of feedback from fans regarding the continuity in Hitchhiker’s?
Not so much. Douglas was very clear that he didn’t want to worry about that, though when it came to the third and fourth series I was getting narked, because I kept thinking, “If Douglas was here he’d find a solution”, and I was sure it would be something to do with the Improbability Field. To paraphrase Sherlock Holmes; “Any explanation, including the most Improbable would surely then explain how such and such has occurred”. That gets really fun when you add in parallel realities, especially as Mostly Harmless takes place on different levels of probability. I tried to use Douglas’s toolkit and it seems that people accepted it. I wanted to give Hitchhiker’s an ending that made sense.
What did you bring from the radio dramas to the stage production?
It was sort of my chance to go back to books one and two, which I had no involvement with. The purpose of the stage production was to give people an opportunity to see the cast do the show. When we were recording a Vogon Cruiser scene, it was so funny we doubled up with laughter and Simon joked that we should sell tickets to the recordings, and I thought actually that’s not a daft idea. About three years later it was the 30th anniversary of the first broadcast of Hitchhiker’s and at the memorial lecture Douglas’s brother James asked me if we could do something for it. So we got the original cast together and performed the second episode from the first series for the Royal Geographical Society, and it worked very well. The audience sat very still and didn’t laugh a lot, and I worried about that. Then about three months later I was asked to do it again for the anniversary of the book launch, and I used that to do a dry run of a stage version. I tried to do a Reader’s Digest version, and worked out how much you can cram in in an hour and a half. It became pretty obvious that we had to squeeze all of the first series in. Because the Hitchhiker’s universe exists on so many levels of probability it is entirely likely that Arthur Dent has actually travelled this way before and had almost the exact same things happen to him but due to eddies in the space/time continuum he’s actually gone a bit early and has to start again, so that lets it be a trip through the best bits. This means the first act ends up being the first series, but we can change it in the second act, which means this year’s act will be different from last years.
Is there a particular aspect of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that your prefer?
The radio plays, obviously. Polly Adams (Douglas’s daughter) who appears briefly in the movie as a teenager, and she recently saw the movie for the first time and she told me that she thought the stage show caught the spirit of the books better. That’s not me trying to puff the stage show, but I do think it makes the point that the stage show gets back to what it’s all about, which is ideas. The rules of literature don’t always apply to Douglas’s work, but the ideas are like fireworks going off.
Douglas’s mum came to see the stageplay and she said that when Douglas used to run downstairs and read out what he thought was a funny bit I didn’t really get it and that she used to fall asleep to the radio show, so she wasn’t sure if she’d enjoy it. When she got to the show, she saw all these people in dressing gowns and towels and said it looked like a cult, so she wasn’t sure about any of it. I reassured her, and Jan, Douglas’s sister was looking after her. I got three texts from Jan; “Mum says Douglas would have loved this”, “Mum laughing”, “Mum standing up, clapping and cheering.” She was over the moon because it was the first time she’d realised how funny it was.
The family are very behind the movie because that’s what Douglas wanted made. I’m not a huge fan of the film, though it was done very well; there are some moments of genius in it and the design looks fantastic. What it goes to prove is that there are things that you cannot capture in film; film is a very literal medium. You have to switch your mind off and let it roll over you. Audio is a completely different matter; it engages actively with the brain, you’re part of the process and you capture nuances that movies can’t give you.
What projects are you currently working on with AudioGo?
We are hoping that we can organise a release of Neverwhere. We’re talking about projects that will involve material from Douglas, and that’s all I can say for now. I’ve got a webisode movie thing going on at the moment that lines up into one big movie, which I’m quite excited about. It’s comedy sci-fi, and I’m working on it with Dave Gibbons. Hopefully in about a year I can talk about it.
How does working on Neverwhere compare to Hitchhiker’s? What was the big difference with Neverwhere?
The difference was that the author is still alive and I can ring him up. Douglas I sort of had to summon up out of thin air. It was also good because Neil could back me up when I made changes. Interestingly, we were both mentored by Douglas, because he met Neil when he was a journalist on NME, and Douglas plucked me from the obscurity of doing comedy on the BBC. The digital technology has also made things a lot easier.
Is there a particular world, franchise or creator that you’d leap at the chance to work with?
Yeah, I’d love to do Joss Whedon’s Firefly, from the graphic novels. With the original cast, obviously. I think it would work just as well in sound as it did in pictures.
If you were stranded on a desert island, what book would you have?
Oh my god, that’s a hard one. Probably Robert Graves’ The Greek Myths, so I can catch up on the classics, after all, that’s where all the superheroes come from.
What inspires you?
Music. Every time, music. I am a drummer, it’s an immediate connection with your emotions. And the Goon Show, because of Spike’s inventive genius.
The Simpsons or Futurama?
Arthur Dent or The Doctor?
Arthur Dent. I wouldn’t know where I was with The Doctor, he’s been around for too long.
Batman versus Superman?
Oh that’s hard. I think it’d be a draw.
Truth or Beauty?
Truth, every time.
Dirk’s extensive discography of audio work is available via the AudioGo website.
Photo credit: Neil Goridge