Douglas Adams and Nigel Kneale

Douglas Adams and Nigel Kneale

Over the weekend I managed to get along to two separate, and largely unconnected events – except that both were based around writers who found prominence in science fiction. And one is much funnier than the other.

42: The Wildly Improbable Ideas of Douglas Adams

Unbound has just published this new book beautifully edited by Kevin Jon Davies, who in a past life was an animator on the Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy TV series. Essentially Davies was given access to the Douglas Adams archive at St John’s College Cambridge, where he had been an undergraduate.

I should note here that I was an Unbound backer of this campaign, since of course I’m a massive fan of his work. It does seem that Adams collected and kept vast amounts of his papers throughout his life, with notebooks, scripts, jottings and much more. Davies has pulled this together, and tried to capture much of the most interesting work in this massive tome.

The book, we were told, had hit number one in the Sunday Times Non-Fiction Bestsellers list (handily utilising the fact that all the pre-ordered books made via the Unbound system could be counted as first-week sales), and everyone was in joyous mood.

The event at The British Library was hosted by Clive Anderson who had known Adams at Cambridge. To be clear, Adams was very much part of the Footlights crowd, which featured a host of names many of which are familiar today. He busily worked on scripts for “Smokers” – essentially variety reviews with multiple three-minute sketches. Some of these are reproduced in the book alongside programmes for the events.

Anderson was a fantastic host as you might expect, and his conversation not only with Davies but with Sue Limb who knew him in Cambridge, Robbie Stamp who was his partner at The Digital Village later in his life, and his former PA Sophie Astin were all very enlightening.

Adams died aged 49, which is no age at all, and it could have been quite a sombre note, but this evening was much more about other things. Yes, he was always fighting to somehow get a Hitchhikers’ film made, something that did happen years later, but it’s fascinating to think what he’d had made of things like Chat-GPT given the kinds of things he was trying to do in software in that period.

Anyway, I love the book, and it’s well worth picking up as it’s a real labour of love.

The 70th Anniversary Quatermass Experiment: Live from Alexandra Palace

Between July and August 1953, the BBC broadcast a six part science fiction TV series – The Quatermass Experiment – broadcasting it live (as most television then was) from their studios in Alexandra Palace, sitting high over North London.

This weekend, we were treated to a live script-reading of those six episodes (only two of which still survive in any kind of video form), performed by actors in the Alexandra Palace Theatre, most recently the home of Later… Jools Holland. Whilst this isn’t precisely the part of Ally Pally that the TV series was broadcast from, we were sitting only a few metres away.

The format of the reading saw a large cast sitting in chairs, each carrying an annotated script, with a series of microphones lined up at the front of the stage. Actors stepped forward to read their lines in each scene, while an announcer read script notes, and location information. Some of those notes, which would have never found their way into public consciousness, were very funny.

Mark Gatiss starred as Professor Quatermass, the head of the British Experimental Rocket Group who, as we find things, has successfully launched a rocket with three astronauts into space. But they’ve lost contact with the group, which especially concerns Judith Carroon (Alice Lowe) who is married to Victor, one of the astronauts.

Toby Hadoke played Fullalove a somewhat pompous news columnist who can sniff out a good story when he sees one, while James Swanton plays Carroon, who has relatively little to say, but perhaps “performs” more than many here.

Other notable characters include Kevin McNally as Detective Inspector Lomax and Charlie de Melo as Dr Gordon Briscoe. There were also great turns from Tom Bell and Alan Cox (particularly in his park keeper guise).

There was some good sound design including lots of the original music, and appropriate sound effects. The whole piece had the feel of an old radio series as much as anything. The setting of the Alexandra Palace Theatre was perfect – the venue has been kept in a state of arrested decay which gives you a real sense of being in another time.

The original series was of course written by Nigel Kneale and Rudolph Cartier would direct it. The pair would also make a fantastic version of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four a year later, a production that was finally made available to buy by the BFI last year in a fabulous Blu Ray.

Interestingly, at a centenary event celebrating Kneale held last year in Crouch End, one of his radio plays, You Must Listen had a live read-through, which also starred Mark Gatiss. Just the other week, BBC Radio announced that as part of a celebration of 100 years of audio drama at the BBC, they were re-recording the play (the original having been lost) with a starry cast including Toby Jones, Reece Shearsmith and Caroline Catz. It’s airing on 20th September at 2pm.

The only unfortunate thing was the timing of everything. I suspect that the original 30 minute scripts were long to begin with and while a sign suggested that the event would last 2 hours 50 minutes with an interval, it was just over 4 hours by the curtain call. Hdoke did alert us to this possibility at the start when he noted the read-through had taken significantly longer than planned. Indeed, I was nervous that the production might break the venue’s curfew, and they’d be forced to end it early. Some audience members did indeed have to leave early to make trains/free-up babysitters etc.

When we did finally leave, a dance music event held in another part of Ally Pally had already wrapped up!

All in all, a very enjoyable evening, and I look forward to Hadoke’s forthcoming first volume of The Quatermass Files which is promised for release in December this year.