It’s a Melvyn Bragg Double Header, as the next tape out of the box again starts with The South Bank Show. This time, Douglas Adams.
I worked with Douglas Adams at his ‘multiple media’ company The Digital Village in the late nineties. Before that, I was also a huge fan, although to be honest it’s unusual to find anyone of my age and technical inclinations who wasn’t, so pretty much all the developers at TDV were fans.
They say you should never meet your heroes, but I’ve found that does’t count if you choose your heroes well. Douglas was lovely. And working for him was an interesting experience. I’m primarily a Microsoft-based developer (I’d been hired because I knew how to build data-driven websites, which they needed for what would become h2g2) and Douglas, of course, was very much entrenched on the Apple side of the OS Wars. So I always felt slightly like I was on the enemy side. We did look at some Mac products in the beginning, but after a couple of bad experiences (losing a whole day’s work when the stuff crashed) we eventually went down a more Microsoft-flavoured route.
This documentary was made in 1992, around the publication of the fifth Hitchhiker’s book, Mostly Harmless. I’m not a big fan of the dramatic reconstructions the SBS tend to do for authors. They can only ever come across as cheap and cheerful. However, in this one, at least we get the pleasure of seeing long-time friend and collaborator of Douglas’, Michael Bywater, playing Dirk Gently, a character which Douglas has said was based in a large part on Michael himself.
However, this programme suffers from the fatal flaw that pretty much all programmes about Douglas lapse into – writing narration ‘in Douglas’ style’. The way Douglas wrote seemed so simple and effortless to the reader (despite all the stories about how hard he found the process himself) that we all imagine it’s easy to sound like Douglas when we write. This was a problem we suffered from in the early days of h2g2 because everyone imagined they had to write ‘like Douglas’. This show is no different, and it clunks loudly when, early on, it segues from actual Douglas prose, about the electric monk from Dirk Gently, into an original intro involving Douglas himself.
“Even more surprisingly, the monk believed that Douglas Adams was working feverishly on a new book”
The conceit of having characters from his work wandering about in the background of the documentary is occasionally funny, but to be honest, I’d much rather see this time spent on interviews. When Melvyn asks him about his well-documented propensity for missing deadlines he replies:
“That story has assumed the proportions of an apocryphal story, and I have to remind people that it is actually true.”
Having criticised the faux Douglas narration, I do have to admit that Marvin’s monologue is quite funny.
“Oh the usual thing. I went to Cambridge, that was very interesting, I joined footlights, that was very interesting, I left Cambridge, that was very interesting. They all lead exactly the same lives and say exactly the same things about it and then claim, against all the available evidence, that it’s very interesting.”
The BBC Micro geek inside me is amused that, when refused permission to film inside St John’s College (or rather, when the production team balk at the £200 per hour fee they would be charged) he apologises for this fact while sitting in the Baron of Beef pub, also the infamous setting for the time when Clive Sinclair and Chris Curry of Acorn got into a fistfight over the awarding of the contract for the BBC Micro.
The footage from the original Hitchhiker’s radio show rehearsals and recordings is always good to see, it’s a shame they had to crop them down to fit them in to a ‘hyperland’ style computer interface.
What does make this profile interesting is that Douglas hasn’t actually finished writing the book when the interview takes place, although it’s supposed to be finished and well on its way to publication,
There’s no writer credit for the show. I wonder if Michael Bywater had a hand in the linking sections.
Following the South Bank Show, there’s an episode of Wogan interviewing Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. This interview also includes a roundup of exercise videos, including one by Angela Lansbury. “Money for Old rope” as Hugh Laurie says.
Recording switches after this to a trailer for Acceptable Risks.
Then we have something that it’s hard to believe ever happened.
BBC2 got Jerry Sadowitz to make a TV series. 10 O’Clock on weekdays. If you know anything about Sadowitz’s stage act, you’d know why this is quite a feat to pull off. And how successful it was probably depends on what you think of Sadowitz in the first place. I’ve never been a big fan, so I can’t say if this worked well as a reflection of his usual work, but at least it had a lot of energy.
It’s called The Pall Bearer’s Revue, and you can find the odd episode on YouTube. One surprising thing that comes out of it is that Sadowitz is actually pretty good at playing other characters. It’s not something he does much elsewhere (I presume people are too afraid to ask him) but here he does a lot of different characters, and makes a good job of it.
This was the last episode in the series. It even featured an early appearances by Alastair McGowan, Nick Hancock and even Ben Miller as one of Sadowitz’s acolytes.
BBC Genome: BBC Two – 3rd February 1992 – 22:00
Following this, there’s a trailer for The Late Show, then Newsnight. Amusingly, the top story is whether the Scottish Secretary’s attempts to preserve the Union are causing electoral disaster in Scotland.
Halfway through Newsnight, that recording stops, and underneath is a previous recording, once again of The Pall Bearer’s Revue. This implies I didn’t like the programme enough to want to keep them, and taped over ones I’d already recorded. That’s not like me, so I feel slightly guilty about it.
BBC Genome: BBC Two – 13th January 1992 – 22:00
There’s only a small part of this episode left, but afterwards, there’s another whole episode, with yet another appearance by Ben Miller.
“Who’s your favourite comedian.” “Ben Elton”
BBC Genome: BBC Two – 20th January 1992 – 22:00
Following this episode, recording switches, to the end of an Arena special on Desert Island Discs. Then, a trailer for another Arena, where artist Peter Blake wants to paint the wrestler Kendo Nagasaki.
Then we have an advert for TV Licensing, performed by the cast of Birds of a Feather. It’s as hilarious and heartwarming as a typical episode of the sitcom.
Then, there’s another episode of The Pall Bearer’s Revue. This one features a guest appearance from Arnold Brown.
BBC Genome: BBC Two – 27th January 1992 – 22:00
This is followed by a trailer for A Bit of Fry and Laurie, and another for Victoria Wood. Then a trail for The Late Show talking about who really killed JFK, in the wake of Oliver Stone’s film.
Then, Newsnight, leading on the brand new Citizen’s Charter from John Major.
The recording finishes about 8 minutes in to Newsnight.