❉ Griffiths makes a convincing case that this long, dark weekend of the soul is a crucial point in Adams’s career, writes Jon Arnold.
“The great service We Apologise for the Inconvenience performs is to dive below the surface of Adams’s seemingly effortless brilliance and explore the actual hard work that went into it: the frantic paddling beneath the duck’s serene bobbing.”
The problem with a play about Douglas Adams is that there are so few moments of crisis that can be dramatised: there are no deep, dark family affairs to be aired, nor life-changing crisis points that clearly lend themselves to adaptation from fact to compelling fiction. He might well be the most well-adjusted cultural figure of the late twentieth century. On the other hand, Adams remains one of the most fascinating British authors of the last half century or so, with a flair for both absurdity and the joyful ridiculousness of the English language. What his story lacks in drama, it picks up in a compelling and articulate central character.
We Apologise for the Inconvenience’s most important decision is therefore to emphasise character over plot. Inspired by an aside in Nick Webb’s Adams biography Wish You Were Here, it’s set at the closest thing to a crisis Adams experienced in his career: the famous incident where he was so late delivering the fourth Hitchhikers novel that his agent had him locked in a hotel room until he finished it. Stories of writers finding inspiration to beat writer’s block are not uncommon, and rarely interesting as anything bar navel gazing and burnishing the myth of the tortured artist, but Mark Griffiths cleverly finds a way around this. There’s nothing so banal as a woman or the memory of a failed romance. No, in this case it’s an apparently sentient rubber duck with a New York accent and, briefly, PG Wodehouse and John Cleese. Between epic baths, Jeeves and Python it’s a fair summary of his inspirations.
It’s this acuity of insight that marks the play out. While Griffiths is clearly a fan, he’s not uncritical – Adams’s infamous and oft-quoted one liner about the whooshing noise deadlines make as they go by is sharply undercut by reminders that such lack of action has consequences for other people. That’s not to say that the play isn’t sympathetic to its subject: it’s insightful as to what might have powered Adams’s apparent indolence, picking at the insecurities and flaws that might have led to this point. Anyone who’s ever put pen to paper or finger to keyboard will sympathise with the description of writing as a long, slow job involving sitting at your typewriter and thinking. Similarly, there’s the acute self-doubt of whether this has been done before and better by people you admire or draw inspiration from.
Griffiths makes a convincing case that this long, dark weekend of the soul is a crucial point in Adams’s career – before this he’s essentially been able to recycle the inspirational ideas of his early twenties (the first two Hitchhikers books essentially adapt the radio series and the third an unmade Doctor Who script). The books which followed – perhaps less obviously funny, but often more interesting – see Adams stretching his muscles. Where a reread of the first two Hitchhikers books essentially show you observational stand-up routines about late 70s society disguised as science-fiction, with the exception of the first Dirk Gently recycling bits of another Doctor Who script, Adams moved on to other, less solipsistic concerns in the latter part of his career. These later books always retain his sardonic tone, but after dealing with love (a topic his tone of bemused irony is well suited for) the consequences of man’s actions for the environment bring an underlying anger to his later works, particularly his masterpiece Last Chance to See and the final Hitchhikers book Mostly Harmless.
What’s also impressive is how well the play recreates Adams’s voice. Quotes of his have become so familiar that dropping in lines about tea, digital watches, never getting the hang of Thursdays or slices of lemons wrapped around a large gold brick can suffice as a shorthand for impersonation. Griffiths, to his credit, never resorts to that but instead brings in appropriate ideas and references such as the ideas spider Hairy Bob, Paul McCartney, a fleeting Kafka reference, the stereotypes of East and West coast Americans being a complete misperception and how pop culture dedicated to the future somehow attracts a conservative breed of fan. Perhaps some of us simply prefer the visions of the future we were sold when young.
Adams’s version of science-fiction now looks as distinctively and stereotypically English as Wodehouse, Downton Abbey or a Richard Curtis film while never quite being as cosy as any of them: a science-fiction where the universe is almost impeccably English (though not British) in outlook. The great service We Apologise for the Inconvenience performs is to dive below the surface of Adams’s seemingly effortless brilliance and explore the actual hard work that went into it: the frantic paddling beneath the duck’s serene bobbing. It encourages you to go back to all the familiar works, the ones whose quotes come as easily as breathing or whose words you’ve practically worn off the page through rereading, with fresh eyes.
Any work of art of a biographical nature involves a degree of guesswork and interpolation of thoughts, and is therefore naturally unreliable evidence but the great triumph here is that it serves as a reminder of how vital such a fiercely intelligent and askew perspective as Adams’s was, and how much it’s missed.
❉ “We Apologise for the Inconvenience (An Infinitely Improbable Play About Douglas Adams)” by Mark Griffiths is now available to download on Amazon, iTunes and other online music retailers. Written by Mark Griffiths and produced by Room 5064 Productions. Actor Rob Hudson plays the Duck, while Adam Gardiner takes on the role of author Douglas Adams.
❉ Image credits: Artwork © Andrew Orton.
❉ A regular contributor to We Are Cult, Jon Arnold is the author of three volumes of the Black Archive series and the forthcoming Silver Archive ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Surprise/Innocence’. He is also currently working on ‘Seasons of War: Corsair’.