❉ We review the script book of Mark Griffiths’ acclaimed play about Douglas Adams…
“We Apologise For The Inconvenience turns crisis into comedy by getting under the skin and into the mindset of a man with a singular brain, whose achievements are as towering as his six foot five frame was, but was… just zis guy, y’know?”
It’s almost twenty whole Earth years since Douglas Adams went to the great gig in the sky, leaving behind not a writing legacy as creator of the Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy in all its constituent parts, but also a much-storied trail of anecdotes about his double-edged relationship with said legacy, and a trail of stressed agents and publishers as those deadlines famously whooshed by.
Like many of the men (for they were almost all men, but that’s another problematic story) who helped shaped Western pop culture at the tail-end of the twentieth century, Douglas Adams was not a godlike genius through whom inspiration flowed freely. He was just zis guy, y’know? By which I mean, he did have a brilliant brain, but he had to make a job of work to sit down and hyperfocus that brilliance into something tangible…
Both Jem Roberts’ definitive biography The Frood and the posthumous collection of rough drafts, sleeve notes, essays and articles The Salmon of Doubt make clear that the problem for a man like Douglas wasn’t a lack of ideas & inspiration, quite the opposite. The kind of guy who probably sympathised with Brian Eno’s Carroll-inspired aside to David Bowie in Berlin one day that “I do get terribly frustrated if I haven’t had five good ideas by breakfast!”
Ideas – Adams was full of ‘em. But his one Great Big Idea, initially dreamt up while lying drunk in a field in Innsbruck, was The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy. After a period alternating between snippets for Radio Four comedy shows, half-baked collaborations with Graham Chapman and Ringo Starr and complete creative paralysis, it spawned a cult hit radio series, then a TV series, five novels, not to mention a computer game, a graphic novel, a towel… And like anyone with a mind always firing off in multiple, infinitely improbable directions but destined to be known singularly for that one Great Big Idea, he found himself caught in a deadlock…
On the one hand, frustrated at being ‘the Hitchhikers Guy’ and the idea of having to keep returning to those familiar characters and concepts when his interest was in newer characters and ideas – the two Dirk Gently novels saw Adams toying with concepts that were then the sole province of New Scientist articles but are now building blocks of our current hi-tech age (quantum physics, chaos theory, fuzzy logic, AI). On the other hand… He certainly didn’t mind the fact that being ‘the Hitchhikers guy’ gave him entry to every VIP area and green room in the world, palling up with heroes such as John Cleese, Paul McCartney, Pink Floyd, Procol Harum’s Gary Brooker… As the Vogon Security Guard once begrudgingly conceded to a hapless Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect, “Well, yeah, the hours are good, yeah…”
It was in the midst of one of these moments of frustration and creative logjam that, under pressure and over deadline to deliver the fourth Hitchhikers book, So Long And Thanks For All The Fish, Macmillan took extreme measures and locked him in a room in a hotel in Knightsbridge with his publisher Sonny Mehta until he bashed out a completed manuscript. In Nick Webb’s account of this episode in biography Wish You Were Here, Webb mused, “It would make an interesting play.” It certainly would, and has, in the form of writer and playwright Mark Griffiths’ critically acclaimed play We Apologise For The Inconvenience, which – following a premiere at Manchester’s 3MT Theatre on Douglas Adams Day 2018, enjoyed a short tour later that year and a run at 2019’s Edinburgh Fringe as one of FringeReview’s Recommended Shows – appeared as an audiobook earlier this year and now a scriptbook, published by Room 5064 Productions.
This nifty, one-act, two-hander play sees Adams musing about his career path thus far, his frustrations, aspirations and those famous whooshing deadlines while enjoying a long bath with his rubber duck (After all, one’s never alone with a rubber duck). Said duck acts as the personification of Adams’ conscience (performed in the play by Rob Stuart-Hudson), on occasion lapsing into a likeness of his two comic heroes, John Cleese and PG ‘Plum’ Wodehouse.
Douglas Adams was not averse to self-mythologising his rather lax work ethic – the legendary ‘deadlines’ quip is probably his most famous non-literary line and while it is indeed a memorable epigram showcasing his brilliantly flippant use of language, and the ‘Legend of Douglas’ has lent itself to many an anecdote from friends and colleagues (his most famous Doctor Who script, City of Death, had a similarly fraught genesis, with locked hotel rooms – and endless rounds of whisky and coffee – also involved) it’s fair to say that the quip was deliberately disingenuous, to mask the reality of writers’ block, which was was no laughing matter, not just for the publishers, but also for Adams himself. Nick Webb wrote, “For his publishers it was a matter of commercial pain; but for poor Douglas it could mean agonising despair when he felt he just could not do it. When very low, he was known to fall to the carpet and weep.”
We Apologise For The Inconvenience addresses all of this head-on in a witty discourse around the nature of creative inertia – as a full-time writer, and so reliant on his imagination for making a living, Griffiths expresses in his foreword how he related to Adams in creating this play – without shying away from calling Adams out on the degree of pampered privilege behind his attitude, in the form of the duck’s frequent pricking at Adams’ moments of self-indulgence and solipsism. After all, Adams’ situation – under house arrest in a five-star hotel with his publishers picking up the tab – is hardly a situation an overworked NHS nurse would have much sympathy for. But it’s not to say that We Apologise For The Inconvenience is any kind of character assassination – far from it, Adams created something that captured the imagination of the public in a way that transcended its niche and brought sci-fi comedy into the mainstream, his way with words is an inescapable influence on countless writers and readers, and his forward-thinking attitude towards science and technology means that we’re all living in Douglas Adams’ world now.
We Apologise For The Inconvenience celebrates this in a most unusual, unique even, way – it turns crisis into comedy by getting under the skin and into the mindset of a man with a singular brain, whose achievements are as towering as his six foot five frame was, but was… just zis guy, y’know? Prone to the same ego trips, anxieties and insecurities as anyone else – it’s no wonder that at times he struggled with the momentum of success. The timeframe of the play is significant as the fourth Hitchhikers book was the first to not be reliant on existing source material, so for the first time since his success, he had to conceive a completely original storyline.
Mark Griffiths’ play succeeds in relating this flashpoint moment in Adams’ career. Capturing something of the man’s recognisable and immediately identifiable wit and mannerisms without descending into parody, pastiche or outright homage is an incredibly tricky tightrope to walk and Griffiths pulls it off admirably, although that’s not to say that there are some nice little Easter eggs tucked away in the play for H2G2 fans, as well as a teaser in the form of allusions to his interest in zoology which led to what many hardcore Adams fans see as his other great work, Last Chance To See.
It’s to be hoped that We Apologise For The Inconvenience receives further outings on stage, but in the meantime the book of the play is a worthy artefact in its own right, available for the enjoyment of all bipedal carbon-based life forms in the western spiral arm of the galaxy. It’s embellished by a foreword by the author that sets the tone nicely and will be relatable to anyone who has fallen under Adams’ spell as a reader or writer, and capped off with a really fascinating and enjoyable afterword by Adams’ friend Jon Canter, now a successful comedy writer, complete with an anecdote about a certain part of the Adams anatomy that suggests that he was certainly remarkable in one department outside of his manifold achievements. Crikey.
❉ Written by Mark Griffiths, ‘We Apologise for the Inconvenience’ is out now, published by Room 5064 Productions. RRP £5.00 plus P&P: Click here to order! ‘We Apologise for the Inconvenience’ is on at Leicester Comedy Festival on 20th Feb 2020. Tickets on sale now: https://comedy-festival.co.uk/event/we-apologise-for-the-inconvenience/
❉ James Gent is the Editor of We Are Cult, and is the co-editor of Me and the Starman (Chinbeard Books, 2019) Available in paperback from Amazon: All profits from this book go toward supporting the work of Cancer Research UK. James is also one of the contributors to You and 42: The Hitchhiker’s Guide To Douglas Adams (Who Dares Publishing, 2018), edited by Jessica Burke & Anthony Burdge.