THE HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY -
THE COMPLETE RADIO SERIES
Simon Jones, Peter Jones, Geoffrey McGivern, Susan Sheridan
Reviewed by Peter Saunders
This is, to my certain knowledge, at least
the fourth time that the complete BBC Radio Hitchhiker's Guide To The
Galaxy series has been released on CD. This is, however, the first
time that the set has included the three Dirk Maggs-produced series of that were broadcast by the BBC between September 2004 and June
2005. These were adaptations of Douglas Adams' novels Life, The
Universe and Everything, So Long and Thanks For All the Fish
and Mostly Harmless, (here titled, in terms that follow the
examples set by the previous BBC Hitchhiker book adaptations, as the
Tertiary Phase, the Quandary Phase and the Quintessential
Phase, respectively). Insofar as this set contains radio adaptations
of all five books in Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker's trilogy, this truly is
The Complete Radio Series!
I don't propose debating the merits of the
radio adaptations against other versions of the books here, or comparing
the relative strengths and weaknesses of the first two radio series
(adaptations of The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy and The
Restaurant at the End of the Universe) versus the more recent series;
I certainly won't be describing the series itself in any detail, either.
The purpose of this review is to help you decide whether it's worth buying
the new box set or not.
It should go without saying that if you're
a science fiction fan who doesn't own copies of the Hitchhikers Guide
radio adaptations, then you should definitely get hold of
a set. The BBC radio series are top quality productions, exhibiting great
imagination, terrific sound design and almost flawless casting. This box
set is exactly what you need!
So, what does this new set offer that
previous editions don't?
The most notable
"unique selling point" (as it's known in the marketing biz) is
that the set contains a bonus CD featuring two previously-unreleased BBC Radio 4
programmes: Kaleidoscope (TX: 21/1/80) and Six Characters in
Search of an Answer (TX: 9/7/02). That these two programmes were
broadcast more than twenty years apart is testament to the series' lasting
The Kaleidoscope extract,
presented by Doctor Rob Buckman, looks at the then still nascent
Hitchhikers phenomenon, focussing on the recording of the second
Hitchhiker's radio series. It features contributions from Adams himself,
producer Geoffrey Perkins, and sound effects designer Paddy Kingsland.
It's a fascinating snapshot of Hitchhiker's before it ballooned into an
entire industry. Even the stage show gets a mention, courtesy of Ken
Six Characters in Search of an Answer
is a beginner's guide to the Hitchhiker's universe, looking
specifically at Arthur Dent as a fictional character.
It was originally broadcast as the fifth in a
series of six documentaries which examined
various characters from radio and TV
shows (others looked at Tony Hancock's fictional alter ego, The Goon
Show's Neddie Seagoon, and One Foot In The Grave's Victor
Meldrew). It, too, includes contributions from many of those involved with
the various Hitchhikers manifestations, including the producer of the
first radio episode, Simon Brett, and Simon Jones, who plays Arthur in all
the radio series. Presnted by Barry Cryer, it also includes a clip from another programme that
deserves a CD release: Adams's Book Club interview (perhaps it
could be released as part
of a second volume of Douglas Adams At The BBC?)
The sleeve notes for this disc say that the
disc has twenty chapters, split evenly between the two programmes. This is
wrong: there are actually thirty chapters, split 1-14 for Kaleidoscope
(18'12"), and 15-30 for Six Characters... (26'59").
The disc's booklet features the Radio Times
cover for the second radio series (from January 1980), as well as a
montage of the interior article (sadly, the layout makes it unreadable!)
This disc is currently exclusively
available in this set.
The last CD box set of the Hitchhikers
radio series, 2001's Collector's Edition, featured an
exclusive CD, too: Douglas Adams's Guide to the Hitchhiker's Guide to
the Galaxy. This 20th anniversary documentary was previously available
as a stand-alone title, but only on cassette. It's a great shame that this
was not included in this new set, too. It probably would have added very
little to the cost of producing the set, and would have made upgrading
much more attractive, especially to those who had the Collector's
Edition (it would have enabled them to offset the cost of the new set
by selling the old one, safe in the knowledge that the new set contained
everything the old one did!)
Well, what else?
The set comes in an attractive cardboard
container with a hinged lid, like a jack-in-the-box. The discs stand
upright inside, held by a simple custom-made moulded rack, which accommodates the
three triple-disc jewel cases and three single-width jewel cases (two
and a single case for the bonus disc). Two sides of the box carry the
calming motto "Don't Panic", in large, but not particularly-friendly,
letters. The inside of the lid features a bold "42".
The Tertiary, Quandary and
Quintessential sets are virtually identical to the individual CD sets
available, with only a few very minor changes (the booklet in the Tertiary
Phase set features a different array of adverts, for example). The
Primary and Secondary Phase sets have new sleeve artwork to
match the style of the Dirk Maggs sets (all the discs now sport
designs by Frazer Irving). The discs themselves are printed with full-colour
artwork (i.e.: the discs in the Primary and Secondary sets have been
pressed especially - they're not just the old discs in new cases!)
It probably goes without saying, but I'll
confirm it, anyway: the new set features the same versions of the
Primary and Secondary Phase recordings as all the previous CD
releases. This means that they differ slightly from the original versions
as transmitted by Radio 4. They don't feature the original recording of
The Journey of the Sorcerer theme music (by The Eagles, who are either
unwilling to allow its commercial use, or want too much money for allowing
its use); Paul Neil
Milne Johnstone has become Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings; and the
glorious music of Pink Floyd (Shine On You Crazy Diamond ) and The
Beatles (Rock and Roll Music) is now nowhere to be heard. The
chances of these changes being undone are so infinitesimal that even the
Heart of Gold's Infinite Improbability Drive would have difficulty in
calculating them. Also of note is that Douglas Adams was so late
delivering his scripts for The Secondary Phase that the episodes
originally aired in very raw state. After the initial broadcast, more
sound effects were added, and the episodes were generally spruced up.
The Tertiary, Quandary and
Quintessential Phase CDs all feature extended versions of the shows
that were broadcast on the radio, adding twenty, thirty and forty minutes
respectively to each series, all seamlessly integrated into the narrative.
Again, these are the only versions available on CD. These extended
versions are regarded as the definitive editions - the radio broadcasts
were edited for timing reasons.
Again, though, there are some minor
differences between the aired versions and the CD versions. The radio
broadcast of the Tertiary Phase once again used the original
version of The Journey of the Sorcerer. For the Tertiary Phase
CD release The Journey of the Sorcerer has been especially
re-recorded (by Phil Pope, and Eagles tribute band The Illegal Eagles).
There were also some technical problems
with the first couple of episodes of The Tertiary Phase as they
originally aired, making the mix rather unbalanced. This has been fixed
for the CD release.
It seems unlikely that any of these tweaks
is likely to cause any potential buyer to lose any sleep.
So, can the Complete Radio Series
set be recommended unequivocally? Well, no. Many fans will have to weigh
up its cost, especially if they already own some of the earlier CD
releases. Even if you already own the Primary and Secondary
sets, or the Collector's Edition, it's probably cheaper to buy this
new set than it would be to buy the Tertiary, Quandary and
Quintessential Phases separately. The set has an RRP of £80, but is
already available for half that -
Play.com are currently offering it for a mere £39.99,
The only other fly in the ointment is that
Dirk Maggs has long-promised that the Tertiary, Quandary and
Quintessential Phases will eventually be made available in 5.1
DVD-Audio format. If you have a 5.1 audio system, you might want to wait
for those (that?) to turn up.