THE HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY -

THE COMPLETE RADIO SERIES

Featuring:  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; and 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 appeal.

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 Campbell.

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 double-CD cases, 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.

SUMMARY

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, for example.

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.

 

Site content copyright J.A.Knott - 2002-2005