BBC Audiobooks CD Review

Starring Harry Enfield, Billy Boyd, Andrew Sachs, Robert Duncan

Co-adapted, co-produced and directed by Dirk Maggs

From the novel by Douglas Adams

Reviewed by Ceri Laing


It was inevitable, following the success of Dirk Maggs’s adaptations of the final three Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy novels for BBC Radio 4, that Douglas Adams' other, far less well-known, series of novels, featuring the adventures of downtrodden gumshoe Dirk Gently, would be the next project tackled.

Originally published 1987, Douglas Adams’s tale involving ghosts, Cambridge Dons, Coleridge, time-travel, evolution, Electric Monks and a detective who detects through understanding the inter-connected causality of the universe, is standard fare for the writer. Never one to casually discard a good idea, Adams’ novel recycles plot strands and characters from his time as script editor of Doctor Who, including liberal use of elements from his un-transmitted 1979 Tom Baker story, Shada. Whatever the source, these elements work extremely well, and make for a very entertaining novel. Adams only completed two Dirk Gently novels. The second, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul followed uncharacteristically quickly, in 1988. Adams was working on a third Dirk Gently novel, The Salmon of Doubt, at the time of his untimely death, in 2001. There are plans for both to be adapted for further radio adventures.

Dirk Maggs has brought together a lot of talent for his adaptation of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. Billy Boyd, best known as Pippin in the film adaptations of The Lord of the Rings, appears as computer programmer Richard MacDuff. Robert Duncan, star of Drop the Dead Donkey and Radio 4’s Old Harry’s Game, is Richard’s boss, Gordon Way. Actress Olivia Coleman, a mainstay of Radio 4's comedy output, but perhaps better known as Sophie in Peep Show, appears as Gently’s secretary, Janice Pearce. All-round voice artiste, Toby Longworth, known also for his work on Radio 4 and for many Big Finish audio adventures (including the title role in their Judge Dredd series), is The Electric Monk. Andrew Sachs, fondly remembered for one role in a long and full career: that of Manuel in Fawlty Towers, appears as Professor 'Reg' Chronotis. Technically, Sachs is reprising the role: he previously played Chronotis in Big Finish’s adaptation of Shada. Finally, starring as Dirk Gently himself, is well-known comedian Harry Enfield.


Continuing the trend of the previous releases by BBC Audiobooks of Maggs’s adaptations of Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker stories, the episodes on CD aren’t the broadcast versions as they appeared on Radio 4. There is nearly an hour of previously un-broadcast material included throughout the six episodes, which were cut to fit Radio 4’s standard twenty-seven minute ‘half hour’ time slot.

The episodes are spread over three discs, 2 episodes per disc.

Disc 1 runs to 72 minutes

Disc 2 runs to 75 minutes

Disc 3 runs to 70 minutes

All the episodes sound clear and fine and are encoded in stereo with full index marks.


I’ll be honest and say that I’m not a great fan of Dirk Maggs’ radio production style, which is perhaps best described as “wall of sound” or cinematic. With that age-old cliché of the “pictures being better on the radio” I find his full soundscapes distract my imagination rather than enhance it. However… this style is what Douglas Adams and the production team behind the first two Hitchhiker radio series were striving to achieve in the late 70s, albeit with limited time, money and resources. Maggs was also Adams’s choice for the director’s chair for the further phases of Hitchhiker, so, I accept that Maggs is the most appropriate choice.

I’ve always enjoyed Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency as a novel. I think it’s one of Douglas Adams’s best, even better than some of the Hitchhiker books. It has an enjoyable, fun set of plot strands, utilising well the material originally written for Doctor Who, all permeated with a pleasant melancholic atmosphere. So, it was with some trepidation that I approached listening to this adaptation, particularly when I heard that Harry Enfield had been cast in the eponymous role. Not that I had anything against Enfield, I just feel he wasn’t right for the character in the novel.

However, I do think this is a very good radio adaptation of the novel – in keeping with the Hitchhiker tradition, each adaptation is a good work in its own individual way. For example, the adaptation starts with a pre-credit scene which isn’t how the novel begins, but is one that Doctor Who fans will immediately recognise. This is initially a little unnerving. Immediately afterwards though the warm, reassuring tones of John Marsh (the announcer most associated with the radio versions of Hitchhiker) kick in, and everything is alright. Maggs and his co-adaptors have done well with taking the essential plot strands and characters of the novel and weaving them together to make a coherent, listenable experience. My reservations about Harry Enfield aside, the rest of the casting is spot on. Billy Boyd is perfect as Richard MacDuff, as are Andrew Sachs, Robert Duncan and Olivia Coleman in their respective roles. I still don’t think Harry Enfield was right for the character of Dick Gently, as he appears in the novels (he needs to sound younger for me), I was completely won over by the character as created for this radio adaptation, and welcome his return for planned adaptations of the other Dirk Gently novels. Overall I found this a more satisfying and enjoyable adaptation than Maggs’ Hitchhiker adaptations.

If you are a fan of Douglas Adams’s or Dirk Maggs’s work then you are going to find much to entertain you here. If you caught the recent Radio 4 broadcasts and enjoyed what you heard then I would heartily recommend you pick this release up as the longer cuts of the episodes greatly enhance the listening experience.

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency is much better than I expected, and I await the following adaptations with great interest!

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