This year is the 42nd anniversary of the first incarnation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – the hugely successful spoof science fiction written by Douglas Adams, originally as a series for BBC Radio 4. And on Sunday, March 8th there will be day-long celebrations of the anniversary at the British Library in London. I will be taking part in readings from the play and answering questions on a panel.
I was involved in the very first stage production, directed by Ken Campbell at the ICA (Institute for Contemporary Arts) in the Mall, London, from May1-9th in 1979. His company was called appropriately, The Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool.
When we began rehearsals, the BBC radio version was already up and running and had a growing audience. Peter Jones was playing the ‘book’ or narrator of the series. Ken decided that for the stage version, two female actors could share the narration, both to be dressed as ‘space maidens’. I arrived at the ICA one afternoon to talk to Ken about my upcoming application to the Arts Council to be his assistant director and there and then, found myself with a part in the show. That was typical of Ken, a kind of anarchist/Taoist approach to life and casting. “Well Cindy happened to be there at the time” he explained. Together with Maya Sendall, the other actor playing the book of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, I set about learning the huge number of lines. We started well in advance of rehearsals because we introduced and commented on every scene. Our costumes were made by Mavis Taylor and consisted of black and gold leotards with shiny pink tights and high heels. On our heads we wore gold caps to which were attached wobbling, gold antennae and to finish off the look, we had little black capes lined with gold satin, high gold collars and the words ‘Don’t Panic’ written on the back in bright pink letters. Ken suggested we also wore pointed gold bras on the outside of our costumes, like Modesty Blaise. I only agreed if mine could be used as a gag, more of which later.
The ICA had a small theatre space, insufficient really to create the illusion of an epic space journey; so Ken Campbell came up with the brilliant idea of sending the audience into space by seating them on a hovercraft, which would move around from scene to scene, using the full 360 degrees of the theatre floor. He managed to get the firm Rolair systems to lend us a small hovercraft, plus the air cushions on which it would sit. Mike Hirst built a wooden platform for the auditorium and placed it on top, which meant that the whole structure floated on an inch or two of air. There would be seating for eighty people, plus two of us ‘space maidens’ standing as flight attendants for the entire journey. (Health and Safety, I might add were not such an issue 40 years ago)
The opening scene where Arthur Dent learns from Ford Prefect that the earth is about to end, took place in the ICA bar. As you may already know, the unpleasant and bureaucratic Vogons had made plans to destroy earth in order to make way for an intergalactic bypass. The audience was prepared for the end-of-the-world and the beginning of their space journey by drinking Pan Galactic Gargle Blasters – a wonderful cocktail of a violent blue colour, specially created to a secret recipe by a cocktail barman from a famous London hotel. It was extremely strong and certainly put the audience in a good mood for the cosmic theatre adventure which was to follow. That entire first scene with John Joyce as the builder; Arthur Dent played by Chris Langham and Richard Hope as Ford Prefect, had a great sense of urgency and impending doom. There were suitable crashing sound effects of bulldozers destroying Arthur’s house, while from the open door of the theatre came the roar of spaceship engines about to take off. As the scene ended, we space stewardesses immediately rushed the audience into the smoke-filled auditorium with the encouraging announcement, “Don’t Panic”. Inside we helped them to clamber up rather rickety steps onto the hovercraft. Once seated, there was an enormous bang and, amid even more clouds of smoke, the hovercraft rose into the air, (actually about six inches but gave the impression of being much higher). Then the craft did a smooth 360-degree turn and rushed forward swiftly to stop in front of a narrow ledge on the theatre wall, where stood Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect, (the actors were supported on the ledge by wires) apparently in the air-lock of their rescue spaceship. The disoriented but thrilled audience were now right bang up against the action.
After this short scene in the airlock, the audience were whisked around once more to the back of the theatre and then, accompanied by loud music and more smoke, the hovercraft was rushed forward to land in the brightly lit interior of the Heart of Gold spaceship, where Trillion and her team of space travellers were waiting to greet them.
(Trillion was played by Sue Jones-Davies who went on to be Brian’s girlfriend in Life Of Brian ). The very hot costume for the two-headed schizophrenic Zaphod Beeblebrox was inhabited by Mitch Davies and Stephen Williams. Marvin the paranoid android was Russell Denton who had played the lead in The Warp – the twenty-four-hour piece we had presented at the ICA the year before, also directed by Ken Campbell (which entered the Guinness Book of Records as the longest show ever.)
There then followed ninety minutes of riveting space adventure as the audience’s ‘spaceship’ (pushed into place by hardworking stagehands), was moved around the Galaxy from platform to ledge all around the theatre space for each scene. We space maidens officiating on the hovercraft, were close enough to the audience (practically sitting on their laps, the platform was so small) to register all their reactions, which was great fun, if sometimes rather alarming. On one night, my mother was seated near the front and, as a result of probably too much Gargleblaster, responded loudly to every rhetorical question, which the rest of the audience loved and laughed along with, but deeply embarrassed me and impaired my concentration on the many, many lines we had to remember. We did, however, have a big bound copy of The Book’ to refer to but we hardly ever did.
At one point, the text referred to “Things not always being what they seem…” and it was then that I pulled off my goldy pointy space bra to reveal that it was attached to the two springs of a ‘slinky’ and the two peaks bobbed away on them in front of the audience – a cheap laugh but a big one!
In that limited run at the ICA, we became the hottest show in town. This was after a slow start leading up to the opening, where we ‘space maidens’ would have to hang around the box office in our silly costumes and encourage the punters to book for the show. Then there was suddenly a huge demand for tickets, because of the previews, plus the novelty of riding about on the hovercraft – which held only 80 people. We could have sold out many, many times and there was a long queue for returns stretching down the Mall, every day for the whole run. I was phoned by people I barely knew, who were trying to get tickets but of course, I had no control over bookings. Writer Douglas Adams loved the show and always maintained it was his favourite.
At the end of the run at the ICA, I was asked by Douglas and producer Geoffrey Perkins, to record for two audio albums of Hitchhiker. So in July that year, I went along to the studios and recorded Trillion and all the other female voices on The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and Restaurant at the End of the Universe. I understand that both albums have recently become available on CD. – Cindy Oswin