Don't talk to me about life!

Jon Canter, introducer of Life, the Universe and Everything by Douglas Adams, refers to himself as a ‘comedy butler’, having written for some of Britain’s finest comedians, including Dawn French, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Lenny Henry and Rowan Atkinson. He also happened to be a flatmate of Douglas Adams. In the following interview Jon Canter recalls what it was like to live in such close quarters with the man who invented the Babel fish, and what he loves most about the Hitchhiker universe.

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

Illustration © Jonathan Burton 2012 from The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

The Hitchhiker stories have known many incarnations: radio and television series, novels and films. What is it about the stories that make them so adaptable?

The stories fizz with ideas. Ideas appeal to all the senses. You want to hear about, read about, touch and even smell a good idea. A Babel fish is something you want to experience in every imaginable form, so the limits of adaptation are the limits of imagination…

These books make science fiction and comedy feel like a natural pairing. Do you think this is true, or more to do with Douglas’s own brand of talent?

I don’t think science fiction and comedy are a natural pairing. I think comic writers tend to be gifted debunkers and science fiction writers are the opposite. They are brave enough to boldly go and invent worlds, not undercut existing ones. They’re gifted bunkers.

Kurt Vonnegut paired science fiction and comedy. Some might say Dr Who did and does too – and, after all, Douglas was a script editor on that show. But I think Douglas was very rare. The school system divided pupils of his generation into arts students or science students after they took their O-levels, but he managed to retain an equal flair for both English and physics.

Reading the books, is there one character you most identify with Douglas, or do you see aspects of his character in all of his creations?

Zaphod for his cosmic confidence and Marvin for his melancholy: these are the characters I identify with Douglas.

Do you have a favourite Hitchhiker’s character, moment, and scientific invention?

Marvin, the Paranoid Android

Illustration © Jonathan Burton 2014 from Life, the Universe and Everything

In the early 1970s, I was in the Cambridge Footlights revue group, as was Douglas. I did a monologue about an aggressively aggrieved Northerner, the opening words of which were: ‘Life? Don’t talk to me about life!’ Years later, Douglas took these words for Marvin the Paranoid Android’s catchphrase. But nicking didn’t really come into it – he always meticulously credited me as the source. More to the point, I was thrilled, because Marvin is my favourite Hitchhiker’s character. A machine that moans – how brilliant and counter-intuitive.

‘….any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the Galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through and still knows where his towel is is clearly a man to be reckoned with.’ That’s the moment I treasure, but, again, it is for private reasons. I was sharing a villa on Corfu with Douglas in the summer of 1978 and he came into the room astonished (and hugely amused) that he didn’t know where his towel was. He felt – I suppose because he was wet – that the universe had played a huge joke on him. Possibly because he was a huge man.

The Bistromathic Drive is my favourite invention, because it is so redolent of its inventor, so Douglasian in its conflation of Einstein and restaurant bills.

What is it about the Hitchhiker series that has inspired such a cult following?

Themes? Characters? Plots? Ideas? I’m going to plump for the characters and the ideas. The characters compel you from the moment you hear their names – Zaphod Beeblebrox, Slartibartfast, Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged – Adams (even more than Wodehouse or J. K. Rowling) had a genius for nomenclature. He was a total and utter nomenclaturist. You hear these names and you want to spend time with these characters. You can’t forget them.

Equally, you hear ‘Babel fish’, ‘Nutrimatic drinks dispenser’ or ‘Infinite Improbability Drive’ and you feel feverish. You know immediately that whoever came up with these ideas was excited to have done so. You’re excited too and the excitement’s infectious.

Now go out and form a cult.

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