Douglas Adams - His Life and Worlds
Created | Updated Dec 17, 2010
Douglas Adams - quite apart from being a hugely talented writer and all-round good egg - was the man responsible for coming up with the idea of this website, h2g2, and the amazingly wonderful and highly popular Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy1 radio series, literary trilogy in five parts and film. So it is without further ado that h2g2 presents this wholly unauthorised, uncomplicated and definitely unbiased2 biography of its beloved founder.
'Life! Don't talk to me about life'
Douglas Noel Adams was born in Cambridge on 11 March, 1952. Douglas was considered a strange child and a little slow; walking into lamp-posts and taking a while to learn to talk. From 1959 until 1970 Douglas attended Brentwood School in Essex, during which time he was more interested in the field of science than in the arts. The moment he thought seriously about writing for the first time was at the age of ten, when he got ten out of ten for a composition in Frank Halford's class - reportedly the first and last time Mr Halford gave full marks. Then, when he was 11, Douglas had a piece of his writing accepted into print - a short story in the boy's annual Eagle about a man who lost his memory, and so he was bitten by the writing 'bug'.
So, once bitten, twice successful. Douglas's essay on the revival of religious poetry won him an 'exhibition'3 to study English at St John's College, Cambridge. Douglas was eager to go to Cambridge as he wanted to join Footlights, a comedy revue group there. But in his first term he found them, 'aloof and rather pleased with themselves' (they even bought sketches from Douglas, but wouldn't let him perform), and he joined CULES (Cambridge University Light Entertainment Society) instead.
Before and while he studied at Cambridge he decided to hitch-hike to Istanbul and all over Europe. In order to make the money for his travels he worked as a chicken-shed cleaner, barn builder and hospital porter (in the X-ray department of Yeovil General Hospital; he was not unfamiliar with this kind of job as he had worked in an institution for the mentally ill while he was still at school).
In his second term he joined Footlights on the strength of Simon Jones, who was, 'friendly and helpful, all the things the others weren't, a completely nice guy'. But as his ideas were not accepted by the rest, he ended up forming the 'guerilla' revue group Adams-Smith-Adams. They hired a theatre for a week and with them he had his first considerable hit. In summer 1974 Douglas left Cambridge with a BA in English Literature and decided to become a writer.
'Time is an illusion'
Over the next few years Douglas worked with many now famous comedy stars. He got Griff Rhys Jones into comedy and directed A Kick In The Stalls, which later got the attention of Graham Chapman4 who he then collaborated with on a TV comedy show called Out Of The Trees. It involved a man picking a flower - a seemingly innocuous act which triggers off a series of events: the police complain, the fire brigade turns up, then the army and so on until the world blows up. He also worked on several other projects, and among other things he submitted sketches for The Burkiss Way, Monty Python's Flying Circus and Weekending.
Following this, Douglas entered a rather barren period work-wise, due largely to the uncompromising nature of his work - his approach was one of a man who adapted the world to fit his comedy rather than the other way round, and so he struggled with the traditional radio comedy sketch format. Despite attempts to get him work by friends such as John Lloyd, during this time Douglas was forced to live with his mother and take on another series of character-building jobs, such as that of bodyguard to the ruling family of Qatar.
He moved from writing for radio to become script editor of Doctor Who, where he was involved in the creation of several stories for the Tom Baker incarnation of the character. During this time he co-wrote City of Death, widely considered to be the best Doctor Who story ever, as well as The Pirate Planet and the ultimately unfinished Shada. The episode was shelved due to strike action at the BBC and a third of the story was never recorded. The BBC Doctor Who website later remade Shada as a webcast featuring animation and a new audio soundtrack, this time starring Paul McGann as the Doctor. Douglas would work with Tom again in 1990 however, for the documentary Hyperland.
'It's a sort of electronic book'
It was while Douglas was writing for Doctor Who that the The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, was commissioned, originally appearing as a BBC Radio 4 series in March 1978, then again in 2004. It has also been transformed into a series of best-selling novels, a television series5, records, cassettes and CDs, a computer game, several stage adaptations and a major film.
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in its initial form (radio), was the story of the demolition of planet Earth and the subsequent adventures of the very, very few survivors and those they meet along the way. It introduced the world to characters such as Marvin the paranoid android6, a race of people who construct planets, the babelfish, the finer points of tea and, of course, the answer to the great question of Life, the Universe and Everything 7.
'I love deadlines...'
...I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.
- Douglas Adams
Douglas Adams's other publications, when he got around to writing them, included the two Dirk Gently novels, Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency8 and The Long, Dark Tea-Time of the Soul. Gently (real name Svlad Cjelli) is a detective/conman who runs up massive expenses bills as a by-product of his belief in the 'fundamental interconnectedness of things'. Douglas began a third 'Gently' novel, The Salmon of Doubt, but didn't complete it, due in some part to writer's block.
With long-time friend John Lloyd, Douglas also composed two quasi-reference books, The Meaning of Liff and The Deeper Meaning of Liff, wherein town names were used to fill in the gaps in the English language, for example using the place name Plymouth as a verb meaning: 'to relate an amusing story to someone without remembering that it was they who told it to you in the first place'. John and Douglas also collaborated during the infancy of the Hitchhiker's radio series to write a couple of episodes of the children's animated TV show Doctor Snuggles.
An avid environmentalist, Douglas teamed up with zoologist Mark Carwardine in 1990 and co-wrote Last Chance to See - an account of their worldwide search for rare and endangered animal species, and also promoted the work of 'Save the Rhino' and the 'Dian Fossey Gorilla Foundation'.
'Share & Enjoy'
Douglas bought his first computer in 1982:
It was a standalone word processor called a Nexus that was horrendously expensive by today's standards and probably less powerful than the free calculator you'd get in a Christmas cracker.
and he later became a tremendous fan of Apple computers, enough so that they considered him one of their technical evangelists, and used him in promotional materials. He later used an Apple-Mac laptop to create a music video starring his daughter Polly, and often expressed his love for all things technological.
Douglas was a founder-director and Chief Fantasist of The Digital Village, a digital media and Internet company with which he created h2g2 and the 1998 CD-ROM Starship Titanic, a Codie Award-winning and BAFTA-nominated adventure game9. h2g2 was originally launched in 1999 but found a new home at bbc.co.uk in 2001 with Douglas himself a member, or Researcher. With the launch of PDA and mobile phone versions in April 2005, the site has achieved Douglas's aim of a handheld, ever-expanding guide to Life, the Universe and Everything, written by its users. Douglas loved the Internet, but he saw both advantages and disadvantages:
It has [sic]...wonderful swiftness of responses, which saves you a great deal of time, which you then waste by wandering about looking at loads of useless stuff.
On the morning of 11 May, 2001, Douglas went to the local gym to work out. He had been walking the treadmill and went on for some aerobics. After aerobics it was time for some gym workout. First up was stomach crunches, and Douglas lay down on the bench. The trainer turned to get Douglas's towel, and when he turned back to hand it over, Douglas rolled off the bench, suffering a massive heart attack. All attempts to revive him were unsuccessful.
Douglas left his six-year-old daughter Polly, his wife Jane, his mother Jan Thrift and countless other family members and friends, not to mention thousands and thousands of fans all over the world, in shock and mourning. It was later learned that he had a narrowing of the arteries in the heart, a condition which is hard to detect, as well as an arrhythmic heartbeat, which is usually benign. These two factors contributed to Douglas's untimely death at the tender age of 49.
He was cremated, along with his towel, at 7.30pm British time, on 16 May, 2001 in Santa Barbara, CA, USA and hundreds of fans worldwide saluted him with a drink around that time, either with a cup of tea or the nearest they could get to a Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster. Wife Jane and daughter Polly moved back to Islington, London, together with their cats. In May 2002 Douglas' ashes were interred in a private ceremony at Highgate Cemetery (East), Highgate, London, England, plot: Square 74, Plot 52377, where a memorial stands.
Music: The Schubler Chorals - Johann Sebastian Bach
Sue Adams (sister), Jane Garnier (sister), James Thrift (brother)
Mary Allen (old friend who introduced him to his wife in the early 1980s)
Music: The Marriage of Figaro - Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Simon Jones (The original Arthur Dent)
Terry Jones (friend, of Monty Python fame)
Music: I Wannabe (A Rockstar) - Margo Buchanan
Michael Nesmith (Friend, one of The Monkees)
Chris Ogle (Friend and neighbour in Santa Barbara)
Music: Imagine - John Lennon
Music: Hey Jude - The Beatles
Music: Drive My Car - The Beatles
Music: Paperback Writer - The Beatles
Order of Service
We'll all be drawing our pensions before it's actually made into a movie.
- Simon Jones (Arthur Dent)
About a year before he died, Douglas completed his last draft of the screenplay to the Hitchhiker's movie. The script had taken many steps forward, containing some brand new characters and plot elements. Douglas was always ready to reinvent the Hitchhiker's story through its various incarnations, and although most people loved the new elements, some of the structural challenges remained to be solved. Things therefore ground to a halt again, to the natural frustration of Douglas, and months passed.
Following Douglas's death, the script was handed to Karey Kirkpatrick, a screenwriter whose C.V included James and the Giant Peach as well as Chicken Run10. Karey revised the script, working very closely with Jay Roach and Robbie Stamp, and just before Christmas 2002, there emerged something that has since been regarded as the ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy script. However, feeling that he could no longer commit himself to the project, Jay Roach abandoned his director's chair and took up the role of producer instead. Still, not before the production team's attention had been turned to Spike Jonze, who gently declined the offer but in his turn pointed the crew to a little production company named 'Hammer & Tongs', consisting of two bright and funny fellows named Nick Goldsmith and Garth Jennings.
A successful production team, they had been making videos for bands like Blur, Supergrass and Fatboy Slim, and also had a lot of attention for their commercials. And, also important; their studio was located not far from Douglas's house in Islington! They were approached with the question, 'We're making this film. Would you like to come with us to produce and direct it?' and, after a few weeks of reluctance, they accepted. They went through the script together with Karey Kirkpatrick, made a few changes, and so finally the project was given the green light. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy was officially released in the UK on 28 April, 2005.
'Some factual information for you'
Douglas's American publisher was unhappy with the use of the 'f' word in the Hitchhiker's series, and instead of lifting the word right out, Douglas changed it to 'Belgium'.
Douglas appeared a few times with the all-author rock band The Rock Bottom Remainders, featuring band members like Amy Tan, Stephen King and Dave Barry.
Douglas's 'thanks-to' credit on the Pink Floyd album The Division Bell is due to the fact that he suggested the title for the album. The phrase is from the song 'High Hopes'.
Douglas once attempted to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in a rhinoceros suit:
I'm much too big for it and my legs stick out absurdly from the bottom, so that I look more like a giant prawn tempura than a rhinoceros. Inside, the heat and the stench of stale sweat and old Dettol is almost overpowering until you get into the swing of things.
Douglas was an adept left-handed guitarist, and as a 42nd birthday present from Pink Floyd guitarist Dave Gilmour, Douglas joined the band onstage at a concert in Earl's Court, London, in front of what he estimated was around 30,000 people; playing the rhythm guitar part from 'Brain Damage' on the band's album The Dark Side of the Moon.
Douglas and his family went on vacation in the early year of 1999 and the following happened:
We were in Barbados. On the second night the villa we were renting was burgled (they stuck a long pole in through the padlocked outer gate to get the keys). They came into our bedroom. People told us later that if we had woken up and seen them we would probably have been shot.
Douglas's favourite authors were: Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Kurt Vonnegut, PG Wodehouse and Ruth Rendell.
Douglas's friend, British actor Stephen Fry was the first to write a tribute entry on the official website after Douglas had died. He wrote:
Oh Douglas -- your friends don't know what to think or say. You've left the party far, far too early. All those who knew you -- and that includes millions who never met you -- loved you. I can't think of anything more to write. Love, Stephen.
Douglas's parents were blissfully unaware at the time his initials would go on to become a shortened form of Deoxyribonucleic Acid, as the structure of DNA was discovered by scientists in Cambridge a year after Douglas was born in 1953.
Every 25 May, Towel Day is celebrated worldwide in recognition of Douglas, the humble towel and its many uses.
His daughter Polly's nickname is 'Rocket' and she was born on 22 June, 1994. At the time of her birth Douglas said she was; 'long and slim and dark-haired and incomprehensibly beautiful'.
Douglas had a few TV appearances in his lifetime, including that of a masked surgeon in a Monty Python sketch, a naked man returning to the seas in the Hitchhiker's TV series, and for those with eagle eyes his image can also be seen several times in the 2005 film adaptation.
Dave Gilmour, Pink Floyd frontman and friend of Douglas, wrote a tribute on Douglas's site which read:
Too soon, it is indeed. You'll be missed by the world. I'm just grateful you were able to enjoy your genius being appreciated. Your Friend and Fan, Dave.
The number 42 had no other significance in Douglas's life other than that it was his age when his daughter Polly was born.
Fans recognising Douglas in the street always surprised him immensely. The time when this surprised him most was when he was 10,000 feet up in the air in a small plane between Nanjing and Wuhan in China, and was approached by a fan wanting an autograph.
While living in Santa Barbara, Douglas and his family were neighbours of John Cleese. Not next-door neighbours though - John bought the house next door to his to be able to sell the place to people with the appropriate qualifications for being his neighbours.
The Minor Planet Center space agency has named an asteroid Arthurdent, coincidentally announcing its plan the day Douglas died. In January 2005, the asteroid provisionally named 2001 DA42 was renamed 'Douglasadams'.