Doctor Who Cuttings Archive

Douglas Adams obituary

From The Doctor Who Cuttings Archive
Jump to navigationJump to search


Douglas Adams, 49, creator of The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, died suddenly of a heart attack the morning of May 11th while exercising in a gym in Santa Barbara, Calif. Adams, who'd lived in Los Angeles since 1999, is survived by his wife, Jane Belson, their 6-year-old daughter, Polly, and his mother, Jan Thrift of England. At the time of his death, he was working with Disney on a possible film version of The Hitch-Hiker's Guide.

Born 11th March 1952 in Cambridge, England, Douglas Noel Adams first started performing in school plays. In 1970 he won a scholarship to study English at Cambridge University where he joined Footlights, the legendary performing society that had given birth to Beyond the Fringe and Monty Python's Flying Circus among other contributions to the anarchic British comedy of the 1960s and early '70s. He didn't particularly get on well with the Footlights crowd, however, and ended up forming his own revue group called Adams-Smith-Adams (the Smith would later be immortalised as "bloody Martin Smith of Croydon"), where he could give his curious sense of humour freer rein.

After Cambridge, Adams wrote occasional sketches for radio comedy shows, collaborated with Graham Chapman on a couple of projects that came to nothing (although some of the ideas for a television series for Ringo Starr surfaced in The Hitch-Hiker's Guide), and had walk-on parts in two sketches from the last series of Monty Python's Flying Circus. Then, early in 1977, he was invited to write a comedy science fiction series by novelist and BBC radio producer Simon Brett. The result was The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy. However, such were the delays in getting the project approved that Adams sent the pilot script to Dr. Who, and was commissioned to write a 4-part story, The Pirate Planet, at exactly the same time that The Hitch-Hiker's Guide was finally given the go-ahead. This is the reason that episodes five and six of the first series were co-written with another BBC producer, John Lloyd, with whom Adams had shared a flat after leaving Cambridge.

From the moment it was first broadcast, The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy was a success; by the time episode six was broadcast, it was a cult. Adams was immediately commissioned to write the novel of the series, which was published in October 1979 and sold over 250,000 copies within three months. At the same time the LP recording of the series was released, and achieved similar sales. A staged version by Ken Campbell in May 1979 was also a success, but a more grandiose version by Campbell at the Roundhouse in 1980, for which Adams wrote new material, was an overweaning flop.

That blip aside, the story of The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy is one of continuing success. A one-off Christmas Special was broadcast on Christmas Eve 1978, and the five episodes of the second series were broadcast on consecutive nights in January 1980, even though Adams was so behind with the writing that some episodes were still being written as they were broadcast. A television version of the first series was broadcast, with largely the same cast and the same success, in 1981. Subsequently, Adams even produced a computer game based on the series.

Meanwhile, his script for Dr. Who had led to Adams being appointed script editor for the series. Although he only co-wrote one other story that was broadcast, The City of Death (which contained elements that would later resurface in Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency), as well as writing the famous "lost" story, Shada (abandoned partway through production because of strikes), Adams's influence was very strong on the series during the fifteen months he spent working on it. The Doctor was played by Tom Baker, still reckoned by afficionados to be the best of the Doctors, and Adams brought a light, tongue-in-cheek quality perfectly suited to Baker's acting style.

The runaway success of The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, however, meant that Adams's stay at Dr. Who was not destined to be a long one. He followed up the original novel with The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (1980) which used material from the second radio series, and then started with fresh material in Life, the Universe, and Everything (1982). There had been previous comic SF novels, but none had achieved the immense popularity, both inside and outside the field, that Adams achieved. The secret of his success was probably that he was not really a science fiction writer, rather he used familiar science fictional tropes at the service of a humour that was generally absurdist. His comedy, at its best, owes far more to Monty Python's Flying Circus than it does to any SF writer.

It is likely that Adams felt trapped by the success of The Hitch-Hiker's Guide, certainly the darker satirical edge that begins to creep into Life, the Universe, and Everything is a sign of someone not wanting to be funny all the time. He tried to move away from the series with The Meaning of Liff, co-written with John Lloyd, which imagined absurd definitions for the names of British towns. It sold well enough for a sequel, The Deeper Meaning of Liff (1990) also with Lloyd, but it was a simple joke and probably owes its success more to Adams's name than any intrinsic worth.

So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish (1984) was the fourth part of the Hitch-Hiker's Trilogy, and again the mood of the series was darkening. His next book was another attempt to move away from the series. Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency (1987) and its sequel, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul (1988), were again set in a world in which familiar logic did not hold, combining an absurdist form of detective story with elements of science fiction and fantasy. The books were fairly well received critically, but did not achieve anything like the success of the Hitch-Hiker books, and in 1992 he returned once more to the sequence with Mostly Harmless, far and away the darkest of the books and also his last novel.

Despite his success, Adams was always a reluctant writer. Even at university he was notorious for not getting essays in, in time, and after the last-minute rush to get the second series of The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy written, it became common for publishers to lock him away in hotel rooms in an effort to make him deliver books on deadline. I once had an unlikely encounter with Adams in a bookshop in Folkestone at a time when he was supposed to be imprisoned in a hotel round the corner finishing what would become Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency. However, in the late 1980s he travelled to remote parts of the world with zoologist Mark Carwardine to see animals in danger of extinction. The resulting book, Last Chance to See (1990), with its combination of humour and dark concerns, was probably the book he was happiest writing. Certainly he returned to this topic in later articles.

For all the passion he expended on Last Chance to See, however, it is undoubtedly as the author of The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy that he will be remembered. Although not the first science fiction comedy, it was far and away the most successful, entering Britain's national consciousness to an unprecedented degree, and paving the way for the later success of Terry Pratchett's comic fantasies.

Disclaimer: These citations are created on-the-fly using primitive parsing techniques. You should double-check all citations. Send feedback to

  • APA 6th ed.: Kincaid, Paul (August 2001). Douglas Adams obituary. Science Fiction Chronicle p. 50.
  • MLA 7th ed.: Kincaid, Paul. "Douglas Adams obituary." Science Fiction Chronicle [add city] August 2001, 50. Print.
  • Chicago 15th ed.: Kincaid, Paul. "Douglas Adams obituary." Science Fiction Chronicle, edition, sec., August 2001
  • Turabian: Kincaid, Paul. "Douglas Adams obituary." Science Fiction Chronicle, August 2001, section, 50 edition.
  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=Douglas Adams obituary | url= | work=Science Fiction Chronicle | pages=50 | date=August 2001 | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=6 December 2023 }}</ref>
  • Wikipedia (this page): <ref>{{cite web | title=Douglas Adams obituary | url= | work=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=6 December 2023}}</ref>