Simon Jones – a rock star in a dressing gown. At least, that how the man who’s played Arthur Dent for over 30 years now claims he’ll feel when he’s out on tour with Hitchhiker’s Live.
And he’s not being egotistical. As if you could ever imagine the terribly British actor behind Arthur ever being egotistical. Okay, one should never confuse an actor with the character he plays but since Hitchhiker’s creator Douglas Adams often claimed that Arthur was based on Jones in the first place, maybe this time we can.
No, the reason he’s getting that rock star vibe is because Hitchhiker’s is going live.
“What’s going to be really interesting.” he enthuses, “is that we’re going to have a live audience, which we’ve never had. When we did the original radio series we couldn’t do it live. It was all done in bits and then whisked off to the Radiophonic Workshop. When it was broadcast it was as much a surprise to us as it was to the audience. So what I’m looking forward to is that chemistry that occurs with a live audience – it’s something we’ve been almost cheated out of all these years and now we’ll be able to enjoy.”
But Jones has years of stage experience behind him. It’s not just acting in front of a live audience that exciting him; it’s the fact that it’s an audience that knows the material almost as well as he does. That’s what’ll make going to see Hitchhiker’s Live like going to see a rock concert – people are waiting for their favourites “tracks” – or in this case “gags”.
“Well I can only cite our experiences when we did something similar – a one-off – in 2009 at the Royal Festival Hall,” Jones recalls. “It was sort of a dry run for this, and an inspiration for it in many ways. That was for the launch of Eion Colfer’s book, And Another Thing, a marvellous sequel by the way. We had this idea to have an exhibition there for a weekend where the original cast from the first two radio series would be doing their acts. We came to it not knowing what to expect and there were 2,000 people in front of us from all over the UK and Europe. Most of them were wearing dressing gowns. All of them had towels.
“The moment we opened their mouths they were standing and shouting and whooping and cheering. It was like a rock concert. And the cast just looked at each other and thought ‘’Ello ’ello ’ello! What have we got here then? This is rather interesting!” And that was the point in which we realised the potential in what a show had to offer.”
The Voices Of The Book
Reassembling for Hitchhiker’s Live are most of the original radio cast. As well as Jones, Geoff McGivern is back as Ford Prefect, Mark Wing-Davey as Zaphod, Susan Sheridan as Trillian and Stephen Moore as the voice of Marvin. Sadly, Peter Jones, the Voice of the Book, passed away in 2000, so instead there are going to be various big name guest voices for the Guide. And we mean big (see the bottom of this article for the full list).
“They really are,” agrees Jones. “I remember when we did the first series, we couldn’t get people to do the Voice but by the time we were doing series three, four and five people were banging on our doors. I remember Jonathan Pryce saying, ‘You do remember me playing Zarniwoop in the original series? I do hope you’ll be asking me to do it again.’
“A lot of them are friends of Douglas’s, or [radio series producer] John Lloyd’s: Terry Jones, Roger McGough. And Billy Boyd was one of the leads in the Dirk Gently radio series.
“Neil Gaiman I managed to secure,” he adds proudly. “Briefly I was doing a bit of work at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis and I realised he only lived across the road. Well, nearish. So I sent him a message going, ‘Are you coming to see this play?’ He replied back saying, ‘I’m glad you messaged me because I’m off somewhere on Tuesday so I’ll come tonight.’ So after a few drinks in the bar afterwards we got to talking and I asked, ‘You wouldn’t be interested in doing the voice for a book would you?’ and it all came together from there really.”
Hitchhiker’s Live isn’t quite a true play, but neither is it a mere script reading.
“It’s a little more than that!” Jones retorts good-naturedly when I suggest such a thing. “I mean, at this stage we pretty much know all the lines anyway – the script in our hands is more of a prop than anything. There’ll be live sound effects many of which will have their own visual gags too. I’ll be looking forward in particular to the scene where Arthur Dent encounters Agrajag, this strange bat-like creature who is inhabited various people that Arthur has accidentally killed over the years. It’s dedicated itself to revenge on Arthur Dent and built a Temple Of Hate with an effigy of Arthur Dent. And he’s going to be played by someone flapping an umbrella all around me!
“So there’s going to be plenty of visuals, and a live band behind us. Surround sound, too. You’ll be able to download the performance you were at afterwards. Because I think it’ll be full of ridiculous ad-libs, no doubt, so each show will be different.”
The Second Half
Jones also explains that the adaptation delves into less explored areas of the Hitchhiker’s series as well.
“The other thing is that there is some stuff in there that not everyone will know. The second half will have less familiar material. It’s still Douglas but it’s from the other three, less familiar radio series. I think the first half, which is more based on the first two radio series, is where the audience will work that ‘knowing the punch line’ feeling out of their system.”
Sadly, the original TV dressing gown won’t be making an appearance, though Jones still owns it, he claims.
“You open up the bathroom door and there it is on the hook. It’s so moth-proofed I can feel myself being mothproofed when I put it on. We had a photo session where I was wearing it recently, and I actually began to feel like one of those extra strong mints. I had to take it off because it was driving me crazy. I won’t be wearing it on stage however because I don’t know if I – or it – would survive. There’ll be a new one.”