The best thing about my birthday as a kid was that it always fell in half term. We didn’t live that near any multiplex cinemas, so most of my trips to the pictures were in school holidays. My mother started dropping me off at the Showcase more often from the age of 10 or 11 and, being tall for my age, I had started to feel full of confidence going into films rated 12A. For my 12th birthday I wanted to see Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith. While I had been a fairly casual viewer of the franchise, my friend and frequent cinema buddy was a big fan, so had quickly helped build my enthusiasm for the new film. Alas, our plans were shot down in flames.* We were told that we had to take our younger brothers along too and my brother did not like Star Wars so I would have to pick another film – for my birthday. I hated him.
But there was another film I wanted to see. So, after a morning opening a lightsabre and Series 1 Volume 1 of Doctor Who, we went to watch The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I remember enjoying it enormously for the interesting plot, its humour, Stephen Fry’s narration – a device that seemed strange for a film – Bill Nighy’s role as the creator, Zaphod Beeblebrox – a mad man with two heads (how marvellous!), and Marvin the paranoid android. I was less keen on the lovey-dovey stuff between Martin Freeman’s Arthur and the other human because I thought people ought to just get on with having fun adventures.
Some time afterwards I bought the tie-in edition of Douglas Adam’s novel, enjoyed that too, then that was it really – a few sections of the story have remained clear in my mind, but I haven’t got around to revisiting Hitchhiker’s in either form. At some point, I became aware that there had been a television series and later still learned of the original radio series.
I’ve become increasingly curious about the television adaption and learned a little about it from an interview with the BBC’s VFX department in November 1981’s Starburst. The 2005 film doesn’t seem to be held in high regard, although I do wonder if that’s because many people have such strong nostalgic fondness for the television series. Yet the last time I laid doubt on a television programme due to the power of nostalgia, it knocked me for six**, so I’m trying to go into 1981’s version of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy with an open mind.
Fit the First
The episode’s opening scene is magnetic, despite the fact that nothing happens. On-screen text tells us that the Earth is about to be destroyed and we then watch a sunrise – planet Earth’s last – while the Narrator begins our story by telling us about the eponymous Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a comprehensive travel guide for the discerning space traveller. I am instantly delighted by Peter Jones’s voice and find myself enraptured. It’s calm, measured and reassuring, then he takes us to Arthur Dent’s house, which is about to be demolished to make way for a bypass.
Arthur stands firm in front of the demolition team and his battle with polite but obstructive officialdom is something every British adult has encountered. I like how even though what we’re watching in this scene is semi-ridiculous – with Arthur having rushed outside in his pyjamas – the dialogue gives us the increasingly absurd images of Arthur’s journey within the council offices to find his home’s well-hidden demolition orders.
We are introduced to Arthur’s friend Ford Prefect, who is very insistent that they need to get to the pub. I quickly love this Ford Prefect. While I hadn’t wanted to start comparing this series with the film too much, it’s hard not to and I realise how much straighter David Dixon is playing the part compared to the way Ford is portrayed in the film version, which now seems more of a caricature in comparison. I like Ford anyway because he knows the world is about to end and he has decided that he will spend his final minutes on Earth drinking as much beer as he can in a lovely village pub – it’s exactly how I’d choose to spend mine. I’m watching this at a time when I haven’t been in a pub for months and I’d normally be in one every week, so the attraction to Arthur’s local is intense.
The Red Lion Pub
As I’m so fond of pubs, I thought I’d take a closer look at this one.
It’s a very traditional pub interior with wooden tables and benches, along with patterned curtains. Ford told Arthur, “I’ve got to tell you the most important thing you’ve ever heard! I’ve got to tell you now and I’ve got to tell you in the saloon bar of the Red Lion!” Originally, the saloon or lounge bar of a pub would have had slightly higher prices than the public bar, reflecting the fact that it was more comfortable with better furniture and fittings, such as chairs and carpet instead of just stools and an uncovered floor. I’m inclined to think this pricing distinction had gone by 1981, but even today some pubs – simply by their layout – still have areas designated as lounge and [public] bar.
I’m happy to assume that the man in his fifties behind the bar is the landlord. Like any good barman, he politely goes along with Ford’s seemingly ridiculous assertion that the world’s about to end, commenting that it’s “nice weather for it.”
Ford orders six pints of bitter, then hands the landlord a £5 note and tells him to keep the change. The man comments that it’s “very generous” – and so it would be, except he’s “got 10 minutes left to spend it”. Around the start of 1981, the average pint of bitter was 49p  (Reflecting the high inflation of the 1970s, this had almost quadrupled in 10 years. For comparison, the average price of draught bitter at the end of 2020 was £3.16). 49p x 6 gives us £2.94, so Ford has tipped the man enough money for more than four pints.
I love the look on the face of the man stood next to Ford at the bar. It’s an expression that says: I have nothing else better to do today than stand here supping pints.
The landlord serves them from a handpull on which the badge is so clearly angled towards the camera that there may as well have been sponsorship paid. This enables us to see that they are drinking Tamplins Bitter. Tamplins was based in Brighton and had been one of the largest breweries in the area, but it was bought out in 1953, hence the ‘Brewed by Watneys’ tagline on the badge. The Tamplins name had disappeared completely by 1969 until it was revived as part of a new cask beer range. Watneys sold it as a “traditional bitter”, while the 1982 Good Beer Guide thought it a “well-balanced brew”, which tells us little really.
It’s interesting that the landlord has assumed they want cask ale, rather than the keg bitter that many pubs were serving by this time. For those who don’t know their beer so well, the difference is that keg beer uses carbon dioxide to push the beer through the pumps so it can be poured simply by turning on a tap, while cask ale is pulled up using a handpull. Keg beer is fizzy and generally served much colder than cask.
It’s Arthur’s local – all of two minutes’ walk from his house – so perhaps the landlord knows he prefers cask bitter, and this pub may not have served keg bitter anyway; there are other taps further along the bar, but we can’t see what they are and the Ben Truman’s Export Draught next to the Tamplins is a pale ale. Ben Truman was also part of Watneys by this time, whose full name had actually become Watney Mann & Truman, so the pub may well have belonged to them. None of these breweries exist today, though both the Ben Truman and Watneys names have been revived.
From the episode’s opening, we know that the Earth is scheduled for destruction at 11:46 precisely. Opening times were still restricted in the early 1980s and pubs in England and Wales had to close their doors for several hours in the afternoons. Yet they could open from 11am and therefore use this to make the most of the limitations on lunchtime sales. Today, most pubs don’t expect to make enough out of such early trading and there has been a move to midday openings, though the Wetherspoons chain is a notorious exception. Based on Ford’s countdown of the minutes they have left on Earth, we know he buys their six pints at 11:36. It could be that the pub opened at 11:30. However, there are already several patrons drinking so the landlord would have had to have served them all exceptionally fast, and yet surely if it was 11, Ford should have got to Arthur’s house earlier? It’s the last day on Earth – the last ever day to drink cask ale in an English pub! You’d want to get there for opening. Maybe the pub was supposed to open at 11:30 but, as there was a queue already, the landlord decided to start serving a little earlier.
During their time at the pub, I find I’m swiftly warming to Simon Jones’s Arthur too, enjoying his delivery of the line, “It must be Thursday. I never could get the hang of Thursdays.”
Location vs studio
The location filming makes Arthur’s situation much more real, which is why I think it’s marvellous for this first episode to contain so much – nothing we see on Earth is in a studio. From the outside of Arthur’s house to the recognisable aspects of the pub, this looks like our world. It’s then cemented by the shots of London and the crowd emerging on the steps of a tube station for the Central Line (the fellow with a ‘the end of the world is nigh’ sign is a suitable touch). There are a few stock shots but these blend in well.
In my memory, the film version gets to the Vogan ship very quickly and that’s when the adventure begins. As a result, it seemed like events were moving slowly during the first half of this episode and yet, while conscious of this, I didn’t mind – everything was entertaining me. The parallels between the destruction of Arthur’s house and that of the Earth are plainly obvious, but it’s the way it’s done with the Vogan’s remarks about the galactic bypass plans: “Oh, for heaven’s sake mankind! It’s only four lightyears away, you know. I’m sorry, but if you can’t be bothered to take an interest in local affairs, then it’s your own lookout!” The shot of the Earth exploding is super, and I liked how much it lingered.
It’s a sharp contrast when Ford and Arthur board the Vogan ship and it took me a moment to work out why this was grating on me. What was so wrong? “Good grief. Is this really the interior of a flying saucer?” asks Arthur. I immediately wanted to harshly answer, “No, it’s clearly a BBC studio set!” I realised we were missing something – sound. There’s no hum of the engines or any other background noises from the ship so I’d become more aware of the incidental music and therefore of the fact that we’re seeing something acted out in a television studio. I did my best to ignore this nagging annoyance because as Ford and Arthur started to explore the ship, I was admiring its dark and industrial design, especially the corridors.
After fast-paced scenes on Earth, we’ve slowed down on the ship. Ford and Arthur hear the Vogan leader over the tanoy but don’t interact with any other characters for the rest of the episode. I found this interesting to watch, enjoying how they successfully carry more than 10 minutes of material with just the two of them. It seemed to bode well.
I’ve saved the best until last, but the distinctive graphics were my favourite aspect of this Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. They’re scattered throughout the episode and feel an integral part of it.
At the opening, they are used to depict the Guide’s cover instruction of “DON’T PANIC” and draw out a depiction of Arthur, resplendent in his pyjamas. But they threw me shortly afterwards when the demolition man’s words of “None at all” are picked upon by the Narrator to start telling us about Ford Prefect. “NONE AT ALL” flashes on the screen in red capital letters, followed by graphics of Ford, while text starts appearing at the bottom as though typed out from the Guide. It’s all overlayed on a crane shot that’s zooming out from Arthur and the bulldozer before the background fades to black and more and more appears. We moved from Ford to his home planet Betelgeuse within its star system, then onto an animated Earth – I’m in awe of the graphics’ design style and wish they were on screen a bit longer so I could admire them further.
When we cut back to Earth, something has happened to the image and I’m not sure of the correct terms to describe it – everything is now deeply contrasted, with light patches in yellow and dark in black. I like it. Finally, we have a random sight of apes eating with humans, simply to demonstrate that “This never happens”.
Next, as Ford and Arthur head off to the pub, the Narrator begins sharing what the Encyclopaedia Galactica has to say about alcohol, followed by the Guide’s information on the Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster. This a little different as the graphics overlay some live action elsewhere, as though the Guide is illustrated with videos as well as graphics. The Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster causes a green woman to almost fall out of her metal-ringed dress. Unlike most of the previous details from the Narrator, this one seems completely superfluous to the story and is simply added entertainment.
These interruptions do remind us that we are being told a story. After what I’ve said about the location filming giving the episode verisimilitude, perhaps the Narrator and the graphics should take away from that. But they don’t. They act as a commentary and while it’s unusually strange for a television series, the story continues to flow; they’re enhancing it and I love them.
*I have still never seen Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith and I’m not particularly bothered.
**The programme was Threads, and I am now scarred for life.
 The Statistical Handbook of the British Beer & Pub Association (2017 edition)