Happy Towel Day: a complete guide to the life and work of Douglas Adams

We look back at the life and work of sci-fi literary hero Douglas Adams

The following article first featured in issue 128 of SciFiNow. 

Perhaps one of Douglas Adams’ most famous turns of phrase – and he’s basically known for his turns of phrase – is the one about deadlines. “I love deadlines,” he wrote. “I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”

Just knowing that Douglas Adams himself also struggled with deadlines is enough to give anyone hope in times of need that things are probably going to be all right. If Douglas Adams couldn’t handle them then who else among us should be expected to?

More comforting still is the extent of that struggle. During his early work on the Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy radio series Adams began to develop problems sticking to his deadlines, which only got worse as he started to write the accompanying novels.

“Writer’s block doesn’t really cover it,” Maggie Phillips tells us. Adams was signed with Ed Victor Ltd Literary Agency, and Phillips was Ed Victor’s assistant during the eighties before becoming the company’s managing director. She retired at the end of 2014, but she still helps out as a consultant. Back in the day, she was involved with sorting out Adams with publishing contracts and got to know him, his late wife Jane and his daughter Polly quite well. 

“It used to take him ages and it was agony for him, and agony for his publishers too, who were waiting for these books that they knew would have a massive audience and sale,” she continues.

When it came to working on the penultimate book of the trilogy of five, So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish, Adams actually had to be locked in a hotel suite with his editor so that he’d actually get around to finishing it. 

“We knew where he was!” Phillips laughs. “I think this happened twice! Once it was in a hotel in the country in Kent, and the other time it was a hotel in Knightsbridge. We knew what was happening, and absolutely went along with it at the time. It seemed the only way the books were ever going to get written.”

There were just too many distractions around when he was home alone for him to get any work done. He was a pretty popular guy, and was not one to turn down a leisurely lunch date with friends. He also adored computers and making his own programs, having once said he would have liked to have been a software engineer when he was younger, had he known what software engineers were.

After many, many hours of being forced to work, putting the work off, and being forced again, Adams’ back catalogue now includes a five-series radio comedy, a TV mini-series, seven novels, some short stories, a heap of other books, a couple of computer games and a screenplay credit for the 2005 Hitchhiker’s Guide film, among other things. Not bad for someone with a procrastination problem as outrageous as Adams’. 

The Hitchhiker’s Guide  TV series first aired on BBC2 in 1981.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy series (the radio series, the novels and the TV show) was, and still is, Adams’ most popular work. For those unfamiliar, The Hitchhiker’s Guide tells the story of Arthur Dent and his often inconvenient but hilarious adventures through space after his home planet (Earth) is destroyed by an alien race to make way for a hyperspace bypass.

The series, in all its forms, has undeniably had a momentous impact on science fiction literature, but it goes a lot further than that. “The main thing to remember about Douglas Adams was that he was a comedian, not a sci-fi author,” says Jem Roberts, the author of The Frood: The Authorised And Very Official History Of Douglas Adams And The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy.

“All he ever wanted was to be either a Beatle or a Python, and though he enjoyed sci-fi as a kid, he had no time for it as a genre generally,” Roberts continues. “His impact has been on sci-fi comedy more than sci-fi literature; if you want to see his greatest influence in today’s culture, look to Rick And Morty (creators Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon are diehard Adams fans) and Bravest Warriors – the latter particularly has a knack for presenting Adams-style mind-blowing concepts really quickly and simply.” 

Growing up, Adams lived off a radio comedy diet of the likes of Beyond Our Ken, The Navy Lark, The Clitheroe Kid and Hancock. “Anything that made me laugh,” Adams is quoted saying in The Frood. “I thought there was something tremendously important about being funny, but I wasn’t really funny for a while and I gradually learned it, in a sense.”

Adams’ talents in the worlds of both comedy and science fiction have made so much of an impact that there has actually been debate among fans about whether or not The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy can actually be classed as sci-fi.

In The Frood, Adams says: “I’ve inadvertently done something quite clever, in that I’ve done a show which science fiction fans like because they think it’s science fiction, and which people who don’t like science fiction like, because they think it’s knocking science fiction.”

In actual fact, the pilot for the Hitchhiker’s radio show was written as a sitcom rather than a humorous sci-fi serial, and pitched to the BBC as ‘a science fiction comedy adventure in time and space, which weaves in and out of fantasy, jokes, satire, parallel universes and time warps,’ ticking the boxes for sci-fi fans and comedy fans alike.

And then, of course, was Adams’ work on his trippy book series – if two and a half books can count as a series – Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, as well as the time he spent as a script editor during Season 17 of Doctor Who. His lax approach to wider world of sci-fi fandom didn’t extend to Doctor Who, of which he was an enthusiastic, life-long fan.

As told in The Frood, Adams accidentally missed the very first episode of the show back in 1963, but he never dared to miss it again after the second. He even went so far as to make appointments with the Doctor in his school’s shared TV lounge.

The show also contributed in some part when it came to honing his writing skills; in 1964, Adams sat down and wrote a whole, original episode of Doctor Who (entitled ‘Doctor Which’), recorded it like a radio play and then presented the audio during his school’s Christmas festivities to entertain his classmates.

He then of course went on to actually write three stories for the show, including ‘The Pirate Planet’ (which was the second serial in Season 16’s ‘The Key To Time’ arc), ‘City Of Death’ (which was transmitted under the pseudonym ‘David Agnew’), and ‘Shada’ (which was only partially filmed and not televised due to industry disputes. However, Gareth Roberts wrote an accompanying novelisation in 2012). 

Fourth Doctor actor Tom Baker in ‘The Pirate Planet’ ©BBC

What’s really quite staggering, though totally understandable, is how much of an impact Adams has had on the world in general, art and culture aside. It seems like every other weird invention dreamt up in his work, from the language-translating Babel Fish to the Hitchhiker’s Guide itself, is becoming reality.

“I end The Frood with a key quote from Douglas about how modern scientists are influenced directly by science fiction, and how crucial it therefore is to envisage utopias rather than dystopias,” explains Jem Roberts. “It’s clear that Hitchhiker’s Guide especially has influenced the move of technology – it’s weird to read in a 1984 novel of Ford Prefect uploading his work on the Guide via the sub-etha, and to recognise it as exactly parallel to uploading something on a tablet with Wi-Fi today – in 1984 it was entirely imaginary. It’s like we’re living in the world Adams dreamt of, but he’s not here to enjoy it alongside us.”

“He was very clever and very funny, and I’m just so sorry that he’s not here now to enjoy these things like iPhones and iPads, which he more or less predicted would come about in this time, and he’s not here to have fun with them,” adds Maggie Phillips.

As a consultant for Ed Victor Ltd, part of Phillips’ job is to handle the legal side of Adams’ legacy. “Many times I have been asked by a computer company if they could call a product ‘Babel Fish’,” she says, “and we have always said no because the product described has never been quite like what Douglas created in his book. It’s hard to imagine but maybe people read Douglas’s books, science-y people, people working for Apple, and think, oh yes! We could do that!”

A year or two ago, Phillips and her colleagues received a message from the International Space Station, asking for permission to use the poster for The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy.

“Those people who are going round and round in space,” she says, “they do three-month stints up there and they wanted to reproduce the poster with the faces of the International Space Station crew superimposed over the faces of the people who were in the film. That’s, what, 14 years after Douglas had died. That book, Hitchhiker’s Guide, still had such meaning to serious scientists who are orbiting the Earth. It was just thrilling! Luckily we were able to get permission, and now they’re floating up in space with a Hitchhiker’s Guide poster on the wall.”

The International Space Station celebrated Towel Day in Space with a ‘Don’t Panic’ towel.

Ed Victor Ltd is also a point of contact when it comes to gaining permission to adapt Adams’ stories into films and TV series. According to Phillips, very little of what is submitted is ever made, simply because most of it is deemed disrespectful, not viable or just bad. The successful few are chosen based on being what the literacy agency, and often Adams’ daughter, think Adams might have liked.

The most recent of those projects is BBC America’s series Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, based on Adams’ novel of the same name. It stars Samuel Barnett as Dirk Gently and Elijah Wood as Dirk’s assistant Todd Brotzman. Maggie Phillips clearly thought it worthy, as Season One and Two are now available to stream on Netflix UK. And the cast and crew aren’t made up of random people who just needed another job; most of them are actual dedicated Douglas Adams fans.

“[Douglas] is in his writing,” Barnett says. “I didn’t know him at all but when I read his work, you can just hear his voice, and I kind of think the best writers do that, they do put themselves into their work.”

Barnett cites the unfinished third Dirk Gently book, The Salmon Of Doubt: Hitchhiking The Galaxy One Last Time, as his favourite. The book not only contains the Dirk Gently story Adams was in the middle of when he died, but also a collection of his other, previously unpublished writings. 

“You read it and you see his take on life, and you see his observations,” Barnett explains. “He was a man full of huge intellect and wit but also huge heart and soul, hugely funny, and he actually writes from a very, very human perspective. He’s clever, because I think he writes about the everyday, mundane specific things and makes them very funny and very universal so that we can all relate to them. That’s what I think all great writers do who endure. They write about human nature in their own different ways and I think Douglas was no exception.”

The TV series’ director, Arvind Ethan David, believes Adams’ legacy has endured, and will continue to, simply because he was a genius. “I don’t use that term lightly and I don’t use it generally,” David tells us.

“He was a genius in a very specific sense, which is that he saw the everyday world differently from anybody else around him, and his great gift was in his writing. To have a sort of telepathy that lets you see the world the way he did, you feel smarter, you feel funnier, you feel more alive when you look at the world through Douglas Adams’ eyes and through his writing.

“Whether that’s talking about the absurdity of everyday life in Arthur Dent bravely, Britishly lying down in the mud in his dressing gown to prevent the British bureaucracy from tearing down his house – which just feels so true today, as it did 40 years ago – or whether it’s talking about ideas of evolution, human consciousness, religion, game theory and all the other things that Douglas’ writing effortlessly wraps up into a joke.”

David also believes that his work has lasted because it’s hard being funny. “Douglas was very, very funny, he was a world class humorist, but to be funny and to make you think profoundly about the world at the same time. That’s rare. And Douglas does it not once a book, not once a chapter, but in every line.”

Elijah Wood and Samuel Barnett as Todd Brotzman and Dirk Gently in Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency

Though it has been more than 15 years since his death, Adams’ legacy is still very much living on. As BBC America’s Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency proves – along with the 2007 BBC Radio 4 version, the 2012 BBC Four mini-series starring Stephen Mangan and Darren Boyd, and the 2005 Hitchhiker’s Guide film – people are still trying to recreate Adams’ magic.

Artemis Fowl author Eoin Colfer even decided to round off the Hitchhiker’s Guide series with a part six, And Another Thing…, which sees Arthur Dent’s home planet of Earth come under the threat of being blown up (again), and subsequently continue his journeys through time and space. Before his death, Adams had expressed a want to continue the series. He said that since the last book in the trilogy of five, Mostly Harmless, was a pretty bleak book, he wanted to go back and finish on a more upbeat note. Colfer did him proud in that respect.

In the grand scheme of things, it’s very easy to understand why Adams’ writings seem to be eternal: they are, quite simply, works of genius. “Hitchhiker’s in particular,” says Jem Roberts, “is one big hippy-style chill pill – it tells us that if there are aliens out there, they are as messed up and clueless as we are, and we should concentrate on two things – preserving our planet and its many species, us included, but equally importantly, having a bloody good time. That seems about right as far as intergalactic philosophy goes, and there’s no wonder it still appeals.”

The legacy of Douglas Adams also lives on in fan clubs everywhere, most notably the Hitchhiker’s Guide appreciation society ZZ9 Plural Z Alpha, named after Adams’ fictional galactic sector containing Earth. The society also publishes a quarterly magazine titled Mostly Harmless.

“I’m an honorary lifetime member,” says Maggie Phillips. “I’m on the mailing list for the magazine, and just occasionally they surprise me with something that I didn’t know.”

Obviously, any day is a great day to celebrate Douglas Adams. But 25 May, the birthday of the Frood himself, is a date to mark down in your diaries every year if you don’t already do so. Now and forever known as Towel Day, fans all over the world use the date to pay tribute to the late, great writer and humorist. He was a guy who really knew where his towel was.

The Frood: The Authorised And Very Official History Of Douglas Adams And The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy by Jem Roberts is out now. The complete The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy TV mini-series is available to download from the BBC Store. Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency is available to stream on Netflix UK.