Tale of an extraordinary teller

Updated 05 Jun 2016


Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

In the late 1970s, a little-known English ape-descendant named Douglas Adams landed the opportunity to develop a science fiction radio series for the BBC. His resulting effort was The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, an imaginative, humorous romp that instantly tickled the fancy of British sci-fi aficionados, and then went on to amuse fans around the world as it re-emerged in various formats over the next 30-odd years. The series established Adams as the greatest sci-fi humorist of all time, and now, more than a decade after his death, comedy historian Jem Roberts has captured the journey of the writer and his most popular creation in the book The Frood: The Authorised and Very Official History of Douglas Adams & The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Put together with the “full approval and participation of Douglas’ family and closest friends”, the very comprehensive tome chronicles the life and work of the Cambridge-born writer.

The Frood sheds light on Adams’ background, schooling, inroads into the world of comedy, writing partnerships, ultimate success with the Hitchhiker saga, and work on other projects, till his life was tragically cut short by his untimely death at the age of 49. Roberts recounts details from Adams’ childhood and youth, talking about his parents’ divorce, his love for The Beatles and Monty Python, and aspiration to follow his comedy idols’ footsteps by joining the Footlights Club, a goal he would eventually achieve but which wouldn’t give him the breakthrough he so desired. Determined to establish himself as a writer-performer, he would collaborate with other comedians, participating in revues and occasionally contributing to radio and television. The book explains how Adams finally found success with his own radio series, and subsequently also worked on some other projects, like Doctor Who, Dirk Gently, and Last Chance to See.

Jem Roberts encapsulates the journey of the writer Douglas Adams and his most popular creation

Despite other interests though, the Hitchhiker series would remain an active part of his writing schedule in one form or another, and it’s Adams’ magnum opus that is the primary focus of The Frood. In painstaking detail, Roberts charts the story’s inception, continuation, and evolution, as Arthur Dent’s adventures make him the hero of radio series, books, and stage shows, as well as a television series, computer game, and film. We find out how seeds of ideas that would end up in one of Hitchhiker’s many manifestations were planted over the years, with the author seeking inspiration in the styles and works of his comedy heroes. The difficulties Adams faced while working on each incarnation — including his well-documented struggle with procrastination, notorious tussle with deadlines, and the many issues in the making of the film — are also noted in the book.

Interspersed throughout the text are quotes from the late writer, taken from different interviews, and snippets from his notes that mention potential ideas he was considering for inclusion in his writing. The appendix at the end of the book also features about 50 pages of unpublished Hitchhiker extracts.

The Douglas Adams-penned paragraphs and script excerpts along with his interview quotes are the highlight of The Frood, truly making the book worth a read. But when Jem Roberts is in charge of the prose, the book runs into a few issues. The tome appears to be written with British readers — particularly those who are obsessed with British comedy — in mind; many names and references are thrown at the reader that won’t make much sense (or be of much interest) to those who aren’t well-versed in BBC light entertainment history.

Roberts — who has also penned the comedy histories The Clue Bible: The Fully Authorised History of I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue and The True History of the Black Adder — does come off as both passionate and knowledgeable about his topic, but as he delves into the minutiae of Adams’ writing process, the result gets a bit tedious. Between his rambling style, over-long sentences, confusingly abbreviated titles, and ambiguous statements, you can’t help but feel that the book could have used a thorough edit.

Also peculiar is the writer’s choice to repeatedly refer to his subject as “the Frood”, a term used in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to refer to “a really amazingly together guy”, which, this book shows at length, Adams definitely was not. Roberts himself admits that “Douglas Adams conceived ‘the Frood’ as being someone almost, but not quite, entirely unlike him”, which explains why the use of this term throughout the text feels odd and grating.

With a number of other books already written about Douglas Adams and his defining work — including biographies by Neil Gaiman, Nick Webb, and M. J. Simpson, all of which are referenced by Roberts — The Frood isn’t an essential pick for a casual reader. But this in-depth, well researched, and thoroughly detailed look at the writer’s journey is more likely to please diehard fans, especially those who are eager to find out more about how one of the most successful sci-fi larks in comedy history took shape and the very complex man who thought up this extraordinary tale that captured the imagination of listeners, readers, and viewers, and will continue to do so for generations to come.

The reviewer is a Lahore-based freelance writer and critic.

The Frood: The Authorised and Very Official History of Douglas Adams & The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
By Jem Roberts
Preface Publishing, UK
ISBN 978-1848094376

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 5th, 2016