"Blowing up entire universes is pretty straightforward - making the sound of someone turning invisible can be a challenge."

27 Mar 2018

Five minutes with Dirk Maggs

Multi-award-winning writer and director and University of Winchester alumnus and Honorary Fellow, Dirk Maggs has just directed the 40th anniversary series of BBC Radio Four’s hugely popular Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Dirk is renowned for evolving radio drama into ‘audio movies’ – a near-visual approach combining scripts, layered sound effects, cinematic music and cutting-edge technology. Before a recent event at the University, at which he discussed his career and latest adventures with former BBC Deputy Director General Mark Byford, Dirk explained how he got inspired by audio as a kid, and why he thinks Hitchhiker will live on.

Where did your interest in audio drama come from – did you listen to a lot of radio as a kid?

What really got me interested in the medium of audio was that my dad was a huge fan of radio comedy and so every Sunday lunchtime we’d listen to Round the Horne which was the big show to listen to.

From that I got into The Goon Show. It had finished by the time I got listening but it turned me onto the potential for sound because Spike Milligan’s whole concept of how to make sound a visual thing stuck with me. And then when I joined the BBC – after thinking I wanted to go into television and then hating television – I went back to radio and started making comedy shows. I worked with Spike on a recreation of a Marx Brothers show called Flywheel, Shyster and Flywheel. I think I was the last producer to work with Spike in the BBC Paris Studios which was the radio comedy studio.

That’s what got me into it and then I discovered it wasn’t just comedy you could do this visual thing with: you could also do it with drama and so that opened things out for me.

What are the challenges of adapting books for a radio audience?

There’s always a challenge in taking something in one medium and translating it into another. That said, pure audio is actually surprisingly sympathetic to either narrative stories from novels as well as comic book stories.

Over the years of finding ways to tell stories in audio, I’ve discovered that actually very little is impossible and sometimes it’s the simple things that are hard. Blowing up entire universes is pretty straightforward – making the sound of someone turning invisible can be a challenge! Or having a scene in which two lookalikes talk to each other, that’s when you’re struggling. But adapting books isn’t hard, especially if you have the author to talk to which is very useful. For example, when I work with Neil Gaiman he gives me ideas and thoughts. It’s harder when the author has died, such as Douglas [Adams]: I have to rely on the conversations we had when he was alive.

Quite often you discover that people who know the piece of work enjoy the audio much more than they would a film or a TV adaptation, because they can still have the pictures in their mind. As long as you get the sound of the characters right, the rest follows.

What do you think audio as a medium allows you to do as a storyteller that television and films don’t?

I always suggest to people who want to work in film and television that they make an audio version first, because you can see whether your dramatic vision works in a medium that is visual.

The thing about audio is that it sneaks past the optic nerve, it goes in the side door but it still creates a visual image inside your brain. In fact, you are much more immersed if it’s done well because you are seeing it and hearing it and feeling it and you can still be doing the ironing. But you can also do War and Peace or Lord of the Rings for very little outlay: you don’t have to have wardrobe, make-up or lighting and the technology is on your phone to record sound. Then it’s up to you how clever you are doing it, so I think it has a lot of virtues.

How do you feel about the whole Hitchhiker adventure?

It’s been a mixed blessing to be honest. When Douglas asked me if I would be interested in doing it I was completely overcome with the scale of the task and I had to think very hard about how I was going to do it and not become overwhelmed by it.

Douglas and I had meetings and talked through how the third series would work and then it didn’t happen. It was 12 years later by the time we finally got in the studio with that and then made two more series. By this time, Douglas had tragically died (at the age of 49) but in that time I learned to be a better producer and trust my judgement.

I was a bit intimidated by this new series to start with but then I just put my producer hat on and thought: this has got to work for a modern audience and still sound like the old programmes. We’ve got the original cast but we also need to make this work in a comedy slot. The original series went out at 10.30pm: there was no expectation of a huge audience. Comedy is a pretty ruthless business and if it isn’t funny you cut it. So a lot of my effort was directed towards finding the humour, finding Douglas’s unique voice but not being afraid to put aside stuff that wasn’t going to work.

Why do you think it’s still popular today?

I think Hitchhiker has moved into the realms of Alice in Wonderland, Tolkien, Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. Popular culture owns Hitchhiker now: everybody knows that 42 is the answer to life, the Universe and everything even if they don’t know that Douglas Adams wrote it. When you become an expression - like the ‘lurgi’ for illness started on The Goon Show - it’s moved into the popular consciousness and I think it will live on for that reason.

When we did the stage tours of Hitchhiker I was determined not to miss anything so I played drums in the band and in between numbers and sound effects I watched the audience. From Glasgow down to Exeter there were 12 year-olds in the audience in their dressing gowns and towels with their mums and dads and the kids were laughing at the jokes – and some of this stuff is quite sophisticated – they were falling about laughing. It seems that around the age of 12 people discover Hitchhiker and there’s something about its combination of science and humour and irony – kids in their teens get it and then it’s with them for the rest of their lives.

I think it’s profound and the fact that entrepreneur Elon Musk has just put a Tesla Roadster in orbit with ‘Don’t panic’ on the dashboard so Douglas’s words - whether he knows it or not - are going to be orbiting the sun for millions of years is wonderful.

You’ve worked on audio adaptations of Alien, The X Files and Superman, as well as Hitchhiker's: is that because you particularly like science fiction or does it just make for great audio drama?

It was a very simple thing: I worked in the BBC Radio 2 trails department. One of the programmes we did trails for was Crimewatch and we thought classic detectives like Miss Marple and Poirot would be great to use. I wanted to have Superman and rang DC Comics in New York to ask them. In the end they said yes – and they also mentioned that the following year was the 50th anniversary since Superman was created.

I put a Superman documentary down as a programme idea, applied to BBC radio and got commissioned to do it. It went so well that Radio 4 asked for a series, Through that I met Neil Gaiman, who was working at DC Comics at the time, and also through that because Douglas heard the Superman series, I got to do Hitchhiker. So from a tiny acorn of thinking to do one thing and ringing someone, all this came about.

How did your time at King Alfred’s College Winchester prepare you for your career both at the BBC and now as a freelance producer?

I had the best time ever. I was here for four years for my BEd degree at that time and I lived in the Stripe theatre. I was in the musical comedy society, the Irving club - which did straight dramas - and I was a drama student. If I wasn’t on stage acting I was painting sets or playing drums in the pit band.

I thought I’d train as a teacher because I wanted to be an actor and when I wasn’t acting I could teach - but I discovered very quickly that I wasn’t a good actor and I wasn’t a great teacher! What I did discover was a place where I had opportunities to use the facilities, to create stuff. I always encourage students – if you’ve got the facilities and they’re free, then book them and use them because down the line, when you’re out in the wide world and you want to do something creative, you pay for stuff that uni just lays on for you.

I love this place and I don’t come back often because, in a funny kind of way, I don’t want it to change and it has to change. It’s fantastic and you just have to take advantage of everything it offers.

Back to media centre