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A Dark and Scary Place
Dirk Maggs is no stranger to radio, possessing a prolific background of quality audio dramatisations - or Audio Movies, as he prefers to call them. He has experience of writing and script adaptations, producing and directing. The high-tech mixing of radio full-cast dramas was pioneered by Dirk. Previous projects created for radio include two Superman, two Batman and two Judge Dredd serials, The Amazing Spider-Man, An American Werewolf in London, Independence Day: UK, Stephen Baxter's Voyage, Agatha Christie, The Gemini Apes, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and even Peter Pan. Ty Power spoke with him as Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency was due to start broadcasting on Radio 4...
Ty Power: We last spoke at the time of the announcement of your Perfectly Normal Productions company for the supplying of quality radio drama for podcasting. Are the Dirk Gently serials going to be the first of these available for downloading, or will this potentially affect the CD sales?
Dirk Maggs: Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency is an Above The Title Production being released both on CD and as a download by BBC Audiobooks, it's not connected with Perfectly Normal Productions [PNP].
TP: With author Douglas Adams having trusted your ability to adapt books three to five of HHGG, it's a logical progression that his family would want you to tackle the Dirk Gently books. How did you secure the arrangement?
DM: Not a question I can answer as I was not privy to the relevant discussions.
TP: Had you read these books previously, or did you come to them cold?
DM: I read the Dirk Gently books in the '90s and I remember finding the first one very confusing! I had to keep flipping back to work out what was going on.
When it came to preparations for this radio series I was working on other projects whilst the adaptation was in other hands and was on the back foot when it came to advising on the best way to proceed. Then it fell into my lap with much left to do and I had to get up to speed very quickly. If you're dramatising something this clever you need to really understand it as if you yourself were the author, and that was the first and biggest challenge - to spot all of the subtleties and double bluffs that Douglas built in.
Once I'd worked out what was going on, it seemed to me that the structure would need some massaging to create six relatively self-contained episodes which weren't all descriptive narration. And because we were aiming at a comedy slot the task was to create something funny and fast moving that made some kind of sense when it was all over.
TP: I understand there is to be three series of six episodes each, but there are only two books. Does this mean there is to be material used from the published but incomplete novel, The Salmon of Doubt? If so, are you privy to any of Douglas's ideas for the missing material? There are rumours that he was thinking of turning the book into HHGG number six.
DM: Douglas's former business partner Robbie Stamp kindly passed on all the Dirk Gently material that survived on Douglas's hard drives. This means that we have access to notes and draft material that was too fragmentary to be much use to the editors of The Salmon Of Doubt but would be really useful for building a third radio series.
On what I have seen so far, a sixth Hitchhikers book it wasn't, and Douglas was playing with a real mix of ideas, from metaphysics to slapstick Pythonesque stuff.
TP: Is the schedule pretty much the same as for your previous work? How long is it taking to adapt and record six episodes?
DM: I can answer that to the minute! Twelve weeks! That was four weeks writing, two weeks recording, six weeks post-production.
TP: Again, this is a lot of material to commit to script in a short period of time, but I've noticed from previous projects that you seem to thrive under pressure. Have the adaptations gone pretty smoothly or have you come against any unforeseen problems.
DM: Finding time to sit and read the book forensically with a highlighter and a pencil was the hard part. It's very tempting just to jump in and start banging out a version of what is written. But you can't do that if you are adapting to another medium. You have to keep thinking, "How can we convey this very static description in a lively funny way? How will this be rewarding for the listener? How will an actor feel about playing this role?"
You're continually asking questions about how this can be made more interesting and accessible for all concerned. And at the same time honouring Douglas's work.
TP: How did you go about selecting the voice cast? In particular, Harry Enfield is an intriguing choice to play the main character; was he always at the forefront of your mind? With reference to his character-based sketch shows for TV, was there a need to stop his overacting? There must have been some hilarity in the studio already? Did the BBC demand a relatively well-known cast?
DM: Well, the voice casting started last year and involved several people. Lots of ideas were passed around and Harry was one of them.
He turned out to be the perfect choice, the only problem we are having now is to dispel preconceptions about him being all funny voices and larking about. He's a very gifted actor and the interesting thing was to find the sound of Dirk Gently, which, after a couple of false starts, turned out to be close to his natural speaking voice. But then the thing is to forget it's Harry Enfield and savour the performance. He IS Dirk, quirky, defensive, smug - if you go in with open ears and an open mind.
With regard to the BBC, there have been no demands for 'names'; the star of the show is Douglas's genius and the cast were really happy to let that be the case.
TP: Certain forums recently have been somewhat unkind about your choice of names for the cast. Do you worry about pleasing the fans, or is it just a case of doing what you believe is right and risking not pleasing all of the people all of the time?
DM: Look, it's fun to play with dream casting ideas and to kick ideas around, and it's fun to bitch a little on a forum if one feels an opportunity has been missed. But the truth is that in the long gestation period leading up to these recordings there was nothing left to chance. No opportunity was passed by that might improve the end result.
What you hear is sifted over and over, every aspect, from the choice of adverb in the first line of dialogue to the right people to play the parts.
Years ago Douglas and I discussed the choice between doing what was true to the artistic vision of a project and doing something that would please the kinds of people who considered they knew more about his work and what was good for it than he did.
Douglas said - and I quote verbatim - "F*ck 'em". In other words, do what's true to the the vision. The real fans understand what he meant and how much we work at keeping his vision intact.
TP: There is an amateur audio version of Dirk Gently currently available on the Web to listen to. Have you come across it, and if so what is your opinion?
DM: I do know of the amateur version and look forward to hearing it one day when this all over - but not until!
TP: I imagine that these stories offer less scope for spectacular and striking sound effects than some of your previous subject matter, such as the comic book adaptations. How have you approached the sound in these ones to bring the books to life?
DM: What I do is not so much jumping at the chance to use huge one-off effects as to use sound in layers, creating worlds in which these characters live. For example, I spent a long time deciding what backgrounds you can hear through the windows of Dirk's office - both the windows of his inner office and of Janice's outer office.
I can take a good hour over which kind of phone ring Susan Way might choose to cut through the noise of her cello practice - and how reverberant her flat is. Is it a Victorian conversion with high ceilings or a modern steel-and-glass apartment full of hard reflective surfaces?
The detail doesn't diminish in intimate scenes; in fact, it can take longer than blowing up a whole galaxy!
TP: The first series of Dirk Gently airs on BBC Radio 4 from 03 October, have dates been confirmed for episodes seven to eighteen yet?
DM: As I understand it, Series Two will air Autumn 2008 and Series Three Autumn 2009.
TP: I might be mistaken, but this is the first time I've noticed, in a press release for your work, opportunities for an interview. Do you think this is because of the popularity of Douglas Adams, or is the BBC finally beginning to appreciate your reliability and talent?
DM: I wish I could say it was because of my good looks and scintillating wit but the bottom line is that Douglas is sadly not here to talk about the series and, because it's a whole new ball game, I'm the poor alternative!
TP: Is there any other Douglas Adams material around that you might be interested in adapting for radio at a later date?
DM: Well given that I had thought I would stop at Hitchhikers, I think this will probably do me nicely thank you!
TP: Can we look forward to any more DVD/audio releases like HHGG: The Tertiary Phase. And what projects can we look forward to in the future from PNP?
DM: At present I believe there are no plans to release further HHGG material in 5.1 surround on DVD.
I'm afraid I've had so much work on that I've not been able to be involved with Perfectly Normal Productions as much as I had hoped, and my colleague Paul Weir is carrying that project forward.
TP: Dirk Maggs, thank you very much.
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