What’s a “holistic” detective?

Why are radio plays so bloody difficult to find in the U.S.? Even finding the most well-known works is a chore. If you need to be convinced of this, just try to hunt down the Hitch-Hikers’ Guide to the Galaxy recordings in a physical store. There’s no category on Amazon for radio drama, and item descriptions can be vague: are you ordering a full-cast radio drama or an abridged audio book?

Dirk Maggs wrote the scripts for the BBC adaptations of the last three Hitchhikers’ radio plays. (The Douglas Adams-is-dead-but-we’re-carrying-on ones.) Mr. Maggs makes what he calls “audio movies”, and this is a good description; if you listen to the first two series and then jump on to the last three, you’ll notice that the aural environment is a little richer, and the music is more prevelant. Everything is just a little grander, in both the American and the British senses of the word. The third book, Life, The Universe and Everything (that title really needs an Oxford comma) in particular benefited from Dirk Maggs’s expansive style.

When I discovered that the BBC had commissioned radio adaptations of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency and its sequel, I had recently re-read the book. I found that Dirk Maggs had directed both series, and I was a customer a few weeks later. The play is wonderfully absorbing, and the book works very well indeed as an “audio movie”. Harry Enfield brings the detective to life; Billy Boyd’s Richard MacDuff, on the other hand, sounds as if he’s walked off the page. Mr. Boyd has a voice that’s at once a little grating, but melodious and captivating. (Appropriate, since the character has a passion for music.)

Of particular note is the character of Professor Chronotis, performed by Andrew Sachs. Douglas Adams nicked the Professor and some elements of this book’s plot from an unfinished episode he had written for Doctor Who. Some years after Dirk Gently was published, Shada was produced as a Doctor Who serial in radio-play form. The Professor Chronotis I recall from Shada is extremely similar to the Dirk Gently version, so Mr. Sachs had to perform this role that was partly a rehash of the role; fortunately, he’s up to the task. The early scenes with the professor at a banquet with Richard MacDuff are a bit awkward, but the character’s good humor and awkward cheer keep the story flowing.

If I remember correctly, the character of the Electric Monk was mostly silent in the book, and the radio version is, by necessity, quite talkative. Wonderfully, hilariously talkative. There’s a particularly noteworthy scene where the Monk offers its services to a bewildered Gordon Way (Robert Duncan), and Toby Longworth easily steals any scene he’s in.

If you enjoyed the book, you’ll love this adaptation.


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