Dirk Gently interview: Stephen Mangan, Helen Baxendale, Darren Boyd, and producer Chris Carey
As the BBC prepares to air its adaptation of Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently, we caught up with the pilot’s stars and producer for a bit of a chat…
One of author Douglas Adams’ most under-appreciated creations, Dirk Gently has long existed in the shadow of the hugely successful Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy.
A self-described “holistic detective” who may be a genius or a charlatan, depending on your point of view, Dirk Gently has finally been adapted into a television pilot by the BBC, starring Stephen Mangan in the lead role, with Helen Baxendale and Darren Boyd appearing as old university friends, Susan and Richard.
In a round table interview, we caught up with the Dirk Gently adaptation’s stars, as well as producer Chris Carey, to talk about the books’ transition to the screen. Stephen Mangan began by describing his character, Dirk…
Stephen Mangan: Dirk’s described as eccentric. A bit of a maverick. Enigmatic. I think he’s unusual for a detective. Most detectives when they explain what has happened in a case, everyone goes, “Aah.” But when Dirk explains what’s happened, everyone goes, “What?”
He comes at things from a very peculiar angle. He’s a mystery. He’s sort of unknowable, really, and confusing. A bit random.
A conman, perhaps?
SM: I don’t think he thinks he’s a conman at all. He needs to pay the rent. I think he’s got a good heart. I don’t think he’s a cold manipulator, but sometimes he finds it necessary, for people’s good as well as his own, to bend the truth, slightly.
Were you familiar with the book? It’s not one of Adams’ better-known creations.
SM: Hitchhiker was obviously a colossal success, and everything else he’s done seems to lurk in its shadow. But they’re written with the same wit and genius that Hitchhiker’s was written. Adams himself thought that the Gently books would film better than the Hitchiker’s books would.
Darren Boyd: I knew nothing about the book, which is embarrassing to admit, but at the same time, I approached the script as source material. So, in a sense, it frees you up to interpret it as you will. Hopefully, you get somewhere near Adams’ intention.
It made my job a bit easier, but at the same time, for those hardcore fans who know the character from the book, you hope you’re somewhere in the vicinity of what their expectations might be.
Helen Baxendale: I also had no idea the book existed. But I’d heard of Douglas Adams, and I’d heard of Hitchhiker’s, but hadn’t read it. I obviously wasn’t cool enough as a teenager. But I did read it [Dirk Gently] before – it’s quite hard to get hold of, actually – and I just thought, “Blimey”…
DB: [Incredulously] You read the book before we started filming, did you? Wow.
HB: Well, actually, that’s a lie [laughs]. It’s very, very different. He’s been very clever, the writer, I think, because you do read the book and you think…
DB: It’s sort of a reimagining, right, rather than…
SM: Yeah. I don’t think that book’s filmable, especially in an hour.
HB: It’s very surreal.
It’s quite non-linear, isn’t it?
SM: The first book especially. Dirk doesn’t even appear until way, way into it. He’s much more of a presence in the second book. I don’t think that you could take either of those novels and film them satisfactorily in an hour.
Hardcore fans can be quite unforgiving. Do you think it captures the spirit of the books?
SM: Absolutely. Hardcore fans are hardcore fans, and some of them will be unhappy that we’ve deviated from the book at all. You’re never going to please everyone. What Howard Overman has done, I think, an experienced television writer, has gone, “Right, these are the characters, these are the stories in the books.” – I think this is what he’s done, I wouldn’t know – “This is for TV, so how am I going to make it work?”
And he’s come up with something that I think works fantastically well. But no, it isn’t a literal translation of the book onto the screen. As soon as you employ a writer, you’re a step away from Douglas Adams. When you read the novel, it’s one writer, and read by an audience who will interpret it in their own way, and have their own idea of what Dirk looks like.
As soon as you give it to a writer, it becomes his project, and when you cast actors, they bring what they bring to the project.
You said you’d read it way before this project. So, does the Dirk you play match the Dirk you had in your head when you originally read the books?
SM: No. Dirk, when I was a kid, was an old man! [laughs] Now I’m the old man. I never imagined myself being like that. Is the Dirk my Dirk? Well, it’s odd playing these iconic characters. I played Adrian Mole years ago, and they’re so vividly drawn.
You have to go, “I look how I look. I can’t do an awful lot about that. I’m never going to be a short blonde.” I don’t know. I’ve lost my thread…
HB: I love the idea of seeing a character – I mean, there’s nothing like seeing a character and having the huge detail and roundness that a character in a book can give you. It’s so much more full than a character in a script can give you, isn’t it?
DB: You have to look at it as a standalone thing. It’s the same with films made from comic books. You can’t recreate the storytelling of a comic book. It’s impossible.
SM: Also, we’re acting. We have a script. We’re not acting the book, so that’s where you start from. What you work from.
Douglas Adams’ family was on the set – his daughter, brother and sister came down – and this wouldn’t have happened without their approval. I think they’re quite guarded about the Adams estate, and they’re not going to let any old rubbish be made. They’re protective of his work. And they were happy with it.
What more can you tell us about what happens in the show? It seems to start with a real open-and-shut case with the cat…
SM: An awful lot. It’s difficult to know where to start. What does develop is a relationship between the Richard character and the Dirk character, almost like a double act, as it goes through. Dirk is this eccentric, strange character, who needs someone to bounce off.
DB: Richard’s cynicism versus Dirk’s worldview, which is that all these random events are connected, right? With such a strong view of the world, the story then begins to confirm that ideology, so it’s great because it can become very tangential.
The clever thing about the script is that, what seems very radical, esoteric worldview, from someone very much disconnected from reality, becomes really quite affecting.
The story, how it unfolds, kind of confirms that. From Richard’s point of view, who’s very cynical and questions this radical thinking, it’s the best thing for him. He finds a certain redemptive element through it.
And where does Susan fit into this story?
HB: Well, Susan fits in differently from the book. She’s now the girlfriend of Richard. And I think she’s the voice of reason and earthedness [laughs] compared to the spacedness of Mr. Gently. She’s a doctor, so she’s very realistic, rational, and therefore can’t get her head round…
Does she like Dirk?
HB: I don’t think she can help liking Dirk, but he’s highly frustrating, and is really leading her bloke astray. Although there’s also tension between us. He doesn’t help matters.
SM: It’s essentially a detective story, and there’s a case to be solved. But the whole thing is approached from a different angle. It’s not Bergerac, and it’s not Marple. It’s very esoteric, a weird world. Things are a little bit different in Dirk’s world.
HB: There are so many detective shows on television, aren’t there? There’s a real glut of grisly and violent ones, that aren’t my cup of tea. This is an antidote to all that. It’s really a one-off, and quirky.
SM: Detective shows are all about forensics and psychological profiling. We couldn’t be further from that. Dirk wouldn’t know a psychological profile if it bit his nose off.
Dirk has a big whiteboard that he writes things on. He writes down everything to do with a case that he can possibly think of. And because of his worldview that everything is connected somehow, he tries to connect all these seemingly random events, and find out what the common link is. And he’s brilliant at it.
DB: I think in terms of liking Dirk, the audience has to like him a great deal, or they might not engage with him. It’s an absolute given that Stephen gives him an abundance of charm.
HB: And energy. Energy is infectious.
SM: Tight trousers gave me a lot of energy. [laughs]
Does it explore the sci-fi aspects of the novel, with the time travel and so on?
SM: There are some of those elements in it. It isn’t simply a domestic, Earth-bound, world-as-we-know it story. It does explore those areas. And when the BBC commissions the 49-part series, which hopefully they will, it’ll go even further. It’s not set in the world of the modern day. There are some of those other elements to it.
And in that 49-part series, is there scope to take the story beyond the material in the books?
Chris Carey: Well, I think the approach to the books that [writer] Howard Overman took, which was not to do straight adaptations, as we’ve said earlier – what the hope is, because there’s only two-and-a-half books, is that we can cherry pick little bits from them over many, many episodes. Because, as fans of the books know, they’re full of rich, rich detail. And because of the way Dirk processes information, they’ll find their way in, regardless of how obscure they might be.
In the pilot alone, there are lots of little art direction messages from the book for people to pick up on, and hopefully, over the course of the series, we’ll be able to take little bits, and keep doing so for a lot longer than if Dirk Gently had been adapted straight from the books.
SM: I did an adaptation of Watership Down a few years ago, and we got through the book in the first four episodes. We ended up making five series. We did lots of “Dad, I’m gay” scenes with rabbits. [profuse laughter] I mean, where do you go?
So, we want to make the book go as far as possible.
On that note, why this project above others, and what does it need for it to be commissioned?
SM: Why this project? Adams is one of our finest writers, I think. I’m not particularly a sci-fi fan, but I think his genius is that he speaks to everybody. His books go otherworldly, but because they’re specifically about Britain…
They sucker in the non-sci-fi fan…
SM: Oh, they totally do. They’re so witty and they’re so clever. They have so much heart. I’m not sure that he’s really been successfully… well, Hitchhiker’s is a different thing. But nobody’s given Dirk a proper go, and it’s so different from those other detective shows. I can’t believe my luck that it hasn’t been done before.
I’m pleased that I’m now old enough to play him!
CC: One of our reasons for doing Dirk Gently was that it hasn’t been done before, but also because it’s great to do new things. It’s great to do a project that we haven’t had on television before. There are a lot of things that have been commissioned that are very marvellous, but they’re often new versions of things we’ve seen before.
There’s nothing more exciting than thinking, “I wonder how this will go.”
The form of Douglas Adams’ writing takes in lots of long sentences that double back on themselves. Surely that aspect was quite difficult to take across.
SM: That’s a good point, and the reason why you need good writers like Howard, who has the guts and the talent to take it by the scruff of the neck and go, “I’m going to make my own version of this.” Because, like you said, you couldn’t simply pick it up and translate it. So, that was our first smart move was to get Howard involved.
Adams always said the problem with trying to write a plot was that his characters would take on a life of their own, and say, “I don’t want to do it that way. I want to have a drink somewhere…”
SM: And didn’t he often write without knowing where the story would go next? Particularly the early ones.
Was Dirk Gently all filmed in London?
SM: London and other planets. No, it was all filmed in London.
HB: No it wasn’t! [laughs]
SM: Oh, no. It was Bristol. We’re in London now. There’s no real difference. It’s all connected. [laughs]
Stephen Mangan, Helen Baxendale, Darren Boyd, and Chris Carey, thank you very much!
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