I interviewed Peter Jones by telephone on 18th January 1998 for a feature that I was writing for SFX to celebrate the twentieth anniverary of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. For some reason, despite being very approachable and delightfully avuncular, Peter was very, very rarely interviewed so I took the opportunity to ask him about his other work on radio and TV and in films, as well as his writing. Peter Jones passed away two years later. An extract from this was used in the SFX article and the whole thing was printed in the Hitchhiker’s Guide fan club newsletter but I think it deserves more widespread exposure.
Do you remember when you were first approached about the radio series of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy?
"Well, I was in Cornwall doing a bit of work, writing. A script arrived in the post from the BBC and they asked me to read it, said they were thinking of doing a pilot and was I interested. I read it and I must say I was fascinated. It was such a very different style to anything I’d been asked to do before, so I told them I would be very interested. It was Simon Brett who was in charge of it then; he sent the script."
That would be summer 1977?
"I don’t know what time it was, but if they say it’s twenty years then it must be, I suppose. Didn’t take long to get underway."
You recorded all your stuff on your own.
"Yes, that was rather boring in a way because I like meeting other actors. It’s always fun to be with a group."
Was it just going to be a six-part series, or were they looking at expanding it?
"Oh no, I think they just thought it was six. I didn’t get the impression that many people at the BBC were all that enthusiastic about it. They were a bit tentative."
When did you realise that it was starting to really take off?
"Well, good Lord. We’re talking twenty years ago, aren’t we? I don’t know. I suppose when they asked me to do another series."
Was the second batch of six seen as all one series, or was the Christmas episode seen as a one-off for recording purposes?
"Again, you’ve got the advantage of me because you’ve got figures there in black and white. But I don’t remember that."
Douglas Adams is famous for being very, very late with his writing.
"Yes, he was. He was very late. Twice I turned up at the studio on the appointed day and there was no script so I was sent home."
It’s said that Douglas wanted a Peter Jones type voice but tried several people before he thought of Peter Jones. Were you aware of that at the time?
"(laughs) No, no."
Do you mind being thought of as 'the voice of Hitchhiker’s Guide' even though you’ve had a long and varied career?
"No, I don’t mind. It was very popular. I’ve been very fortunate with things I’ve done on the radio. I mean, Just a Minute has been going on for 25 years. And then many, many years ago there was a programme with Peter Ustinov which was very very successful."
In All Directions - was that partially improvised?
"Oh it was, wholly really. We weren’t allowed to act without a script so we used to meet and improvise it, then secretaries at the BBC would transcribe the tapes and provide a script. But we couldn’t stick to them; they didn’t read at all well. You know what I mean."
You’ve got to have some spontaneity in there.
"That’s right. So we just refreshed our memory of what the sketches were about and then re-improvised them in the studio. Of course we were at a disadvantage with the BBC because they didn’t have tape recorders then. Peter and I both had one, but the BBC were rather slow. As they always are."
That would be a big reel-to-reel thing.
"That’s right, yes. But of course they weren’t able to edit these discs which they recorded on. Well, they were, but it was very difficult. We had a marvellous producer, Pat Dixon, who was a legend at the BBC, and he really got the thing off the ground, with the help of the late - unfortunately - Frank Muir and Denis Norden."
Another radio series you did was J Kingston Platt. Where did that character come from?
"Well, I wrote it, you see. They were short stories on showbusiness, and he was an old actor-writer type who remembered a lot. I did three series of that. Yes, I enjoyed that."
Getting back to Hitchhiker’s Guide, was it seen as a natural given thing that most of the cast would go on and work on the TV series?
"No, I don’t think so. I rather thought they would probably ask me to narrate it as I did on the radio. But the other people were not all the same, were they?"
I guess you were stuck away on your own in a cupboard again.
"That’s right, yes."
Was there any major difference, from your point of view, between recording the narration for the radio series and for the TV?
"No, none at all. In fact I think I thought at the time: why didn’t they just use that? But there was probably some contractual problem about that."
Were you pleased with the graphics?
"Oh yes, I thought they were terrific, very clever."
There were also the LPs.
"Yes. Well, first they were done independently of the BBC on discs, and we never got much money from them. I think the company went bust eventually."
Stephen Greif says he’s never been paid for it at all.
"Well, I did get something, I know. But I don’t know what. The BBC of course didn’t publish the books either. They were very slow. Years and years passed before they realised what a goldmine they had on their hands."
Were you ever approached to play the Book on stage?
"No, I wasn’t. Not as far as I remember anyway. No, I don’t think I was."
There’s been lost of talk about the film. Have you heard that Douglas has signed a deal with Disney?
"No, I didn’t know that."
It should be in cinemas by summer 2000.
"Well, that would be nice. I mean, if they ask me."
You’d be up for it, then?
"Oh certainly, yes. I know Disney pay very badly, but even so, it must be better than the BBC. I was in America the same time as Douglas when he was negotiating Hitchhiker’s with some other company, I think."
This would be in the 1980s?
"Yes, I think it was. And he was quite optimistic at that time."
Have any of the people who’ve had the film rights ever approached you?
"No. No, they haven’t. No, I was there because I wrote a television show called Mr Big, and it was picked up by an American company. They took an option which they renewed every year for ten years. Twice during that time, they said, ‘We’re going to do a pilot. Can you come over and talk to us?’ and so on, which I did. Unfortunately, it never came to anything."
Was there a British Mr Big series?
"Oh yes, two. It was about a very small group of crooks who were never very successful. Well, they were complete failures really. Mr Big and my wife, Prunela Scales, Ian Lavender and his girlfriend, in the series. There were just four of us. We were living in ghastly situations. They would have done more, had I not done The Rag Trade again for London Weekend, which was a great career mistake."
Why was that?
"Because Bill Cotton didn’t want me to do it for London Weekend, since he’d already turned it down. He didn’t want to do it at the BBC so as soon as London Weekend said they were going to do it he would have liked to have done it, I think. But anyway, he didn’t. He said, ‘You do realise that there probably won’t be any more Mr Big if you do this?’ If he’d offered me a contract to do Mr Big for another two or three series I’d be interested, but otherwise, I just had to go along with it. Bird in the hand."
The Rag Trade originally was in the early 1960s.
"Yes, it was. But then the authors tried to revive it. It didn’t work, because although Miriam Karlin was in it, none of the others were in it. It just wasn’t the same."
I also remember an early 1980s series you wrote called I Thought You’d Gone.
"Oh yes, now that was not successful at all. That was because Kevin Laffan and I agreed that we wouldn’t have an audience - the critics always say, ‘What a pity, the studio audience ruins it.’ - or even canned laughter. And we didn’t have any of that. It was deathly quiet and didn’t work."
You’ve done a lot of films.
"Oh yes, never very good."
Some of them were very good.
"I mean I didn’t shine in them, really."
A lot of them you only had very small roles in. You were in Dead of Night.
You’ve only got a small role as the barman, but that’s a classic, one of the first great British horror films.
"That’s true, it was."
Do you remember making that?
"Oh I do, yes. Because I’d been really quite ill, with pneumonia and everything, and I’d been to Brompton hospital and they told me that I’d have to give up acting. A very depressing prognosis. Anyway, I went home for couple of weeks and felt good, then I got this little offer and so I did it and I’ve never looked back, from that point of view. Healthwise I mean. And I loved working with Basil and Naunton Wayne. I did a lot of radio with them subsequently."
Was that your first film?
"No, my first film was Fanny by Gaslight. It was not so long before Dead of Night."
Some time in the late 1940s?
"Yes, it would be, that’s right. Again I only had a few words. But that was quite effective because the first scene is in - they weren’t allowed to call it a brothel, but it was a brothel. In order to establish the sorts of things that were going on, I arrived with another raw chap who hadn’t had much experience of life, and we would walk in and I would peep through a curtain into an alcove. I’d say ‘Good Lord!’ and close it. And that is meant to get over the fact that there are writhing bodies inside. Anthony Asquith directed that, and I did work for him again once or twice. Very nice, clever director."
I’ve got a list of your films here.
You were in School for Scoundrels.
"Yes, that was quite a nice scene with Dennis Price."
Is that the one where you’re dodgy car dealers?
"That’s right, yes."
Wasn’t that similar to characters you played in In All Directions?
"Yes it was, and I think Peter Ustinov was supposed to be doing it with me, but something went wrong, I don’t know what. Dennis Price was very good."
You were in one of the St Trinian’s films.
"Yes, I was. I think I was in more than one, I’m not sure. And I was in a play that Frank Launder wrote at Guildford. I don’t know when that was. It was called The Night of the Blue Demands. It was a terrible flop. I didn’t really like the script much. I just thought, ‘This man is so experienced, he’ll get it into shape when we’re at Guildford.’ But he didn’t lift a finger. He just came and enjoyed it all, roared with laughter throughout the rehearsals, and didn’t do anything.
“But what I do remember is that when we finished our rather dismal run at Guildford, he said, ‘Now Peter, we’re going to do this again. So don’t do anything else until you hear from us.’ And I never heard from them. But then, about ten years later I was in my agent’s office, Richard Stone, and he was talking to Frank Launder on the phone. So at an appropriate moment I said, ‘Tell him I’m here. I’d like a word.’ He handed me the phone eventually and I said, ‘Frank, last time I saw you, you said don’t do anything until you hear from us. And I’ve never done anything and it’s been about ten years now. Do you think I would be free to offer my services elsewhere?’ He didn’t think that was very funny."
In The Magic Box, like most people you’ve only got a small role, but it was an incredible cast.
"It was, yes, it was. It was almost we were working for charity. I don’t know what charity it was. But it was a great thrill to be close to Robert Donat who’s a great hero of mine. I help him to die at the end."
Was it the British film industry finally saying thank you to William Friese-Green, who doesn’t normally get the credit for inventing cinema?
"Yes, I think it was. Yes, that’s right."
"Yes, it was."
At the other extreme, you were in a couple of Carry Ons.
"Yes. I can’t understand it that I get fan letters still for being in that. There’s some organisation somewhere which I wish I could stamp out, where they supply people with photographs of anybody who’s ever been in it. I think they’re very misguided people because I never liked the Carry Ons much. I never thought they were very funny. That’s not the sort of humour that I like, really."
It’s not the sort of humour you’re associated with.
"That’s right. The second one - I was rehearsing Polonius in Hamlet for the Ludlow Festival. They asked me if I’d fit in this appearance in the Carry On, and it rather appealed to me to be doing the two things at the same time. But Polonius was much more successful, I think."
You were in the TV series of Whoops Apocalypse.
"That’s right, yes. I loved my bits in that. Awfully well written."
You were the Prime Minister.
"That’s right, yes. I had a mental condition, I thought I was Superman. Did you see it? You probably don’t remember. I know I had the pleasure of throwing a dog out the window: ‘Go for a walk round the block.’"
I wish they’d repeat it. It hasn’t been on for so long.
"That’s right. I think there were things that offended people, like a huge penis on a truck or something."
You’ve done a lot of guest spots, like an episode of The Avengers.
"Yes, I got a cheque the other day for being in The Avengers. I was amazed."
It must be thirty years ago.
"That’s right, yes. But there’s some organisation in France where they trace that kind of thing and manage to extract cheques from the companies. So I was pleased to get this little present, as it were. But I can’t believe this sort of thing’s very interesting to people. I don’t know what you have in mind doing with it."
Were you in an episode of The Goodies as well?
"God yes. I used to get cheques for that, but they stopped a few years ago. And I used to think, ‘My God, those people in The Goodies - the three of them - must be getting huge amounts because there were so many episodes.'"
But they don’t show them any more.
"They’re a little bit old hat, are they?"
A lot of people would like to see them.
"Of course, the BBC throw a lot away, you know."
Have you got copies of most of your films and TV shows on tape?
"No, no I haven’t. I’ve got one or two."
Are you one of these actors who doesn’t like to watch themselves working?
"No, I don’t mind. I often get a bit depressed because I think I didn’t act enough. I underplayed rather often. That’s my normal criticism. I’m sorry that I didn’t come out of my shell a bit more."
Do you wish you could have done more writing?
"I do, in a way, yes. But, having had three children I like to keep working, keep the money rolling in. I’ve just lurched from one job to another, really."
What have you been up to recently?
"Well, I did something called Midsomer Murders. The BBC did a pilot of this last year sometime, and they’ve done now four more and I was in one of them. Two-hour play or film; that’ll go out at Easter."
Have you got anything lined up?
"No, no I haven’t. But I’m quite old now and I don’t have to work all the time. I did last year 13 episodes of something called Titch, which is a children’s programme. I think they’re going to do another 13 and I shall be doing that. It’s very nice, like a pension. It takes less than an hour to do it once a fortnight, and they can negotiate the time, so I’m quite pleased.”
Peter Jones passed away in 2000. A few years later, when Hitchhiker's Guide returned to Radio 4, Peter's role was taken by his good friend William Franklyn.