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Simon Jones—The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Blithe Spirit—1/25/2015

The following interview was conducted on January 25, 2015, by phone. The interview first aired January 26, 2015 on Celluloid Dreams. Celluloid Dreams airs every Monday night at 5pm on KSJS radio (90.5 FM) in San Jose, CA.

/content/interviews/405/1.jpgGroucho Reviews: Simon Jones is best known for originating the role of Arthur Dent in Douglas Adams' radio series The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and its subsequent BBC television series adaptation and its many radio sequels. In addition to many other radio plays and audio books he’s been seen in Brideshead Revisited, Blackadder, and Oz on television, in films such as Club Paradise, The Devil’s Own, Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, Brazil and Twelve Monkeys, and he is an accomplished stage actor. His stage credits include on the West End, on and off Broadway, regional theatre, Noel Coward’s Private Lives, Long Island Sound and Pacific 1860, Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing and The Real Inspector Hound as well as The School for Scandal and Shadowlands. Jones was also featured in both the stage and screen versions of Privates on Parade, directed by Michael Blakemore. He reunited with Blakemore to appear opposite Angela Lansbury in Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit, now in a touring production housed in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Theatre through February 1st. Simon Jones, welcome to Celluloid Dreams.

Simon Jones: Thank you, Peter!

So Blithe Spirit: you play a merry old soul named Dr. Bradman, who’s sort of cheerily oblivious friend to the main character. How do you see Dr. Bradman?

Simon Jones: (Chuckles.) Well, one review rather captured it, actually. I was pleased that somebody had noticed. They said that me and my wife started to look just like the characters that stepped out of a 1930s movie. Which was exactly what we were looking for, because it’s set in 1930, and I rather gather that’s the point. As I say, there are only small parts, not small actors. Or is it the other way around? It’s a quotation I’ve never been able to understand. "There are no small actors, there are only small parts." Noo? Either way you say it, it makes absolutely no sense at all. It’s the first real comfort. I, on the other hand, have decided that though I don’t have a great deal of stage time in this play, it was an opportunity never to be missed—to stay with Angela Lansbury as long as possible.

G: Indeed.

SJ: And Michael Blakemore is an old friend of mine as you’ve already referred to. And when he said, "It won't keep you that busy all evening," I said it really doesn’t matter. And it turned out to have given me some employment for quite a long time. We’ve done London, New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. We move on to Toronto and Washington, D.C.

G: Right. Other than Ms. Lansbury, are you the only one who’s been with this production the entire time? You did it on Broadway and the West End and Los Angeles and on tour.

SJ: Yes, I am, actually. Susan Louise O'Connor, who plays Edith the maid, did do it on Broadway, but she didn’t do it in London. Charlie Edwards, who plays Charles Condomine, the leading man did it in London but didn’t do it in New York. So yes, I think I can safely say I’m the sole survivor along with Angela.

(Both laugh.)

G: So let’s talk a little bit about the language of Noel Coward. You’ve done a lot of Coward onstage.

SJ: Mm.

G: And, perhaps just by way of contrast, you’ve also done a couple of Tom Stoppard plays. I wonder if you feel the difference in language in a certain way, or if you approach performing that language in a certain way?

/content/interviews/405/3.jpgSJ: Well, I think of something I’ve learnt from Charles Edwards—who’s playing the leading man Charley Condomine, the author, who held the seance and invites Madame Arcati and all the events that follow—is that his approach to Coward dialogue is the most refreshing I’ve ever encountered. If you listen to Noel Coward delivering his own plays, it sounds like he carved it in rock. And the precision with which he spoke his lines sort of deadens the effect of the dialogue. Now, far be it from me to criticize the master. But sometimes writers shouldn’t do their own dialogue. He did most of it, so shouldn’t perform it. So I’m not really going to criticize him on that. But I think times have changed. And the way Charlie delivers his lines has made them entirely conversational. Sometimes he doesn’t even finish a line, like conversations would be. But you know what the word would have been. Or he splits them up in the middle. I don’t know what the laughter would make of it. But it sounds suddenly immediate and as of now. And from him I feel I’ve learnt another way of doing it. He always insisted—that’s Noel Coward—that everyone knew their lines backwards, frontwards and sideways before the first day of rehearsal. And that’s the way it would stay. And as a writer, I think that’s perfectly justifiable. But what does happen is that things get a bit ossified when it moves one generation onto another. And I think what Charlie has done to it has made the whole thing live again. And with Angela’s particular character tics and everybody else’s various quirks, I think it makes an interesting evening now. And makes the play altogether less creaky. Even though, at its time, it was an enormous hit. It ran for 1976 performances which was a record only broken by Phantom.

G: Yeah, well, there’s certainly no audible creak—unless it’s intended—

SJ: Yes, quite!

G: In Blithe Spirit as it’s now running. So you did the heavy lifting with Private Lives, which you did with Joan Collins, right?

SJ: Yes. Heavy lifting. (Laughs.) That’s a very good phrase. Yes, I played opposite—though some people said "against." And yes, we played at the Curran here—my God, twenty-three years ago—here in San Francisco. And before that—ten years before that—I played Aren’t We All with Rex Harrison and Claudette Colbert, which makes me sound about a thousand years old.

G: (Laughs.)

SJ: Guess I am. Been around the block a bit, I suppose.

G: Now, your voice has been somewhat key to your career, more than most actors. To what or whom do you owe your sound and your cadences?

SJ: I don’t know. I suppose to my mother. My mother was the one who'd had elecution lessons when she was in school in the '20s or '30s: that helps to speak perfect RP, Received Pronunciation, the Oxford English. And she obviously gave it to us. And it just depends where you are. My brother lived in Wooster for a long time, and now he sounds as though he was born and brought up there. You do have to, obviously, affect various accents. But since I've been in America for thirty years, strangely enough, I have not picked it up—I think largely because it’s my fortune not to, my voice being what it is. It is interesting. Yes. I can go into sound studios, and the sound engineer will cock his head and say, "I’ve heard that voice before." Well, of course, everyone was a fan of The Hitchhiker's Guide.

G: Right, right. And I learned doing my research for this interview that you were also the voice of the unfrosted side of a Frosted Mini-Wheat right?

SJ: I was indeed. Gosh, I wish that had gone on a bit longer! You know, the other fellow came from New Jersey so we were an interesting contrast. Was I the unfrosted or frosted? I can’t remember. You know better than I.

G: I think you were the unfrosted side.

SJ: I thought it was going to keep me in a pension for the rest of my life. But you know these cycles pass. I interestingly notice they still use the characters but not the voices. Hm. Must have been too expensive.

G: You priced yourself out of the role.

SJ: Must have done.

G: Your father, if I understand correctly, was an estate agent for the Earl of Suffolk. And from what I’ve read, that was invaluable to you in preparing to play the role of Bridey in Brideshead Revisited.

/content/interviews/405/7.jpgSJ: Well, a little bit because I knew the sort of casual way in which the aristocrats assumed their authority. (Chuckles.) Quite annoying to the rest of us, in fact. Yes, my father was the estate agent—yes, he ran the estate. And it was in the middle of this park next to an empty mansion, and we had occasional visits of "Lordy," as he was called by the locals, not out of a great deal of respect.

(Both laugh.)

SJ: And I think that was a bit of help. I knew where to go and what to do when we were filming Brideshead. Yeah, probably a little too well. But I didn’t carry on in that particular manner. My wife very nearly didn’t marry me at all, or didn’t even want to meet me because she thought I was the character I had appeared in. On Brideshead.

G: That’s interesting. I was going to say that there’s something in common here with John Cleese, who was responsible for you meeting your wife, right?

SJ: Yes, indeed. We were filming the movie version obviously—what else would we be filming?—the movie version of Privates on Parade. Funnily enough in Surrey; Surrey stood in for Singapore. NOt entirely convincingly. And we were chatting, as one does endlessly in between takes while they set up the lighting. There's lot of waiting. In filming. And he said, "I think we’ve got more to talk about." I can’t remember what the hell we were talking about now, but whatever it was we were talking about, he wanted to go on talking about it. I must have interested him at some point. He said, "Why don’t you come on and play a few parts in The Meaning of Life. I mean, there are six of us, and we usually play everything, but occasionally we write in seven characters and you could do them." Yes, I didn’t take very long to hesitate and say yes. On the film set—in charge of actually supressing publicity at the time, or making sure it was only the stuff they wanted, because they were extremely selective—was Nancy Lewis, who had been their manager in America. And had brought them over here when they had all given up hope—having been told repeatedly, can you imagine?—Python humor wouldn’t go in America. It's ust too English and too different.

G: Right.

SJ: It has happened now so often that it’s boring. They used to say it to Benny Hill, they said it to Keeping Up Appearances, Are You Being Served?. And Python in particular. They’ve been wrong on every count.

G: Well probably they told the same thing to Noel Coward at some point.

SJ: Yes, probably did. Much too English. So there she was, and she knew the—well, I always say she knew the combination to the lock on the hospitality fridge.

G: (Laughs.)

SJ: So it was her pathway to my heart and vice-versa. "Yeahhh," she says in the background.

(Both laugh.)

G: She still has the key.

SJ: She still has the key, yes.

G: So, you gave Douglas Adams his first break, really, as a comedy writer, isn’t that right?

/content/interviews/405/4.jpgSJ: Well, sort of. Yes, you could put it that way. It wasn’t a lucrative assignment. He always wanted to join The Footlights— which is part of the Cambridge University—where you write material, perform it over a period of a year, and the best of it is put together in an annual review, which is performed to the public. Called the Footlights Yearly Revue. And he was desperate to join. And I was in charge of auditioning at the time he came along with his sketch. No one else on the panel thought he was remotely amusing, and I thought he was hysterical. He was also all arms and legs. And his sketch consisted of his pretending to be a village pump: one unfortunate colleague gave him a glass of water, which he proceeded to mouth, and the other one pumped his arm, and he spat it back all over the fellow who had just given him the water. I don’t know why I found that funny. It’s not particularly funny as I’ve described it. I thought, "Yes. Definitely. Simplicity is all." The other people looked at me as though I was insane. Probably the most insane action I’ve ever taken. Douglas realized I had stuck up for him and insisted that he join. And he never forgot. And years later he called me up—not so many years, about five years later—after I’d graduated and he had too. And said, "I’ve written this comedy with you in mind." Not based on me, I hasten to say, "with you in mind." I think it's more based on Douglas than on me. He said, "I think you’re the only one who can do it," and of course with that sort of flattery, you don’t say no. He was good at that. And so we made this pilot for this radio science-fiction comedy. Really a satire on bureacracy, universe-wide. And everyone said, "Well, that’s not going to go anywhere." The BBC was saying, "Well, we’ll air it on a Tuesday night, maybe," after they’d reluctantly agreed to make a series. And lo and behold, it took off. Douglas could never quite believe how it took off. He went to his first book signing at Forbidden Planet in London, and couldn’t understand this huge line of people outside of the store. And thought, "Oh, there must be something really interesting here. Arthur C. Clarke, perhaps." When the only thing was for him.

G: Yeah, I went to one of those book signings myself.

SJ: In one of his politer versions, he said it was like climbing Mt. Everest without going through the foothills. I'll leave you to imagine what the other version was.

G: Mm.

SJ: Mm.

(Both laugh.)

SJ: But it was torture for him to write.

G: Well, he would procrastinate and write up to the last moment and bring you bits of paper at the last minute, right, in the recording studio?

SJ: That's right. And his publishers in despair would lock him in a hotel room with a typewriter, and fax the pages as they came out, to the printer, because he was so behind his deadlines. He always said that was the sound he heard most was the whoosh of passing deadlines.

G: (Laughs.) Right. So Arthur Dent is this sort of quintessential British character. He’s a certain kind of Everyman. How would you describe the type of fellow Arthur Dent is?

/content/interviews/405/6.jpgSJ: Well, interestingly enough he’s a local radio producer. And I think he thinks his life is pretty settled. It’s better being a local radio producer, which is rather more interesting than being, let's say, a draft accountant. And it’s all thrown into chaos, and he always tries to relate it back to what would have gone on in his normal, everyday life. I think that’s the basis of his constant puzzlement. He never quite understands why things are. I mean let’s face it, in life none of us quite understands why things are. But on a cosmic scale, when you meet one alien after another, most of whom seem intent on killing you, you really do begin to wonder.

G: Hm. It’s really—I’ve never heard it explained that way before, but it’s really quite profound. When you say on a cosmic level, I think we all try to understand the inexplicable through some sort of bizarre comparison. And we’re doomed to fail that way, aren’t we?

SJ: Yeah. I think that’s the secret of Douglas’ humor too...the way he rather succeeds. I love the idea that there's a planet where all the Biros—all the ballpoint pens that you ever had in your life, and lost—now live. And have a happy existence. I love all those sort of strange ideas. Or problems of scale: when the giants’ battle fleet arrives to invade the world, and they're swallowed by a dog because of problems of scale. And he did have the most quirky sense of humor.

G: You kept a diary through those years, right?

SJ: On and off I kept a diary. Sometimes it suits me. I certainly kept fairly detailed scrapbooks I'm sure  people would love to get their hands on—and one day they will. (Laughs.)

G: Are you plotting your memoirs? I think that would certainly be an interesting read.

/content/interviews/405/5.jpgSJ: I think I’d better, actually, yes, 'cause people have been saying, "Have you done them yet?", and a missed opportunity for selling one when we went on a live stage tour around the U.K. the last couple of years. 2010 and 2012—no, 2012 and 2013—oh, I’ve forgot: time flies by. And we realized quite the extent to which people are still addicted to the Hitchhiker’s. We sold out wherever we went. And it took a good half an hour to get out of the stage door every night because people had so much, because there is so much, to sign. And we are the last survivors, and we’re getting on a bit. Gosh, I couldn’t believe that it’s thirty-five years—more than thirty-five years now—since we did the first. Thirty-five years was an inconceivably long time to me, thirty-five years ago. I didn’t think I would be alive. In fact there’s a comedy character on the radio who’s supposedly terribly old and he’d say, "Ah, thirty-five years! I’ve been doing this for thirty-five years!" And one thought, oh God, how impossibly old. Well, it’s thirty-five years since we started it. And the great thing about it is, having done it on radio, we still sound the same.

G: Mm. Right.

SJ: We may look decrepit, but sound the same. And we’re going to do another. With a bit of luck. Here’s a bit of hot tip. We may well be recording Eoin Colfer’s And Another Thing.

G: The sequel, yeah.

SJ: Because, why not? You know, we’re still around. Let’s do it. We started from radio; unto radio we shall return.

G: Indeed. And should you ever choose to retire,you could insure your retirement by selling the original dressing gown, which you still have, right?

SJ: Indeed! Don’t think it hasn't crossed my mind.

G: It’s probably insured by Harrod’s, right?

SJ: It ought to be. It ought to be. It’s a moth-proof bag, I can certainly tell you that. Funnily enough, we were searching desperately for a duplicate, to go on on tour with because I really didn’t want to use the original. It’s got my initials embroidered on the pocket. A.D.—not my initials. You see what I mean? I get confused after a while. And we could not find an identical one. And yet they were terribly common at the time. Some particular kind of material. It’s rough and not too nice on the skin. 1950s dressing gown. I suppose, or maybe ‘60s. But anyway they stopped making them after awhile because people probably objected to the discomfort it gave them. Anyway, that pattern was fairly easy to find. Could we find one? No, eventually we had to mock something up. But ironically enough, here we are back to Blithe Spirit. Along comes the maid at the end, in her sleepwalking scene. And to my amazement, she’s wearing Arthur Dent’s dressing gown. Not any more, I hasten to say, 'cause it was too big for her. But during the London run, the maid wore Arthur Dent’s dressing gown. I rushed up to it and inside it said, "Cos Prop." And it belonged to a well-known rental company in London. And they obviously had another one. They didn’t know what it was. They didn’t know it was Arthur Dent’s dressing I’ve only seen one other, on a fan—who had signatures all over it.

G: That’s amazing. What a coincidence.

SJ: It did suddenly come back. Yes, like that. And I had no warning. Suddenly on she came. And there she was.

G: You probably thought somebody was having a go with you.

SJ: Well I did actually, yes. It was a wonderful in-joke for fans of Hitchhiker’s who happened to come and see Blithe Spirit. And who hung on until the end, there it was. (Chuckles.)

G: Now you’re probably the most well-known actor ever to play a Dalek.

SJ: Could be—well, nobody else has admitted it.

(Both laugh.)

/content/interviews/405/8.jpgSJ: Yes, this was the short-lived, and sadly doomed, production of Doctor Who and [the Daleks in] the Seven Keys to Doomsday by Terry Nation, which was performed at the Adelphi Theatre in London for four weeks over Christmas in 1976—something like that. The unfortunate thing about it was that there was a spate of IRA bombings going through London. Every so often, they kept popping them into letterboxes, and they’d blow up. And of course it totally killed the business. So the poor producers lost their shirts because people weren’t going to bring their families into the city with that going on. And occasionally you’d hear the odd boom from a distance. Nonetheless we had fun doing it. It’s a good way of earning an extra drink in a pub by reciting all the lists of people who’ve played Doctor Who. And more often than not they leave out Trevor Martin, who played the one on stage. And yes, I played a Dalek in the second half, and it was great fun. There's a little bench inside, and you just scooted along moving your feet. You could operate the arms and legs. And the eye. It meant you ought to have three arms, so you couldn’t do all three at once. 'Course somebody else did the voice, which is sad. But, you know, you couldn’t do everything. I had to do that in the second half because in the first half I was the Grand Master of Karn, a superior alien of enormous brain power that required me to stand on a pair of livery steps and make myself twelve feet high. I had this huge artificial head...full of winking Christmas lights to show my superior brain power. And my arms were—my elbows were my hands. And I had those things you get things off the shelves with—high shelves with—for the rest of my arms, my forearms. So I was a very forbidding creature. And the Doctor and I met, and we had this battle of wills, and slowly the lights in my brain went out one after the other as he overcame me. And I slumped on my livery steps, and that was the end of me. So I had to do something in the second act, so I was a Dalek.

G: Yes, there are no small parts they say, only small actors who can fit into Daleks.

SJ: (Laughs.) Who can fit into a Dalek, yes. You’d be surprised how spacious they are.

G: Yeah, they’re bigger on the inside. So, it’s been great talking with you. We’re gonna make sure everyone comes out and sees you in Blithe Spirit. And we’ll look out for And Another Thing.

SJ: Absolutely. Yes, we should be recording it sometime this coming year. And it’s nice to know we’re still going on. There’s always some other aspect to Hitchhiker's coming back. And I’m all in favor of that. We all get together, and it’s like Old Family Week or longer. And we’re all very good friends. We have been all these years. And so far, we’ve mostly held together. Except of course for the sad loss of Douglas. At the age—I can’t believe it—of 49. What a waste. What he'd have made of modern technology. After all, he’d invented it all in his own mind. The Hitchhiker's Guide is the iPad. And he'd have loved all that stuff. He would have had such a good time. Oh well. C’est la vie.

G: Well, it’s been a distinct pleasure talking with you.

SJ: A great pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much.

G: I hope we’ll talk again one day.

SJ: You bet.


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