A round table interview at BBC TV Centre in west London with the stars of new BBC4 film Dirk Gently.
My feature on Stephen Mangan, who plays Dirk, is in today’s Manchester Evening News – and below.
I’ve also posted some extra quotes and links under the interview for those who want to read more.
Having since seen a final edit of the one-hour drama, screened next Thursday, I hope the BBC commission more in the New Year.
STEPHEN Mangan smiles: “Most of the time no-one has a clue what he’s talking about, why he’s doing what he’s doing. I’m not entirely sure he does either.
“You can’t go, ‘It’s a bit like Cracker but with bigger hair.’ It’s not. It’s unlike anything else,” adds the Green Wing and Free Agents star.
He’s talking about Dirk Gently (BBC4, Thursday, 9pm), inspired by the fantasy detective novels written by the late Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy.
Award-winning Misfits writer Howard Overman wrote the script for the one-hour drama, which could lead to a full series set around Dirk’s Holistic Detective Agency.
“It takes you to parts that other detective shows don’t even know exist, let alone can reach. It has a great mix of humour, intrigue and originality that is just a great thrill to be part of,” explains Stephen, who plays the eccentric Dirk.
Fans of the original books will see that this TV version is based on the characters Adams created but is not a direct adaptation, with the aim of extending the life of his ideas on screen while remaining true to the original.
It co-stars Darren Boyd as recently redundant Richard and Helen Baxendale as GP Susan, who both went to university with Dirk and meet up with him again as he sets off in search of a missing cat.
“Dirk believes that everything is connected. That everything influences everything else. His views are taken from an extrapolation of quantum mechanics,” says Stephen.
“As the books are not bound by the mundane world that we know, this show goes into areas of time and space foolishly unexplored by other detective shows. There is no event or piece of evidence that is not relevant.
“Nowadays it’s all forensics and psychological profiling. You get none of that with Dirk. He just knows that if you keep an open mind and pay attention to everything going on, sooner or later the answer will appear.”
It’s a highly entertaining hour involving tea and bourbons, a missing billionaire, E17 and the significance of Dec 5 1994, which also happens to be Susan’s birthday.
Dirk struggles to make any money and still relies on the rusting dirty brown Austin Princess he had as a student. “I think you’ll find all good detectives drive classic cars,” he tells future sidekick Richard.
Producer Chris Carey says: “The books were written in the late eighties and Douglas Adams always felt they would be better film books than the Hitchhikers’ books.”
The drama is an ITV Studios production for the BBC, made with the approval of the Adams’ estate. “They loved the script and the cast, came down on set many times and have been hugely behind the project,” adds Chris.
“The key thing was – who was going to write it? Who’s going to take Douglas Adams and make it something fresh, because those books cannot be done in an hour. They contain lots of ideas and Dirk doesn’t appear until the middle of the first book.
“Finding Howard Overman was the absolute key to where we are now because he had the hutzpah to just say, ‘They’re great books, but I’m going to take the spirit of Dirk and the books and we’re going to tell it in a format that’s going to work for television.
“And so we find ourselves now on the precipice, about to be launched in front of the gazillions of Adams’ fans who’ve had a very clear idea exactly who Dirk Gently is all these years.”
Stephen couldn’t afford to be daunted by outside expectations. “I’m not playing the book. I’m playing Howard’s script. I play Dirk the way I would want to watch, in the most interesting way I can,” he insists.
“You read a James Bond book – is Daniel Craig, is Sean Connery or any of them how you would actually picture James Bond in your head? No, they’re not, probably.
“I played Adrian Mole, with Helen, years ago and it’s difficult playing those characters that are so loved by the people who read those books because you almost feel like you’re playing a real person. But not a real person that anyone has ever seen. You’re not going to be everyone’s idea of the character.”
Has he dipped into the web forums to see what online fans have said about him being cast as Dirk? “I’m sure there’s a huge outpouring but I haven’t looked. I know how I am. Ninety-nine people could greet it with joy and one person could go, ‘I can’t believe they let that curly-haired idiot play that part,’ and it will upset me, even though it’s one per cent of the opinion.”
Stephen is also on screen early in the New Year in Episodes, the new BBC2 comedy series also featuring Friends star Matt LeBlanc and Tamsin Greig. If it’s a hit, he hopes to film a second series in 2011, together with more of these detective adventures.
Dirk Gently has the same energy and freshness that marked out the acclaimed modern day version of Sherlock earlier this year, but with a very different take on sleuthing. “The great thing about Sherlock is the writing. And we feel the same about our project,” reflects Stephen.
“What’s nice is to have new drama and comedy that’s bold, original and takes some risks. It’s nice to see that being talked about, rather than kangaroos’ testicles being eaten by various celebrities.”
Stephen Mangan (Dirk Gently):
Did you know the books before taking the role?
“I was a fan of the books. I came at him, probably like most people, through the Hitchiker’s books. I remember listening to the first repeat of the radio series, way back when I was tiny, my teacher at school telling me to listen to it, and setting my alarm to wake up at 10:30 or whatever it was. I’ve just loved Douglas Adams ever since.
“I’m not massively a science fiction fan but I think part of his genius is that you don’t need to be. They are so witty and clever and so British, the books. They really are. So, yes, I did know the books.”
“The thing is with Dirk, he’s got a very singular viewpoint on the world. And his methods of detection are to work out what that connection is. Which practically means he has a big white wall and he writes everything down on it and tries to link everything together somehow. And that’s how he solves his cases. It’s not always apparent to anyone else what he’s talking about.
“Everything, somehow, is linked in. If you can’t see the connection, it’s just because you’re not looking properly. That’s how he would look at it. I think it all becomes clear. Hopefully the journey you should go on is, ‘What is Dirk doing? Oh…right.’ That is the journey we’re hoping to take people on.”
What have you learned from quantum mechanics?
“Well, gosh, it’s been great. There’s a five minute section in the middle about Schrodinger’s cat and that thought experiment. You don’t see a lot of that on telly in a comedy, with a guy wearing very tight trousers and big hair.”
Viewers will laugh along but also get drawn into the mysteries?
“They are detective stories and they’re very satisfying detective stories. That’s why there are 472 detective shows on TV at any one time, because they are satisfying. There’s a mystery to be solved and it is solved. But it’s solved in a very unique way.
“But, yes, absolutely. That is the engine of the plot. What’s different is the methods of detection and the detective and the world of the show is not the world that we know.”
The same originality and freshness as Sherlock?
“I think the great thing about Sherlock is the writing. There’s lots of great things about it but the writing is so interesting and strong. And we feel the same about our project. You can’t make a great TV show without a really good script, and in Howard we’ve got one of the best writers around. Misfits is just fantastic.”
Susan is dragged into the adventure?
“Everything is connected. That’s the key. So it all ties in. She doesn’t want to be part of it, at all. I’m looking for the cat. No-one else really cares about the cat. But the cat story is bound up in something that deeply affects these two. So they get swept along.”
No new series of Free Agents?
“I think we were unlucky at Channel 4. There were a few changes of key posts and it never, sadly, got recommissioned. Sadly, I think, because I really thought it had a lot going for it. So no. As far as I’m aware, there will be no more of those. But maybe, you never know.”
Darren Boyd (Richard Macduff):
Were you a fan of the books?
“I didn’t know the books and so I was fortunate in a way, in one sense, that I could approach the script as source material which is, for me, what I’m used to, obviously, and in a way a bit more freeing to interpret the character as I see fit, whilst hoping that in my ignorance I haven’t strayed too far off what expectations there might be in terms of him for those who do know and revere the books and the stories. I’ve since, of course, become a fan. I’ve been introduced to this whole new world and feel very fortunate to have done so.”
This TV version?
“The hook is there is a genre that we’re very familiar with. You want to know what happens next, you want to know who did it, why and how. It ticks all those boxes but it does it in Dirk’s own esoteric way. So it’s very satisfying in itself as a drama.
“Any book is the product of one single vision and any TV film or film is the product of a collaborative vision. So you’re always going to have to have different expectations. Otherwise you set yourself up for obstacles which aren’t necessarily there.”
“I think Richard at the beginning is essentially someone who doesn’t like himself very much, the way he’s behaving, the state of his relationship and the state of his life. He’s been made redundant fairly recently. I don’t think he likes himself very much and the way he’s trying to fix things.
“I think the last thing he thought would actually be a positive influence in his life would be this chance encounter with an old university friend. And not just any old university friend – this strange friend…who’s always been an outcast and a bit of a weirdo in terms of people considered to be normal.
“But, of course, in terms of classic comedy constructs, where Richard’s cynicism and dubious nature meets Dirk’s flair and enthusiasm, there begins this lovely comedy clash, I hope. And good fodder for each other in this relationship. It is a relationship which is a little threatening to Susan. But ultimately, hopefully, leads them back.”
Helen Baxendale (Susan Harmison):
“I also didn’t read them in my youth and feel the same (as Darren).”
“Richard and Susan are different from the books in respect of their relationships with each other and their names…well, mine. In our TV adaptation they are a couple who are experiencing some difficulties at the beginning of the programme.
“Susan is more Earth-bound and her theories are more accepted, thought about, how things happen and they are quite different to Dirk. I think she finds his way of life somewhat troubling, particularly seeing as though he now seems to be going out with Richard, almost…it seems like that. So she’s more rational. Although she’s intrigued by Dirk, she finds him frustratingly ridiculous. Susan gets dragged into it just because he’s involved. It’s ridiculous. Or is it? I shout abuse from the edges.”
Producer Chris Carey:
Bringing the Dirk Gently books to the screen?
“Through a variety of processes, they were with lots of different people over the years, both here and in America, and it never got made.
“And then about five years ago, I was working at ITV at the time and the estate approached us. And actually, Saurabh (Kakkar) who is the exec producer (for ITV Studios) and myself, we both love Dirk Gently. Because of my connections with the estate, we managed to persuade them to let us have a go at it. And it took a while, even then, it took a few years to get to the stage we are now.
“This story is not the first book. It’s based on the characters and inspired by the novels. But the hope will be, as we make another, what, 50 episodes, minimum, (smiling) we’ll be able to cherry pick from the books all the various ideas and anything that we find appropriate to a particular story. So the hope is that we’ll be able to make the books go a lot further.
“So even on episode 207 we’ll still be able to take parts of Adams, rather than if we’d just adapted the books wholesale.”