Telly Checked*: Dirk Gently

Posted on December 18, 2010 by

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Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, by Douglas Adams is possibly one of the funniest books ever written. Originally meant to be an episode of Doctor Who back in the Tom Baker years, Shada, the episode was only ever half completed, and never aired. Not one to be put down by that sort of nonsense, Adams promptly rewrote it as a novel, starring Dirk Gently, an eccentric, witty Detective with a penchant for big flappy coats and wide-brimmed hats, preferably red. Absolutely not Tom Baker.

But perhaps this was a good thing, as the opportunity to re-write the story as a novel allowed Adams to expand on his original idea and work in little touches that wouldn’t have been possible on television at the time. It also allowed Adams’ signature narration to take center stage, and it is the narration that provides the funniest parts of the book by far.

Dirk Gently has, in the same way that The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy does, resisted attempts to adapt it into any other medium. While many will argue about which of the many, many forms of Hitchhikers Guide are any good, Dirk Gently has always remained more or less untouched. This might be due to the fact that it’s protagonist doesn’t show up until more than ninety pages in, something few authors would be allowed to get away with. The only undisputedly good adaptation of Dirk Gently was a radio play put out on BBC Radio 4 starring Harry Enfield as the titular detective, and Billy Boyd (Pippin from Lord of the Rings) as the hapless Richard Macduff, which managed to get everything right, thanks to the help of Dirk Maggs as the producer, who had worked with Adams back on the original Hitchhikers Guide radio series.

So it is with a heavy sense of dread that I watch BBC 4’s new televised adaptation, simply titled Dirk Gently.

I want to get the bad stuff out of the way first, partly because there is a lot of it, and partly because there is also good stuff I want to finish on today. First and most heinously, this is in no way recognisable as Dirk Gently. This is not the story Douglas Adams wrote. His characters have been twisted and warped beyond familiarity. The dialogue is bland and humourless, lacking any of the charm or wit of Adams’ own writing and so many elements that, in the book, were vital to setting up an intricate and involving story are excised with no apparent regret. The setting, chronologically speaking, has been dragged, kicking and screaming forwards to the present day. Would it really have been so hard to set it in the 80’s, where it belongs?

Dirk Gently feels in many ways like a Pilot for an entirely unconnected TV series, one which, I have to say, I would actually watch, provided it made no attempt to associate itself with Adams. If you disregard the fact that this is an adaption of the book, it makes for quite good viewing. The characters could do with some work, Gently is played by entirely the wrong actor, as Stephen Mangan, who is a good actor, is simply too obviously quirky. Mangan is a man who could have played Sherlock. He could have played The Doctor. But Dirk? I’m afraid not. He’s too thin, too handsome, and too energetic. He is Dirk in name only, or DINO. Gordon and Susan, in the book brother and sister, are here presented as lovers inadvertently split up by Dirk and Richard in university. Gordon originally being Richards boss (though in this version Richard is a jobless loser) and Susan being Richards girlfriend, angry at him for constantly forgetting about her.

As it goes though, the actors themselves do pretty good jobs with what they’ve been given, Darren Boyd standing out as Richard, although it’s hard, in the space of an hour, to feel particularly attached to the characters who are essentially featureless save for a handful of quirks. The music and settings are all good. The pacing is fine, but then that’s because they basically wrote the plot from scratch and there’s a fair amount of pointless filler thrown in. This would have worked so much better as a series, six half-hour episodes would have been perfect, and would have allowed for a much deeper plot, more characterisation and a better overall product that actually resembles the original book.

For once I would say that this is something fans are better off avoiding, as it’s many, many faults will simply be overwhleming, but as general light viewing, you could do worse.

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Posted in: Review, TV