Sanjeev Bhaskar is best known as one of Britain’s top comedy stars, through Goodness Gracious Me and The Kumars at No.42. Few people realise that he is also a big fan of science fiction and actually has a few SF/fantasy credits on his CV. This interview was conducted by phone on 25th November 2003, around the time that Bhaskar presented a programme on The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as part of the BBC’s The Big Read series.
How were the ‘champions’ for each of the books in The Big Read selected?
"They rang me before they started the entire thing and said, ‘What are your favourite books?’ So I mentioned two or three books of which Hitchhiker’s was the first one I mentioned. They then came back and said, ‘Look, we’re expecting this to score quite highly. If it did, would you be prepared to do a documentary on it?’ And I said, ‘Yes, I’d love to.’ And it came into the top 21. They had a pretty good feeling that it would go pretty high to start with so they chanced their arm slightly with people, saying: ‘Well, we hope your book will be top twenty-ish.’
"Then when it came in, that was fantastic. Initially they said, ‘Look, there are a number of other people who would like to be advocates for the book,’ and when I thought about the other choices I said, ‘Well, quite frankly, I’m not actually prepared to do any of the others.’ Because it was going to be a week, week and a half, out of my time and originally that was time that I’d just taken off to have a holiday. But they rang back and said, ‘Yes, that’s all well and good.’ And also the guy who directed it, a guy called Deep Sehgal, he’s a huge Hitchhiker’s fan. I’d done a couple of voice-overs for him on other documentaries and he’s a really great guy to work with - so the combination of the two was just perfect."
What sort of brief were you given?
"The brief was fairly open. I said that I really would like to do a mixture of two things: to have chatting to camera but also if possible to dramatise bits. I thought: this is going to be the only chance I ever have of playing Arthur Dent. That’s what I do, I’m an actor really. I find it a little odd talking to camera. So a mixture of the two really excited me. On a small budget, I thought they did quite well actually."
Did you cast the programme yourself? It was a great cast.
"Oh, amazing, yes. I wish I could take credit for that, but that all goes to Deep actually. To get Adam and Joe and Patrick Moore - and Stephen Hawking! That was just incredible! When he said, ‘We’re getting Stephen Hawking to do the voice’ - you’ve got one of the great physicists of our time, who obviously likes Hitchhiker’s - and I just thought, ‘Wow! Douglas would have got such a hit out of that!’ Because apparently his voice box is unique. He can add intonation and stuff. That was fantastic, and Stephen Hawking apparently had seen other stuff that I’d done and quite liked that - which made me sit in a corner in a foetal position and rock for about an hour! We also got Roger Lloyd Pack - it was a great cast. The scenes that we shot were actually slightly longer than the ones that ended up on screen, but he came down for a day and was Slartibartfast, which was fantastic."
What was Nigel Planer’s role?
"He was the voice of Marvin, which again was great. For a generation brought up in the 1980s on The Young Ones, that was superb."
Who designed Marvin?
"A couple of guys in London. There was one guy who was inside Marvin. It was great when we were filming in public because it made every child’s day."
You had some graphics in there too, done on real computers.
"That was nice as well. We had a limited budget but things are so much easier to do now than they were when the TV series came out. When the series came out on DVD I bought it and it was nice to see all the extras. But it was nice just to have those little bits. People who didn’t know about Hitchhiker’s, I would start with the Babel fish and that would just sell them on the whole thing."
It is actually a very difficult book to eulogise because most people who love it have discovered it themselves.
"I’m good friends, obviously, with Meera Syal* who was championing Pride and Prejudice, and she didn’t know anything about Hitchhiker’s. But when she saw the programme, she said, ‘Well, it’s made me want to read it.’ And that’s great. I think the best way is really by picking out examples. It’s like trying to convince someone to watch a Marx Brothers film - it’s impossible to go via the plot and you just have to give them a few scenes and go: enter into the mayhem, go into freefall thought association, and you’ll love it. The same as the Python stuff, you just have to explain a little bit and ‘off you go’ but it’s great for that because the examples you can give are so wonderful. Anybody who loves Hitchhiker’s loves retelling them. I had a compendium of the first four books together and I used to read them on a very depressing train journey into London. Telling people about Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged - I just couldn’t tell that enough times because I just thought it was fantastic."
Which is your favourite of the five novels? You were nominally championing the first one but really it’s the whole series, isn’t it?
"Yes, that’s why I didn’t want to separate them all. I remember being incredibly sad after reading So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish. I just thought: ‘Oh, right, is that it?’ So that always stayed with me. I think it’s Life, the Universe and Everything for me. Because the TV series obviously was a mixture of the first two."
Did you ever meet Douglas Adams?
"I didn’t, no. And the irony is that I now live in Islington. No, I didn’t get a chance. It was just so sad when he passed away. Because also I was a big fan of the Dirk Gently books. I just thought: there’s a film waiting to be made. In fact, I was working in marketing at the time and I remember thinking it would be a great idea to do a film or a TV series about a Hindu detective because he’d be kind of holistic. And then Dirk Gently came out and I thought: fantastic!
"In fact, I remember that I was working in Stratford in East London and I went to Woolworths to get the book and they said, ‘We haven’t got it in stock.’ so I said, ‘Well, can I put an order in for it?’ So I went in my lunchtime two weeks later and there was a long queue at lunch, a huge queue. I said, ‘I was told my book’s in and I’ve come to get it.’ The woman said, ‘What’s it called?’ and I said, ‘Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.’ She looked on her microfiche and then, very exasperated, said, ‘I’m sorry, we don’t have Do It Gently.’ I said, ‘No, it’s Dirk Gently. A different kind of book.’ And she just went absolutely beetroot red; I looked round to see all these people looking at me, thinking I’d gone for some sort of self-help sex manual. They were going: ‘Well, he’s foreign. They’re at it all the time you know. Like Indian rabbits.’"
You’ve done a bit of sci-fi before - a short film called Inferno with Emily Booth.
"Yes, I’m amazed that you know about it. That was fantastic, absolutely fantastic. It was the first time I’d done blue-screen, or green-screen as it was in that film, and I really didn’t know what it was going to look like until it was finished. I was just so pleased. It was done as a National Film School student film. Paul Kousoulides who directed it is a friend of mine and I said to him when he went there, ‘Look, if there’s anything I can do, anything at all, I’d be happy to help out.’ It was a great opportunity. My colleague in it, Nitin Ganatra, is also a really good friend. And Sharat Sardana who wrote it, co-wrote on The Kumars and on Goodness Gracious Me, so he was an old friend. So it was great fun to do.
“I think a lot of people have wanted to take up the rights to do it as a full-length feature. It was nominated for a BAFTA, and it was long-listed for an Oscar as well. So quite a remarkable little film, and I think the most expensive film the National Film School ever made. I’ve always been a sci-fi fan. Slightly embarrassingly, on the last series of The Kumars we had Patrick Stewart on, and I got a captain’s uniform made, which I can see from where I’m sitting now. The guests don’t know in advance, we don’t tell them anything before they come on, when they come through the front door it’s the first time they’ve seen the family and the first time we’ve seen them. So I walked out and it was real mixed emotions because I was slightly embarrassed about wearing a captain’s uniform in front of Patrick Stewart, but there was also part of me that felt born to wear the Star Fleet uniform. It was a real emotional conflict! But I got to keep it - so I’ve just got to find an occasion to wear it now."
They’re casting the Hitchhiker’s film at the moment. Are you trying to get a part on that?
"Do you know, I’d love to! Anything. There’s tons of things that are buried in latex and I’d just be happy to be a part of it really. It would be great."
What have you got lined up next? Another series of The Kumars?
"I hope so. The international Emmys were yesterday and we were up for that so I don’t know whether we won - another one! But yes, another one of those next year. I’m also doing a feature-length show for ITV called Angell’s Hell which is quite exciting. It’s a great script. It’s about a guy called John Angell who, in the first ten minutes, dies and goes to Heaven and meets St Peter who says, ‘Look, we can’t let you in here because all the good and bad things you’ve done in your life absolutely equate, so we can’t send you to Hell either. So we’re going to send you back to Earth.
"The deal that we’ve struck, in our contractual obligation to Hell, is that on these occasions a representative from Hell will contact you and give you a task that you have to complete within 24 hours, every full moon. If you fail, you go to Hell. But because we want you to succeed, we’re going to send you an angel to help you. So I, as John Angell, get sent back to Earth. The representative from Hell is this incredibly sexy, foxy woman, and the angel they send me is a trainee and it’s his first time on Earth. It’s a sort of comedy drama, but really unusual I thought. Very well written, a little bit gothic at times."
Is it a pilot for a series?
"Hopefully, yes, if the feature-length pilot goes well then yes it’ll be a series. Granada are making it. I’m not sure if they’ve got a director yet. I just got a rewritten script that landed on my doorstep yesterday."
My mate Kevin Davies who worked on Inferno is convinced that you’d make a great Doctor Who.
"Oh, that’s very flattering! It’s that weird thing with sci-fi fans, where their imagination tends to be one step ahead of everybody else. Where everyone else would go, ‘What? An Asian Doctor Who? Isn’t that a strange thing?’, and you go, ‘No, because most Asian parents want their children to be doctors. It all seems to fit.’ In fact I became a doctor last Thursday. I got an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Hertfordshire. I wish I’d done something to deserve it! Just in time for my passport to be renewed so now I can be late for every single flight, just so they can call it out. That’ll be when I wear my Star Fleet uniform. It’ll be a fantastic combination: the last one to arrive on the plane, Doctor Bhaskar, and I’ll just come onboard and say, ‘Make it so.’”
* This was shortly before Bhaskar and Syal announced that they were getting married.
interview originally posted 17th July 2006