A Look at Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace
If there was ever a television series that is the very definition of “not for everybody”, Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace would be it. I had the pleasure of seeing the show rebroadcast about a year after its original 2004 release and it remains a favourite for me to this day. I can’t guarantee you’ll like it but if nothing else it deserves a chance to be discovered by those who are more than likely unaware of its existence.
A parody of a fictional horror program from the 1980’s, Darkplace was created by Matthew Holness and Richard Ayoade, both of whom have appeared in and written for a number of notable British comedy shows. The character of Garth Marenghi, a spoof of a pompous, hack horror novelist was the subject of several award winning stage shows in which Holness and Ayoade both performed. Years later the character and related elements were adapted into a Channel 4 production in the UK, a TV series consisting of just six episodes – tragically, owing to a mixed reception and light viewership, Darkplace was not renewed.
Framed as a show-within-a show, the premise of Darkplace is of a premier of a long-forgotten 80’s series finally brought to light at the request of its writer, director and lead-actor Garth Marenghi. Each episode is set up personally by Garth, who is joined with other “actors” that worked on the fictional series in short interview clips about the “production” throughout the runtime. Thus each member of the cast is playing both the cast members from Darkplace and the fictional actors who portray them. The behind-the-scenes feel adds to the authenticity of the show and if the commentary wasn’t so hilarious one could almost be forgiven for assuming it had been real. Garth himself seems to feel the show would have been one of the most significant in the history of television had it not been canned by the oft-mentioned “powers-that-be.”
Set in an unspecified year in the 80’s (presumably post 1982, as Dr. Dagless is, among his other things, a Falklands War veteran), the “lost” program is set in Darkplace Hospital, in Romford, Essex. Apparently the gates of Hell are located underneath the facility and consequently all manner of disturbing supernatural occurrences are the norm. Every episode centres on a different horror premise, each more ridiculous than the last. The humour is decidedly absurdist in nature and the 80’s camp, poor production values, shoddy special effects, bad lip syncing and synth music are pitch perfect. The creators have weaved in many not so subtle horror genre references and tropes, and one can tell they have an appreciation for the material they are spoofing.
Holness portrays both Marenghi and also his in-show analogue, Dr. Rich Dagless, M.D. The lines between Marenghi/Dagless are blurred – the author is conceited, misogynistic and utterly convinced of his talents. Consequently the character of Dagless demonstrates all these traits in addition to being endlessly feted about his prowess as a doctor, occultist, soldier, et cetera. Richard Ayoade plays Dean Learner, Garth’s publisher and in turn Thornton Reed, a shotgun toting hospital administrator at Darkplace: his terrible acting is an ongoing gag. Matt Berry appears as actor Todd Rivers, who fills the role of Dr. Lucien Sanchez, good friend to Dagless. Berry’s comically deep voice makes every line read impossibly funny, and Sanchez oozes cool whether the scene calls for it or not. Alice Lowe as Madeline Wool plays ditzy blonde newcomer Dr. Liz Asher, who’s capacity for psychic visions are increased by her very presence at the hospital. She’s a frequent target of sexist remarks and rarely gets through an episode without a tearful outburst. The supporting cast is rounded out by a number of appearances by recognizable British faces, such as The Office co-creator Stephen Merchant or Mighty Boosh duo Julian Barratt and Noel Fielding.
Probably my personal favourite episodes are the first, “Once Upon a Beginning” and the fifth installment “Scotch Mist” where Garth tackles the subject of prejudice with his usual tone-deaf results. Fans of Holness and Berry’s musical talents will be pleased to see both put on a song in “Skipper The Eyechild” and “The Creeping Moss From The Shores of Shuggoth” respectively. “Hell Hath Fury“ explores the dangers of fully unleashed telekinetic potential, complete with mundane objects (suspended by wires) terrorizing the hospital wards. “Apes of Wrath“ features some legendarily bad movie-makeup gags of the simian variety and a dirt-bike chase scene that, owing to budgetary issues, utilizes children’s bicycles instead.
If you like your humour strange, clever and British, you can’t go wrong with Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace. In particular fans of the more widely known Mighty Boosh or The IT Crowd are likely to enjoy seeing many familiar faces in an even more ridiculous setting. A search on Amazon reveals that DVD copies are available, though one might have difficulty finding Region 1 versions. In addition to lot of extra interview segments, those lucky enough to snag a DVD copy will be treated to the full version of the “One Track Lover” music video – truly it has to be seen to be believed.
While the chances of a Garth Marenghi revival seem remote at best, Matthew Holness has been working on another character, The Reprisalizer , that takes the theme of an obsessed pulp writer in an altogether different direction. Though not much beyond a short-film and a website exists to date, fans of Holness should keep an ear to the ground for future developments.