Cal takes a look at a masterpiece from an author, dreamweaver, visionary… plus actor.
Back in the 1980s, hubristic horror author Garth Marenghi (Matthew Holness) wrote, directed and starred in the television show Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace with the assistance of his publisher Dean Learner (Richard Ayoade). Set in a hospital located over the gates of Hell, the show features Marenghi as the charismatic Dr. Rick Dagless MD, and Learner as the hospital’s administrator Thornton Reed. Their colleagues are Dr. Lucien Sanchez, played by egotistical actor Todd Rivers (Matt Berry), and the ditzy Dr. Liz Asher, played by Madeline Wool (Alice Lowe). Together, they battle supernatural occurrences, ranging from cosmic broccoli to sinister Scotsmen. Fifty episodes of the show were produced, but the series was ultimately rejected by Channel 4, reportedly because it was “too radical… too goddamned crazy.” It did enjoy a brief run in Peru, though. Two decades later, C4 exhumed the show, dusting off a selection of six episodes for broadcast.
That’s the conceit behind Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, an elaborate and brilliantly executed hoax that lampoons low-budget 80s television, horror, science fiction and the wild arrogance of authors who genuinely believe themselves to be geniuses. Written by Ayoade and Holness, Darkplace is instantly addictive and uproariously hilarious on top of being devilishly creative and witty. It’s one of the most refreshing and original shows in years, as well, so it’s a shame that the series was so overlooked during its original run. Thankfully, it developed into a critically acclaimed cult favourite, leading to an eventual DVD release and the spin-off Man to Man with Dean Learner. Darkplace’s failure is a tremendous injustice, as the parody of low-budget 80s TV is pitch-perfect and anyone with real memories of such material will find the series to be side-splitting.
Darkplace would have been hilarious if the episodes were merely aired in their standalone form, but Ayoade and Holness go one step further, inserting straight-faced interviews with the cast who reminisce about the making of the show. It’s truly priceless stuff. Marenghi features prominently, presented as a misunderstood genius who still believes the show is a masterpiece, aggressively defending the material and explaining the clumsy subtext behind each episode. Learner, seen with an oddly-angled beret and a cigar, is full of hilarious production anecdotes that are too uproarious to spoil. Then there’s Todd Rivers, the eccentric has-been theatre actor whose memory has grown hazy after years of heavy drinking. At times, Rivers even claims to have no recollection of having starred in the episodes.
From every technical aspect, Darkplace is a home run – the recreation of low-budget telly schlock here is perfection. The show carries a rough, dated appearance, with grainy film stock, hilarious fashion, an old-fashioned colour palette, and spot-on lighting which makes everything look like a phoney set. The framing is awkward, the editing is clumsy and the writing is terrible, but deliberately so. Augmenting the illusion is the soundtrack, which sounds similarly dated and carries a distinct synthesiser score which would make any 80s composer smile. And rather than relying on state of the art digital effects, director Ayoade leaned on old-school techniques, with hilariously obvious green-screening and visible wires. The attention to detail goes deeper as well; it kicks off with a retro Channel 4 logo, and the analogue music track is distorted at times as if the film elements have deteriorated. Luckily, the whole show is sold with a brilliant poker-face. You see, Darkplace’s incompetence does not feel manufactured; it feels as if everyone involved tried to do the best that they could, but were unaware of their shortcomings. It’s a fine line to walk, but Ayoade and his crew nailed it. As a result, if you were none the wiser, you would genuinely believe at a glance that this show was produced in the 1980s.
The actors are staggeringly wooden and inept, but again this is deliberate, mirroring the type of stuff we see in low-budget television shows. Ayoade in particular is a sensation, with emotionless line readings, deadpan expressions, stilted movements, and a tendency to forget what to do and look at the camera. Holness is equally brilliant, presenting Marenghi as a man consumed with ego whose every line delivery oozes confidence. Berry, meanwhile, delivers his dialogue in an ostentatious, theatre-like fashion, as if he’s spouting Shakespeare. It’s great stuff. Rounding out the primary cast is blonde bombshell Lowe playing the now-missing actress (presumed dead), who portrayed the token ditzy girl in the show. There are various other guest stars throughout the season as well, including Stephen Merchant and Noel Fielding, who are totally at ease with the so-bad-it’s-funny style of acting.
Perhaps it’s for the greater good that Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace only lasted for six episodes. Like Fawlty Towers, further episodes is an enticing prospect in theory, but there’s always the possibility that another series may fail to recapture the lightning in a bottle, and tarnish the show’s legacy as a result. The new car smell of Darkplace was beginning to wane by the final episodes anyway, so let’s be thankful that Ayoade and Holness stopped while they were ahead. As a result, we have six excellent episodes, all of which are thorough gems. This show is perfection.
- A second series was never commissioned due to low ratings. However, over the next few years, the series gained a considerable cult following via word-of-mouth and the Internet. Renewed interest in the show led to it being released on DVD and subsequent airings in the US on the SyFy and Adult Swim networks.
- Marenghi returns in the first episode of Man to Man complete with a fake clip from one of his film productions.