Looking back at Garth Marenghi's Darkplace

Feature Gem Wheeler 4 Apr 2014 - 07:00

Ten years on, Gem looks back fondly on the masterwork of dreamweaver Garth Marenghi and his Darkplace...

We should have seen it coming. They’d managed to keep it under wraps for twenty years: hiding the tapes, suppressing the press coverage. Two long decades of misinformation separated us from a truth too shocking to screen. Rumours persisted: a Peruvian broadcast, a missing castmember, skulduggery in high places. Finally, in 2004, Channel 4 did the decent thing. Some brave souls bit the bullet – perhaps literally, though we have no real proof – and broadcast Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, giving the self-styled ‘dreamweaver’ (‘horror writer’, for the uninitiated) some long overdue exposure. Writer of countless bestselling chillers, the man’s brilliant career’s won him acolytes and enemies in equal measure. Inevitably, his every venture has been dogged by controversy. Even Dean Learner, Garth’s manager and agent, has conceded that his star’s crossed the line many times. ‘Not since Orson Welles has one man had so many fingers in so many pies, and been the chef as well. And then looked like he went and ate them all.’

Sadly, like a vampire beneath the glare of the morning sun, Garth’s brief moment in the spotlight left his dreams of television stardom crumbling into dust. Darkplace managed only one series, despite a fan petition. It made a comeback of sorts in the form of 2006’s Man To Man With Dean Learner, a chat show hosted by the inimitable showbiz maverick of its title, but otherwise, the hospital horror sank without trace. Maybe it was all down to the shady manoeuvrings of MI8, the mysterious government department described by Garth – displaying mathematical skills almost on a par with his writing talents – as ‘three levels above MI6’. Maybe it was just killed off by bizarre scheduling choices on Channel 4’s part.

 

There’s another, stranger explanation for Darkplace’s decades-long burial, one repeated by a startling number of generally reliable sources. Some would have us believe that Darkplace, and its creator, never actually existed. It seems preposterous, but there is compelling evidence to suggest that Marenghi is, in fact, the alter ego of comedian Matthew Holness. Others have noted the striking resemblance between Dean Learner and actor/director, Richard Ayoade, while it must be admitted that the suave Todd Rivers, whose rich baritone so thrilled us in his role as dashing Dr Lucien Sanchez, could easily be mistaken for none other than Matt Berry. This explosive theory could also explain the troubling disappearance of Madeleine Wool, who played the emotional Dr Liz Asher. Could she really be Alice Lowe, star of British films such as Sightseers? The mystery deepens.

It’s tempting to dismiss all this as the deluded rambling of online conspiracy theorists. However, we should remember Garth’s own laudable efforts to push at the boundaries of truth, reason and narrative plausibility before we rush to condemn. A tantalising, if mind-boggling, prospect glimmers on our shared horizon. (Forgive me; Garth’s style is as infectious as a dose of cosmic broccoli.) Could Darkplace really be a superb spoof of early 80s horror, one that lovingly recreates every aspect of that wobbly, shoddy, eminently loveable genre? The truth, as a great man once said, is out there, so brace yourselves for a revelation more outlandish than Todd Rivers’ line readings. The show’s many plotholes, low production values and what might charitably be described as variable acting were, of course, entirely deliberate.

Joking aside, some people really were taken in by the Darkplace team’s ruse – not as surprising as it sounds, if you’ve ever seen the deadly serious Kingdom Hospital, Stephen King’s attempt to adapt Lars von Trier’s original Danish chiller, Riget (The Kingdom). It shouldn’t, though, come as too much of a shock to learn that Garth came into the world fully formed, springing horrifyingly from the collective mind of Ayoade, Holness and Lowe. Inspired by their Edinburgh Fringe production, Garth Marenghi’s Netherhead, Darkplace is a terrifyingly clever spoof of the po-faced world of our more self-satisfied horror writers. The cast’s decision to remain in character during all promotional duties helped to reinforce the hilariously accurate send-up of ‘80s horror, from the overwrought acting to the less than special effects.

Even more of a delight for genre buffs is Darkplace’s structure. The show-within-a-show format allowed its creators to take affectionate potshots – with an aim more accurate, thankfully, than the shotgun-wielding Thornton Reed – at the many idiosyncrasies of that era’s television. From the original Channel 4 ident to the Crossroads-style wonky camera angles and missed cues, the show’s intentional lack of polish is an affectionate nod to the genre. Ultimately, it’s that warm affection and attention to detail that distinguishes Darkplace from other attempts to lampoon the much mocked world of horror fiction. Marenghi’s endearingly gargantuan ego, captured with hilarious conviction by Holness, shapes all aspects of Darkplace’s production. His character in the show, Dr Rick Dagless, M.D., is a former warlock whose skills at fighting evil, wooing women and winning buddies are without peer.

Speaking of buddies, Matt Berry makes an indelible impression in his first television role as the inimitable Sanchez, whose smouldering demeanour and cheerful sexism only allow him to beat Rick to a girl’s heart once, with tragic brassica-related consequences. His alter ego, fading heartthrob Todd Rivers, is as convincing a showbiz stereotype as Ayoade’s Learner, whose utter lack of acting skills and general air of sleaze have in no way held him back. It’s darkly hinted that the latter’s habit of violently disposing of business competitors or troublesome castmembers is the real reason for the disappearance of mysterious Madeleine Wool, whose role as the put-upon Liz provides Alice Lowe with a golden opportunity to evoke the cookie-cutter heroines of days not quite as long past as we might hope.

We hear just enough of Garth’s dramatic readings of excerpts from his oeuvre to form an impression of his place in the canon. From an unforgettable love scene (‘They tried all the positions: on top, doggy, and normal…Then a hellbeast ate them.’) to his dauntless musing in the face of life’s big questions (‘In Black Fang I asked: what if a rat could drive a bus? And what if it and its rat brethren took over and ate Parliament?’) Garth is, thankfully, a true one-off. When it comes to philosophising, Julian Barratt’s cameo appearances as the hospital’s intense Padre are treasurable; we listen, struck with the wrong kind of awe, as the cleric gravely informs our hero that ‘You’re the most sensitive man I know… and I know God.’ His Boosh colleague Noel Fielding, meanwhile, is almost unrecognisable as a mad scientist turned ape whose urine contaminates Darkplace Hospital’s water supply, passing on the disease to Dagless’s crack team of medics, who must race against time to combat the dread ailment. You may not be too surprised, if you know your horror, that everyone is remarkably slow to link it to the hideous green water they’re all drinking.

My favourite Darkplace moments? Firstly, the, erm, thrilling bike chase in hot pursuit of Fielding’s villain, accompanied by a period-appropriate synth frenzy courtesy of the show’s BAFTA-nominated composer, Andrew Hewitt. Secondly, Sanchez’s magnificent musical lament, One Track Lover, the greatest moody electro ballad never to have been released in the 80s. Yes, one of Darkplace’s finest moments takes place in that staple of genre television, the dream sequence. To quote no less a luminary than Todd Rivers: need I say more?

Read about the cast of Garth Marenghi's Darkplace, here.

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