Appreciating Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace

It’s been a weird couple of months for me, certainly in terms of stress and mental health. One of the things most people do is to find comfort in the familiar and I am no exception.

One of my all time go-to TV shows is Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace. Now, reading that, I expect one of two reactions:

  • Oh My God! You also like Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace?!

  • What the hell is Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace?

If you fall into the first category, then you are probably heading straight off to YouTube to watch your favourite moments for the umpteenth time. For those who are in the second category, and don’t worry, you are in the majority, let me tell you why you missed out on one of the funniest, most creative British television comedies ever made.

Broadcast by Channel 4 in 2004, this six episode series sprang from an Edinburgh show starring Matt Holness as the title character. Garth Marenghi is a best-selling horror author, a man who, in his own words “is one of the few people to written more books than he’s read”. He’s a mix of Stephen King, James Herbert, Dennis Wheatley and Shaun Hutson, with an ego that is larger than all four of them put together, and then some.

You know, a lot of people say: ‘Garth Marenghi? Isn’t he the guy who writes all that horror crap?’ Well, good luck to you, you’re an idiot. Because my books always say something, even if it’s just something simple like: ‘Don’t genetically engineer crabs to be as big as men’,

Garth Marenghi

According to the show’s lore, Marenghi, together with his publisher Dean Learner (Richard Ayoade) took a break from writing horror novels which posed questions such as “can water die?” created a TV show in the 1980’s called Darkplace. The show, which Marenghi wrote, directed, starred in was “so radical, so risky, so dangerous, so goddamned crazy” that it was immediately shelved by everybody.

The six episodes that were made (“escaped”, maybe) starred Marenghi in the leading role (of course) of Dr Rick Dagless M.D, Ayoade/Learner as his boss Thornton Reed.

Joining the team were Matt Berry as Todd Rivers/Dr Lucien Sanchez and Alice Lowe as Madeleine Wool/Dr Liz Asher. The shows are presented as is, but with DVD extra like cutaways to Marenghi, Learner and Rivers, commenting on the making of the show within the show.

God, even trying to explain the setup is complicated. But the end result is absolutely hilarious.

I got a script, read it, it scared me senseless, I looked at Garth straight in the eyes – never been afraid of holding a mans gaze, it’s natural – I said; “This is going to be the most significant televisual event since Quantum Leap.”

I do not say that often.

Dean Learner

The thing is, because of the ignorance of Learner and the planet sized ego of Marenghi, the finished product is terribly written, poorly directed, edited with a chainsaw and contains more bad acting than a primary school Nativity play.

Basically, you’ve got the most amazingly detailed spoof of 1980’s horror novels, movies and TV, interspersed with links from the “actors” involved, putting layer upon layer upon joke upon joke.

Each of the episodes is set within Darkplace Hospital, a place that just so happens to have been built over a source of terrifying evil, just outside Romford. The stories take us through Marenghi’s insane imagination, involving stories about him adopting a child that is basically a big eye, fighting telekinetic powers or falling in love with a woman who is part of an evil scheme to turn everyone who works in the hospital into broccoli.

The auteur isn’t afraid to tackle the Big Themes either, with racism the target of the episode “Scotch Mist”. Other writers – some would call them “lesser” writers – might have tackled the subject using allegory or subtlety, but as the man himself explains:

A still of Garth Marenghi saying "I know writers who use subtext and they are all cowards."
A man who knows who to push the boundaries of horror fiction

What makes Darkplace so brilliant is that it takes a ton of carefully planned jokes and piles them on top of each other. The closest comparison that I can think of in terms of firehosing such an amount of comedy at the viewer is Police Squad!, the wonderful show from the makers of Airplane! that led to the Naked Gun movies.

Darkplace matches, possibly even exceeds even that program’s gag rate, not least because it throws in deliberately wonky camera angles, broken props, continuity errors and bizarre visuals. There is an excellent Rule of Three podcast featuring Nish Kumar that explores Darkplace and mentions the fact that the crew were so involved in making the show look “wrong” that they would chip in suggestions. “To make it wrong, you would do this, but to make it wrong and funny, you do this…”

As an example, the below clip is from a scene where Marenghi is running in slow motion “because we were up to eight minutes under”.

In this two minute clip, you get the terrible acting, special effects, the “slow motion” running set up and then the payoff, a couple of sight gags, several silly wordplay jokes worthy of delivery by Leslie Nielsen, Matt Berry attacked by a whisk and a bin and that’s before you realise what the hell kind of hospital has a room full of creepy church pillar candle stands for no discernible reason?

And Darkplace is absolutely rammed with that kind of thing. The jokes crammed into every conceivable moment is off the scale.

So many brilliant lines to die for…

So why wasn’t it more popular?

The moment Darkplace started and Marenghi appears on screen in his leather jacket, I knew exactly where it was coming from. Then the credits to the show within the show start and I see what it was trying to do. By the time the theme tune switched from hardcore action to floaty melody introducing “Madeleine Wool”, I’m was so in. It took me two and a half minutes to understand the entire thing completely.

However that is because I already have an awareness of everything that the show is spoofing. I was a teenager in the 80s who had spent half of his time in local video stores. When I wasn’t scanning the shelves for The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across The Eighth Dimension, I was either reading trashy pulp horror novels from James Herbert and Shaun Hutson or watching imported US TV shows like Airwolf or The A-Team. Not just those, even the forgotten stuff like Cover-Up or Bring ‘Em Back Alive. Seeing the opening of Darkplace transported me back to that time in an instant.

However Darkplace makes few concessions to people who don’t have that prior context. It demands that the uninitiated viewer picks it up as we hurtle along – and for the majority who don’t click with it, then Dagless and Reed chasing a man in a monkey suit on BMXs to a soundtrack of motocross bikes is just going to seem very, very weird.

Let’s say Darkplace had become a hit and a second series planned. The problem is by the fifth episode of the first series, some of the jokes were wearing thin. You can’t laugh at the bad acting or terrible photography any more because the gag has worn off. The number of jokes crammed in would still be the envy of just about every other show but they would be more dialogue or character based.

Six episodes pretty much exhausted the concept, everything that could be done had been done and all of it to perfection. While Marenghi himself would have happily flogged that dead horse, then had it resurrected as a zombie to attack the Children’s Ward of the hospital, the So Called Powers That Be at Channel 4 didn’t think it was successful enough. Ah well, so we are left with just the three hours of perfection.

Obviously Matt Berry and Richard Ayoade moved onto much deserved comedy stardom and it is a shame that Matt Holness and Alice Lowe haven’t reached the same heights of fame and fortune. (Though maybe they didn’t want to, which is fair enough.) I’ll go to my recently freshly dug, mysteriously empty grave saying that Darkplace is one of the great comedy shows of all time, the attention to detail, the gags, the sheer love that went into its creation shines through. It manages to be endlessly quotable yet baffling outside the show itself but if I am in a crowd of people and ever say “you and he were… buddies” and someone else recognises it then we’re going to be talking and swapping quotes and moments for the rest of the evening.

Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace is available for free on All4 and you can find all six episodes on YouTube.

As a horror writer I don’t ask for much. I just hope I’ve changed the way you think about life.

Garth Marenghi

Appreciating Ted Lasso

By any measure, 2020 has been a shitty year. I don’t mind admitting that the stress of the year, combined with the lockdown induced by the COVID-19 pandemic and the lack of the usual ways of releasing stress and tension have taken their toll on my mental health.

In a year of relentless bad news, I never thought that one of the shining lights in some dark days would be a comedy about an American Football coach taking the reigns of a Premier League team.

I’ve not watched a lot of TV in the past year really, and what I have watched hasn’t really stuck. I’ve not really clicked with much in the way of comedy either, finding what is out there to be based on humour that is gross-out, cringing or just damned hyperactive to concentrate on, let alone enjoy. Maybe it is a sign of getting old, maybe not.

So the only thing that has really stuck has been Ted Lasso, the lead offering from the new Apple TV+ service. I must confess, I couldn’t be bothered with Apple TV+ even though I had a free twelve month subscription simply because I wasn’t going to watch it on my iPhone. But when the app was released for the XBox, I finally could play the damn thing through my TV.

The concept started with an advert on NBC Sports to advertise their coverage of the Premier League. In the ads, an American American Football coach, Ted Lasso, was appointed manager of “The Tottenham Hotspurs”. Cue plenty of fish out of water jokes.

Very popular, the Ted Lasso character stayed in the background of Jason Sudeikis’ mind until a couple of years ago where he and Brendan Hurt managed to develop a series. The Lasso in that ad would never work across an entire series, but the basic principle – fleshed out by Brett Goldstein and Scrubs writer Bill Lawrence was made into ten episodes by the newly launched Apple TV+.

The basic setup is that Premier League club AFC Richmond have new ownership in the form of Rebecca Welton (Hannah Waddingham). She is in charge because she got the club as part of a bitter divorce from her husband. And she has a reason for appointing a new manager who has no clue about the game.

My ex-husband truly loved only one thing his entire life: this club. And Ted Lasso is gonna help me burn it to the ground.

Unknowingly into the hot seat steps our title character, assisted by his sidekick, the laconic Coach Beard (Hurt). Joining the club, they meet kitman Nate (Nick Mohammed), aging captain Roy Kent (Goldstein), star talent Jamie Tartt (Phil Dunster) and his WAG Keeley Jones (Juno Temple). Can our hero actually become a success in a sport that he barely understands?

With that being the setup, saying that Ted Lasso is about football is like saying Star Trek is about a spaceship. There is little football action and the struggle against relegation is a subplot. The standard “gee, ain’t things different here in England” stuff is largely dispensed with by the end of episode two. Instead Ted Lasso is about characters you invest in and begin to care deeply about.

While being a very funny comedy, Ted Lasso is also an uplifting and positive story. I’m not going to go into details as I don’t want to spoil things but from cliched beginnings, each character is given depth and motivation which rounds them out and explains their situation. It also is smart enough to play the fish out of water stuff both ways.

Lasso: I mean, he must be from England, yeah?
Coach Beard: Wales.
Lasso: Is that another country?
Beard: Yes and no.
Lasso: How many countries are in this country?
Beard: Four.

Central to this – and perhaps uniquely for a show set in the world of football – are the two female characters, Rebecca and Keeley. It would have been very easy for them to have been peripheral or stereotypical but I found them to be crucial to the drama as well as getting some of the funniest lines. Hannah Waddingham and Juno Temple are brilliant in rounding out their roles – Waddingham in particularly can convey Rebecca’s emotions with a single face twitch.

I’ve rewatched the series a couple of times now and for me, one of the pleasures is seeing the foreshadowing of future events. It’s clear that this show is written and crafted to within an inch of its life. Considering where it came from, Ted Lasso simply should not be this good.

Anyone who knows me knows of my deep and abiding love for Firefly, the short-lived Joss Whedon sci-fi Western. I’ve never really got the fandom for Star Wars or Doctor Who (though I appreciate their qualities) but the adventures of the crew of the Serenity were something that I completely fell in love with and will watch over and over, reciting the lines from memory and cheering and crying at what happens in those 13 precious episodes and one movie. I even did that fan thing of evangelising the show to all and sundry, demanding that they watch it and hoping that they fell in love with as I did.

I didn’t expect to feel that way about a second show but I really do have that engagement with Ted Lasso. It is a show with heart and care and love. It has a positive message and moments where you quietly cheer when a character gets something nice happening to them. There is one scene – again spoilers – which I’ve watched over and over, sometimes when I’m down, sometimes when I just want to smile. It takes you to heights, sometimes through comedy, sometimes through drama.

Barbecue sauce!

The show is streaming on Apple TV+. If you have bought an iThing in the last nine months or so, you have a year subscription included. The app is also available on PC, Xbox and Playstation. You can get a 30 day trial and binge the series quickly – it is 10 half hour episodes. I really, completely and throughly recommend that you do.

Appreciating The Crow

I have no idea how to review films – as will shortly become very obvious. However, in an effort to start writing again, I’m going to put down some thoughts. And why not start with something about why I just absolutely love The Crow? So here are 2000 words, probably rambling, largely unstructured, mainly stream of consciousness

(Oh, and if you think that I’m worrying about spoilers for a movie that has been out for 26 years… I’d look away now if I was you. In fact, I’m assuming that you have seen the film – if not, go and buy the thing on DVD, Blu-Ray, Prime Video or whatever. Then come back.)

In the beginning

The premise is adapted from the late 80’s comic of the same name. Every October 30 – Devils Night – the city is ablaze, set on fire by hoodlums, ruffians and various ne’er-do-wells. Four of those, T-Bird, Skank, Tin Tin and Funboy are in the employ of Top Dollar (Michael Wincott), the local crime boss and, um, property developer.

One particular Devils Night, the four break into the home of Eric Draven (Brandon Lee) and his fiancee, Shelley Webster, who have been organising for better treatment from their landlord – the aforementioned Top Dollar. As a result of their community spirited action, Eric is thrown out of a six storey window and Shelley beaten and raped. Shelley dies in hospital, watched over by Sargeant Albrecht (Ernie Hudson) who was hoping he would get some lead as to who did it.

One year later, Eric returns from the dead. Seemingly invincible and accompanied by a crow, with whom he has some sort of supernatural link, he begins to take revenge upon those who killed him and his fiancee.

Comic Store Guy

I often have to remind myself that this is adapted from a comic. Now, I really don’t like comics all that much. Or rather, the sort of Marvel / DC superhero rubbish. I’ve read the odd comic – mainly some Alan Moore stuff – but I really can’t be arsed. Thankfully the film comes from a time where comic book adaptations generally were to be avoided – or at least downplayed – as opposed to firehosed across every part of the media.

Because it doesn’t take its audience for granted, The Crow has to do old fashioned basic stuff like introducing characters and back story. I tried watching Avengers Assemble and the sheer amount of knowledge that you are supposed to take in to the film is ridiculous. There are something like twenty-three of those bloody things and the expectation is that you have to have sat through most of them just to understand what is going on, let alone give a damn.

The Crow has none of that, which means it has to explain and introduce and build. Thankfully it does this largely by showing, not telling, with Eric slowly discovering why he has returned, what he is capable of and what he has to do. Good old fashioned story telling in lieu of using reams of previous background material.

What The Crow is is a good old fashioned love story. Strip away the goth elements, the gun play set pieces – this is a tale about love. About how it can affect those around you, about how it can power you even from beyond the grave. Instead of our Indestructible Heroes defending the planet Thraxxx from the threat of Garfnagle, The Crow is small scale, personal, relatable. I think this is why struck a chord with so many at the time and continues to do so.

The Elephant Crow in the Emergency Room

Obviously no discussion of the film is going to avoid the tragic events surrounding the death of its star in a horrible on-set accident. For such a dark film about loss, such an event proves that if He exists, God really does have a bastard sense of irony. It isn’t heretical to say that Brandon Lee probably wasn’t ever going to win an Oscar, I don’t find him that charismatic or that outstanding an actor but was he the guy for this role?


He looks right, he had the right amount of physical presence and he carries the emotional core of the film all the way through. He isn’t super cool, skating above everything as if it doesn’t matter in the manner of a Roger Moore Bond. He can’t deliver a joke. He brings anger, passion and vulnerability. Rewatching it recently, I especially liked the bits where he had to tell Sarah that he wasn’t hanging around, that he didn’t know what was going to happen when he fulfilled his purpose, but he knew that it meant leaving his friend for good, for a second time. You can see the sadness, but the resolution that this is what had to be done. Had Lee survived, I’m not sure that he would have bettered this role.

Everyman Ernie

On the Good Guy side of the coin, Ernie Hudson has to do a lot of heavy lifting. I always felt he got the shitty end of the stick as the Ghostbuster Nobody Remembers (never even getting on the poster). He’s a great actor of the everyman, in this instance being the main relatable character for the audience, guiding without too much exposition. Plus he gets to set up the ending by providing the method to dispatch the villain – I always thought that was a nice touch rather than a simple “we’ll say he hung around the hospital at Shelley’s death bed because we need to shows that this character is good”.

Hudson gets most of the memorable lines. It’s funny that The Crow has plenty of great dialogue, but isn’t particularly quotable. This is because the lines are in service of the story and the characters and fit like a glove, which means they don’t really work out of context. You can probably extract “Victims. Aren’t we all?” out of the script and use it at a pinch. “Can’t rain all the time” was clearly intended to be a tag line but “Well, at least he didn’t do that walking against the wind shit, I hate that.”?

Always have decent Bad Guys

Where The Crow really shines is in the way that the bad guys are fleshed out. They aren’t stereotypical violent psychopaths or street hoodlums who have no depth beyond the weaponry that they wield. It is clear that Top Dollar, Myca (Bai Ling) and Grange (Tony Todd, being quietly awesome) are Very Bad People, but they are intelligent and cunning with it. You can see them thinking about the situation, investigating, considering, planning. Grange discovers Draven upstairs at the bar but he’s leading with his brain, not pointing a weapon. Top Dollar borrows a gun to finish Gideon off and then hands it back with a very professional, very polite, “Thanks”. It might be a darkly amusing aside, but it fits the situation of them being partners.

It is a tragedy to me that Michael Wincott hasn’t had the career he deserves – or maybe he didn’t want to be pinned down playing bad guys. He’s charismatic, with a voice to die for and as I said, he bring intelligence to any role. He elevates a generic Head of Criminal Organisation role to become a believable Man with a Plan. It’s not a very nice Plan, it’s just business and he’s very good at doing business.

Even the hoodlums are given a depth, none more so than T-Bird (David Patrick Kelly). In the scene where he tells Top Dollar that Tin Tin “got himself perished”, Kelly brings a gutter level cunning to the conversation. You know that he knows he’s no match for the higher ups in the organisation, he knows his place and he’s happy with it. But you can tell why Top Dollar is happy to have him as the leader of that deadly gang of four. T-Bird is a rat bastard but a smart little rat bastard. He knows something isn’t right. Standard Hollywood cliche is for the character to go blundering in to some kind of situation for the hero to beat him but instead we get that little exchange between him and his boss, not of equals, but of respect and intelligence. And quoting Milton while strapped into a speeding car (on fire! Which explodes!) is definitely showing off, in a good way.

Even Skank gets a decent characterisation. Off his face most of the time, Angel David plays him as a hyperactive idiot. Not necessarily a bad person (though not a particularly good one) he’s just easily led by bad people and wants to be accepted. He gets to be relatable – when in front of Top Dollar and all the bigwigs, “I feel like a little worm on a big fuckin’ hook.” Who hasn’t ever been in that situation? Skank is fully aware of his role, of his limitations and that he’s fully deserved what is coming to him because he can’t think more than two minutes ahead.


It’s surprising how influential the film has been. For a start, the biggest wrestling character outside the WWE lifted his gimmick lock, stock and feathered friend from the film.

There is the argument that without The Crow you don’t get Heath Ledger’s Joker. I’m open to it.

This is the End

After Draven makes his way through the gang of four, I’d love to see the meeting where the end came up. “So, how do you kill off the bad guy? Shoot him? Toss him off a building? Blow him up?”

“Actually, I think I should do some kind of mental transfer.”

But that “30 hours of pain” moment is just perfect. Because like I said, this film, despite it’s dark trimmings, the shootouts, the explosions, is a tragic love story. It’s about a man who finds himself coming back from the dead and filled with anger and vengeance because of the pain of his loss. So no final quip, shocked freefall or huge explosion, the bad guy is going to die because he gets to feel the loss that the good guy has to live with. It’s about the power of emotion. That’s clever and – that word again – intelligent.

Then we get the coda, where Eric crawls to the grave of his dead wife to die for a second time. And she comes as an angel to take him to the afterlife. Call me an incurable romantic, but that’s the right ending. For Eric to simply disappear, having avenged his death but without being reunited… that feels off. Even as a fan of unhappy – or rather uncliched – endings, The Crow needed that moment where Shelley reappears. Otherwise, it’s a vital piece missing, like the end of The Shawshank Redemption without Zihuatanejo.

This is where The Crow differs so much from modern comic book movies. I’ve tried watching the Marvel Universe or whatever the hell it is called and I find it so gorramed hollow. An endless series of invulnerable characters having big long stupid fights featuring little more than CGI ping pong balls which only end because the plot demands it moves to the next big expositionary set piece. And because no-one can die in the MCU – heaven forfend that they aren’t around to appear as accompanying Funko Pops for the next sixteen movies of this crap – there is no peril. Shiny, loud, empty calories. Style over substance.

Not with The Crow. Smallish budget, a central cast of three, maybe four characters. Set over two nights, three or four locations. Very little fat – not that there was a chance for excess, obviously. Story starts, story continues, story ends.

(Apparently there are sequels. That can go right into a bin.)

End Credits

The Crow is by no means perfect. Bits of the acting are ropey, there is some judicious editing to cover up the loss of its star, the effects can be a little low rent.

I haven’t even mentioned the soundtrack yet, which still sounds reasonably fresh for an early 90s film. Nine Inch Nails covering Joy Division and the only song from The Cure I really like.

Ultimately I love the film because it is smart and clever and a lot of thought and love has gone into it. Thought into the writing, thought into the characterisation, thought into the staging. I’d love to have been in the room at the moment when everyone involved realised “We’ve got something here” because you can feel that in every frame.

It’s a deeply personal story. Having done a little bit of research, apparently the original comic was written after the author lost his fiance to a drunk driver. You can tell that the loss depicted on screen is rooted in a real experience – it isn’t something that you see that often.

For me The Crow is lightning in a bottle. Individual cast and crew may do better work, but they’ll not do better work together. Every component fits precisely as it needs to and the result is something that I adored from the moment I saw it in the cinema.

TLDR; The Crow. Brilliant, innit?