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