“Salutations friend. I’m Garth Marenghi, horror writer, although I prefer the term ‘dreamweaver.’ When I wrote, directed and starred in Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace for television back in the 1980s, I drew deep draughts of inspiration from the dyke of my dreams. Other times I copied the plots from dead authors on whose work the copyright had lapsed. (Shrugs) Bite me.”
As Jason Henninger pointed out a few days ago, it can be hard getting people to try new things, no matter how mind-blowingly fantastic and amazing they are. This seems doubly true of truly genius comedy (can I get an ‘Amen’ from all you Arrested Development fans out there? Don’t stop believin’...) and here in the U.S. it’s at least five-and-half times as true when the genius comedians in question happen to be British. I’m not sure why this is, exactly, but for every friend of mine that became instantly obsessed with the original BBC version of The Office when it first aired, there was always someone who reacted to it as if they’d spent their childhood locked in a dark closet being terrorized with endless episodes of Are You Being Served? until they were left gasping and shaking at the merest hint of a British accent.
While I can’t imagine anything much more traumatizing than prolonged exposure to that poisoned crumpet of a terrible sitcom, it’s downright tragic to think that one or two bad shows inflicted by PBS on its overly-trusting viewing public should cancel out the brilliance of The Goon Show, Peter Cook, Monty Python, The Young Ones, Blackadder, Fry and Laurie, French and Saunders—all the amazing comedy that I grew up watching along with SNL, The Simpsons, The Kids in the Hall and Mystery Science Theater here in the States.
Lord knows I don’t want to have to implement a homemade version of the Ludovico technique every time I need to share the genius of Eddie Izzard with somebody; I shouldn’t need restraints on my couch just to get people into Extras. Every once in a while, though, a show is good enough to consider implementing a Kathy-Bates-in-Misery approach to watching comedy. It’s a high compliment, but please believe: Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace is a show worth hobbling your friends for. They’ll thank you later (well...maybe).
There are multiple levels to this madness, so get ready. Here’s the premise: Garth Marenghi (Mattew Holness) is a best-selling horror novelist—think Stephen King with a HungryMan-sized portion of Norman Mailer’s ego. With the help of his worshipful publisher/publicist, Dean Learner (Richard Ayoade), he wrote, directed and starred in a low-budget TV series in the 1980s, Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace: “a television program so radical, so risky, so dangerous, so goddamn crazy, that the so-called Powers That Be became too scared to show it,” at least according to Marenghi himself. It was, in fact, cancelled for a rerun of Who’s the Boss?
In 2004, due to “the worst artistic drought in broadcast history,” Channel 4 decided to finally unleash Marenghi’s vision on the public, along with interviews and commentary by its principle stars. Darkplace, an outrageously ill-conceived blend of action, horror, and comedy, is set at Darkplace Hospital, which happens to be built directly over the Gates of Hell, East London. For those who have seen Lars von Trier’s Riget (or Stephen King’s attempt at remaking it in The Kingdom), the scenario will seem amusingly familiar, but Darkplace is far more concerned with skewering the conventions of 80s television and the ridiculous egos of its stars than with a direct parody of either miniseries. The show-within-a-show captures everything that’s good about bad 80s television, from the terrible fashions and hairstyles, to awful lip-syncing and obvious voiceovers, cheesy special effects, and the flagrant over-utilization of slow motion and synthesizers.
Marenghi stars as Dr. Rick Dagless, M.D., a brilliant but rebellious Falklands vet and former warlock who fights the powers of darkness with the help of hospital administrator Thornton Reed (wooden non-actor Dean Learner), his best friend Dr. Lucien Sanchez, played by the smarmily-handsome Todd Rivers (Matt Berry), and the stereotypical token female character Dr. Liz Asher, played by neurotic blonde actress Madeline Wool (Alice Lowe). The episodes are interspersed with absurdly clueless, self-aggrandizing “present-day” commentary by Marenghi, Learner, and Rivers, whose deadpan delivery of completely over-the-top material makes Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace the greatest thing since This is Spinal Tap. The hyper-seriousness of their macho swagger and rampant self-delusion only serves to make the fact that their misunderstood “classic” of groundbreaking television is actually an atrocious mess of cheesy dialogue, awkward chunks of exposition, poor continuity, and wooden delivery all the more hilarious.
Created by comedians Holness and Ayoade, the characters of Garth Marenghi and Dean Lerner took on a life of their own when they chose to promote the show in-character. Press releases and the official website refer to Marenghi and the other “actors” on Darkplace as if they were actual people, making no mention of the real-life performers. Articles by “Garth Marenghi” also appeared in The Telegraph and The Guardian, all of which led to some confusion in the media and elsewhere over which aspects of the show were fiction and which were real...one really has to applaud that kind of Commitment To The Bit, especially when the bit itself is so phenomenally silly.
Unfortunately, Channel 4 only commissioned one series (six episodes) of GMD, opting not to renew it, in spite of critical acclaim, when the show wasn’t an instant ratings smash (proving it’s not just American TV execs suffering from zero patience and even fewer brains). After it became apparent that the show had gained a huge cult following (particularly online, where there was an explosion of fan sites), it was rebroadcast and released on DVD in the U.K. in 2006, which led to a spin-off chat show parody, Man to Man with Dean Lerner. In the U.S., Darkplace has been rebroadcast on Sci-Fi and the Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim over the last few years, and The Complete Series is available on Region 2 DVD, padded out with lots of goodies and extras, but those of us stuck in North America without a multi-region DVD player must throw ourselves on the tender mercies of the interwebs. Luckily, all the episodes should be easily located on online, from “Once Upon a Beginning” through “The Creeping Moss from the Shores of Shuggoth.” Fans of British comedy should keep an eye out for cameos by Stephen Merchant (of The Office and Extras) and Julian Barratt and Noel Fielding of The Mighty Boosh in several episodes. If you don’t know or care who those people are, that’s fine, too—just check out the opening credits below and try not to be washed away on a cloud of sublimely goofy 80s nostalgia: