Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace
A comedy show about a documentary about a horror show about a doctor. Written by an idiot created by a very funny man indeed.
Radio might be the most intimate medium but TV is the most sociable; a convivial presence in every living room we’ve ever known, ready with gossip, information, comfort or distraction. In The Friend in the Corner we return to significant TV shows to find out what they did for us, and how they pulled it off.
The Friend in the Corner: Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace
Matthew Holness & Richard Ayoade’s woefully short-lived comedy series about an appallingly bad horror novelist and the terrible TV show he supposedly made in the ‘80s, a show “so outré (out there), that the top brass pulled the axe on the entire project”.
Each show within a show in Darkplace starts with an introductory narration:
“I'm Garth Marenghi: author, dreamweaver, visionary… plus actor. You are about to enter the world of my imagination; you are entering my… darkplace!”
The list of roles at the start is a clue to what we’re getting into, because Darkplace is a complicated confection, a multi-layered matryoshka of the macabre (as Marenghi himself would probably put it).
The premise is this: in the 1980s, schlock horror writer Garth Marenghi (Matthew Holness) and his publisher Dean Learner (Richard Ayoade) pooled their resources to make a TV show set in the cursed hospital Darkplace, in which Marenghi plays Vietnam vet/warlock/doctor Rick Dagless M.D. and Learner plays (and loses to) hospital administrator Thornton Reed. These episodes have now been dug out of the vault and are bookended with interviews with Marenghi, Learner and actor Todd Rivers (Matt Berry), who plays Dr Lucien Sanchez. It also features Alice Lowe as Madeleine Wool as Dr Liz Asher.
Stupid horror stories, written by a fictional writer, in a failed TV show within a parody of a making-of documentary.
Multi-layered. Like a frightening lasagne; a Victoria sponge of terror.
And also splendidly silly. From Matt Berry delivering precisely the wrong emphasis in the best baritone to Noel Fielding in an ape suit having a bike chase through the woods on a Raleigh Chopper, and from the eyeball kid to a karate fight with a steam iron, it is full of joyfully bizarre moments.
Where did you watch it? In an attic bedsit in Tufnell Park.
What TV were you watching? A bulgy old CRT wedged into IKEA bookcases already overflowing with questionable pulp horror.
Who was in the room when you watched it? No one. Even if I could have persuaded anyone to watch it with me, the bedsit was far too small for more than one human.
Why did you watch it?
Well, mainly because it’s funny; each of its ridiculous layers is jam-packed with jokes.
“I know writers who use subtext, and they're all cowards.”
The interviews with the fictional actors/writers/visionaries Marenghi, Learner and Rivers are gloriously Pooterish, self-important as only creatives interviewed about their own work can be. They are splendid additions to the long line of pompous little twerps whose misguided amour propre drives sitcoms.
From Hancock to Mainwaring, from Rigsby to Fawlty, from David Brent to Boris Johnson, British comedy is full of small men who wrongly believe themselves to be big; petty, bourgeois men who remain confidently ignorant of how their deluded opinion of their own importance and ability is relentlessly repudiated by reality, whose dreams of ludicrous success are ever thwarted by the meanness of their ambition.
“I’m one of the few people who's written more books than they’ve read.”
The show they are being interviewed about, the actual Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, is a canny bit of period recreation, from the ‘80s Channel Four ident to the smeary video and model railway level special effects.
There is a running joke with dubbing - the adding in of dialogue in the editing process. All of Alice Lowe’s dialogue is redubbed, while Matt Berry’s voice constantly loses sync with his mouth and then starts to intrude on other bits of action, exclaiming in the background. Throughout the show is playing with form, recasting and upending the tropes and conventions so recognisable from ‘classic’ TV.
"All I do is sit down at the typewriter and start hitting the keys - getting them in the right order, that's the trick, that's the trick."
The joke about Marenghi himself, as a writer, is a joke about form too. He understands what it is to be a writer, and what the shape of a horror story is supposed to be. But he is entirely incapable of telling a good story or writing it well.
He is a parody of a certain kind of author, the kind that is more interested in the idea of being a writer, of ‘weaving stories’, than he is in the actual business of writing. He is a kind of carnival mirror image of a Neil Gaiman or a Stephen King, full of warped aphorisms, pontificating about the process of his malformed art.
“Mike stared in disbelief as his hands fell off. From them rose millions of tiny maggots. Maggots? Maggots. Maggots, maggots, maggots. Maggots. All over the floor of the post office in Leytonstone.”
And what art it is. The stories that make up the actual episodes are beautiful little distortions of horror stories. Stories where the idea of Lovecraftian cosmic horror is a woman turning into broccoli; where the image of a realm of absolute terror is Glasgow.
Marenghi’s stories are relentlessly bathetic, grasping at overwhelming fear only to be undercut by his own paucity of imagination and expression. But this, again, is merely a comic exaggeration of the form. The best horror stories rely entirely on this trick, the eruption of the uncanny into the real, the revelation of the unsuspected beneath the mundane.
Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace works precisely because it is true to the form. It understands each of those levels: acting and TV making, writing and horror.
And it contains one of the greatest comedy songs ever.
For more classic TV and multi-layered silliness, check out our piece on Doctor Who & Monty Python:
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I have never heard of this before - I must watch this