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Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace (2004,UK)

08/08/2011

Director: Richard Ayoade       Starring: Matthew Holness, Matt Berry, Richard Ayoade, Alice Lowe

Hot on the heels of Hobo With A Shotgun I find myself watching another homage to times gone by, this time in the form of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace a simultaneous spoof of and tribute to the sort of shonky, cardboard scenery sci-fi/horror tv shows that populated the seventies’ and eighties’ tv schedules. I remember when this was originally on TV and I never bothered with it, partially because I wasn’t sure I liked the look of it but mostly because, if memory serves, it was on at an inconvenient hour and so I felt the effort required to catch it was far in excess of the rewards I would get from watching it. With hindsight I can say that this was a foolish decision as it turns out this Channel 4 produced comedy series is precisely the sort of thing it is worth staying up for.

It takes the guise of a recovered eighties show (the Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace of the title), previously thought lost but since rediscovered and now, in an age more broad minded and able to accept the dark and edgy subject matter being broadcast for the first time. Alongside the recovered episodes of the show writer/director/star Garth (Holness) and his fellow cast members Dean Learner (Ayoade) – who also happens to be his publisher – and professional actor Todd Rivers (Berry) give insight into the history and process of the show in talking head style interviews.

The recreation of the sort of low budget, genre telly that has clearly inspired Darkplace is brilliantly realised, each of the six episodes bursting at the seams with dodgy special effects, chronically bad acting, flimsy sets and diabolical writing. Combined with the outlandish plots that wouldn’t feel out of place in a series of it’s most obvious contemporary The Might Boosh it makes for bizarre and hilarious viewing. It’s no coincidence I’m sure that both Julian Barrett and Noel Fielding make an appearance in Darkplace, clearly they travel in the same sphere as Ayoade and Holness and share their writing and visual styles.

The programme within the programme, the supposed “lost” Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, is an episodic sci-fi/horror series set in Darkplace hospital where top docs Dr. Rick Dagless (Marenghi) and Dr. Lucien Sanchez (Rivers) are confronted by a monster/paranormal/extra terrestrial threat each week that requires some convoluted plan to stop, thanks largely to the reopening of the gates of hell by a mentally disturbed patient. It wears its influences on its sleeve – Dr Who, Tales Of The Unexpected, The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, Hammer House Of Horror – and is the crystallised essence of the shakier elements of these shows.

What really makes the programme work is the character of Garth Marenghi. A horror novelist by trade, making the jump to TV with his showcase series, he is in absolute denial of his obvious lack of any kind of discernable talent. “I’m Garth Marenghi,” goes the intro to the show, “Author. Dreamweaver. Visionary. Plus actor.” It’s the sort of arrogant display of unfounded self belief that characterises Garth. Holness has him down to a tee, a self serving, narcassistic person who holds the rest of us mere mortals in contempt and believing that his hack writing has the power to change the world. Matt Berry as Todd Rivers is the perfect accompaniement, suffering similar delusions although centred around his acting ability and looks and between the two of them they manage to generate a lot of laughs. Aoyade does a great job of seriously bad acting as publisher turned actor Learner and gets some of the best moments in his efforts at being the ball-busting administrator of Darkplace hospital.

As I see more of these retro pastiche pieces one fact becomes increasingly evident. For them to work well they have to be utterly straight faced. Machete is all good and well, very entertaining and a good laugh but it fails to capture that ethos of low budget, pulpy film and tv where everyone involved is convinced they are doing something important. Something special. Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space works because Ed Wood believed he was a genius and that it would be the greatest, most exciting film ever made. To successfully lampoon this spirit necessitates people who can play it straight, with little or no acknowledgement of the joke. This is Darkplace’s greatest strength. In Holness, Berry and Ayoade they have three of the greatest straight men that British TV comedy has seen this century, people who can over act with utter conviction, never once allowing their over earnest expression to slip while they loudly ham it right up. It’s absolute brilliance incarnate.

Luckily for us all, the terrible ratings it garnered when it was first broadcast didn’t prove to be the death of Garth Marenghi, the cult following that the show picked up keeping it’s spirit alive online until Channel 4 decided to release it on DVD. It has comfortably earned its place in the pantheon of modern British TV comedy, nestling as it does alongside the likes of The Mighty Boosh and the Ayoade/Berry starring IT Crowd that came a couple of years later. It’s a genuinely laugh out loud viewing experience (as it should be considering the involvement of the big hitters of British TV comedy – watch out for the cameo appearances by Graham Linehan) and more than deserves its second life on DVD.

 

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