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Looking Back At GARTH MARENGHI'S DARKPLACE

Tony’s got to get out of this place…
There are comedies that are clever, and there are comedies that are merciless as they satirize their subject. Then there are comedies that put so much work into satirizing their subject, they almost become the thing they’re satirizing.

Welcome… to Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace.

When trying to wrap your head around Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, it helps to have been around in the Eighties.

If you were, you’ll remember some fairly grim low-budget sci-fi and horror movies and shows that were clearly aiming at cult status like shows of the Sixties and Seventies (which often ALSO had extremely tight budgets and often some distinctly dodgy premises), but which had little soul and relied on schlock effects, shock value, and zippy cuts for extra surprise and the what-the-hell factor.

Frequently, they were forced by budgets to use actors and directors with limited screen experience, resulting in the thousand-yard screen stare, bizarre dialogue reading, overdramatic acting, and those schlocky effects.

You’re getting the picture, right?

At the same period, horror exploded as a genre – and not always in a good way. Sure, the Eighties was the age of The Shining, American Werewolf In London, Nightmare on Elm Street, Hellraiser, Cujo, The Thing and more, but it was also the age of Maximum Overdrive, The Stuff, and Critters. (Critters fans, I said what I said, don’t @ me!). In some cases, horror novelists were overweened on the explosion of interest in their genre, and were regarded as being the new gods of the medium.

We would by no means name names, because the point really is that the status and regard was all too often thrust on these authors by fans, rather than coming from a point of personal egotism in the writers.

The combination of these two factors gives you the premise for Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace.

Garth Marenghi is a fictional Eighties horror writer, played by co-writer Matthew Holness (who, to give him his due, looks like he was BORN to play a self-regarding Eighties horror novelist). The premise of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace is that in the Eighties, he made a show in which he and his publisher, Dean Learner (played by co-writer Richard Ayoade – oh, NOW you’re interested!), had total faith, and in which they took starring roles. It was never broadcast in Britain, and Garth confidently asserts that that was because it was too ahead of its time – and too truthful.

The premise of the show-within-a-show is that Darkplace Hospital in Romford has what is essentially a Buffy-style Hellmouth underneath it, and that Dr Rick Dagless (played by Marenghi, played by Holness) and hospital administrator Thornton Reed, (played by Learner, played by Ayoade) must fight the forces of evil with some severely un-Romford firearms, while dealing with day-to-day hospital admin.

The “too truthful” assertion is naturally then a further riff on the tendency of some horror authors to go too far into their own world and their own mythos, and either to believe their own publicity, or to try to convince their fans of the truth of what they write.

OK. So far, so moderately tedious, and so very close to being exactly the thing it’s supposed to be parodying.

That’s the point where Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace originally failed to connect with viewers – it got poor viewing figures, and initially seemed not to answer a central question. If you’re parodying something like low-budget Eighties horror movies because they weren’t very good, but to make the parody work, you have to go to extreme lengths to make something that ALSO doesn’t look very good, aren’t you just adding more bad content into the world, while kicking low-budget creativity of the past from a position of comparative advantage?

And also, since you ARE capable of making much higher-quality, higher-budget content, simply by virtue of the fact that it was 2004 when Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace was first broadcast, and you therefore have to specifically de-grade your production, over-act to sell the point, and adopt all those low-budget tactics to make your satire work, at what point does a parody of horror writer Garth Marenghi’s vanity project, Darkplace, actually become the Matthew Holness/Richard Ayoade vanity project that is Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace?

Exactly – thinking about all this, like making it and showing it, can sometimes feel like far more work than it’s actually worth.

Of course, what Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace presents is essentially a horror genre version of Victoria Wood’s Acorn Antiques – giving a genre or a particular show of a bygone age a fairly proportionate kicking for its low production values.

But where Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace actually earns some significant brownie points is in its construction, which means it’s actually giving a kicking to something much more modern and true to the hearts of geeks everywhere.

Because Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace doesn’t just present Darkplace, the supposed Eighties creation of Garth Marenghi. Oh no. What it presents is the 21st century navel-gazing box set experience of an unseen Eighties show that its makers – and fans of its author - believe was a classic, cruelly and unfairly never previously released.

That means it comes with ‘modern’ interview clips from Marenghi, from Learner, and others who were involved in the show (including Todd Rivers, who played Dr Lucien Sanchez – in our reality, played by Matt Berry, with lots of his dialogue looped in, Berry doing what Berry does best, giving MASSIVELY over the top readings of even fairly simple lines, in order to show the spirit of the Ac-Torrrr).

You get reflections on the writing process, the production process, and above all, the (still, in 2004) rock solid certainty on the part of Marenghi and Learner that what they created was a work of staggering genius.

That’s where Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace gets a modernity that can still make it relevant, if not exactly much more watchable, nearly 20 years on. As well as taking a dig at the low-budget films and shows of the Eighties, and the assumed giant egos of some horror writers, it also takes a dig at the fans of such shows, who – often because of a coincidence in their timing – took them to their heart, and are all too keen to rhapsodise about their quality, their underlying themes, and their ability to stand among the highest forms of literature and/or television-making.

Yyyyyes, we know what you’re thinking. We’re now in a universe so meta it was probably built by Mark Zuckerberg. We’re a bunch of geeky fans, on a geeky fan website, reviewing a pretty geeky TV show from almost 20 years ago, that was satirizing not only geeky TV shows from ITS 20 years ago, but also satirizing the fans of those shows, and how they will willingly part with actual hard currency to possess and obsessively rewatch those shows, even if from an objective perspective, those shows are utter garbage.

Which is us – we are those fans.

Possibly, in some distant corner of time and space, causality just had a migraine.

The question is whether Garth Marenghi (You won’t believe how often in this piece we’ve been instinctively tempted to write Darth Marenghi – tell us that’s a name that doesn’t belong in a Star Wars Extended Universe show, we dare you!) and his Darkplace are actually worth a rewatch, now they’ve arrived on Britbox.

Honestly, it depends on a) your ability to laugh at yourself and your own geeky tendencies – and the shows and writers you love, and b) your ability to laugh at Matthew Holness, Richard Ayoade, Matt Berry and Alice Lowe.

If you really love Ayoade and Berry in things like The IT Crowd, then Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace is a show to watch at least once. If you only “just like” them, of if their humour misses more often than it hits for you, you might survive without Garth Marenghi in your life.

As a show, it’s more fun in its construction as a look-back by the creators on work in which they still passionately believe, despite its utter naffness, than it is for the sake of the undoubtedly loving but nevertheless merciless parody of the low-budget horror genre in the Eighties. But give the first episode a try, and see whether it hooks you enough to turn you into a Darkplace addict.

Watch Garth Marenghi's Darkplace today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony Fyler lives in a concrete cave, somewhere on the edge of the sea, with his wife, who exists, and the Fictional People In His Head, who don't as yet. A journalist and editor by day, he has written Some Books, and is more or less always writing another. One day, he may even get around to showing them to people. In the meantime, he's Script Editor and occasional Executive Producer at Third Time Lucky Productions, and a proud watcher of things no-one remembers they remember until they remember.

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