Comedy Rewind

Horrifying tales with Garth Marenghi's Darkplace

Garth Marenghi's Darkplace. Garth Marenghi / Dr. Rick Dagless M.D. (Matthew Holness). Copyright: Avalon Television

If you liked the chaotic energy of the spoof documentary Ghostwatch, are an appreciator of clever sarcastic humour and don't mind seeing a grown man explode into a thousand gooey pieces... then why didn't you ever watch Garth Marenghi's Darkplace?

The Garth Marenghi character was born back in 2000 when Matthew Holness, Richard Ayoade and Alice Lowe took their stage show, Garth Marenghi's Fright Knight, to the Edinburgh Fringe.

Chauvinistic, self-aggrandising and quite possibly deluded, Marenghi (played by Holness) is a horror writer. His writing is superfluous, nonsensical and grammatically challenged. Audiences might want to hate Marenghi, but something about his naïvety (both creatively and socially) gives him an endearing edge. Fright Knight saw the horror visionary read aloud passages from his extremely gory horror novels, leading to a Perrier Award nomination for the trio.

A year later came the show's follow-up, Netherhead, which this time resulted in a Perrier win. The group's success at the Edinburgh Fringe also led to Holness and Ayoade signing with leading talent management agency Avalon. Next came a television series...

Off the back of their Fringe success, Garth Marenghi's Darkplace aired on Channel 4 in 2004. The show starred the original cast, as well as other up-and-coming comedy names, including Matt Berry, Kim Noble and Julian Barratt, plus a post-Office Stephen Merchant.

Directed by Ayoade, the show lent itself well to the television format: a spoof documentary similarly pivoting round the idea of "author, dream-weaver, visionary... plus actor" Garth Marenghi reading from his literary back-catalogue. Our protagonist is passionate about all things macabre, and so his proudest writing achievement is the creation of Darkplace, a horror television series set in a hospital in Romford, Essex, in the 1980s, where all kinds of dark and terrifying things happen.

Garth Marenghi's Darkplace. Image shows from L to R: Todd Rivers / Dr. Lucien Sanchez (Matt Berry), Dean Learner / Thornton Reed (Richard Ayoade), Garth Marenghi / Dr. Rick Dagless M.D. (Matthew Holness), Madeleine Wool / Dr. Liz Asher (Alice Lowe). Copyright: Avalon Television

The series begins with Liz Asher ('actor' Madeleine Wool, played by Alice Lowe) approaching the hospital's reception desk to apply for a doctor's role, having recently graduated from Harvard College Yale with an A. She is soon initiated into the goings-on at the hospital when a portal to hell is accidentally opened. Liz battles her own demons as the newest doctor at Darkplace hospital. She is patronised, ridiculed and berated constantly. This pseudo-sexism is tickling even for a modern female viewer, and Lowe plays it expertly. With psychic powers that allow her to see into the future and a sometimes uncontrollable telekinesis, she has to deal with a lot in each episode, often ending up battered and bruised by the end credits.

Alongside their newest addition, Darkplace Hospital has a small team of doctors who work around the clock (seemingly living in the hospital too). Dr Rick Dagless MD, played by Marenghi, is a much loved and highly respected doctor, particularly on the children's ward. His core team is made up of his best friend, the smooth-talking, ever-loyal Dr Lucien Sanchez (Todd Rivers/Matt Berry), and his boss Thornton Reed (Dean Learner/Richard Ayoade).

The fact viewers meet Holness, Ayoade, Lowe and Berry as not only their hospital staff characters, but as the pretentious, underqualified actors playing those characters, gives Garth Marenghi's Darkplace a tantalisingly sarcastic tone. We not only hear and see the characters' reactions within the horror serial (with varying degrees of believability), but Marenghi and his fellow actors also shed light on their experiences behind the scenes. This insight provides many of the laughs as it highlights the spoof nature of Darkplace: Learner (who plays Thornton Reed), isn't even an actor. Just like in the original stage show, he is actually Marenghi's publisher, who somehow landed himself a leading role.

With special effects that are high school production level at best, there is a delightfully shoddy, makeshift overtone to the series. The camera cuts are jolty and the timing of the dialogue is always slightly off, in a style reminiscent of Victoria Wood's sublime Acorn Antiques sketches. We see every half-concealed wire, hear every knock of a microphone and feel every slip of the cameraman's hand. Every joke falls slightly off the beat, giving the action an enticing unpredictability and making the show quite literally a laugh a minute.

Besides the constant thinly veiled sarcasm, what stands out is the level of dramatic, overplayed gore. We see bloody, decapitated heads kicked across hospital rooms, a temp attacked by flying screwdrivers, and a giant horny eyeball getting it off with patients. It's gruesome, overstated and in extremely bad taste, easily maintaining the homemade feel of those original Marenghi live shows.

Garth Marenghi's Darkplace garnered a cult following on its debut in the mid 2000s, thanks perhaps to the popular young host of comics among the cast. It came onto our screens in the same year as the likes of The Mighty Boosh and Green Wing, and shares cast members with acclaimed comedies of the era: Noel Fielding pops up as a monkey man, Julian Barratt as a priest and Stephen Merchant as a passive-aggressive chef.

However, the show was not recommissioned, seemingly at least in part due to low audience numbers. Its mid-week post-10pm timeslot certainly wouldn't have helped its chances in this regard, but perhaps it also has something to do with the layers of spoof and satire that made up the programme: you really need to pay attention if you're going to pick up on the sarcastic nuances, otherwise one might be fooled into thinking it really is just a very poorly-produced horror series.

Garth Marenghi's Darkplace. Image shows from L to R: Garth Marenghi / Dr. Rick Dagless M.D. (Matthew Holness), Dean Learner / Thornton Reed (Richard Ayoade). Copyright: Avalon Television

Despite this, Marenghi fans aren't restricted to the six broadcast episodes, as the 2006-issued DVD includes a variety of extra material. There are mock commentaries of each episode from Garth, Dean and Todd, as well as photo galleries, further interviews and even a mock single - plenty to fill your boots with after the final credits have rolled.

It may have only ran for one series, but Garth Marenghi's Darkplace left a multitude of genre-defining comedy shows in its wake, including a spin-off, Man To Man With Dean Learner, which aired on Channel 4 in 2006. It saw Ayoade reprise his role as the titular character, who has now added club owner and publisher of 'high-class gentlemen's magazines' to his CV, in a tongue-in-cheek spoof chat show.

Darkplace is a sitcom unlike any other, and so its ripples of influence are not always crystal clear. Similarities can be seen, however, in comedy shows created by other members of the Darkplace cast.

For instance, the role of the pathetic protagonist, someone who thinks he is of greater influence and skill than he is, whilst not original to Darkplace, can be seen in Matt Berry's Steven Toast in Toast Of London, and later in Julian Barratt's Richard Thorncroft in Mindhorn. Although airing in the same year, there are also parallels to The Mighty Boosh, with its own protagonists, Howard and Vince, performing to camera at the start and end of each episode, commenting on their own work.

Darkplace was clearly a great springboard for many of Britain's now most-loved comedy actors. In this sense, Garth Marenghi definitely played his part in shaping Britain's comedy landscape, even if the contents of the show are quite unlike anything else we've yet seen.

Where to start?

Garth Marenghi's Darkplace. Image shows from L to R: Dean Learner / Thornton Reed (Richard Ayoade), Garth Marenghi / Dr. Rick Dagless M.D. (Matthew Holness). Copyright: Avalon Television

Episode 2 - Hell Hath Fury

As there are only six full episodes of Garth Marenghi's Darkplace, you could simply start with Episode 1 and get through the lot in next to no time. However, if you're looking for a good taster of the frequent laughs and goings-on at Darkplace Hospital, we would suggest Hell Hath Fury.

This episode begins in the hospital staff lunch queue. The back-chatting chef (played by Stephen Merchant) is three hours behind with lunch service and it has sent the doctors into a spin. One particularly grouchy queue-dweller is Dr. Liz Asher, whose frustrations at being patronised and berated in the work place soon tip over into fully-fledged mania.

Garth Marenghi's Darkplace

All six episodes of the cult Channel 4 comedy series, plus extras totalling in excess of four hours.

First released: Sunday 15th October 2006

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