"It's 'time I caught up with' Garth Marenghi's Darkplace?!"
Look, I can already hear some of you taking me to task about this headline on Twitter. I get it. Really, I do. Darkplace isn't a new show (its single season has been making the rounds, both illegally and legally, for nearly two decades), it's dearly beloved by a great number of horror/comedy nerds (none of whom have ever been shy about expressing their love for it), and literally no one likes reading an article wherein a writer "introduces" a readership to a thing they've been intimately familiar with for years. That's annoying, every time.
That said, I think it's fair to deploy that particular turn of phrase here, particularly for FANGORIA's American readers. Even at its most popular, Darkplace has always been a cult oddity here in the States, a status surely helped along by the fact that (since the series aired and ended in 2004) it's only ever been available in the form of shitty YouTube rips or the sort of online marketplaces where pirates might dwell. Oh, you could digitally rent individual episodes or buy a region-free DVD player if you wanted to, but convincing newcomers to spend money on a show with a highly particular sense of humor, intentionally janky production values, and a cast comprised almost entirely of performers who aren't quite household names here on this side of the pond has always been an uphill battle.
All of this changed recently when Garth Marenghi's Darkplace arrived on Amazon Prime, free to stream and markedly easier on the eyes than the episodes that've been cheekily uploaded to YouTube over the years (note: I'm told Darkplace is also streaming on Peacock, which is great news for anyone who subscribes to Peacock). It's more readily available than ever before, in other words, and for anyone who hasn't already had the pleasure: congratulations, this post is specifically for you, and you're standing at the precipice of a new chapter in your life
Garth Marenghi's Darkplace defies easy description. On one level, it's a show wherein a cast and crew look back at their work on another show, one that aired years prior to very little fanfare and/or success. On another level, it is that second show, presented via extended clips among all those talking head cutaways. It is uncommonly funny, sharply observed, and meticulously executed at every level for maximum "realism".
The general plot revolves around a terrible horror author by the name of Garth Marenghi (Matt Holness, an award-winning comic talent whose inherent love of the genre recently culminated in one of 2018's absolute best horror films, Possum), who, at some point years prior, was hired to write, direct and star in an also-terrible television series based on his own work. Marenghi plays Dr. Rick Dagless, the most celebrated physician at Darkplace Hospital, which inexplicably functions almost like a police precinct. Dagless is joined by an exceptionally not-ready-for-primetime cast including Dean Learner (Richard Ayoade, as Dagless' perpetually stressed-out supervisor, Thornton Reed), Todd Rivers (a pre-What We Do In The Shadows Matt Berry, as Dagless' frequently horny and silky-voiced right-hand man, Dr. Lucien Sanchez), and Madeleine Wool (the great Alice Lowe, as Dr. Liz Asher).
Each week, these characters investigate some sort of supernatural event plaguing Darkplace Hospital, each more absurd than the last: a Hellmouth opening up in the basement, an encroaching "Scottish mist" which turns Brits into stereotypical Scotsmen, the arrival of an "Eyechild" (literally a gigantic eyeball swaddled in a little blankie) on hospital grounds. Frequently these investigations require Darkplace's crack medical staff to engage in the sort of gunplay that'd be far more at home on a police procedural than a medical horror drama, but no one ever questions why the doctors are packing heat. If you're thinking this sounds ridiculous, perhaps even needlessly complicated, you are correct.
What makes all of this work is the profound commitment to the bit happening at every level of Darkplace: its cast portrays characters who are themselves playing other characters, and each version of each character is brought to life with remarkable clarity. Production design has been finely-tuned from the ground up to be as convincing as possible (if the show weren't as hilarious as it is, I'm confident you could convince a certain type of person that the show within the show was real), with all the janky visual FX and poorly-captured audio work that dominated shows like this back in the early to mid-'80s. Even the segments that kick off each episode, with Marenghi reading aloud from one of his own novels, capture a sort of self-serious pomposity that will ring true for any horror nerd (watch one of Marenghi's intros and then go watch one of Todd McFarlane's intros from HBO's long-departed Spawn animated series and you'll see what I mean).
In short, Garth Marenghi's Darkplace is a symphony, each laser-focused bit of production design and fully-committed performance conspiring with each mangled audio cue and tin-eared bit of dialogue to form a profoundly funny, one-of-a-kind whole. There is, quite frankly, nothing else quite like it.
When I decided to write this piece, I reached out to Holness to see if he'd be willing to answer a few basic questions about Darkplace - its origin, its production history, where it might have gone if it'd been granted a second season during its original run - and he was happy to play along. Here's what he had to say about creating and starring in one of the funniest TV shows of all time:
FANGORIA: I've often found myself in the position of wanting to explain Garth Marenghi's Darkplace to folks who've not seen it, but when I start breaking down what the show is, I find that Darkplace defies easy description. I'm wondering how you sold this show to the network on which it originally ran.
Matt Holness: In late 2001, Richard Ayoade, Alice Lowe and myself were in the fortunate position of having won a major UK comedy award for a show in which a bad horror author writes, directs and stars in a bad stage show based on his own bad books, very badly. Channel 4 were then interested in signing myself and Richard together to write something similar for TV. I don't think our pitch for the TV show was anything more complicated than 'bad horror author writes, directs and stars in a bad television show based on his own bad books, very badly.' We just looked upon it as Spinal Tap meets Stephen King. The important thing was for the characters and their world to be consistent and for them to believe completely in what they were doing.
Darkplace skewers many things at once: self-serious horror authors, terrible '80s primetime programming, attitudes about race and women from that same period, the sort of pseudo-doc shows that exist primarily to say "Hey, remember THIS?", cheap genre efforts, you name it. You and the team behind this series clearly had X number of things on your mind, and I'm wondering how you decided that this should be the delivery system for examining those things?
I don't think we really had any major axe to grind. I just found, and still find, human beings of all types, but especially celebrities, writers, musicians, actors and directors to be innately ridiculous in their occasional/perpetual sense of personal self-worth and belief that their creative efforts will ultimately outlive themselves, human civilization and the relentless march of Time. Maybe for a decade or two, a century if they're really lucky, but ultimately everything, Darkplace included (perhaps especially), is ultimately dead effort.
The "reality" of Darkplace (that is, the show within the show) employs all kinds of tricks to sell the fact that it came from a very specific time period, from the effects to the excessive use of ADR, to the acting styles of the cast. I'm willing to bet that some of the tricks you employed to sell the show's reality aren't so obvious, and I'm wondering if you can point out any other tricks/techniques/gags that might support that theory.
Well, we shot the 'drama' segments on 16mm film, which instantly gave it a sense of period authenticity. An old video look would conceivably have worked too, like classic Doctor Who, but modern digital formats would not have depicted the period accurately or convincingly. I still haven't seen any digital effects that successfully replicate, for me, the look of film. In fact, we ran a visual test for Channel 4, comparing the same scene on different formats. They all picked 16mm film as the most convincing. So that visual aesthetic certainly helps sell the reality of the show, and might be what binds the remaining elements together successfully enough to make one suspend one's disbelief in the entire premise.
We also took ideas from all the department heads, asking them 'how would you do your job really badly?' In fact, our sound engineer, Nigel Heath at Hackenbacker, unspooled the sound tapes from their reels and trashed them about the floor of his studio to make them sound unbearable, and we also made a big effort to backlight Liz and front-light Garth, making sure there was judicious use of soft focus at all times. Richard worked closely with our DOP Martin Hawkins to nail these 'subtle' visual details, which were all filtered logically through the characters' private egos.
Thus, everything is ultimately informed by that. It wasn't just about creating bad dubbing and lame special effects. It was important to us that those elements were employed to fuel and reflect the various characters' private egos.
How did the network respond to Darkplace before it aired, and as it was airing?
They were always supportive but ultimately didn't really understand what it was about, I think. They turned down our proposal for a second series and instead commissioned a sketch show from us, which I was not keen on doing and so it became a half-baked chat show instead, which I was also not keen on doing. I don't think Darkplace's ratings were especially bad – certainly not by today's standards – but it didn't find its audience until it appeared illegally on YouTube over subsequent years. I certainly never realized many people had seen or liked the show until we finally managed to release it on DVD and our first signing sold out.
Had Darkplace received a second season, do you recall any ideas you wanted to explore during that second batch of episodes?
I think we intended to set up an alternate-dimension story where Dagless's brother arrives at an exploded Darkplace Hospital to investigate the death of Rick and all the Darkplace staff. Then Sanchez's cousin and Liz's sister turn up, along with Thornton Reed's older nephew, etc. Can't recall much more than that, other than I wanted to do a 'Christmas snowed-in' episode based on John Carpenter's The Thing.
The character of Garth Marenghi exhibits traits we could trace back to several different horror/genre writers. I always assumed, for instance, that Stephen King was probably a direct source of inspiration here, but the last time we spoke, I mentioned this and you said he wasn't nearly as intrinsic to the character as some other writers were. Who are they, and should we be reading those authors?
No one specific, for legal reasons, and yes: you should read books by all of them.
Your 2018 horror film, Possum, is hands down one of the best horror films of the past decade. I'm curious if we might get another one from you and if there's any update on when that might happen.
Yes, hopefully soon, but development for downbeat serious horror films is a tough commercial path to navigate. It would appear people want clearly-signposted moral journeys and crowd-pleasing emotional catharsis. Fuck that. Horror is horror.
Any parting advice or wisdom you'd like to share?
I repeat, don't engineer crabs to be as big as men.
Should you give Darkplace a whirl?
Yes. You read the headline. I firmly believe this is a series any horror fan should take a chance on, especially now that it's so readily available. It's possible, of course, that Darkplace's insanely specific sense of humor will not be for you (the whole thing's so niche, you can hardly believe it was ever given a greenlight) or that the show's intentionally outdated look and feel will prove too much for your modern eyeballs to bear, but the likelihood of that being the case strikes this writer as very slim: in all my years recommending Darkplace to anyone who'd listen, I've only encountered one person who wasn't immediately on board with what this show was doing. Those're pretty good odds if you ask me, and I suggest you take them.
Oh, and PS: Once you're done with Darkplace, definitely seek out Holness' Possum. There ain't anything funny about that one (it's as dark as horror movies get), but I'm pretty confident in saying that you'll never forget the experience of watching it.
Garth Marenghi's Darkplace is now available to stream on Amazon Prime and, allegedly, Peacock. You should be watching it right now.