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What with things being rather boring chez Rainsbury-Wilson and Mrs R-W taking her usual couple of hours to clear her “stories“ out the Sky HD box, I was bored and looking for something to do.  Having picked up a copy of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, I thought “bollocks” and decided to write a mini-review of it in order to spread the good word about a show which - ironically - wasn’t as appreciated as it should have been when originally screened.  For clarification about said and other ironies, please read on…

Atmosphere doesn't get more atmospheric than this!

For those not in the know, Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace was the creation of the titular, successful British writer, author of such terror standards as The Dank, Quivers and Stump, set in a Romford hospital where all Hell breaks loose as a demonic portal allows all manner of evil on the wards.  Originally made for Channel 4 during the 80s, it was deemed too terrifying for audiences, and was pulled from the schedules before it was even played.  It enjoyed a very brief run in Peru, but was lost in mists of time, only to be rediscovered decades later, but with about 50 of the original run missing.  However, the remaining six episodes were finally unleashed on an unsuspecting public, and were about to be consumed by the madness and terror of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace.

Padded out with interview footage from Marenghi (who played Dr Rick Dagless, MD - kiddie doctor, Vietnam vet and former warlock), producer Dean Learner (essaying the tricky role of hospital chief Thornton Reed) and actor Todd Rivers, the whole making and mythos of this dangerous show is examined.  OK, let’s get to it: from the combined pens of Richard Ayoade and Matthew Holness comes a spoof of gothic TV shows which were beloved at the time, but strike almost a vamparic note when they are exposed to the cold light of day: they turn to ash.  The main inspiration seems to be Dark Shadows, and the main joke is that even with a low budget, a mediocre script, crap actors, piss-poor production values and lousy special effect, you can still turn out a load of old crap which those who made it will defend to their dying days.  Listening to Marenghi and Learner perpetuating the myth that it was any good at all, let alone “dangerous” is absolutely hilarious.

A tender moment between man and rape-spawn mutant.

To better understand the unique qualities of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace,  presented here are the listings for all six episodes - or visions, as Marenghi pretentiously calls them.  If this doesn’t whet your appetites, then nothing on Earth will be able to.

Once Upon a Beginning:  New doctor Liz Asher is tipped off by a psychic cat that there’s darkness in Darkplace. So, when a patient mysteriously dies, Dr. Rick Dagless M.D. must scalpel-up and fight The Forces of Evil (which involves attempting to close a standard-sized hell-mouth beneath Romford.) Contains mild swearing and the naked top-half of a man.

Hell Hath Fury:  When the hospital chef is savagely attacked by a ladle all eyes point to an unknown attacker at loose in the wards. But why are objects flying about of their own accord, attacking innocent civilians and disrupting hospital procedure? Dr. Rick Dagless M.D. bravely investigates.

Skipper the Eye-Child:  The past is stirring in the halls of Darkplace, and for Dr. Rick Dagless M.D., that means Trouble. With a capital T (the rest of the letters lowercase). Something long dead has been reborn on ‘B’ Wing. Is it a macabre sign, a terrible warning, or a sacred gift from the gods? What’s certain is that it is a giant eye. A journey of discovery lies ahead for both of them…

The Apes of Wrath:  Monkey business most macabre… A terrible sickness is spreading from ward to ward as humans regress to a primal state. Dr. Rick Dagless M.D. must find out what’s releasing the beast within us, and fast, i.e. before it’s too late. A cautionary fable from Romford’s Chaplain o’chill

Scotch Mist:  A strange killer mist surrounds Darkplace, tartanning the hides of unwary travellers while phantom bagpipes play on, regardless. Dr. Rick Dagless M.D. must face more than the music as he unravels the secret behind its sudden appearance. The answer, when it comes, lies a little too close to home, even though Romford would seem a safe enough distance from Glenrothes.

The Creeping Moss from the Shores of Shuggoth:  Dr. Sanchez falls in love with a patient infected with cosmic broccoli, but when it threatens to spread Dr. Rick Dagless M.D. is forced to intervene. Trouble is, love is blind, and the only eye Sanchez has open is at the end of a trouser snake. Can Dagless save his buddy and the world?

We saw it right from the very first episode, and if it had gone for another season, then the popularity would have probably gone through the roof, a-al Father Ted, where those who slavishly listen to favourable opinion jump on the band wagon for the second series rather than discovering shows for themselves.  We also saw Father Ted from the start, BTW.  It is hard to adequately convey the pleasures to be found in a show which functions on a number of very firm levels, is written with more layers than an artichoke, and played by the actors in similarly ingenious fashion to way it’s scripted.  Starting life as the Perrier Award-nominated stage-show Garth Marenghi’s Fright Knight, this stage production brought together the triumvirate of Matthew Holness, Richard Ayoade and Alice Lowe, and the next year saw them clinching said accolade with the sequel: Garth Marenghi’s Netherhead.  From here, the move to TV was a logical one, but the real horrors were yet to come…

PMT-powered telekinetics at work.

As this is a mini-review, let’s keep things pretty simple.  The performances are superb, with Holness’ Garth Marenghi coming across as the most egotistical twat ever seen on British television, a hack horror writer who confuses mild success with validation.  He pretentiously quotes passages from his book to introduce each episode with the sincerity and gravitas normally reserved for orating The Diary of Anne Frank, and by Christ, it’s hilarious.  How about this: “Something was pouring from his mouth.  He examined his sleeve.  Blood? Blood.  Crimson, copper-smelling blood.  His blood.  Blood.  Blood.  Blood.  And bits of sick”.  Marenghi is a composite of a number of 80s horror writers from the 80s, and litigation prevents speculation as to which of them contributed what, but the sartorial style has notes of  Shaun Hutson.  The dreadful writer proves himself an even worse director as the lack of overall finesse or even competence with which Darkplace was made is staggering, and you have to wonder about the select few who didn’t get the joke and read it as was.

Of course, wooden acting, with certain producers-turned-actors caught looking into the camera on more than the odd occasion, is commonplace, with Richard Ayoade providing the biggest laughs as the gun-obsessed, cigar-smoking Dean Learner being the main culprit in the non-performing stakes.  Aoyade is hilarious, making the personable-yet-pompous Learner a comedic treasure, clearly being someone fancying themselves as a big-time producer in spite of just being a person who barely scraped together the resources to get the show made in the first place.  Every single thing the most incompetent actors in the world are guilty of are all bundled up and given to Thornton Reed, from missing cues, not using screen direction, looking into the camera, blatantly overacting, horrible line deliveries - you name it, it’s there, and all to hernia-inducing effect.  He gives a better performance here than he does as Moss in The IT Crowd, as there is more for him to do.  How could you not love a cigar-smoking man for whom the solution to every problem, even supernatural, is to pull out a gun and start shooting at absolutely nothing!

Just as Ayoade’s performance is superior to his on The IT Crowd, the same can definitely be said for Matt Berry as Dr Lucien Sanchez, as his shtick when replacing Chris Morris always seemed to be waaayyyy over the top, but this was before he figured that “bigger” got him more notice, and whilst he still relies on a big voice to generate laughs, he’s doing much more than is immediately read.  On the “actual” show, he’s a desperately mediocre (or just plain crap) actor trying to inject some weight to the role he has, in spite of clearly not caring about the work.  On the new interviews during the episodes, he’s an alcoholic, the result of his career long hitting the skids, and barely remembers anything about his time on the show, merely showing up for the money it pays, along with the chance it might re-ignite the flame of opportunity again.

Darkplace Hospital - awash with modern technology.

With the untimely death of actress Madeline Wool leaving her unable to appear in the recent interview material found in the show, is ultimately meant that real actress Alice Lowe gets less appreciation for her work than she deserves.  She essays Dr Liz Asher with the speedy delivery which top-flight stage actors would employ for rattling out Hamlet, but without the interaction, emotion, inflection or even talent which usually accompanies it, and all brilliantly by design.  Of course, the character is a pure sexist stereotype, but deliciously conceived and played, reflecting the kind of “fluff” roles offered to women up until that time on TV, and would only insult those of the most  humourless of viewers.  Take the official character description for a look at the knowing quality of any “isms“ it merrily deploys: “Able to perform stunning feats of telekinesis, Liz in nevertheless afflicted with emotional instability, like most women”.  Superb!

There are delights to be found in each story, and all ended with a moody shot set atop the hospital with Dagless delivering a moody internal monologue as the blood-red skies of Romford look on.  Be it wonderfully demonic Scotsmen, Carrie-style telekinetic madness, cycloptic monster rape or devolution on a sub-Planet of the Apes budget, there is so much to revel in.  Jesus, the concept of a hospital so private that the doctors ride around on golf carts  might not sound like much, but when achieved with such deliberately crappy means (not so  much poor man’s process, but destitute) is absolute dynamite - you can clearly see the wall beside the cart isn’t moving, despite all the efforts to convince otherwise.  Ever believed that a stapler can come to live and attack the suspecting with through the power of flight?  Nope, you still won’t after this one!  The bicycle-chase through the woods being inspired by Return of the Jedi is utterly hilarious, and all accompanied with the roar of motorbike engines.  All this might not read too well, but it’s one of the best shows to ever come from Channel 4.

The Return of the Jedi-inspired chase.

But if brutal honesty were to come into play, then it should be noted that one of the shows misses the mark, and is set apart from the rest.  It’s a real bummer that it happens to be the final episode, one which really doesn’t work, to the point where it might sour the overall opinion of those still trying to formulate one.  There isn’t too much information out there as to if this was supposed to be a one-off project, or that other episodes were going to make a Doctor-Who-like reappearance after being lost for many years, but given that the show didn’t get all that great numbers, prompting a re-screening two years later (which coincided with the DVD release) combined with the last episode not being very good and souring the memory, then Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace might well have signed its own death-warrant.  This all should be balanced out with just how terrific the rest of it is, though, and to have made more might well have spoiled it.

The crowning glory has be the construction of its own mythos, establishing an intricately detailed back-story for the programme and sticking to it, going so far as the employ the Tarantino-favoured style of answers-first-questions-later technique.  That so many episodes where tragically lost, with mention of all manner of bits which no longer survive, all these snippets about certain incidents that occurred during the filming, the various fates of those involved with the show, tensions during production, the pulling from the schedule, the Peruvian success so much more all combine to form so tantalising a mystery of just what exactly was Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, and why are those behind it so blissfully unaware of how crap it really was.  The website of Garth Marenghi is still active, so do yourselves a favour and take the time to read through it for even more background on this pretentious hack novelist.

It’s rather funny that when it first went out, most assumed that this was a vehicle for Matt Holness, as he plays the title character, who was the director and writer of the onscreen show, and gets the bulk of the screen time.  Now that the years have past, and Holness hasn’t had nearly the success as he might have  been afforded, closer examination that although Holness co-created and co-wrote the show, it was fellow Footlights alumnist Ayoade pulling the strings.  As well as being the other writer and creator, he was also the director of the whole thing, and given that Ayoade has successfully graduated to feature films after paying his dues on TV, it would seem that he was the real driving force behind this particular programme.  If you want other folks of greatness, then keep any eye out for Father Ted scribe Graham Linehan as a security guard, as well as Stephen Merchant as a very tall worker at the hospital.  Oh, and as if to complement Berry, fellow Mighty Boosh players Kim Noble and Noel Fielding are here, with the latter as one of the titular Apes of Wrath.

Dr Liz Asher devolves, and starts throwning her shit around.

It’s more than pleasing to report that the mythos has been carried over into the extras, with everything done “in character”, even down to the DVD presenting the show as if it were real, with Marenghi, Reed, Rivers and Asher being the only actors to be found on the box, as well as Reed & Marenghi taking the producer, writer and director credits.  The accompanying booklet is beautiful, and even hell-bent on perpetuating the mystery of Darkplace, complete with a foreword by the writer himself.  You get a good look at the history, some hilarious review of Marenghi’s books (including one from Hard Gore Magazine, which we've written for!) and some great character profiles.

"Are you alright?"

Video


Given the “rescued” nature of the material, it’s in pretty good shape, with the actual show looking rather nice, and the recent interviews looking predictably good.  Sure, there are awkward splices, jumps and the expected damage of its ilk, but can we expect anything more.  Presented in 1.33:1, the nature of how it came to go missing and the efforts needed to preserve it are best described by producer Dean Learner: “We have restored Darkplace to as near its original condition as we can get it.  But a lot of the film is lost…in the Thames.  There was a police raid on my house, and I had to get rid of certain articles sharpish.  In that mix-up, I ended up dumping half of Darkplace in the bottom of the Thames.  There’s no going back from that.”

Dean Learner fires his beloved guns again - for no valid reason...

Audio


This is might be essentially 2.0 mono, with all the hallmarks of a crappy TV show produced on a low budget, and the problems that come with it, but the music is the star here, with a very strong presentation which really uses the opportunities that stereo offers to something like Darkplace.  Yes, it certainly is worth putting it through the amp!

Are you ready for the exhaustive extras?  Well here they are:

Audio Commentary:  Yep, each episode has Marenghi, Leaner and Rivers sitting down to watch, and it’s a riot.  You can tell that a lot of planning and writing went into this, with the aim of expanding the Darkplace universe, but never feels forced, and is always hilarious.  The personalities of them are a little different, with Marenghi more bitter about life in general, Learner more pompous about his position as producer and Rivers’ alcohol abuse is even worse, with his memories of the show almost completely blotted out.  He shares none of the affection for the show his colleagues have, taking many pot-shots at it whilst watching, and even wanders off for a piss on at least one occasion.  Hell, he even goes off to do something only to be heard having a violent argument with someone on his phone!  This is a commentary every bit as funny as the show it is recorded for, and to have the three performers so committed to their characters is remarkable.  About 90% of consumers don’t bother listening to all of an audio commentary, but then they don’t all come as brilliantly seductive as those found here.

Darkplace Illuminatum: Purporting to be a selection of the “least angry” pieces of material recorded for Darkplace’s rediscovery, this is unused footage which presented to throw more light on the recording of the show that is given during the programme itself.  With various combinations of the three principle characters, this is just as good as anything else found on this disc, and certainly isn’t packaged sweepings from the cutting-room floor.  There is so much great stuff here, with Learner talking of one of the background artistes doubling up as a carpenter being priceless:   “Harrison Ford is was a carpenter…he’s done very well on it…he looks like almost about to fit a joist, as far as I’m concerned…Jesus also was another great carpenter…I don’t know if he was a good carpenter, but his eye really wasn’t on the job from the age of 27 up.  He had bigger fish to fry - he literally had bigger fish to fry.”  The editing of Darkplace is even covered, including the rather brutal nature of the Flatbed system employed.  You name it, it’s in here.  Things are best left to the wit of Dean Learner, coming to the fore again when he contemplates the nature of bringing something personal to the screen: “Art isn’t a commodity you haul in and out…like dildos”.

Misc. Horrificata Illuminata: This is another half an hour of unused footage from the interviews recorded to pad out the missing footage from the show, but as noted at the start, the 200 hours of recordings threw up some unrelated stuff which wasn’t suitable for inclusion.  Offering an insight into the bizarre machinations of Garth Marenghi’s mind, there (predictably) numerous moments of hilarity as the three principles spout off about everything which has ever gotten on their nerves or irritates them in some way.  A lid is going to be kept firmly on things, as they shouldn’t be spoiled for you, but let’s leave things on Learner musing about the legacy of Marenghi: “I think he’ll be remembered in the same breath as Rick Astley.”

Pam’s Home Movies: Garth’s wife Pam was frequently around to give her husband his mid-morning pie, and sometimes had her camera running, allowing this selection of footage to be presented for more on just how Darkplace was brought to the screen.  The exterior filming of Apes of Wrath as well as the extensive bar-fight sequence are showcased, but there are portions of the sound missing.  Let’s be honest, whilst there is a lot of obvious joking around when recording this stuff in character, it was serving a duel purpose, that of providing b-roll material for the DVD and getting the work done.  For a show supposedly directed by Garth Marenghi, Dean Learner is the one calling the shots, essentially proving that they probably stayed in character most of the time, and the missing sound probably removed instances where the cast referred to each other by their real names.  It’s good stuff, and you’ll be trying to pick out what’s real and what’s acting!

Test Footage: “…This material was thought lost until the scene was uncovered during a routine Customs and Excise investigation as Learner’s London mansion”.  So says the prefacing text, and this is the final scene of Hell Hath Fury using different set-ups, and might well have been a piece shot to test the four lead actors together.  It’s a nice inclusion, and a good look at the process.

The One Scene I Cut: Viewing the loss of any footage to be a personal admission of failure, this is a rare example of a piece which Marenghi editing out of an episode.  Running a solitary minute, the trimmed bit from Scotch Mist sees Dr Rick Dagless having a nightmare about Scotsmen in a chip-shop.  It’s pretty funny, but probably killed the pace, although the sight of a bottle of vinegar chained to the counter instantly redeems any problems it might have caused.

One Track Lover - 12" Version: Here in all its 80s glory is the extended version of Todd River’s only record, of which the ownership of the rights is hotly contested.  If you think you know the song after hearing it in the show, just wait until Learner starts up a rap only comparable to Cassandra Peterson’s at the end of Elvira: Mistress of the Dark, and when Marenghi provides backing vocals which would shame Leonard Nimoy, you’ll be grateful that the record company folded before it was even released.  Accompanying it is the theme to the show (it makes a great ringtone!) and on the flipside are three selections of Darkplace Moodscapes, providing incidental music for the horrors in the Dagenham hospital.

Radio Ads: Five of them are to be found here, and bloody hilarious they are.  All three principles get their own slot, as well as the son of actress Madeline Wool, tragically killed during production.  He wants you to keep watching for the sake of his royalties, so he can keep visiting his mothers’ grave.  The best of the bunch has to be this particular one: “I’m Dean Learner, producer of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace.  I put up all the money for Darkplace, and if it doesn’t get a big enough audience,  I’m going to have to go back into skin.  Please protect my dignity by watching Garth Marenghi‘s Darkplace, even if you can only stand it for ten minutes”.

Storyboards:  The almost childish designs, as drawn on the back of Marenghi’s breakfast napkin, of four sequences are yours to enjoy with a side-by-side comparison of the exploding body piece from the first episode.  Not much, but when you keep getting bonus material thrown at you, there’s no right to complain.

In Memorium: Darkplace: This is an extensive photo gallery, and you will be here for a while sifting through them all.  There are professional portrait shots of the cast, group photos, on-set photography and candid snaps from the filming, and all in character.  There is a snap of just about everything Darkplace to be found here, and one of the oh-so-very-obvious model of the hospital makes for a dynamite wallpaper option

Colour Bars: As odd as this sounds, on the Set-Up menu, select this particular option and you are given something to do a very basic calibration of your TV with.  Wait for about a minute until after it finishes, and you’ll be rewarded with a bunch of wonderful treats, including Learner’s tacky promo for the dubious Channel Ladykiss, a Darkplace patient speed-reading Marenghi’s awful novels, and further interview footage of Todd Rivers as he discusses - among other things - his dislike for method actors. That this is just as funny as the rest of the material where others would merely use tat says something about the quality of the entire writing.

Easter Egg: Yep, there is one to be found here.  As above, go to the Set Up menu, and highlight the picture of the late Madeline Wool.  This will trigger the playing of Andrew Hewitt’s entire soundtrack of the show, totalling almost 39 minutes of material.  Synthesiser-based bliss!

Dean Learner's only career path after Darkplace folded.

Overall


Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace is a show which really didn’t get the appreciation it deserved at the time, and whilst this is said of many others, this is a rare example of where something actually lives up to such post-mortem adulation.  It's intricately written, superbly played and - most importantly - f*cking hilarious.  The presentation is worthy, the extras are number one in a field of one - they really are excellent, and you have to wonder at the headaches caused in trying to figure them all out to perpetuate the intricate mythos of Darkplace.  Whilst follow-up show Man-To-Man with Dean Learner really didn’t turn out that well, it did give us an enticing look at War of the Wasps, the author’s as-yet unreleased the cinematic epic.  In 2004, the Marenghi wrote a rather bitter piece published in The Times, wherein he vowed never to work on TV again, but as downhearted as it might leave us, the legacy of Darkplace is a rich one, with so many avenues of production to explore with this wonderful DEAN-VD presentation.  So much for a mini-review…

They say that you can’t put a price on comedy, but you can certainly go out and run a price comparison for the best laugh you’ll have all decade.


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