Saturday 18 November 2006

Garth Marenghi's Darkplace - The Complete Series [DVD]

Saturday 18 November 2006
WRITERS: Richard Ayoade & Matthew Holness
DIRECTOR: Richard Ayoade
CAST: Matthew Holness (Garth Marenghi/Dr Rick Dagless, M.D), Richard Ayoade (Dean Learner/Thornton Reed), Matt Berry (Todd Rivers/Dr Lucien Sanchez) & Alice Lowe (Madeleine Wool/Dr Liz Asher)

Garth Marenghi is a self-absorbed horror author who has written a staggering amount of bad quality fiction. Back in the 1980s, Marenghi and his publisher Dean Learner filmed 50 episodes of a horror drama called Darkplace, about a Romford hospital that sits over the Gates Of Hell. The series was canned by Channel 4 for being "too radical... too goddamn crazy", but 6 episodes were finally shown by the channel in early-2004.

Well, that's the conceit, anyway...

In reality, Garth Marenghi's a fictional character played by Matthew Holness (based on James Herbert and Guy N. Smith), and Darkplace is a spoof horror series from Holness and co-creator Richard Ayoade. The ex-Cambridge Footlights duo had won the prestigious Perrier Award at the 2001 Edinburgh Festival for their stage show Frightfest (another Marenghi-starring horror spoof), before being signed up by Channel 4.

Darkplace was their unsuccessful move to the small screen, effectively satirizing low-quality 80s TV shows. The 6-part series was critically acclaimed and became an instant cult favourite, but ratings were low and the show was only repeated in October 2006 to promote this DVD release and spin-off show Man To Man With Dean Learner.

The failure of Darkplace is one of the great injustices of British comedy, as the series is a superb parody of bad low-budget television drama, and hilarious for anyone with real memories of such material.

On a technical level, Darkplace is very good at being very bad; atrocious editing, poor audio, shaky sets, cheap props, incompetent framing, inept special effects, idiotic plotting, bad writing, and terrible performances.

Each episode is introduced by Garth Marenghi from his crypt-like basement, and occassionally interruped by the show's cast in the form of retrospective interviews. These "talking heads" allow for another level of comedy, as the cast still consider the show to be a misunderstood classic, when in fact it's clearly a piece of forgotten trash.

As Garth Marenghi, Matthew Holness is the undoubted star. Marenghi is a short man with spectacles, slicked-back hair and leather jacket, who's convinced he's a literary genius. Marenghi spends the series quoting from his books ("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"), and elaborating on the difficulties in bringing his vision to the screen.

As Dr Rick Dagless, Holness essentially plays a romanticized version of Marenghi himself: a swaggering professional who takes the time out to chat with sick kids whilst saving the world from the horrors that emanate from his wards...

Co-creator Richard Ayoade plays nasal-voiced Dean Learner, Marenghi's publicist, who defends Darkplace and Marenghi's career whilst chomping on a huge cigar. In the show, Learner plays shotgun-toting Thornton Reed, the hospital's administrator, and is the least capabale actor thanks to his deadpan expressions, stilted movements, emotionless dialogue, and tendency to glance at the camera and forget what to do.

Matt Berry plays Todd Rivers, an overly-theatrical Hispanic actor with an exaggerated "fruity" accent, who plays Dr Lucien Sanchez in the show. Sanchez is Dagless' "best buddy" and has the curious ability to speak an octave higher than a normal person!

Alice Lowe completes the main cast as platinum blonde Madeleine Stowe, a now missing actress (presumed dead), who starred in the series as Dr Liz Asher. Asher is the token ditzy girl who is subservient to all the men and the victim of the show's often sexist characterisations.

All of the performances are excellent, with each actor totally at ease with the so-bad-it's-funny style of acting required. After cutting their teeth on stage, it's clear the cast relished the chance to bring this comedy sensibility to the small screen, and the result is a brilliant and affectionate pastiche.

The 6 episodes break down thus:

Episode 1 - Once Upon A Beginning
Dagless accidentally discovers a Hellmouth inside Darkplace Hospital shortly after the arrival of psychic doctor Liz Asher...

Episode 2 - Hell Hath Fury
Liz develops telekinetic powers after becoming angered whilst waiting for a meal at the canteen, then threatens the safety of the hospital by attacking people with objects...

Episode 3 - Skipper The Eye Child
"He was born half-human, half-grasshopper; he didn't stand a chance..."
A mutant eye rapes a male patient, who promptly goves birth to an "Eye Child". Dagless finds himself growing attached to the mono-eyed critter, stirring memories of his own mutant offspring...

Episode 4 - The Apes Of Wrath
"Not my fault; monkey bastard hands!"
The hospital staff are gradually being transformed into apes thanks to a contaminated water supply...

Episode 5 - Scotch Mist
"I know 'mon' means 'man', but I don't think 'och' means anything..."
Dagless' phobia of the Scottish comes back to haunt him when three ghostly Scotsmen arrive in the hospital grounds...

Episode 6 - The Creeping Moss From The Shores Of Shuggoth
Dr Sanchez finds himself falling in love with a patient who is being slowly transformed into broccolli...

Overall, this DVD is an essential purchase for fans of Garth Marenghi, lovers of satirical parodies, or just people who enjoy bad 80s television. It also guest stars comedy alumni such as The Mighty Boosh's Noel Fielding (head ape) and Julian Barrett (hip padre), Extras' Stephen Merchant (swearing chef) and Father Ted co-writer Graham Linehan (a porter).

Darkplace is very original, swimming with quotable dialogue, visually great fun to watch, and brilliantly acted. A special mention must also go to the excellent music by composer Andrew Hewitt (nominated for a BAFTA) who brilliantly apes musical styles and stings common to 80s TV.


PICTURE: The show's 1.33:1 image is difficult to critique because all its flaws are most likely intentional! The poor video quality is typically 80s, with brown-tint, lots of noise and colour bleeding evident throughout. So, it's pretty bad. But that's the point, so it's great!

AUDIO: The Dolby Digital 2.0 soundmix is mostly mono, although composer Andrew Hewitt's amazing score uses both channels effectively. As with the video quality, everything is purposefully bad and a good translation of what the creators intended.


Commentary Tracks: There are audio commentaries for all 6 episodes from the fictional cast members Marenghi (Holness), Learner (Ayoade) and Rivers (Berry). Hilarious and essential listening.

Darkplace Illumninatum & Misc. Horrificata Illuminata: more on-camera interviews with the show's fictional actors, resulting in an hour of hilarity that didn't make it into the actual episodes. The quality of the material is just as high, so this is must-see stuff for fans!

Storyboard-to-Film Comparisons: a common feature in DVD movie releases, here showcasing the terrible drawings of Garth Marenghi...

Gallery: a large selection of photos from the show.

B-Roll Footage: some candid video footage from the Darkplace set, purportedly filmed by Marenghu's always-unseen wife Pam.

Deleted Scene: just the one, unfortunately.

Early Version Scene: the only surviving "original" version of a scene from Episode 2 (they made 43 episodes of Darkplace before Dean Learner decided he didn't like his haircut and forced everyone to refilm the entire series!)

Radio Adverts: some audio-only adverts from the Darkplace cast, designed to drum up support for the ailing show back in the 1980s.

'One Track Lover' Extended Version: a longer version of the wonderfully naff 80s music video starring Dr Lucien Sanchez and Dr Liz Asher. Excertps from Darkplace's score are also available.

Overall, quite a sumptuous release considering the show's dismal failure for Channel 4. Hopefully this DVD will be a big success and perhaps inspire a much-deserved second series of Darkplace on TV. But, if not, fans of Marenghi's particular brand of overblown and inept horror, should rejoice.