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Canned TV Show #17: Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace

June 5, 2011 Leave a comment

Greetings traveler…

So…yeah.  It’s been like 9 months since my last post.  No doubt many of you conceived and subsequently gave birth to children in that time, most likely riled up to the point of copulation by my delicate prose detailing the sexual exploits of the employees of the fictional hotel on Do Not Disturb.  Or you were thinking that something, anything, including intercourse, was better than watching that show.  Actually, intercourse is better than almost anything, but we won’t go there.

Today’s canned subject comes from across the pond.  It lasted for only one six episode season (or “series” for all you silly Brits out there), before being cancelled and gaining a cult following via the internet and stateside reruns on Adult Swim.  The show is Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, and it’s arguably one of the funniest British TV shows of all time.

The premise is as follows: fictional horror author Garth Marenghi (a character of Matthew Holness) presents, nay, graces the viewer with an episode of a show he wrote, directed, and starred in back in the 1980s which went tragically unaired and unappreciated in its time.  Only now “in the greatest creative drought in television history” is he able to finally give the world this gift.  Each episode is framed by an introduction from Marenghi, and are also intercut with brief commentary from him, his publisher Dean Learner (played by Richard Ayoade, more on him later), and occasionally the actor Todd Rivers (Matt Berry).  The series takes place in Darkplace hospital, which was relatively normal until its protagonist, Dr. Rick Dagless, M.D. (played by Marenghi played by Holness), opened the gates of hell and unleashed a host of supernatural terrors onto the ward.  Each episode then deals with another supernatural problem that the effortlessly heroic Dagless must solve, with the help of his best buddy Dr. Lucien Sanchez (played by Rivers played by Berry), hospital administrator Thornton Reed (played by Learner played by Ayoade), and occasionally psychic new doctor Liz Asher (played by Madeline Wool played by Alice Lowe).

So what is it that makes this show so hilarious?  The show’s creators (Holness and Ayoade) and production crew take the greatest care and detail into making it seem like they took no care or detail.  The sets, the costumes, the effects, the acting, and the dialogue are all hilariously awful, and you can tell the whole crew pulled out all the stops to make it as laughably terrible as possible.  Even things other spoofs don’t always think about, like weird sound problems and inexplicable editing, are on display here.  Only the most competent of filmmakers could pull off something so purposefully incompetent.  Other, more subtle elements of the writing add to the hilarity, such as how Marenghi’s unrelenting egotism filters into his writing, in that he has to make his character the most amazing doctor in the history of medicine.  As he tells a little boy who inquires about the state of his father, “we’re doing all we can, but I’m not Jesus Christ.  I’ve come to accept that now.”  Also, casual misogyny abounds, as Liz is painted as materialistic and overly sensitive, crying and ruining her makeup at the slightest outburst.  Marenghi’s assurance that his show was too radical for the world at the time emphasizes his delusion and inflated ego in hilarious ways.

One of the chief sources of funny on the show are the performances.  Holness plays Marenghi playing Dagless with a modicum of acting skill but absolutely no directing talent (you know what?  it’s gonna get too confusing writing about an actor playing an actor playing a character, so from now on I’ll just refer to them using their fictional actor names…God, even clarifying makes it confusing).  Rivers plays Sanchez with a bizarre, barely recognizable accent delivered in a smooth baritone.  He also has a habit of having overdubs that don’t quite match his lips.  Wool delivers most of her lines really quickly and softly, that is unless her PMS causes her psychic powers to take over the hospital, as it does in the episode “Hell Hath Fury.” Easily the funniest performance belongs to Dean Learner as hardened hospital administrator Thornton Reed.  Dean has no acting experience whatsoever, and therefore delivers a stiff, completely unnatural performance that is mesmerizing in its awfulness.  It has to be hard for an actor to essentially ignore all acting rules for a role like that, but Ayoade does is wonderfully.  Dean’s commentary segments are dryly hilarious, and he gets in some of the best lines of the show.  Several guest actors also turn in funny performances, such as Julian Barratt as the hospital vicar, and Stephen Merchant as a surly cook.

Most of what I’m talking about is on display here, especially Liz’s whole breaking down crying bit:

There are honestly too many small things to recount in detail, but in my mind that is one of the show’s greatest strengths.  It rewards repeat views, as there’s always something else you didn’t catch the first time that ends up being hilarious.  Every episode is a gem, but I think the first one, titled “Once Upon a Beginning,” is probably the funniest.  It sets up the series’ tone brilliantly right off the bat, and features an unending string of brilliant comic moments.  From an arm visibly dropping a cat into frame to hilariously redundant lines like “if that’s how you treat your friends, imagine how you treat your enemies!  Worse, I expect!,” it’s wall-to-wall funny.

That line pops up here, in fact, along with all of the other hallmarks of the series:

So if it’s soooo funny, how come it didn’t last?  Well apparently it was aired on England’s Channel 4 in a late time slot with little advertising, and thus had low enough ratings that the network decided not to continue it despite strong critical reaction and a budding cult fanbase.  I’m not sure how much a show like this would cost to make (looking at it you’d think they spent a couple hundred bucks, exchange rate included), but perhaps the costs were too high to take the risk.  The channel did approach Ayoade and Holness about writing a script for a movie version, though there hasn’t been any word on that for some time, so it’s doubtful that it’ll happen.  Perhaps the creators will one day bring the show back to its stage roots (two stage specials, Garth Marenghi’s Fright Knight and Garth Marenghi’s Netherhead, were performed in the early 2000s at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.  These specials acted as the inspiration for the series) instead.  Hopefully one day the cast will reunite for one last hoorah, despite them all moving onto new and most likely bigger projects.

So, should it be back on the air? I’m gonna say yes, of course, but honestly I’m a little torn.  I feel like something like this isn’t designed to continue for very long, and the show actually ends on a note that could be final but is flexible enough to possibly continue.  I’d say maybe one more series would’ve done it, but much beyond that and it might’ve gotten a bit tiring, sad to say.  I’m sure the crew would’ve made it worth watching for as long as they could, but that exhausting attention to detail would probably start to lag after a while.  Luckily, we have this brief but fantastic series to keep coming back to.

Unfortunately, the show doesn’t exist on region 1 DVD, so youtube is the only place for us yanks to get our fix.  Here’s a link to the first part of the first episode:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nNfQ0ORwSDM&feature=related

to send us out, here’s a clip from the final episode of the cast performing an awesome original song:

Join me next time (which hopefully won’t be nine months from now) when I finally review Kings!  Gotta do it soon, it won’t be on Hulu forever.