The Greatness Of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace

Nearly 20 years ago Channel 4 broadcast Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, there was one series of six episodes and that was the end of one of the funniest tv programmes ever broadcast. A few years later a spin-off Man to Man With Dean Learner was launched but with a similar outcome. For some, GMD became a cult classic and one that they haven’t forgotten…and their patience has been rewarded with a new book by Garth Marenghi himself being released: TerrorTome.

The Premise of the Show

The creators of GMD are Matthew Holness and Richard Ayoade (they took the show to the Edinburgh Festival and won the Perrier Award), who also star in it. It is essentially a tv show within a tv show, a supposedly resurrected 1980s horror show set in a hospital on the gates of Hell.

Matthew Holness played famous, successful (but perhaps terrible) horror writer Garth Marenghi. He has written a ridiculous number of bad books and made one tv show – Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, which Channel 4 were releasing amidst a drought of other TV programmes. Each episode starts with an introduction by Marenghi and throughout the show it will cut to Marenghi and other cast members talking about the making of the show. GMD is awash with glaring continuity errors, horrific acting and awful SFX.

The Cast

The heroes trying to deal with Scotch Mist // Credit: Garth Marenghi's Darkplace, Channel 4
The heroes trying to deal with Scotch Mist // Credit: Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, Channel 4

Matthew Holness plays Garth Marenghi playing Dr. Rick Dagless – Due to the size of Marenghi’s ego he not only wrote, directed and produced GMD, but he also starred in it. Dr Rick Dagless is an unconventional doctor, not only riding around the hospital in a golf cart and carrying a huge revolver and dabbling in the dark arts.

Richard Ayoade plays Dean Learner playing Thornton Reed – Dean Learner is Marenghi’s publisher and was involved in the production of GMD, a well-dressed, womanising idiot who cannot act. When playing hospital administrator Reed, Learner is unable to talk to other actors, delivers incredibly stilted dialogue and can’t work telephones. It is probably the best example of an actor doing intentionally bad acting in the history of acting.

Alice Lowe plays Madeline Wool playing Dr. Liz Asher – Comedy and horror superstar Lowe plays Madeline Wool, the only main cast member we don’t have commentary from as she, in the words of Dean Learner, is “missing and presumed dead, with the emphasis heavily on dead”. Liz is actually the first character in the show, looking for a job at Darkplace Hospital, and despite being a highly qualified doctor is regularly dismissed by the other characters. Liz bursts into tears and instantly her face is covered in running mascara, has various telekinetic and psychic powers, and graduated from Harvard College Yale, aced every semester and got an A.

Matt Berry plays Todd Rivers playing Dr. Lucien Sanchez – Berry has gone on to great heights but this was essentially his first part, which Holness and Ayoade had to fight for him to get. Todd Rivers is the only proper actor of the three cast members who provide commentary, nearly always seen with a drink in his hand and a misguided view of his own acting. Dr. Lucien Sanchez is a charming if buffoonish character, he knows some manner of martial arts (as he regularly breaks out into a karate stance) and is the possessor of the best hair on the ward.

The Show

Thornton Reed at a funeral // Credit: Garth Marenghi's Darkplace
Thornton Reed at a funeral // Credit: Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace

In classic British sitcom style, one of the greatest sitcoms ever has a grand total of six episodes. Now dealing with the actual storylines – Darkplace Hospital is built on a portal to Hell and so weird stuff happens. People explode for no reason, doctors have Carrie-esque attacks of supervillainy and we learn broccoli is from space. A lot of the comedy comes from the “badness” of the show, the glaring continuity errors like Reed holding a bloody shovel one minute to a coffee cup the next and then back to shovel, the dialogue “I’ve got two words for you – tele kinesis”, the acting (which usually lands on Reed) and absurd outbreaks of action. There are a lot of guns on the ward, Marenghi has a revolver, Reed a shotgun and Sanchez has two pistols, a normal-sized one and a smaller one on his ankle which he uses to shoot the first one.

The Commentary

Dean Learner providing insight on the making of the show // Credit: Garth Marenghi's Darkplace
Dean Learner providing insight on the making of the show // Credit: Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace

The episodes are broken up with regular interview segments from Margenhi, Learner and Rivers, sometimes interviewed together, sometimes separately. In these moments we learn about how the show was made and the bizarreness of the characters. In terms of production, we learn that it was mainly filmed in a garage, that the amount of slow motion in the show is because the episodes were running too short that anything without dialogue was considered for slow motion and that Marenghi wears lifts in his shoes and claims to be six feet tall. But perhaps the best moments of the whole are learning about these people and their ideas, often their ideas about themselves, Marenghi’s ideas on writing are fantastically funny, proudly saying he’s written more books than he’s read, and clearly considers himself to be a genius of the highest order. Any glimpse we get into Learner’s sketchy life is fascinating and occasionally troubling, his description of his job as a publisher is certainly illuminating, with decisions like does that book cover have enough skulls on? Or adding punctuation to Marenghi’s books but “not semi-colons; this isn’t Joyce,” or even making the paper thicker to make the book seem longer. Todd Rivers seems to have a life of a barely successful actor with a lot of bitterness towards the acting community, audiences and even his GMD colleagues.

Garth finds the gates of hell open after going to make some coke floats // Credit: Garth Marenghi's Darkplace
Garth finds the gates of hell open after going to make some coke floats // Credit: Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace

Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace is like many cult classics cancelled too soon in that its cast go on to do more amazing, more famous work. Alice Lowe has been a comedy mainstay for years as well as starring in, and directing, a number of horror films, including Prevenge – the only serial killer revenge film where the killer is heavily pregnant. Richard Ayoade has made other shows as well as writing books and making films – Submarine and The Double are both great, as well as somehow becoming the host of The Crystal Maze (something which Dean Learner cites as a classic show that has come and gone). Matt Berry has starred in a number of classic tv shows in Britain, as well as most recently starring in What We Do In The Shadows. Matthew Holness probably has kept the lowest profile but did make the terrifying horror film Possum.

So with the release of a new Marenghi book now is the perfect time to seek out this brilliant comedy.

Also Read: The Ingredients Of A Cult Classic

Also Read: Matthew Holness: Possum, The New Silent Horror

Like this article? Get the latest news, articles and interviews delivered straight to your inbox.

Posted by
Richard Norton

Gentleman, podcaster and pop culture nerd, I love talking and writing about pretty much all pop culture.