Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, 2004.
Created by Richard Ayoade and Matthew Holness.
Starring Matthew Holness, Matt Berry, Richard Ayoade and Alice Lowe.
At Darkplace Hospital, located over a portal to hell, Dr Rick Dagless M.D. and his colleagues are forced to contend with all manner of monstrous invasions while also attempting to deal with the horrors of hospital administration.
In the 1980s, horror author (and dream weaver) Garth Marenghi and publisher Dean Learner devised a show that would “change the evolutionary course of Man over a series of half-hour episodes”. This is that show, the masterpiece of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace.
Presented as a lost low budget TV show from the 1980s, Darkplace follows a team of doctors at the eponymous hospital in which horrors abound. The plots may vary, but the terror always lingers as our protagonists are forced to confront a plethora of horrors. Tackling stories involving undead Scotsmen, an ape uprising, an eye spawn monster caused by a mishap involving gamma radiation and the eye of a sex offender, and the pain of falling in love with a woman as she slowly turns into broccoli. Darkplace is a serious show that tackles serious issues.
The overall look and feel of the show is an accurate, meticulous recreation of the kind of goofy sci-fi horror shows that would fill TV screens back in the 1970s and 80s. The visual style resembles the appearance of grainy film stock that looks as it’s been stored in a wardrobe for decades. The editing is awkward and jumpy, frames flat out vanishing, causing almost non-existent continuity between scenes, with props disappearing mid-sentence or characters suddenly appearing giant. The special effects that bring the horrors of Darkplace to life range from simple, such as very obviously fake heads, to the nightmarish depiction of a big-dicked eye beast seemingly made from paper-mache by a demented psychopathic child. The music (based on melodies whistled by Marenghi) is an eerily accurate recreation of the spooky electronic soundscape that would come out of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. The attention to detail is simply outstanding, with the various audio/visual elements combining into an absurdist soup that, to someone who grew up watching repeats of 1970s era Doctor Who and the like, feels like a warm wave of hilarious nostalgia.
The performances are something special in that we have a cast of highly talented actors who are required to deliberately give the worst performances possible. Co-creator Matthew Holness is terrific as the title character, introducing each episode with a deluded sense of grandeur and egotism that sets the tone for the pathetic lunacy about to unfold. In the show within the show, Holness and his co-stars are hilarious throughout. Their straight-faced and questionable delivery of the absurd dialogue is a joy to behold, never once breaking character or mugging to the camera for a cheap laugh. Co-creator Richard Ayoade steals the show as publisher Dean Learner playing hospital administrator Thornton Reed. Ayoade gives a downright abysmal performance (which he jokingly suggests is due to his own lack of acting ability) full of wooden delivery, an awkward habit of looking off-screen and cues missed so widely you could drive a truck through them. It’s a hilarious performance that, contrary to what he might claim, proves Ayoade as a skilled comic master.
The dialogue is cliched, terribly written and downright stupid, but always funny in its absurdity. Bizarre one-liners, cheesy puns (including one about buns) and terrified screams are fired out like a machine gun of strangeness, with the earnest straight-faced delivery from the cast ensuring that nearly every line lands with a perfect comedic wallop. To say that the dialogue is quotable would be an understatement, with enough lines here to fill an entire warehouse of T-shirts.
Gems such a recitation from one of Marenghi’s novels describing a horrific scene full of ‘blood, blood, blood……….blood……..and bits of sick’. Or a more personal anecdote such as when he talks about his twins and how he was worried that ‘……one would eat the other, but they didn’t. And I put that down to good parenting’. The dialogue of the “show within the show” isn’t much more coherent, but it always remains funny, with odd lines such as ‘She was like a candle in the wind……unreliable.’
My personal favourite exchange of the whole series comes when Marenghi (as Rick Dagless M.D.) tells a terrifying story of when he ended up stuck in Glasgow. Watching the Scottish in their ‘natural habitat’, seeing hordes of creatures with ‘fish-white flesh puckered by the Highland breeze’ and of ‘screechy booze-soaked voices hollering out for a taxi to take them halfway up the road to next all-night watering hole’ amongst many other horrors. As a Scotsman, I found this tirade against my people highly offensive, but also side-splittingly funny, and as someone who has been to Glasgow many times, 100% accurate.
Darkplace is very much an acquired taste, and not everyone will appreciate its particular sense of humour that plays very much to viewers who, like the makers (and me), are gigantic sad sci-fi/horror nerds. The brief run of the show (lasting only six 25 minute episodes) renders it short enough that it can be viewed in a single sitting that leaves you clambering for more. Yet, arguably, this brief fun ultimately works in the shows favour in that it never stops the jokes from becoming tired and overplayed to the point where they no longer land or for the premise to grow stale and boring. The show lasts just long enough to make its impact without ever overstaying its welcome. Quite simply, maybe it’s a good thing that it only lasted one series.
In case you can’t tell by now, I loved Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace. Masterfully performed by the cast who pull off the difficult task of giving the worst performances possible and making them seem genuine and boasting a darkly absurd sense of humour that, while not likely to please everyone, had me giggling like a lunatic throughout. Quite simply, this is a pitch-perfect parody of the kind of horror films and shows which turned me into the horror fan I am today.