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Top Ten: British Comedy #2 – Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace

Posted in Advertising & Television, Top Ten with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 11, 2014 by innothingwetrust

Darkplace

Simply put, everything about Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace is brilliant. It is one of the most lamentably under-rated shows to come from our fair shores, although the existence of a paltry 6 episodes does allow it to benefit from ‘Fawlty Towers syndrome’ – a very small body of very high quality material.

Part nod to and part-dismantling of eighties horror genres – Stephen King’s ‘oeuvre’ in particular – Darkplace masquerades as a re-run (it enjoyed a brief spell in Peru) of a chilling hospital-based television drama about ‘maverick’ doctor Rick Dagless M.D, his best buddy Dr. Lucien Sanchez, their ball-busting boss Thornton Reed (who, in turn, must answer to the mythical Wonton) and the team’s newest addition, psychic medium and woman, Liz Asher. After the opening of a portal to ‘another dimension’ in the first episode, Rick Dagless and his definitively archetypical supporting cast must battle against the forces of evil, curses, creeping moss, the Scottish, an anthropomorphised eyeball, apes, broccoli and the unpredictable nature of womanhood, as well as dealing with the burden of day-to-day admin.

On its surface, Darkplace is obviously and unashamedly ridiculous – as indeed is the entire point and crux of the comedy. But peeling back the layers, it really is very cleverly put together. The most ingenious ingredient is that all the actors play two characters, not just one. Co-creator Matt Holness plays Garth Marenghi, who in turn is the creator of the titular show-within-a-show and plays – within that show – Dr. Rick Dagless M.D. This is so that another clever device can be utilised which creates a whole extra level to the characterisation, namely the interviews with the cast members. These interviews are interspersed between the clips of the program, sending up the pomposity and self-sycophancy of tribute and ‘list’ shows of recent years. In them we get to peek at the motivations and personalities of the actors themselves, as well as those of the characters they portray. Just to watch Dr. Rick Dagless et al would be funny enough, but viewing his performance through the filter of Garth Marenghi’s burgeoning arrogance, smugness and self-righteousness which we gain through his interviews makes every single thing he does even funnier.

Likewise, the other co-creator and now household name Richard Ayoade plays Dean Learner, who in turn plays Thornton Reed. Running through his interviews is a very persistant but subtle hinting at an extremely dark side to Learner which is a fantastic addition to his character. As he regales us with stories of crew members mysteriously dying with an unnerving familiarity and coldness, it is a triumph of both the writing and Ayoade’s delivery that his complicity in these events is heavily implied without ever really saying it.

There are no interviews with Madeline Wool who plays Liz Asher (both played by the real-life Alice Lowe). In part, this fuels the overt and very deliberate sexism in the show (Liz Asher is only ever spoken about in terms of stereotypical femininity and her actions judged based on her ‘irrational, female nature’ – upon being hired by Rick, “Alright. I’ll pay you though. It’ll make it bona-fide and you could probably use the extra money for clothes and make-up”), again a caricaturisation of similar traits running throughout the television and attitudes of ‘yesteryear’. However, dark undercurrents once again emerge from Dean Learner when talking about her ‘sudden disappearance’ after filming (“Missing, presumed dead. Emphasis heavily on dead”).

And of course there is Matt Berry, the man with the voice of velvet who can say almost anything and make it sound amazing. He plays actor Todd Rivers, who plays Dr. Lucien Sanchez in Darkplace.

In addition to this, the constant lampooning of naff sound effects, clunky visuals, visible ‘invisible’ wires, bad over-dubbing, blatant exposition, laughable props, cheap costumes, poor gags and dreadful extras are executed with both scathing accuracy and affectionate nostalgia.

Darkplace is also notable for its cameos including Father Ted and I.T Crowd writer Graham Linehan, co-writer of The Office and Extras (both of which appear on this run-down) Stephen Merchant and The Mighty Boosh’s Noel Fielding and Julian Barratt. Barratt has a recurring cameo as the ‘Padre’ (or ‘vicar’ to you and me) and probably has the greatest ratio of quality lines of any character in this whole list. “You’ll know what to do. You’re the most sensitive man I know. And I know God“.

In the absence of a second series, the guys really pulled out the stops for the DVD release, which itself was a long time coming. The commentary to the episodes alone – all performed in character as Garth Marenghi, Dean Learner and Todd Rivers – is like gaining another 6 episodes for the hilarious back-stories and production yarns it throws up. There is also a full length version of Todd Rivers’ hit ‘One Track Lover’, as well as an extensive collection of other ‘Additionata’. Get it.

Each episode begins with a brilliant snippet from Garth Marenghi’s extensive canon of chillers, read poetically by Garth Marenghi himself adding in all the appropriate inflections and emphasis so that you can properly understand his work. I’ll leave you, traveller, with one of his finest. And I’ll let One Track Lover speak, sing and rap for itself.

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