Archive for Stephen Merchant

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

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


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.


Top Ten: British Comedy #5 – The Office

Posted in Advertising & Television, Top Ten with tags , , , , , on April 29, 2012 by innothingwetrust

It is easy these days – even popular – to dismiss The Office as low-brow quotable slapstick guff for the masses. This is down to a few factors. Firstly, everyone has seen it over and over and over again – particularly the ‘highlight’ reels: David Brent’s freestyle dancing or his many pseudo-philosophical pearls of nonsense business wisdom have been pinged around in emails, ‘memes’, greetings cards and bedroom wall posters ever since they were first aired. And secondly, whether or not you like The Office seems to be inextricably linked to whether or not you think Ricky Gervais is a comic genius or an arrogant, vulgar fat idiot. If you think he is the latter, and I can sympathise to an extent with those views, you will hate The Office, Extras, Life’s Too Short and anything else he has ever done. However, that would be very unfair. The argument that ‘David Brent is just Ricky Gervais’ is completely wrong if you’ve ever listened to him speak out of character, in his excellent podcasts with Stephen Merchant and Karl Pilkington, for instance.

The Office, like The League of Gentlemen, still stands as one of the most original comedies of all time. The realistic mockumentary had never really been done before in a sitcom (Spinal Tap famously having utilised the style in film), and it is a mark of the success of this formula that it has been copied many times since. What added to its popularity was the fact that so many of its viewers could relate to the characters and situations. I have only worked in an office myself for under 2 years, and even I can see elements of Wernham Hogg  in my workplace (and, for fear of sacking, I will not elaborate on that).

The standard of acting is also excellent and really brings this dull office in Slough to life. The premise for the program could have resulted in something more akin to When the Whistle Blows, the ‘wigs and catchphrases’ show-within-a-show from Extras, but the down to earth dialogue and its excellent subsequent delivery by the cast gives the characters 3 believable dimensions. Consequently, you feel such sympathy for them as they trudge through their mediocre, repetitive days with such good humour. The documentary style also allows the device of the private interview to give us both the personal and public views of each character which adds much depth to their motivations. The whole feel is much more believable as a result.

And on top of the intelligent narrative, the many threads of the story are perfect scenarios for comedy – Brent’s PC racism, his power-struggle with Neil, Gareth’s self-promotion and deluded ideas of his sex appeal, Tim and Dawn’s time-killing games to irritate Gareth, office weirdo Keith’s many items of advice – all are perfectly exploited to their comic limits. What makes these things so much funnier is that they are invariably so cringe-worthy that you can scarcely watch them for social awkwardness which means you are simultaneously laughing at the show and at yourself. And amid the hilarity are genuinely touching moments, largely involving Tim and Dawn’s love story but also with David Brent’s quest for acceptance among his friends and colleagues.

The Office is a perfect blend of excellently written comedy, an assault on your own ideas of social convention and a tug at the heartstrings. It garnered an incredible amount of critical acclaim and deservedly so. And I don’t care how many times you have seen it, the below clip is just brilliant. Even the nay-sayers couldn’t argue with that.

Top Ten: British Comedy #7 – Extras

Posted in Advertising & Television, Top Ten with tags , , , , , , , on April 1, 2012 by innothingwetrust

It’s a real shame that Extras has to be so far down the list, but that says more about the quality of the shows above it than anything lacking from Merchant and Gervais’s follow-up to the ground-breaking series The Office. I have convinced myself on numerous occasions that Extras is in fact better than its predecessor, and in some ways it is, but I think that view is more down to the fact that The Office has since suffered from over-exposure whereas Extras still feels much fresher.

Extras centres around Andy Millman (Ricky Gervais), an actor struggling to find any work more fulfilling than walking through the background of a scene. This struggle is almost entirely down to his brilliantly incompetent agent, Darren (Stephen Merchant), who wastes most of his time in the office in lewd, adolescent pursuits such as spelling ‘BOOBS’ on a calculator (58008 upside-down in case you’re wondering) and even masturbating over a semi-pornographic ballpoint pen. The one thing he doesn’t do is find Andy any meaningful work, and the pathetic jobs does manage to secure for his client have universally hilarious consequences. Andy muddles through these situations with his best friend, the sweet and cheerful Maggie (Ashley Jensen).

Before even mentioning the plethora of world-famous guests they have managed to get on the show, one of the real stars of the series is Barry from EastEnders (Shaun Williamson) playing himself as Darren’s part-time client, part-time office help, part-time dry-cleaner and perennial tag-along. His inclusion is an absolute stroke of genius and his depressed-yet-hopeful, almost canine demeanour make him the butt of numerous very funny jokes. He pokes fun at himself at every opportunity and at how ridiculous but indelible a character Barry was (compounded by the fact that Darren only ever refers to him as ‘Barry’). He is painted as someone who has gone slightly off the rails since being written out of EastEnders, but the irony is that I don’t think anyone leaving the show has gone on to do anything approaching the quality of Extras.

And then there is the aforementioned plethora of world-famous guests playing morphed, reversed or caricatured versions of their public images. Everyone is brilliant: the bragging Ben Stiller, Ross Kemp and Vinnie Jones’s ‘hard man’ feud (in which we find out what SAS really stands for), the dirty-minded Kate Winslet’s desperate attempt to win an Oscar, Les Dennis’s mid-life crisis, Patrick Stewart’s adolescent film idea (in which he plays a James Bond character who can make women’s clothes fall off instantly), Orlando Bloom – who is not jealous of the attention Jonny Depp receives, David Bowie’s improvisation, Daniel Radcliffe’s teenage sexual advances, Chris Martin’s insincere charity appearances, Sir Ian McKellen revealing the key to good acting. Every episode is full of refreshingly non-egotistical parodies (although it must be said that showing publicly that you can poke fun at yourself is also kind of egotistical).

Moreover, whereas this could have just been an empty shell of a program to house A-list cameos to boost ratings (something alluded to in Chris Martin’s episode where he appears for no reason on Millman’s sitcom ‘When the Whistle Blows’), there is also a lot of substance in the storyline. Many of Merchant and (particularly) Gervais’s experiences with writing and acting are put into the script, and Millman’s attempts to write an original comedy which will stand the test of time without people meddling with the dynamics and direction reflect issues that the pair had when trying to bring The Office to the public.

Thankfully, when Extras was made, their previous body of work was of such a standard that they had no such problems and as a result the show is a triumph and a joy to watch.

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