A One Joke Concept Down a Two Layer Show…

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

So, it was asked why we hadn’t been talking about Darkplace and it’s absolutely time that we did. It’s 10 years since the show first came out, it’s a horror-comedy classic, and it’s variously available on 4OD and YouTube so we can all enjoy its riches together. Let’s take a look at whether “dreamweaver, visionary, plus actor” Garth Marenghi’s masterwork has stood the test of time…

Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace

The backstory goes like this: in the 1980s, back when they were new and scrambling to pad out their schedule, Channel 4 commissioned prolific horror author Garth Marenghi and his sleazy agent Dean Learner to produce a horror series. What emerged from Garth’s imagination was Darkplace, a show revolving around a hospital built over the gates of Hell and subject to all the myriad different paranormal manifestations you might expect from such a location – manifestations which the hospital staff have to deal with. Casting himself as the heroic Dr. Rick Dagless, Garth also penned the part of hospital administrator Thornton Reed for Dean and rounded out the core cast with the suave Dr. Lucien Sanchez (Todd Rivers) and the charming psychic newcomer on the ward, Dr. Liz Asher (Madeleine Wool).

For their own reasons, Channel 4 decided that the product was not suitable for broadcast – according to Garth, it’s because the material was just too edgy and dangerous, but viewers might come to their own conclusions there. Eventually, in 2004 it was dug up from the vaults and given a limited six-episode showing, with each episode bulked out with an introductory monologue from Garth himself as well as interviews with Garth, Dean, and Todd (Madeleine Wool having gone missing presumed dead in the meantime) to deliver the ultimate fan experience.

Except, of course, that’s all nonsense. Darkplace is really the brainchild of Richard “Dean Learner” Ayoade and Matthew “Garth Marenghi” Holness. Having developed the characters of Dean Learner and Garth Marenghi, they’d won plaudits for their Edinburgh festival shows, the premise of which involved Garth making official authorial appearances and putting on staged versions of his works. Noteworthy for the extent to which they stayed resolutely in-character for all purposes surrounding the show, they applied this devotion to the gag to the TV show as well, with the cast’s real names only appearing briefly during the end credits. Bringing in collaborators equally dedicated to the joke – the brilliant Matt Berry as Todd Rivers and the equally amazing Alice Lowe as Madeleine Wool – they produced the TV show as a two-layered affair.

On the first layer, you have the show-within-the-show itself, produced with every ounce of ineptitude the cast and crew could muster up. With wobbly sets, crap acting, poorly mixed sound levels, inept camera work and judicious overuse of slow motion, the end product is a show that will feel faintly familiar to anyone who’s seen genre TV hailing from the 1960s to 1980s without leaning so strongly on one particular inspiration to lose its distinct identity. With absurd plots ranging from Lovecraftian broccoli infecting people’s genitalia to a patient being violated by a walking eyeball and giving birth to an “eyechild” that Dagless ends up adopting through his mourning for his dead son (who was a half human-half cricket mutant), the laughs on offer are obvious, easy, and unfailingly hilarious. (The peak of the series has to be Todd Rivers’ amazingly 80s musical interlude, One Track Lover.)

On the second layer, you have the fiction surrounding Garth and Dean themselves, and the various people they’ve sucked into producing a product that falls well outside their competence range. The most direct insights we get here are through Garth’s spoken word intros and the talking heads interviews with Garth, Dean and Todd, which I understand were mostly improvised by the cast. Todd is a washed-up drunk who clearly can barely remember his involvement in the show but retains some affection for his former co-stars. Garth is an incredible egomaniac, declaring himself to be one of the few people who’ve written more books than he’s ever read as though that would be something to be proud of, and who uses both his books and his Darkplace scripts as a soapbox for whatever axe he happens to want to grind, or whichever ludicrous theory he wants to promote. Dean Learner is, perhaps, one of the most subtly interesting characters, clearly wanting to put across a gentle, benign persona but evidently having a sleazier, crueller side to him that slips out here and there in the interviews (for instance, in his dismissive attitude towards onset accidents).

Where things get really interesting is in how the two layers interact. Garth’s overwhelming ego is reflected in the show by casting himself as Dagless, a man who we are told is meant to be incredibly heroic, charismatic, and sexually appealing – qualities which Garth entirely fails to project. Richard Ayoade does a good job playing Dean Learner whilst Dean is playing Thornton Reed as a man who has never acted before, and whose mildly nerdy bearing is entirely inappropriate for the shotgun-toting hardass he is supposed to be.

The formula is simple and is mostly based around one joke, but it proves to be a really useful joke for dissecting a lot of what was wrong about classic genre TV, and a lot of what is still wrong about it today. For instance, you have Scotch Mist, an episode which skewers the tendency of genre fiction to come up with stories with supposed anti-racism messages which in fact end up being soapboxes for all the authors’ racial prejudices, and you also have Hell Hath Fury, the “don’t be sexist” episode which makes its point by depicting Liz Asher as an oversensitive, easily angered harpy (in effect switching one misogynistic cartoon for another).

Alice Lowe’s performance as Madeleine Wool/Liz Asher is a particularly interesting one, actually, because we don’t get to see her in the talking heads segment and so we only see her performance within the show. At the same time, this kind of works, because Liz Asher as a character deserves analysis independent of her actor; whereas Dagless and Thornton Reed consist of Garth and Dean’s wish fulfillment characters and Sanchez boils down to Matt Berry playing a character who’s written as the less charismatic third wheel who actually comes across as being more charismatic than Dagless, Liz Asher is a microcosm of all the different ways people fail to write really interesting female characters in genre fiction.

She’s supposedly special because she’s given psychic powers, but they rarely serve any purpose beyond creating trouble or allowing Garth to give the characters information he can’t otherwise be bothered to find some conventional way to communicate to them, and in some episodes it never becomes relevant at all, robbing her of the very features that distinguish her character from just being “generic pretty lady doctor”. Her interactions with the other characters often revolve around being attracted to Dagless and turning down Sanchez’s advances, and laughing at the other characters’ jokes. The show fails the Bechdel Test miserably because there are literally no women other than Liz, and Garth’s scripts often pick her out for particularly humiliating roles. (For instance, in the brilliant Planet of the Apes spoof – or rather, spoof on various media which in their turn ripped off Planet of the Apes once people worked out how cheap you could do the ape makeup – Liz spends most of the episode acting like a chimpanzee.)

The thing about Darkplace is that it has its eyes wide open when it comes to both the technical shortcomings of classic genre films and television and also the way SF, fantasy and horror has these perennial problems with representation, but at the same time is also able to handle the subject matter with love. The end of the last episode, in which Dean, Garth and Todd discuss their feelings on the end of the show, is oddly moving, partly because you get the sense that these guys are all great friends despite their personal shortcomings and partly because they clearly have some affection for this fun, silly show they’ve made. It is probably best that they left us wanting more, and even better that we ended up getting more: the DVD version has a commentary track from Dean, Todd and Garth, effectively adding a third layer to the show when watched and completely transforming the experience.

Man to Man With Dean Learner

This sequel series doesn’t quite get the attention that Darkplace enjoys, which is a mild shame because I think the two complement each other nicely. The premise this time is that Dean (still played by Richard Ayoade) has convinced himself, despite all evidence to the contrary, that he’s got the sort of charming, witty, urbane personality that would work great as a late night chat show host, and this is his show. Each episode revolves around him bringing on and interviewing a particular guest, the two major twists being that a) each guest is actually one of Dean’s clients through his talent agency and b) each guest is played by Matthew Holness.

Obviously, the setup provides a showcase for Ayoade and Holness in different ways – Ayoade demonstrating his capability to really get inside the character of Learner, whilst Holness is able to show his comedic range with the different guests that come into the equation. Garth Marenghi is, naturally, the first guest, and the little insights we get into other Darkplace-like works he and Dean have been working on like War of the Wasps (a sequence which gives us a little look at what the Darkplace cast and crew might have accomplished with access to basic greenscreen technology). Most of the other characters are, like Garth, parodies of various celebrity figures. Garth himself is an excellently realised melange of various 1980s horror authors, to an extent where you could point to a range of different writers that he resembles but there is no one single author who he resembles more than any other; other such diffuse parodies include Glynn Nimron, who somehow manages to resemble a range of different Star Trek actors without particularly being like any of them, and Merriman Weir, a 1970s folk musician who exists more as a parody of the genre than any single figure from it. Other characters are much more direct spoofs – Steve Pising is obviously based on Nigel Mansell, whilst Amir Chanan is an eerily accurate take on Uri Geller.

I find that Man to Man is a much more hit and miss prospect, and it mostly comes down to the format. The tone of each individual episode is incredibly dependent on which guest Holness happens to be playing for that episode, since the episode content obviously has to be adapted and crafted to suit the character in question. In fact, the first three of six episodes I found to be occasionally difficult going. The Garth Marenghi episode is entertaining enough, but precisely because of Garth’s involvement it feels like an outing of rejected ideas from Darkplace. The Steve Pising episode seems entirely pointless, given how much Mansell’s celebrity star had faded by that point, and so far as I can make out it seems to be a long setup for an overlong and underbaked Apprentice spoof. The Glynn Nimron episode, despite featuring a welcome appearance of Matt Berry/Todd Rivers during an extract from Nimron’s most famed work Galacticops, feels like a rather mean-spirited episode, with “jokes” revolving around Nimron being a closeted homosexual and/or transwoman (they don’t seem sure as to which) who’s had too much plastic surgery and who was abused by his uncle, and is probably the nadir of both the series and Ayoade and Holness’ output in general.

Things pick up in the second half of the series, when Ayoade and Holness finally hit on some characters who actually make sense for a talk show. Merriman Weir being a musician is a godsend, because it means the episode can lead off with a short set from him (revealing Holness as actually being quite a decent guitarist) and can feature an amazing music video from his Gallows Man album (sadly fictional). Likewise, picking Uri Geller to parody in the form of Amir Chanan is an inspired move; Geller as a perennial talk show guest has mannerisms which are instantly recognisable, and Holness does the best job of I’ve ever seen anyone do of capturing Geller’s personality. Moreover, because Geller has such a history of wild television appearances, there’s plenty of material to parody which can be easily adapted to the Man to Man format. (That said, whilst he has stayed in the limelight a bit more than Nigel Mansell has, making fun of Geller is still kind of shooting fish in a barrel.)

Things get really interesting with the final episode, since the guest for that one – Randolph Caer – inconveniently dies before he can come by for the interview. Thinking on his feet, Dean turns the show into a career retrospective for Caer, calling on a range of his previous guests to share their recollections of the man. During this process, an extraordinary story emerges; as it turns out, Caer’s main claim to fame was as a character actor who ended up in the title role in Bitch Killer, a Garth Marenghi-penned splatter feature which was Dean’s attempt to cash in on the “video nasty” craze. Sure enough, the film was received with a firestorm of controversy, and whilst Dean and Garth were counting the money Caer ended up becoming a hate figure to the tabloid press due to his prominent role in the movie.

Once this is established, the rest of the episode chronicles Caer’s subsequent decline, with each of the various guests either having directly made his problems worse or failing to have anything really nice to say about him. By the end of the episode we are left with a portrait of a life that Dean and his friends and hangers-on have callously destroyed. This is dark stuff, but it’s in keeping with the way the pleasant facade Dean used for the interviews in Darkplace slips a bit more in Man to Man, particularly when we inadvertently get a look behind the scenes of his sleazy empire. This builds up over the course of the series as we discover that Dean’s relationships with his clients aren’t always as friendly as that with Garth, who’s probably the guest he’s closest to – in other cases his clients seem to be working with him because they have no other choice, or because they are too naive to work out how much he is cheating them.

The Caer episode ties this all together, constructed as a character assassination on Caer but actually serving as a character assassination on Dean himself. It also points at a direction which, in retrospect, might have worked better for Man to Man – as a 1-to-2 hour one-off special, timed like a proper talk show and featuring shorter versions of the first few episodes and with the Caer episode closing things out, the concept would have probably work much better than as a half-hour TV show which Ayoade and Holness clearly struggled to fill except for the Merriman Weir and Randolph Caer episodes. As it stands, the first five episodes, whilst flabbier and less interesting than the Caer one, are useful for introducing us to the various individuals who later end up playing supporting roles in the downfall of Caer and giving us a sense of their characters and their niches in Learner’s world, and therefore help give Caer’s story more context and make it seem more real; a version with those episodes radically trimmed down would probably work a treat.

Notably, the Caer episode includes a spoof grindhouse trailer that predates those from Rodriguez and Tarantino’s Grindhouse by a full year, and is as funny and dead-on accurate as any of them. Perhaps the ultimate irony of Man to Man is that it’s as much of a story of fumbled opportunity and mistiming as the careers of many of Dean’s guests are.

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