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Cult TV Essentials: Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace

Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace is a British horror parody television series created for Channel 4 by Richard Ayoade and Matthew Holness. The show focuses on fictional horror author Garth Marenghi (played by Holness) and his publisher Dean Learner (played by Ayoade), characters who originated in the Garth Marenghi’s Fright Knight stage show.

Darkplace is presented as a lost classic: a television series produced in the 1980s, though never broadcast at the time but is now getting its first screening; this hoax is the show’s fictional frame. Darkplace’s fictional show-within-a-show includes deliberately poor production and special effects, sub-par acting, choppy editing and storylines that are “severely flawed and open-ended.” This is interspersed with “present-day” interviews with the “cast”.

The series’ fictional premise is that some time in the 1980s, best-selling horror author Garth Marenghi and his publisher/publicist, Dean Learner, made their own low-budget television series with a single intent: “to change the evolutionary course of Man over a series of half-hour episodes.”

Set in Darkplace Hospital, “over the very gates of Hell,” in Romford, Essex, Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace shows the adventures of Dr. Rick Dagless, M.D., as he fights the forces of darkness while simultaneously coping with the pressures of day to day admin. Within this fictional context, Marenghi wrote 63 teleplays from which 50 shows were produced; however, Channel 4 was eventually forced to reject the show due to its “radicality”, though Marenghi also cites possible government suppression: “MI8, which is actually three levels above MI6, pulled the plug. And they did it because I knew the truth.” In 2004, due to the “worst artistic drought in broadcast history”, Channel 4 decided to air six of the original episodes.

The makers of Darkplace endeavoured to make the show seem authentic. From “the retro Channel 4 logo at the start to the distortion of the analogue music track at the start of scenes”, “the fashion, … the texture of film stock,” “[the] deliberately poor continuity, cheesy lines, wooden acting and cheap special effects”; it is delivered “in such a pitch perfect way you can’t help but laugh.”

As a result, despite the show being a parody, it succeeded in sporting a very authentic and realistic ’80s feel, to create the impression for first-time viewers to believe that Darkplace really is an ’80s relic. Also included are “present-day interviews”, in which the character “Marenghi”, with co-stars “Dean Learner” and “Todd Rivers”, comment on the show-within-the-show. The recurring theme of these interviews is that Marenghi is seen as an egotistical fool who overrates his own talent and has no idea how foolish he comes off.

As with promotion for their earlier Perrier Award-winning stage show, the official website speaks of Garth Marenghi, and other characters as though they were real people, while making no mention of the real actors. Press releases also contained “realistic looking fake back stories for Marenghi and the other characters instead of making any mention of what the real cast have appeared in”, and an article by “Garth Marenghi” appeared in The Telegraph discussing his “groundbreaking television series”.  “More than a few people”, and “media outlets” alike were caught out by this fictional framing.

The show’s musical soundtrack parodies the same subjects as the writing, and gained its composer Andrew Hewitt a BAFTA Nomination as Best New Composer for Film and T.V. (2004).

 

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