Blightyvision: “Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace”

Directed by Richard Ayoade
Written by Matthew Holness and Richard Ayoade
Starring Matthew Holness, Richard Ayoade, Matt Berry, and Alice Lowe

Back in the 1980s, Channel 4 produced a short-lived paranormal medical drama written by and starring master horror novelist Garth Marenghi.  In it, Dr. Rick Dagless M.D. (Marenghi), a tough but caring doctor with a dark past, works together with his partners Dr. Lucien Sanchez (Todd Rivers) and the psychic Liz Asher (Madeleine Wool) to rid Darkplace Hospital of the supernatural forces wreaking havoc on its patients.

I’m not going to lie to you.  “Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace” is poorly produced, horribly acted, clumsily scripted, badly edited, and overall unfortunate to the point of being laughable.  Then again, that’s exactly what the writers were going for.

In actuality, “Darkplace” is a satirical show-within-a-show circa 2004, brought to us by members of the same clique responsible for “The IT Crowd” and “The Mighty Boosh.”  The hilariously painful medical drama at the center of the piece is couched in interviews, making-of segments, and personal ego-strokes courtesy of Marenghi himself (Holness, recently of “Free Agents”).  Marenghi is one of those insufferable egotistical writers who calls his readers “Travelers” and claims to have written more books than he’s read.

Alongside him in each episode is his publisher and producer, Dean Learner (Ayoade, a.k.a. Moss of “The IT Crowd”), with nothing but good things to say about the show and its cultural influence.  Learner, despite not being an actor, also appears in the series as Darkplace Hospital owner Thornton Reed.  In later episodes, Todd Rivers (Berry, of both “The Mighty Boosh” and “The IT Crowd”) appears in order to throw his own two cents in.  However, we never hear from Madeleine Wool (Lowe), as she is missing, presumed dead.

In entertainment, it’s very difficult to do something poorly on purpose without telegraphing that you’re doing it poorly on purpose.  “Darkplace” succeeds in this, though, by relying not just on bad acting and rubbish effects, but also textbook mistakes on multiple levels.  Missed cues or misplaced blocking, bad ADR, and messy bluescreening are handled exactly wrong (and thus right), by people who have clearly either seen or made these mistakes — or both — in the past.  A great deal of the humor comes not from how ridiculous the mistakes are, but from the viewers’ recognition of said mistakes from elsewhere.  “Subtlety” is probably not the word to use, as these people have never really been big on subtlety, but the comedy isn’t entirely reliant upon the actors’ inability to act.

Speaking of doing things poorly on purpose, our actors do an incredible job covering pretty well every level of theatrical fail.  Marenghi is irritatingly self-aware, as is Rivers.  Meanwhile, Learner couldn’t act his way out of a paper bag, and is the star simply by virtue of his missed cues, nervous blank stares, and rapid-fire line delivery.  Holness, Ayoade, and Berry fail expertly, throwing it into further relief with the naturalness and believability of their interview segments.

Given the crowd responsible for “Darkplace,” it’s safe to say that if you’re not a “Boosh” or “IT Crowd” fan, you likely won’t be able to get behind this.  It’s the same brand of humor, and there are even peek-ins from Julian Barratt and Noel Fielding late in the six-episode series.  There’s a decent dose of gross-out humor and plenty of flat-out surrealism (one ill-fated Darkplace patient turns into broccoli), and even a little 80s music video courtesy of Todd Rivers.  If its sister shows didn’t freak you out, though, you’ll likely have fun here.

Though … good luck getting hold of it, as the show was canceled in the UK due to low ratings and doesn’t have enough of a US following to warrant a DVD release.  See it if you can, though, and (even more unlikely) follow it up with its spinoff, “Man to Man with Dean Learner” — in which Learner interviews a different questionable celeb every week, all of whom are played by Holness, and the first of whom is good ol’ Garth Marenghi.

“Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace” contains disturbing images, including a sentient eyebeast impregnating a man, and the aforementioned horrific broccoli woman.  But you’re a grown-up.  You can handle that.