I’ve ended up discovering a lot of my favourite TV shows by accident. One evening way back in 2004, myself and the Journeywoman happened to see a show called Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace. You probably haven’t heard of it, because (ironically, given the subject matter) it attracted very few viewers.
Garth Marenghi (played by Matthew Holness) is supposedly a horror writer. In an introductory segment to the first episode, he reads from one of his (truly terrible) works, before explaining how he wrote and starred in a supposedly “groundbreaking” TV series in the 1980s that Channel 4 were too afraid to show. We then get to see six episodes, and it’s blatantly obvious why it was never shown – it’s truly dreadful stuff.
What follows is an absolutely pitch-perfect spoof of bad low-budget horror and sci-fi. Deliberately making something so awful is an incredibly difficult thing to do, but somehow they’ve managed it. It’s a bit like the plots of The X Files collided with the production values and bad acting of Crossroads, with a bit of the grittiness of EastEnders and the medical drama of Casualty thrown in for good measure.
In an effort to prove what a talented mastermind he is, Marenghi plays Doctor Rick Dagless, a troubled but gifted man who is a Mary Sue so enormous you can spot his ego from space. In amongst his struggles to treat endless patients (who all hero-worship him), he has to contend with endless admin, and the effects of Darkplace Hospital being built over a hellmouth. What a pain in the arse! He has to deal with an exploding colleague, a psychic woman who turns his stapler against him, a horde of angry Scotsmen, and a woman who is infected by extra-terrestrial broccoli (which, we’re told portentously, depicts the terror of AIDS). The plots are laughably bad, with blatantly predictable and obvious elements mixing uncomfortably with completely implausible and ridiculously complicated explanations for things.
The other key members of the cast are Richard Ayoade, Matt Berry and Alice Lowe, who appear in the drama itself as hospital aministrator Thornton Reed, and doctors Lucien Sanchez and Liz Asher respectively. Ayoade also appears as Dean Learner, Marenghi’s publisher and publicist, and Berry is Todd Rivers, the actor, and they appear in these roles in the absolutely hilarious commentaries and interviews spliced in with the action.
In the show itself, Ayoade/Learner is the world’s worst actor, and his absolutely wooden delivery is plagued by jump-cuts and blatant continuity errors. Berry/Rivers has an implausibly deep and masculine voice, and all of his scenes in the drama are lip-synched incredibly badly. Alice Lowe is the actress Madeliene Wool, playing Doctor Liz Asher, and is obviously a victim of Marenghi’s extremely sexist scriptwriting.
The whole thing comes together brilliantly, with wobbly analogue music, terrible special effects, washed out colours (it was all shot on 16mm film), and a retro Channel 4 ident. The DVD release is even funnier, with extra commentaries that make the whole thing even more preposterous.
When the show was first released, it was quite common to see people completely fooled by it – the main cast members weren’t particularly famous at the time, and the Internet was a newer and rather more naive place. Supposedly fifty episodes of Darkplace were made, but only six made it to being shown, and on a number of messageboards and forums, people were campaigning for the missing episodes to be screened!
It’s such a good parody that when my sister-in-law watched it recently, she did so in stony-faced silence, genuinely believing she was watching something real (she’s a huge fan of the material it parodies, taking it deathly seriously).
If you haven’t had the pleasure of seeing it, do check it out – it’s regularly repeated on Gold in the UK, and the DVD is easy to find. I think it’s on Channel 4’s on-demand service too. In the words of Marenghi himself, “it’ll shit you up”.