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Garth Marenghi's Darkplace survived poor ratings and revolutionised TV forever

Matthew Holness's horror spoof first aired in 2004 but despite being axed by Channel 4, its stature has grown over the years.

Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace (Channel 4)
Matt Berry, Richard Ayoade, Matthew Holness and Alice Lowe starred in 2004's Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace. (Channel 4)

Sometime in the 1980s, a TV horror was made that proved “so radical, so risky, so dangerous, so goddamn crazy, that the so-called powers-that-be became too scared to show it”. Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace was eventually screened by Channel 4 in the virginal months of 2004, during what its embittered creator described as "the worst artistic drought in broadcast history".

Of course, that was the official story, that horror scribe Garth Marenghi (“author, dreamweaver, visionary, plus actor") and his actor/publisher pal Dean Learner had, 20 years previous, created a television show that was judged too disturbing to ever screen, a series set at a fictitious hospital named Darkplace, located, we’re told, "over the very gates of Hell"... in Romford.

But of course, there never was a show called Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, not before 2004 anyway. And Garth Marenghi himself? Well, hawk-eyed viewers would have clocked actor/writer Matthew Holness as the snippy IT guy (“It’s not YOUR computer, is it, it’s Wernham Hogg’s”) from The Office, while as for Dean Learner, well he looked a lot like future IT Crowd uber-geek Richard Ayoade.

So what was this naff TV horror with spectacularly shonky special effects that viewers discovered on Channel 4 in January 2004?

The conceit of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace being a once-banned TV show exhumed from the archives is serviced by the talking heads that pop up every few scenes to tell the story of its making. Garth Marenghi appears as himself (as well as the show-within-a-show’s Dr Rick Daglass) to provide commentary (“I’m one of the few people you’ll meet who’ve written more books than I’ve read”), as does Dean Learner (“I said to Garth, ‘This is going to be the most significant televisual event since Quantum Leap’”) and also actor Todd Rivers (really Matt Berry).

Yet for all of the television trimmings of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, its origins lie on the stage where, just a few years before, Ayoade’s Dean Learner would introduce the writer’s new horror production, usually to guffaws from the audience.

“This writer was doing a very serious horror show and couldn’t understand why audiences were laughing,” Holness told The Guardian years later. “He was convinced it was a nervous reaction to sheer terror.”

When Darkplace made the move to the small screen, it was a chance for Holness and Ayoade not only to spoof the lurid, gore-soaked horror of writers like James Herbert and Shaun Hutson, but the DIY aesthetic of some of the less big-ticket shows of the time.

Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace (Channel 4)
Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace (Channel 4)

“Darkplace gave a V-sign to V and said, ‘That’s your lot’ to Salem’s Lot,” says Ghostwatch and Afterlife writer Stephen Volk. “In so doing, it revolutionised television by making almost every drama look good by comparison.”

“It’s easy to overlook the attention to detail spent on the programme because it’s so funny,” adds Darren Lee Floyd, writer of the bestselling novel, Oblivion Black. “The detail is so spot on from the quality of the film stock, to the queasy ‘third generation VHS’ quality of the music.”

Just six episodes were made of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, taking in such silliness as giant murderous eyeballs, talking cats and phantasmal Scotsmen. The effects were so comically crappy as to make Rentaghost look like Avatar, while the tin-eared dialogue sounds like Crossroads by way of Stephen King (“I’ll level with you – Linda’s dying, she’s turning into broccoli”).

Relegated to a late-night slot on Channel 4, ratings were low. Though a second series had been planned, the network pulled the plug. “I’d gone through the disappointment of having to say goodbye to it,” Holness reflected. “But we always knew it would have a following.”

And it’s among the horror fraternity that you’ll find some of the show’s most fervid fans. By skewering so many of the cliches and tropes of the more sensationalist corners of the market, it seemed to clear out the riff-raff. There’s literary horror in a pre-Darkhouse world and literary horror in the years after.

“I’ve found myself more than once reading over a passage and thinking, ‘Ooh, that’s a bit Darkplace,’” says Darren Lee Floyd. “It’s not so much the tropes — there’s nothing new under the sun — it’s the over-baked, verbose turn of phrase. The horror genre can get a bad rap, so some of us who write horror can try a bit too hard and take ourselves a bit too seriously. Garth Marenghi punctures that.”

“Since horror mostly has to set out to be taken seriously in order to be frightening, it’s easy to parody,” adds Stephen Volk. “But straight imitation of the French & Saunders variety simply isn’t funny because it doesn’t open new mirth-wounds in the psyche. Darkplace, on the other claw, was a Charlie’s Angels-cum-Casualty for the already disturbed. It gave us a kind of MTV for the budgetary stunted.”

Twenty years on, Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace is almost the quintessential cult — barely acknowledged at the time, but beloved by the devoted few. There are other shows from 2004 that can boast bigger ratings but which have left no cultural footprint (who talks about Murder City, No Angels or The Smoking Room now?).

Darkplace’s popularity, on the other hand, spurred by its success on DVD, was in evidence in 2022 when Holness, as Marenghi, released a new book, TerrorTome, followed by a sell-out tour. A sequel, Incarcerat (“So bad, it’s genius” – SciFi Bulletin), followed in 2023.

Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace (Channel 4)
Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace (Channel 4)

As for Darkplace’s stars, Holness — as writer and director — graduated to arthouse horror in 2018 with the movie Possum (“A disturbing, curiously beautiful British horror exercise,” cooed Empire), while Alice Lowe, who played Madeleine Wool playing Dr Liz Asher, is now a doyen of Brit horror, having penned such big screen splatter classics as Prevenge and Sightseers.

“I don’t think it ever really got the plaudits and attention that it deserved at the time,” Stephen Merchant, who guested as a chef in the episode ‘Hell Hath Fury’, told Vulture. “But I get a tweet or an Instagram message about it almost every day. People are still discovering that show.”

Holness himself has ruled out a return to Darkplace, but hinted we haven’t seen — or read — the last of Garth Marenghi himself. And maybe that’s how it should be. We didn’t need a second season, or a movie, or a raft of spinoffs. Just one six-episode series of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace keeps it where it should always be, an obscure, little underseen curio, nestled away in the darkest corner of Channel 4.

“I’m quite pleased because most of the stuff I love has always been cult,” Holness told Cene magazine in 2023. “I think the mechanics of cult fandom are sort of in [Darkplace] anyway – it’s kind of a show about cult TV and about cult fandom and cult books. So I feel it was destined to be that sort of thing.”

Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace is available to stream on Channel 4.

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