G.Marenghi, a terrifying writer and self-described “macabre master”, was born in 1950 in east London. But it wasn’t until the mid-90s that he first appeared in public, reciting an excerpt from one of his many horror novels (he is “one of the few people… who has written more books than they have read”) at Cambridge University cabaret night.
Long before Darkplace Garth Marenghi – the Channel 4 series aired in 2004 – the prolific author starred on stage. Matthew Holness, the writer, actor and director behind the horror fiction writer, went on a tour of Garth’s monologue with the Footlights. After university and temping during the day, he then appeared in the BBC Bruiser sketch show but felt “a little confused” by sketches. Holness began writing with Richard Ayoade, trying something based on character and horror. It was time for Marenghi to rise again.
Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace is an in-house show – characters give head-on narratives about the horror series set in the 1980s hospital in which they starred. That concept began on stage, where the character Ayoade, publisher Dean Learner, would introduce Marenghi and his latest theatrical horror production. (Later, they would even stay in character at news interviews.)
“This writer was putting on a really horrible show and he didn’t understand why the audience was laughing – it was definitely a terrible response to the horror,” Holness says.
In 2000, they began experimenting at the Hen and Chickens theater pub in north London, where The Mighty Boosh was running another comedy night. They met Matt Berry who later came in for the TV show. “Matt was making weird Victorian characters, the Boosh was making scary comedy. These were terrible little incidents, ”said Holness.
Actor, writer and director Alice Lowe appeared in stage and TV versions of Garth Marenghi. When Holness and Ayoade decided on an hour-long Marenghi play for the Edinburgh fringe, they hired Paul King (now Bafta’s nominated director) as director and Lowe as actor. Lowe had never done a comedy before and remembers being baffled watching them “running around in masks” at the Hens and Hens.
Lowe and King had designed theater performances together at the university and brought this approach to Garth Marenghi. When Lowe suggested playing an animal, her character became an animal expert, who then played a seagull and “a sad camel that sings songs”.
They created Fright Knight at Garth Marenghi, in which Marenghi is the writer of Neil Hack, and a monster is kidnapped by a monster. Lowe says: “It was about bad theater, but every minute was judged.”
By August 2000, they were in Edinburgh, performing to an almost empty room. While eating at a restaurant, they persuaded the staff to come and see. “They enjoyed it, but they were the same people! ”Lowe remembers. “That was my favorite gig,” Holness says. “The bad gigs were always more enjoyable because they went with the notion that Garth’s show was failing. ”These became rare. Word spread, sold-out performances and Fright Knight was nominated for an Edinburgh Comedy award.
They decided to bring another show to Edinburgh in 2001. In Netherhead Garth Marenghi, Marenghi played Ken Dagless, descending into an Egyptian subterranean to save his dead son. There were deliberate bad props, including The Mind (“papier maché brain on a broomstick with a cape around it”) and giraffe hats that made Lowe make a body when he fell suddenly.
Holness admits Netherhead was not so much fun – there was high pressure after the success of Fright Knight – but he was also nominated for the comedy award, and won. “That was amazing,” Lowe said. “There was disbelief in me; there were not many women in Edinburgh at that time. I never had any plans to get into comedy or I thought I would make money as an actor. It was life changing. ”
Moving on to TV, the team retained creative control – they were allowed to shoot, film, edit, and direct Ayoade. Platform experiences of collaboration, running to perfection, and mastering the production of poorly paid stuff. They found the right way to go wrong on TV such as continuity errors and faces with coverage. At one glance, Lowe suggested that she be wheeled into an unexplained stage: “It was a pleasure to be able to do such a thing.”
Darkplace aired in 2004, downgraded to the weekend night slot during the week, and rates were low. When the DVD was released in 2006, it was very popular. Sadly, the opportunity for a second series (Global Parallel Darkplace Hospital and a Christmas special under snow) had passed. “I was disappointed that I had to say goodbye,” said Holness. “But we always knew he would have the following.”
Nonetheless, stage stars Garth Marenghi created interesting careers. Ayoade Bafta won for his role in The IT Crowd, wrote and directed music films and videos, presented The Crystal Maze, and is now writing his first children’s book. Lowe and Holness both continued to create work with hints of weirdness and gloom in Marenghi style. Lowe wrote, directed and starred in the horror-comedy films Sightseers and Prevenge. Most recently, she starred in the BBC series Sounds The Sink, a surreal escape into someone else’s dreams. Like Marenghi, he allowed unpreparedness, with Lowe drawing on ASMR. “I could take it as weird as I wanted. You dream about jobs like that, ”she says. “Looking back, the fact that they were open to me was weird as a female actor [in Garth Marenghi] set up a course for my career. ”
Lowe is ready to shoot romcom reincarnation, Timestalker, and Holness has a horror film in production. Likewise, he has weakened darkness and humor throughout his work, from appearing in a Scandi-noir Angstrom parody, to writing and directing Possum, a sinister study of childhood trauma. “Most of the stuff I’m writing now is really awful,” he says. “But things that are funny to you may be related to things that are scary for you. ”