Man to Man with Dean Learner / Garth Marenghi's Darkplace Box Set

Starring: Richard Ayoade, Matthew Holness, Matt Berry and Alice Lowe
Avalon Television
RRP: 29.99
Certificate: 15
Available 03 September 2007

Celebrated horror genius Garth Marenghi introduces his long-lost television project: a haunting medical drama set in Romford. The best-selling writer is already known to hundreds as the creative force behind such classic chillers as
The Ooze (can water die?), Afterbirth (a mutated placenta attacks Bristol) and Black Fang (rats learn to drive). Darkplace was originally filmed in the 1980s and has since earned a cult reputation as one of the most terrifying and radical television programmes ever made. Even now, Garth warns that the show, which he describes as an effort to radicalise men's minds, may prove "too subversive, too dangerous, too damn scary"...

Garth Marenghi's Dark Place is an interesting concept. The basic premise is that Marenghi, cult horror writer, conceived and starred in a sci-fi/horror show in the '80s - a show that had very poor viewing figures and was cancelled before it really took off. Now the show has been revived as a "cult" series and this DVD represents the only six episodes to have survived intact.

The show is an amalgamation of all things that were naff about the '80s. If you can remember the clothes, hairstyles, decor, dated camera shots and soundtrack then you'll have a pretty good idea of what you're letting yourself in for. As the episodes run, every now and then the main actors appear to talk about what they remember of the filming of the show.

The idea, on paper, sounds great. However, after watching the first two shows it was apparent that this was really one gag that was stretched to breaking point. While the whole thing is tongue in cheek (obviously) the gag soon starts to wear incredibly thin.

However, by the third episode, the characters and story telling were starting to grow on me and I realised that I had sorely misjudged the show. While initially the fact that the whole series plays like a couple of students messing about with a film camera, was very annoying, the show soon starts to have a sort of cheesy appeal. I've seen plenty of amateur web based productions, and most of these are total naff. This is how the first couple of episode of this show felt on first viewing. While the poor acting, effects, editing etc are all intentional, they are extremely frustrating to watch to begin with.

The interviews of the actors, which are inserted liberally through each episode, inform us about some of the things going on at the time. We also discover that the main actress, Madeleine Wool, has died since the show ended - although we never really discover how she died. In fact, there's some initial confusion as to whether she's missing or dead, but eventually we learn she is indeed dead.

Extras include audio commentaries for all six episode (with the actors keeping in character throughout); Storyboards (fantastically childish illustrations shown for key scenes); In Memorium Dark Place (faked behind the scenes pics and publicity shots); Darkplace Illuminata (32 minutes of interviews - with the actors remaining in character. The highlight, for me, was Learner's story about trying to hire Mr T - who wouldn't fly: "He didn't say 'I'm not getting on no plane, fool' or ask for milk though"); Misc. Horrificata Illuminata (30 minutes of interviews. Highlights include Garth's conspiracy theories that rats are running the country and the insistence that mankind came from wasps); One Track Lover (music tracks); The One Scene I Cut (a deleted scene set in Scotland from the Scotch Mist episode); Pam's Home Movies (4 mins of real behind the scenes footage - where the soundtrack is removed in places so that the audience never see the actors out of character); Test Screen (2 mins); Original Radio Ad; and an Easter Egg.

There are some great moments on the audio commentaries. These include the fact that Todd Rivers was originally up for the part of James Bond, but was beaten by Timothy Dalton; Dean moaning about TV studios hiring continuity announcers with accents; Why Keith Baron's brother is in the show; Dean panicking when he learns that the Government know exactly what websites you've been looking at; Dean complaining that George Lucas stole his idea for the speeder bike chase in Return of the Jedi from Darkplace; Dean's idea that a bit of racism is good; Todd's observation that there are no black people on The Antiques Roadshow, to which Garth says: "Maybe the odd gollywog"; Garth's idea of romance is simply "wine"; and Garth asking Todd if he's had a homosexual experience - Garth feels that masturbation is a homosexual experience, although Dean points out: "Not if you put nail polish on your fingers and pretend it's a lady."

It was a shame that there were no serious behind the scenes footage, or commentary with the actors out of character, but what we do get is entertaining enough.

If you can sit through the first two episodes, then you'll thoroughly enjoy this show - although it won't be to everyone's tastes.

Live from his luxury apartment in London's glittering East End, Dean Learner: club owner, celebrity manager, restaurateur, entrepreneur and publisher of high-class gentlemen's magazines, invites you to meet some of his closest friends, Man to Man. Offering an oasis of culture and sophistication in the rancid scrubland of depravity that passes for modern television, Dean's special guests include the living legends Garth Marenghi, Steve Pising, Glynn Nimron, Merriman Weir, Amir Chanan and the recently-deceased Randolph Caer...

Man to Man with Dean Learner is a spoof chat show in which Dean Learner (self confessed one man brand) opens up his penthouse flat to the world and invites one special guest each week to share their life story. Of course there is a conflict of interest, as Learner is also the manager for each of his guests.

Throughout the six episodes (or seven if you include the pilot - which is included as an extra) Richard Ayoade plays Learner and Matthew Holness plays the various guests. Unfortunately as the series progresses, Ayoade becomes more and more like Alan Partridge - which is a shame - but then I suppose any spoof chat show is going to be compared to Steve Coogan's greatest creation.

Learner's guests, each living legends (well, apart from one who tragically dies the day before the show airs), include Gareth Merenghi (the UK's foremost writer of horror fiction); Steve Pising (former Formula Five Motor Racing World Champion); Glynn Nimron (an actor whose most famous role is as Bot the robot in the classic sci-fi series Galacticops); Merriman Weir (legendary folk guitarist); Amir Chanan (self-confessed 'Master of the Psychic Arts' and bender of keys); and the late Randolph Caer (the underrated character actor famous for his roles in Nun Party! and That Duck! 2 (Duck on the Run)).

Gareth Merenghi (who fans of Ayoade and Holness will already know from Garth Marenghi's Darkplace) kicks of the series and, on reflection, is surprisingly the least entertaining guest. This is probably because Marenghi is basically a one gag character, and that one gag was practically kicked to death in Darkplace. Steve Pising is obviously loosely based on Nigel Mansell and Glynn Nimron, I was convinced, was partly inspired by Robert Llewelyn (Red Dwarf's Kryten) but is also an amalgamation of any sci-fi actor who has found it almost impossible to break away from that genre. The rest of the guests are caricatures of well established celebrity types (the musician, phoney psychic and depressed out of work actor).

While the shows themselves are entertaining enough, what is really impressive is the almost endless stream of extras that are crammed onto this 2-disc DVD collection. I think, on balance my favourite, just because it's so naff, is the 17 minute Easter Egg where Pising provides 13 mins of raw home video footage of a Camel park - with dull commentary.

We also get to know Learner a little better. While in Darkplace it is heavily hinted that he has a habit of killing people who p*ss him off, in Man to Man it's obvious that it's something he does quite often. At least one of his guests has managed to survive Learner's attempts to kill him - Pising's car crash was certainly not an accident.

Extras the list of extras appear on the episode menu pages (so it's easy to watch the deleted footage for each episode) and even the menu pages themselves contain additional footage not in the episodes. There's plenty of deleted scenes; trailers for the episodes; and there's even a selection of music tracks. But if there's one thing that lets this DVD down, it's the fact that there are no audio commentaries, and at no point do we get any behind the scenes material where the actors are out of character.

While not an overly original concept, Man to Man with Dean Learner is extremely entertaining and is certainly a series you'll want to watch more than once.

This box set represents excellent value for money and is certainly a collection I'd strongly advise you seek out.

Darren Rea

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