Saturday, May 12, 2007

Horror Hospital


Unlikely defenders of the Earth: from left to right, Matt Berry as Lucien Sanchez, Richard Ayoade as Thornton Reed, Matthew Holness as Rick Dagless and Alice Lowe as Liz Asher.

FILMED in the 1980s, DARKPLACE has earned a cult reputation as one of the most terrifying and radical television programmes. Considered too subversive and scary, the show was suppressed for over twenty years – although it did enjoy a brief run in Peru - until it finally surfaced on Channel 4 in 2004. The brainchild of best-selling horror author Garth Marenghi – the writer of such chillers as The Ooze ("can water die?") and Black Fang ("Rats learn to drive!") - Marenghi not only scripted and directed the episodes but also starred as the lead character, Dr Rick Dagless MD, a maverick physician battling evil forces lurking beneath a post-apocalyptic Romford hospital. The series was produced by Marenghi’s publisher and business associate Dean Learner, who plays shotgun-toting administrator Thornton Reed in the show, together with devilishly handsome and velvet-voiced Todd Rivers as Dr Lucien Sanchez, and Madeleine Wool as psychic Dr Liz Asher.

In reality, the show is a razor-sharp parody of 80s TV from Richard Ayoade and Matthew Holness, adapting the pretentious horror writer from their Perrier Award-winning GARTH MARENGHI’S NETHERHEAD. Marenghi (Holness) is painted as a super-egotistical Stephen King who happens to write like Guy N. Smith or Sean Hutson. He’s a man’s man, speaking in a constant husky whisper, and wearing leather jackets over dark shirts. One often thinks of THE EXORCIST director William Friedkin when looking at Marenghi, who is inadvertently self-incriminating (at one point he boasts that he’s written more books than he’s read).

DARKPLACE's dynamic duo: Richard Ayoade and Matthew Holness.

Suitably ham-fisted, appallingly acted and badly written, DARKPLACE’s not so special effects adds to the cheesy fun as the characters battle everything from Scotch Mist to cosmic broccoli. Fashions, music, film stock and punchy audio are all captured with expert aplomb. The episodes themselves are funny enough, but the "new" framing interviews provide the real meat. Reminiscing about the show, Marenghi is presented as a blinkered genius and still thoroughly convinced that the show is a masterpiece; he adopts a highly defensive stance, aggressively justifying the material and the sub-texts behind it, while Rivers (Matt Berry) is portrayed as a washed-up theatre actor, whose experiences on the show have left him with an alcohol dependency and a hazy memory; a glass of whisky constantly in his hand, Rivers alternates between praising his own performance and having no recollection in actually starring in them. Learner (Ayoade), meanwhile, with his oddly-angled beret and extensive cigar, is the picture of a sleazy tycoon.

"He whisked off her shoes and panties in one movement, wild like an enraged shark, his bulky totem beating a seductive rhythm. Mary’s body felt like it was burning, even though the room was properly air-conditioned. They tried all the positions: on top, doggy, and normal. Exhausted, they collapsed onto the recently extended sofa bed. Then a hellbeast ate them" – Extract from Juggers by Garth Marenghi.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

The Stones on TV


An attractive French DVD cover of THE STONES IN THE PARK.

IN December 1968, The Rolling Stones turned the Wembley Intertel studios into a real live circus for a BBC special never to be broadcast. Shelved and only released on video in 1996, then on DVD in 2004, THE ROLLING STONES ROCK AND ROLL CIRCUS is a masquerade of dwarves, trapeze artists, fire-eaters and headlining musical talent, with Mick Jagger as the Ringmaster. Set on a tiny stage just barely sufficient to accommodate the bands, the show nevertheless captures the spontaneity and communal spirit of swinging London in the late 1960s, as well as a project that delightfully ridicules the variety show conventions to which the stars so obediently adhered to when they were rising young turks. The appearance of Jagger’s then muse Marianne Faithfull - sitting mannequin-like in a floor length evening gown - is the only conventional moment in an otherwise glowing piece of entertainment.

The Who’s alleged up-staging of The Stones with A Quick One While He’s Away is often cited as the main reason Jagger pulled the plug. Even though the song is hardly one of The Who’s best - a patchwork telling a puerile but strangely resonant tale of adultery and absolution – it gives the CIRCUS its most primal moment. It is evident that the group is perfectly in tune with themselves and their surroundings, especially Keith Moon, tossing drums over his shoulder once they’ve outlived their usefulness, his eyes forever embroiled in mischief. The other stand-out, in his first public musical performance outside The Beatles, is John Lennon, who triumphantly tackles Yer Blues with rock’s initial supergroup The Dirty Mac - Eric Clapton on guitar, Keith Richards on bass, Mitch Mitchell on drums and Yoko Ono caterwauling her way into some private apocalypse on Whole Lotta Yoko.

‘Dirty’ Keith Richards introduces The Who and Lovely Luna and the Fire Eater for THE ROLLING STONES ROCK AND ROLL CIRCUS.

Today, one watches The Stones set and reflects that Jagger has been harsh on himself. Unlike the televised Beatles, Jagger has always acknowledged the camera, often stalking it like a cobra that might strike if the lens-eye pulled back or looked away, his grins and stares are both inviting and seductive – qualities of a great performer. But the appearance of Brian Jones is another story. Jones once gave The Stones glamour and their music texture; it was he, remember, who added sitar on Paint It Black and slide guitar on Little Red Rooster, but his failing was to be born without the steely ambition of Jagger and Richards. Consequently, the CIRCUS shows the Stones early leader reduced to an insignificant other; puffy-faced and looking totally defeated, it is only once – during a fine No Expectations - that he returns to the living.

When German actress, fashion model and alledged mistress of the black arts, Anita Pallenberg, left Jones for Richards, it created a mental shift within the Stones of which Brian never recovered. This also created musical changes, from the instrumental dandiness which epitomised Jones’ tenure, towards the rock and roll of the band’s first truly great album ‘Beggars’ Banquet’ and Richards' sulphurous brew of hard rock, pagan rhythms and badass writing. The Stones had been planning the free concert in Hyde Park to unveil Mick Taylor as Jones’ replacement, but Brian’s death only two days before overshadowed the event. Captured by a Granada Television documentary crew for THE STONES IN THE PARK, the gig is not a good one. In front of over 200,000 fans, Jagger takes to the stage in a white smock and releases hundreds of butterflies in honour of Jones, most of which are already dead through improper storage. The Hyde Park performance shows the group as woefully underpowered, under-rehearsed, and still in shock. It is obvious that Jones could not have survived within the Stones structure, but, as this film shows, perhaps they weren't quite ready for life without him.