Garth Marenghi

What Matthew Hol­ness did next

The Guardian - G2 - - Front Page - Pho­tog­ra­phy James Drew Turner ‘I think peo­ple would pre­fer a Garth Marenghi film’

Matthew Hol­ness has been telling peo­ple for years that Pos­sum isn’t a com­edy. “It’s not re­motely funny,” he said when it was an­nounced. “It’s not a funny film,” he re­it­er­ated be­fore its pre­miere. Yet some peo­ple, “mainly com­edy fans on Twit­ter”, still haven’t got the mes­sage.

“I think they an­tic­i­pate – would pre­fer – a Garth Marenghi film,” he says. “But thank­fully the au­di­ence mem­bers who ac­tu­ally shell out for a ticket ap­pear to know what they’re in for. Within rea­son …”

Hol­ness is not be­ing funny. Pos­sum is as sober as it gets. A psy­cho­log­i­cal hor­ror in­spired by Jimmy Sav­ile and set on Nor­folk’s grimmest fens, it is very bleak, very clammy – and very good. Sean Har­ris stars as Philip, a dis­graced chil­dren’s en­ter­tainer; Alun Arm­strong is Mau­rice, his malev­o­lent step­fa­ther. Dame Edna this ain’t – the ti­tle refers to Philip’s un­dead glove pup­pet.

Still, you can un­der­stand the con­fu­sion. Hol­ness is the great miss­ing man of Bri­tish com­edy. After lead­ing Cam­bridge Foot­lights in the late 90s along­side David Mitchell, Robert Webb, Richard Ayoade and John Oliver, he won the Per­rier, aged 26, as Garth Marenghi, a hor­rif­i­cally pro­lific and vain­glo­ri­ous hack hor­ror au­thor (and spir­i­tual cousin to Si­mon the IT guy, his bit part in The Of­fice).

Three years later came a TV trans­fer: Garth Marenghi’s Dark­place, pre­sented as a long­sup­pressed 80s drama cre­ated by, and star­ring, Marenghi (“au­thor, dreamweaver, vi­sion­ary, plus ac­tor”) and set in a hospi­tal “over the very gates of hell” in Rom­ford. Its six episodes con­sti­tute some of the finest com­edy ever broad­cast.

And then … noth­ing. Well, bits and bobs. But, by and large, si­lence. Why no sec­ond se­ries for Marenghi? And what of the ge­nius be­hind him, who never gave an in­ter­view out of char­ac­ter and was ru­moured to have re­tired to Nor­wich?

Hol­ness walks into a Tai­wanese tea­house in Soho wear­ing the shirt, glasses and ex­pres­sion of a ge­og­ra­phy teacher. Mitchell de­scribes him as “a deeply rea­son­able man” and noth­ing sug­gests any­thing other than san­ity, kind­ness and cau­tion. In an hour’s time, he’ll in­tro­duce a screen­ing of Pos­sum, so he avoids the beef be­cause he doesn’t want to risk its ac­com­pa­ny­ing raw egg.

Pos­sum started out as a short story in a hor­ror an­thol­ogy pub­lished five years ago. The film fore­grounds the abuse sub­text be­cause, he says, if hor­ror isn’t tack­ling these is­sues “it’s not do­ing its job”. The world to­day is a “ter­ri­ble place”; the genre should step up and “be more po­lit­i­cally en­gaged”.

Hol­ness, 43, is of the gen­er­a­tion trau­ma­tised by pub­lic in­for­ma­tion films that graph­i­cally cau­tioned chil­dren against play­ing near lakes or rail­ways, matches or farm ma­chin­ery, hot irons or elec­tri­cal sub-sta­tions. One, Clunk Click, about fas­ten­ing your seat­belt, fea­tures Sav­ile glee­fully smash­ing an egg in a box.

As adults, says Hol­ness, we have had to process the fact that this film was fronted by a “mon­ster” who we were sup­posed to trust. “Our moral guardians were ac­tu­ally the worst of the lot.” Pos­sum’s Philip speaks for all those abuse sur­vivors whose si­lence was en­forced. “The peo­ple for­got­ten. There was an en­tire in­dus­try shut­ting them up.”

He has con­sid­ered show­ing the films to his six-year-old daugh­ter. “I think it’s a great shame that the gov­ern­ment stopped mak­ing them as they do serve a pur­pose.” He grins over his chicken. “But they are a bit too scary. I think she might be truly fright­ened.”

Hol­ness had an “un­trau­matic” child­hood in Whit­stable in Kent. But he re­mem­bers be­ing up­set by the “som­bre, ev­ery­thing go­ing to crap” news bul­letins of the 80s and has the en­dur­ing mem­ory of a friend’s house burn­ing down on their birth­day. And when it came to hor­ror, Hol­ness was pre­co­cious enough that even fel­low Whit­stable res­i­dent Peter Cush­ing ex­pressed con­cern that the six-yearold ask­ing for an au­to­graph knew so much about Ham­mer.

Per­haps en­cour­aged into a rich fan­tasy life by the fact that Van Hels­ing was just a few streets away, young Hol­ness spent his free time pre­tend­ing to be a war­rior called

‘If you’re of a gen­tler tem­per­a­ment, com­edy is a tough pro­fes­sion’

‘Bowie re­leased an al­bum days be­fore his death … to turn that into art is stun­ning’

Hawk. His re­ward for pass­ing his 11-plus was a copy of Cush­ing’s au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, which the star in­scribed at length, and its owner ev­i­dently trea­sures.

At Cam­bridge, Hol­ness be­came vice-pres­i­dent of the Foot­lights to Mitchell’s pres­i­dent – that way round, both men sus­pect, be­cause of Hol­ness’s lack of ad­min­is­tra­tive nous (as trea­surer, he stored the club’s sub­stan­tial funds in a Tup­per­ware box un­der his sink). This fi­nan­cial blind spot also tripped him up at the Ed­in­burgh fringe. “You’re thrown into this busi­ness en­vi­ron­ment,” he says, “which I was not re­motely pre­pared for.”

Hol­ness clocked quite quickly that he might not be equipped for a long ca­reer in com­edy, he says. “The busi­ness is very tough. If you’re of a cer­tain tem­per­a­ment, it’s great. But if you’re of a gen­tler tem­per­a­ment, then it’s quite a dif­fi­cult and stress­ful pro­fes­sion. You couldn’t re­ally re­lax.”

“I think he was drawn to com­edy en­tirely for the love of it,” says Mitchell, “with very lit­tle of the need to get at­ten­tion and be looked at that most per­form­ers labour un­der. He has al­ways been a bril­liant per­former, but I have never had the sense that he had a burn­ing need to stand on a stage.” A half-hour doc­u­men­tary about the Foot­lights made in 1997 con­firms this: Hol­ness is front and cen­tre in the film – but as direc­tor. He never per­forms.

The other is­sue was the fate of Dark­place. When first broad­cast, the rat­ings were low; its fol­low­ing grew only later, on DVD and on­line. So a sec­ond se­ries was re­jected. Other shows came with caveats. Hav­ing “free artis­tic rein” was, Hol­ness clocked, a one-off. A Dark­place spin-off – Man to Man with Dean Learner – wasn’t a ful­fill­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. “And I only re­ally want to make stuff I’m happy mak­ing, not for the sake of get­ting my face on TV.”

Ac­tu­ally, there have been come­dies he has ap­peared in more re­cently: the Chan­nel 4 sit­com Back (in flash­back as Mitchell and Webb’s dad); the Ra­dio 4 Scan­di­noir par­ody, Angstrom. And there have been projects pitched that haven’t been picked up, and roles he re­grets not tak­ing (Daryl the neoNazi in Peep Show, for ex­am­ple). “But I get noth­ing from watch­ing com­edy shows,” he says mer­rily. “I don’t re­ally watch much my­self.” If he does, it’s Monty Python or The Young Ones. “Things I wanted to em­u­late.”

Yet Hol­ness is nat­u­rally funny, his pat­ter full of bathos. At one point, he men­tions he would like to know the love of a puppy, prob­a­bly a spaniel. “I know a very big dog and it is very hard to main­tain.” Some­thing about that sud­den mun­dan­ity re­calls Marenghi in­tro­duc­ing one episode of Dark­place with the words: “Here it be. A fu­ture shock that’ll shit you up. I’d like to ded­i­cate tonight’s episode to my wife, Pam, who deals with the bulk of my ad­min.”

But he swears he is done. “I’m too old for com­edy now. You’ve got to re­ally want it. I wasn’t that driven. You’ve got to be re­ally hun­gry to suc­ceed in it.”

Hol­ness’s hap­pi­ness, thinks Mitchell, is in­deed thanks to “swap­ping com­edy for hor­ror”. But also “swap­ping Lon­don for Nor­wich, set­tling down, start­ing a fam­ily, all that. When I first knew him, we were stu­dents and both found the world pretty in­tim­i­dat­ing. Matt seems to have come up with an ex­cel­lent cop­ing strat­egy.”

It’s a strik­ing phrase, for Hol­ness’s bal­ance can seem sur­pris­ing – al­most un­nerv­ing. What’s his se­cret? He thinks care­fully. The pro­jec­tion of op­ti­mism, he says, in the ex­pec­ta­tion it will at­tract good things.

Is that a new phi­los­o­phy? Newish, he says; per­haps 10 years or so. He thinks more. In fact, there was an epiphany. A silly one, al­though it turns out not to be: “David Bowie re­leas­ing that al­bum two days be­fore his death. To turn that kind of event” – ter­mi­nal ill­ness – “into art is just stun­ning. I found that prob­a­bly the most in­spir­ing thing ever. Then I re­solved to just think more pos­i­tively and get on with things.”

And with that he smiles mildly and ex­its, per­fectly cheer­ful and com­posed, off to show peo­ple his in­cred­i­bly dis­turb­ing, very un­funny film. Pos­sum is re­leased in the UK on 26 Oc­to­ber

Alun Arm­strong and (above) Sean Har­ris in Pos­sum

Hol­ness with Richard Ayoade in Garth Marenghi’s Dark­place

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