Garth Marenghi is one of British comedy’s most beloved love-to-hate characters. Hari Berrow talks to his creator, the impossible-to-hate Matthew Holness, about his character’s book TerrorTome and ongoing tour, ahead of his show in Cardiff.
When Matthew Holness wrote Garth Marenghi’s TerrorTome, he had no idea how massive the reception would be on its release last November – and how many fans had been quietly begging for the character’s return.
“I didn’t expect to be touring, actually,” he admits. “When I wrote the book I was really only thinking, ‘it would be nice to finally do a Garth book’, and then we did some small events to promote the book. The interest in those was really great, and then my agent and LiveNation approached me and said, ‘there’s possibly an audience out there who’d like to see some readings from this.’ So the tour just got bigger from that point. I didn’t quite realise Garth would still resonate with people in that way!
“I decided to aim the book at people who liked the show, and didn’t expect there to be too many still liking it. There’s obviously lots of people my age who liked the show when it came out, but it’s really nice that there’s lots of younger people who have discovered it recently.”
Coming back to Garth wasn’t something Holness ever expected to do, his career having taken a number of turns since the show’s release in 2004.
“For the last 10 years, I’ve been trying to make it as a film director. I’ve done two or three shorts and a feature. I think, unfortunately, with TV becoming such a big thing in recent years, it’s getting harder and harder to make independent feature films, because the stars that you need to sell a project like that are all gravitating towards very long TV contracts. So, there’s neither the mechanics of being able to put it together, because the stars aren’t there, or the interest.
“I found myself having lots of things in development that weren’t really going anywhere, and I thought – I’m getting older, I’m really not sure I can sustain this for too much longer, with nothing being made. My horror film Possum was shot in 2016 – so it’s a long time to not have anything out there.”
As well as the frustrations of cinematic bureaucracy, there was a desire for creative empowerment. “I think, increasingly, writers have less say over what they create. Particularly, as things get put through the TV grinder, very few writers are allowed authorial say over something. It has to go through so many different channels. A book is really the only place now where you can write what you want and stand by what you write. So that’s what I decided, I’d write a book to get a little bit of creative freedom back.
“Having written a few horror short stories – it’s great, but they don’t have a huge readership. So I thought – Garth’s probably a good person to write something with, because there is that audience there, and I thought it would be nice to see what sort of stuff he’s been doing over the last 10 years…”
Garth’s main appeal for fans was one of Holness’ biggest challenges when writing TerrorTome: how do you craft a story that people want to read, when the person writing it is supposed to be terrible at writing?
“If we entertain the idea that Garth is a real character, he is a best-selling writer – so he’s got to have something there. Well, let’s suppose he’s pretty good at writing stories, he’s just terrible at putting them down!
“If you’re doing parody, you can write something bad, but that won’t necessarily sustain an entire book. So I had to find a way to do that joke, but also for it to be competent enough to sustain someone reading, so it had to be an interesting story. We had that with the TV show [Darkplace] as well – if you’re doing sketch parody, it really only lasts for a sketch. We had to get good stories and give it different levels – character comedy.”
What was the rehearsal process like for the TerrorTome tour?
“There was actually none,” Holness laughs. “None at all! It happened so fast – they just said, ‘you’ve got another show tomorrow, and another show here’. I got used to reading bits out and as the tour went on, I was sort of rehearsing and honing it in live performance, figuring out what bits didn’t work. I’m still kind of refining it as I go along. I’ll probably get a perfect version of the show, and it’ll be the last performance, and then I won’t have anywhere else to do it!
“I just didn’t anticipate that we would be doing this as a live tour. It’s good in a way because it meant I didn’t get nervous – I used to get very nervous with live performing and the anticipation of doing something.”
Holness has enjoyed returning to the character far more than he was anticipating – particularly as he hadn’t expected to return to perform the character at all.
“It’s lovely. It’s so much fun. The advantage that I have – which I didn’t have when I was doing gigs years back – is that people are there because they want to be there, specifically to see Garth, so you’ve got a lot of goodwill in the audience. You have to be slightly guarded against that – there’s a danger of getting a little bit lazy if everyone in the audience is there and they’re going to laugh at anything you say because they love the character. You get some really interesting questions – you’re really on your feet and you have to think through what Garth’s response would be to these things.”
Garth’s re-emergence has brought a number of surprises for Holness as a performer: notably, the audience is very different to the one the character originally had.
“When we first started doing the shows back in 2000, 2001, we would have people turning up who thought it was a real character – we were very secretive about it being fictional, and we just played it for real. People just thinking it’s the worst possible thing, getting up and walking out, and Garth reacting to that. Those are the things I always find most funny. I love it when things go bad! That’s perhaps something I’ll never recapture with the character now – having said that, I’m sure if I just turned up somewhere and did a performance and didn’t really advertise it, I’d get that same thing…
“But if people are coming along and they’re willing to part with money for a ticket, it’s nice to give them something they really want and are really enjoying. The worst thing is when you go up to Edinburgh festival, you’re spending £15 or £20 on a ticket and you walk away going ‘that was the worst piece of rubbish I’ve ever seen’. Which is how we started, to be honest!”
While original cast menbers Richard Ayoade, Alice Lowe and Matt Berry weren’t directly involved in the creation of TerrorTome, the book has brought them back in touch.
“Richard recently, very kindly sent me a batch of books and things that he collected at the time, stuff that we bought when we were doing research for Garth years ago. Alice has been absolutely wonderful, really supportive through the writing, and Matt too – I’ve had a couple of calls with Matt recently.”
So, what is the future for Garth Marenghi?
“I’m gonna be writing another Garth book, that’s probably the most immediate thing. In fact, I’m not sure I’m gonna have too much time this year to do anything other than that, because then hopefully we’ll be touring book two. And then I guess I’ll keep my mind open to – possibly, who knows – Garth TV at some point? We’ll see what happens. It’s a very different environment now in TV. We were fortunate with Darkplace that they just let us get on with it and we had creative freedom.”
Matthew Holness himself, meanwhile, hopes to return to directing.
“These things just chug along very, very slowly, and then someone might say, ‘oh, such-and-such wants to be in it, can we go?’ That’s the weird thing with film production, you spend years waiting for something to happen and as soon as one element comes into play, everything else can suddenly get going. Once you’ve got your star, people can start funding things.”
At the end of these interviews, I like to ask writers and performers what they would like their audience to go away with at the end of the night. Holness’ wish is simple.
“The book,” Holness says. “They are on sale there, so if everyone walks away with a copy of the book, that would be great.”
Garth Marenghi’s Terrortome Book Tour, New Theatre, Cardiff, Mon 13 Mar.
Tickets: £24. Info: here
words HARI BERROW
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