From Garth Marenghi to big-screen horror – what the ‘lost boy’ of comedy did next | Horror films | The Guardian Skip to main contentSkip to navigationSkip to navigation
‘Our moral guardians were actually the worst of the lot’ … Matthew Holness
‘Our moral guardians were actually the worst of the lot’ … Matthew Holness Photograph: James Drew Turner/The Guardian
‘Our moral guardians were actually the worst of the lot’ … Matthew Holness Photograph: James Drew Turner/The Guardian

From Garth Marenghi to big-screen horror – what the ‘lost boy’ of comedy did next

This article is more than 5 years old

Matthew Holness won the Perrier award at 26, made a much-loved series for Channel 4 and then … almost nothing. Now, at 43, he has made his first film, Possum, inspired by Jimmy Savile. And, no, it’s not a comedy

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 long-suppressed 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.

Sean Harris as Philip in Possum.

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 10 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.

1970s public information films.

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-year-old 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 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 with Richard Ayoade in Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace.

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 Scandi-noir parody, Angstrom. And there have been projects pitched that haven’t been picked up, and roles he regrets not taking (Daryl the neo-Nazi 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? New-ish, 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

Comments (…)

Sign in or create your Guardian account to join the discussion

Most viewed

Most viewed