Earlier this year, Richard Ayoade wowed audiences with his directorial movie debut, Submarine.
With his next feature in the writing stages, and his former collaborator Matt Holness also writing and directing a forthcoming film, we felt this was an opportune time to look back at their last project together – 2006’s Man To Man With Dean Learner.
To do this, we turned to friend of the Onion, Ashley Silverstein, who reflects on the six-part series below.
Man To Man With Dean Learner, aired just once for six weeks on Channel 4 in late October 2006. Shot almost a year earlier (from 13th to 17th December 2005), before a live studio audience under its working title, Deano’s After Dark in Cambridge, Richard Ayoade and Matt Holness brought to Channel 4 much more than just Garth Marenghi’s long awaited return to tv sets in this twisted, almost anti-Alan Partridge chat show undertaking.
Produced by Boosh allumni Spencer Millman, the show is a study in the hauteur of characters first brought to life in its predeceasing show, Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, and featuring appearances by fellow Darkplace allumni Matt Berry, Kim Noble, Stuart Silver and Alice Lowe. More a narrative continuation than a spin off, Man To Man of course focuses on the titular Dean Learner, a man whose character flirts with the boundaries of humour and odiousness, oftentimes leaning more toward the latter.
Learner describes his show as “bringing refinement to modern television”. True to form, Dean is his customary stiff yet conceited self; a brilliant mix of awkward callousness that may hint at a more psychotic and sociopathic origin than we had previously seen. Always the self-marketer, Learner uses this outlet to plug his other various, eponymous projects as as a “club owner, celebrity manager, restaurateur, entrepreneur, and publisher of high class gentlemen’s magazines”. His trademark self-assured arrogance rears its lurid head with such ventures as Deano’s, a nightclub, Chez Deano’s, an upscale restaurant, and his crowning glory, The Deano, an erotic comic. Though obnoxious, Learner almost comes off as charming, as he is oblivious to the conceit his endeavours hold.
Each week, his “beautiful assistant-cum bartender” Finnish model Satu Suominen accompanies Learner as he takes viewers on a journey into the minds of some of the world’s most “talented” performers – in reality a colourful cast of characters all portrayed by Holness. As well as our old friend Garth Marenghi, these include Motor Racing Champion Steve Pising (naturally pronounced as if it featured a second ‘s’), sci-fi ‘actor’ Glynn Nimron, folk guitarist Merriman Weir, psychic Amir Chanan, and character actor Randolph Caer. All of these remarkable characters hold a strong tie to Dean personally which adds to their specifically stroppy chemistry.
The premise of Man To Man is very much an ego-fest for the character of Learner, and when watching the show it’s evident to the viewer that the creative liberty Ayoade and Holness took while writing is elaborate and vast, giving the viewer rare permission to laugh at what they’re watching rather than with it. When asked to describe his show in one word, Learner chose “class” and likened the level of sophistication it showcases to dimmer switches in bathrooms, ankle bracelets, and jumbo prawns. For a man who doubts his acting abilities, Ayoade does not so much play Dean Learner; rather he becomes the chauvinistic, sketchy man he’s worked so hard at perfecting.
While Ayoade perfected his singular character Learner, Holness proves himself ever the chameleon, transforming himself each week to the show’s needs. Each persona embraced by Holness allowed him to channel a plethora of lifestyles previously unexplored. The result is chaotic and hilarious, though it probably shouldn’t be. Episode one saw Holness donning a familiar costume, that of horror writer, visionary, plus actor Garth Marenghi. Through this medium, Marenghi’s personal life beyond Darkplace was further reconnoitred. Hawaiian SF (that’s scientifical fiction, for those in the business) enthusiast Glynn Nymron stands in his own right to Whovians and Trekkies across the nation, while morose singer/songwriter Merriman Weir’s kitschy tunes in episode four stand out as a particularly memorable gem.
The intricacy and accuracy put into the mise-en-scene of the show is enough of a reason to watch in and of itself; the gaudiness of Learner’s white fur couch alone is a far too perfect compliment to Dean’s misogynistic, playboy persona. Darkplace fanatics and fans alike can revel in the continuity between the two series; allusions made by Garth Marenghi to his own artistic abilities on Darkplace come to life in a Man To Man video piece. Similarly, cameos by actors “Todd Bridges” (Matt Berry), “Madeline Wool” (Alice Lowe) and unnamed extras portrayed in both series’ by Kim Noble and Stuart Silver enhance each episode’s canonicity. Learner’s dodgy business deals and personal matters are hinted at throughout the run of the show, so if one were curious as to why a second series was never commissioned, let’s just say he’s busy being questioned for conspiring in an attempted murder, money laundering, or fraud.
In this newly arrived era of quality televisual drought, this forgotten favourite left its mark as one of C4’s last original comedic explorations. Man To Man, if for no other reason, is worth watching for the sheer sociability of its stars. A sense of colloquy amongst its main cast draws the viewer in; fans of the collective works of Ayoade, Holness, Berry, Lowe, and more will find something for them in Man To Man. The show is incredibly self-aware and the humour quintessentially British. As a whole, the show works on a number of levels that have cemented its ever-growing and devoted fan base. Once introduced to Dean Learner, one has a hard time shaking his truly ‘deanstinctive” effect.