How I wrote a film script with Mark E Smith of The Fall
- Credit: Photo by Kevin Cummins/Getty Images
‘Really weird and properly frightening’. That was the tone of the horror film script Mark E Smith, iconoclast leader of The Fall, set out to write in 2007. Fourteen years later, The Otherwise is finally being published
Friday February 16th 2007. I’m waiting in the reception at the BBC building on Oxford Road Manchester. I’m waiting to meet Mark E. Smith. I’m nervous. I wish I wasn’t. But I am.
This isn’t even our first meeting. I’ve actually met Mark multiple times over the last 30 years. Although to be fair, these have predominantly been fleeting moments after Fall gigs, where our exchanges have largely been of the “That was amazing” and “Cheers, cock” variety.
Then, a couple of months back, I wrote him a letter, asking if he’d be interested in making a cameo appearance as Jesus, in my BBC sitcom Ideal. To my delight, it turned out Mark and his wife Elena were already fans of the show.
During the shoot, he was clearly out of his comfort zone. But the final on-screen result - Mark bathed in a golden glow, giving foul-mouthed godly instructions, soundtracked by the strange celestial sounds of the band Coil - is definitely my proudest TV achievement.
Afterwards, we sat and talked in Mark’s dressing room. He mentioned how a few years ago he’d developed some horror ideas for a Welsh TV company, but that they ended up losing the documents. I said if he was interested in resurrecting the ideas I’d be keen to help him pitch them to TV companies.
A week later, I’m doing some washing up in the kitchen, when my wife Sarah comes through from the living room. In a comically casual voice she says, “Mark Smith’s on the phone for you”. She knows what an unexpected and exciting event this is for me. I dry my hands, walk into the living room, pick up the phone and try to sound as casual as possible.
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“I wondered if you wanted to meet up and talk about writing some supernatural stuff together for TV?” Asks Mark. Yes. Yes, this is exactly what I want to do.
So now, here I am, sitting and waiting, and feeling nervous. Because even though we’ve already agreed to work together, he is Mark E. Smith and I’ve been feasting on his thoughts for nearly 30 years.
He walks into the BBC reception on time. He looks smart and relaxed, dressed as always in black trousers, polished leather boots, a white shirt and suit-cut leather jacket. Whether on stage or in the street, his image is unchanging. We say hello, shake hands and my nerves drain away.
A young man shows us to a small meeting room, with floor to ceiling blinds covering the glass wall. I’ve written a few notes in advance, but I tell Mark that I didn’t want to start working on anything in earnest, until we’ve had a proper talk about the kind of project it might be. All we’ve decided up to this point is that we’d like to write a horror/supernatural anthology series. And that it should be, as Mark puts it: “Really weird and properly frightening”.
I mention a thought I’ve had about basing all our different stories in the North West. Not just Manchester or Salford, but the surrounding towns and villages with old, twisted names like Sabden and Hall-i’-th’-Wood. Or Todmorden: a location that has the reputation of being the UFO hotspot of Europe.
I’m especially keen to set something around Pendle Hill. Between the ages of 6 and 18, I lived in the town of Great Harwood. When I walked out to the playing fields behind our house, I would see the huge hump of Pendle looming over the town. With its history of ancient witchcraft and its damp, green grass, thick with magic mushrooms, it had always seemed to be a site of supernatural potential.
There are multiple references to magick and witchcraft in Mark’s lyrics. 1986 saw The Fall release the song Lucifer Over Lancashire – although Mark had been working on versions of the song’s lyrics since at least 1977. The final text is ripe with references to "a demon’s grip", "his cock-eyed moon" and "A useless priest". It also contains Mark’s most viscid line: "monstrous kiss, wet dagger". I’d love to think we could get some of this ghastly atmosphere into a script.
I ask if he has any potential stories in mind. He shakes his head: “Sorry Graham, I’ve not done me prep.” He then clears his throat and says. “I did have an idea for one called The Death of Standards.”
I’m genuinely thrilled by the fact he already has a title for it. And what a title! He goes on to outline the bare bones of a story about a woman who works in local government. On her drive to work she perpetrates a hit and run.
Upon arriving at the office, she rants to her staff about how hit and run drivers should be executed. Then members of her staff start behaving in the same odd manner: performing terrible acts then raging against those very acts. This sounds exactly like something I’d love to watch.
We’ve been working for about 45 minutes when Mark lights a cigarette. The BBC building is – like pretty much every other building in the country – a non-smoking building. Mark knows this. I know this.
“You’re not allowed to smoke in here,” I say dutifully.
Mark nods and purses his lips. “They’ll let us know if they have to.”
We talk for a few more minutes, then the door opens a crack and a young, dark-haired woman sticks her head into the room.
“Erm, you’re not allowed to smoke in here.” She says in a slightly apologetic voice. Mark looks up and gives her a charming smile. “Oh? Sorry love - didn’t know.”
He stubs out his cigarette on the sole of his shoe. She smiles back and closes the door. Mark turns toward me. “Let’s do another hour, then go for a drink”.
An hour later, we duly move to The Space Bar, further down the road. We sip from bottles of pilsner and continue to chew over story ideas. I mention the scenario from the 1979 Fall song A Figure Walks, wherein a character endures a long walk home during which they have their anorak hood zipped right up, restricting their vision by two-thirds, as they are followed by a strange, alien monster.
“Could we use that idea?” “Maybe,” says Mark with a doubtful expression.
I shake my head. “Sorry, forget that. I know you’re not really interested in going back to old ideas.”
Mark smiles. “No, not really. What’s the point? I’ve already fuckin’ done it. It’s like I get these idiots ringing us up, asking the group to come and play (seminal 1981 Fall album) Hex Enduction Hour. They wanna fuckin’ grow up!” He warms to his theme. “You see the further North you go, the less interested in the past people are. You get me?”
I nod. But I’m not sure if I do get him. By mid-evening, Mark is lively, engaging and drunk, whereas I am just drunk. Alcohol isn’t really my drug. I can go for a month or so at a time without drinking and not really notice.
For Mark, however, alcohol has been one of his constant fuels. But if truth be told, pilsner and whisky are not his only vices. In fact, earlier in the afternoon, he had referred to having recently taken some acid whilst away on tour. I imagine relatively few 50-year old men still take acid. And fewer yet regularly indulge in biker’s speed.
We push open the heavy glass doors of the bar. We step out onto the cobbled street. The sudden fresh night air almost stings. Mark still has a whisky tumbler in his hand. He takes a couple more gulps then drops the heavy glass into a refuse bin. He hails a taxi. I tell him I’ll write up some notes on the stories. We say good night. We hug.
“Take it easy, cock,” says Mark with a smile, as he climbs into the back of the cab.
I’ve had such a funny and inspiring and creative day. I’m fizzing with positivity. As the taxi drives off I almost wave.
I hear my brain saying "You’re developing a supernatural anthology series with Mark E. Smith." It seems highly unlikely. Like something that might happen in a dream: or in a supernatural anthology series.
As luck would have it, I am staying at the Palace Hotel, which is conveniently located directly across from where I’m standing. I’m about to stride blithely across the wide road. I suddenly stop, and remind myself that I am very, very pissed and that I should be extra careful.
I take a deep breath then make sure I note the location and speed of all the cars and buses, so that I can cross safely.
I then step confidently out in front of a cyclist. He swerves to avoid crashing into me. “Sorry!” I shout after him.
“Pisshead!” He shouts back.
The Otherwise: The script for a horror film that never was, by Mark E Smith and Graham Duff, is published by Strange Attractor. Signed special editions are available at strangeattractor.co.uk. Author photo by Bruce Wang
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