Satanic bikers, time portals and the Fall: the story of Mark E Smith’s secret screenplay
It is the dead of a moonlit night in Lancashire, and all of hell has been unshackled. In an 18th-century farmhouse converted into a recording studio, a rock musician berates a hapless sound engineer because his band’s master tapes have been recorded over with ancient folk song. Outside, the fields are strewn with the bodies of poisoned cattle, slaughtered by Jacobite agents of chaos, who have time-travelled from the English civil war. In a barnyard nearby, four Hells Angels stand around the figure of a burning woman holding a broom hovering above the floor; outside, a couple cower at the advance of a monstrous thug, who bears down on them unimpeded by the shovel buried into his skull. In the boot of their nearby Honda Accord is the body of a dead cyclist. There has already been one murder and there will be more before dawn.
This chilling scene is from the pen of Mark E Smith, the frontman and creative force behind the UK rock group the Fall, who died just over three years ago. At a time when the band’s reputation is being burnished by a clutch of new books charting different aspects of Smith’s creative practice, and four record labels are releasing their back catalogue and live LPs, it would seem there is little left to say about this northern, working-class phenomenon.
A book published this week, however – The Otherwise: The Screenplay for a Horror Film That Never Was, co-authored with the TV writer Graham Duff – shines a light on the idea that Smith was an unexplored writer of strange fiction. Duff sums up the narrative of the film: “Essentially, the Fall are trying to record an EP at a studio on Pendle Hill, while the surrounding countryside is at the mercy of a satanic biker gang and a squad of Jacobites who have slipped through a wormhole in time.”
Duff grew up in the shadow of Pendle Hill and has been a fan of the Fall since 1978; he was a 14-year-old schoolboy when he sneaked into a Manchester pub to watch the band play live. “It felt important,” he says. “I liked punk, but the Fall felt as if they were from a different realm somehow. They connected you to different worlds.” He transcribed and studied their lyrics in school exercise books; exposure to their work, he says, ultimately helped steer his adult career as a writer.
Ideal, Duff’s sitcom starring Johnny Vegas as Moz, a small-time Salford drug dealer, ran between 2005 and 2011. The cult status of the show and Duff’s can-do nature meant that he persuaded big names such as Paul Weller and Alan Yentob to take cameo roles. “Only Kate Moss refused. Her publicist said she wouldn’t do anything involving drugs.”
Getting Smith to appear in the show in 2007 was a career highlight, even though the singer had a cavalier attitude towards learning his lines and refused to do retakes. They persevered, and ended up with a memorably surreal scene: Smith playing Jesus appearing to a devout Christian builder having a nervous breakdown.
The singer was also the cause of surreal scenes off camera. The show’s head of wardrobe confided to Duff that she was shocked at how “rough” Smith looked, before adding: “I can’t believe Britt Ekland ever found him attractive,” having somehow mistaken him for Rod Stewart.
Like many people who aren’t ex-members of the Fall, Duff found Smith to be courteous and convivial, and, sensing a unique opportunity, broached the idea of a collaborative writing project. During their years of working together – which developed into a firm friendship – they made an odd couple; while Smith was notoriously hard living, Duff wasn’t much of a drinker and is now teetotal. He laughs: “Mark was very tolerant of my sobriety.” After their first script-writing session in a Manchester bar, Duff was nearly knocked over by a cyclist while stumbling back to his hotel and from that point on stuck to just having a couple of pints when meeting Smith down the pub.
Initially they devised a TV series called The Inexplicable. Influenced by both the format and themes of The Twilight Zone and the spirit of Lindsay Anderson’s 1973 class allegory O Lucky Man!, it was to be set against the backdrop of northern mill towns, taking in Todmorden – the UFO-sighting capital of England – and the witch-haunted Pendle Hill among other locations.
After several knock-backs, the pair changed focus in 2014 and began work on a film script. “People have the misconception that Mark would be spouting crazy stuff and I’d be forming it into a coherent script, but that’s not how it worked,” Duff says. “He would, for example, write a six-page-long scene of pure dialogue, and not all of it supernatural; some of it very naturalistic about relationships and everyday stuff.”
This information is something of a corrective to a pernicious idea held by many who are resistant to the charms of the Fall: that Smith wrote cryptically because he was incapable of writing in plain English. As well as writing fantastical scenarios and realistic modern dialogue, Smith also had a knack for delivering lyrical, visionary prose, such as these opening observations by a Jacobite soldier on a tear in the fabric of reality:
Its truth was amazing.
O Joy! Solaris-like!
White and translucent foams
It squirmed unfettered
Energised in wondrous coil
Always a master of combining high and low, some events in The Otherwise came from Smith’s lived experience. One scene is an interpretation of when the 15-year-old Smith and his mate went to buy drugs from a local councillor in Salford, only for the councillor to come to the door naked smoking a large joint, clearly just about to hold an orgy. Duff laughs: “The middle-aged swingers were delighted that these teenage boys had turned up, but the boys could not fuck off quickly enough.”
Even beyond his own anecdotes, Smith was the ideal candidate to write this film. Prior to founding the Fall, as a teenager in Prestwich, he was obsessed with weird fiction and, along with Ian Curtis and Stephen Morris prior to Joy Division, a patron of the Manchester countercultural bookshop The House on the Borderland. Smith devoured authors such as Arthur Machen, MR James, Philip K Dick and HP Lovecraft, while devising one of the key themes of the Fall: a northern, working-class England beset by occult forces. The group’s work is infused with quotidian magic, and often concerns ancient forces lurking behind bingo halls, skulking in newsagents and sloping down snickets and ginnels. Their sizeable back catalogue, including such songs as Spectre Vs Rector and Jawbone and the Air-Rifle, is haunted by hauntings; their most celebrated LP, Hex Enduction Hour, was itself a magical ritual designed to end a run of bad luck.
But no matter how odd The Otherwise sounds, the first thing that strikes you on reading it is what a solid bit of writing it is. The characters are well rounded, the dialogue believable and snappy, there are plenty of dramatic peaks and exciting reveals, with elements that can be compared to the 1972 BBC Two ghost story The Stone Tape, the UK biker thriller Psychomania, Ben Wheatley’s psychedelic civil war horror A Field in England, and Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs.
Despite the quality of their work, Duff and Smith faced more rejections. Duff says: “Someone from a film production company in London told me: ‘Something like this could never be made. Nobody cares about the Fall now. They were about in the 80s.’ I basically thought, ‘Fuck off … you’ve missed the whole point.’”
Duff told Smith that it wasn’t unusual for scripts to kick around for years – decades sometimes – before being picked up, and that The Otherwise might be one such film. Their friendship continued with the pair meeting up for drinks in Manchester or at Fall shows in London, until one day in 2017 Smith phoned Duff and let him know he had contracted lung cancer, adding with typical understatement: “Quite disappointing, actually.”
Duff says that it is one of his lasting regrets that neither the series nor film was commissioned. “Mark’s reputation preceded him – that was all production companies knew about him. They weren’t aware of what the Fall sounded like, that they had produced a huge body of work and were internationally respected; all they knew really was that he’d been rude about John Peel on Newsnight.”
Much like the Fall itself, though, The Otherwise is having something of a vibrant afterlife. As well as the screenplay being published, celebrated indie film-makers and Fall fans Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard, who made the Nick Cave documentary 20,000 Days on Earth, and videos with Scott Walker and Gil Scott-Heron, are looking to get the film made.
“When you read The Otherwise you can almost taste the enjoyment of watching scary television and film,” says Pollard. “But first and foremost it’s a singular piece of writing by a truly important, disruptive, northern voice and on those terms alone it should be made. We just need to find someone with money who shares our vision.”
Of course, now that Smith can no longer play himself on the big screen, it raises the question of who possibly could. Smith appeared fleetingly in Michael Winterbottom’s impressionistic Factory Records biopic 24 Hour Party People as a punter queueing up outside the Russell Club while, confusingly, Sam Riley, who played Smith as a young man, ended up on the cutting room floor. Smith was dismissive of the film, instead keen on Brad Pitt for the role.
Pitt doesn’t come up during my talk with Forsyth and Pollard, and the pair remain tight-lipped at my suggestions of Jared Harris or David Thewlis (who is strongly rumoured to have channelled Smith when dominating Mike Leigh’s 1994 masterpiece Naked), though they do offer up the slightly bizarre – and potential dead-cat tactic – suggestion of perennial leading man James McAvoy.
Pollard and Forsyth also won’t rule out casting a singer to play Smith. Such was his acerbic commentary on other musicians who claimed the Fall as an influence – not to mention those who took inspiration from his unusual vocal style – you would assume many, even now, would blanch at the idea of playing him on-screen. Forsyth laughs: “I certainly wouldn’t enjoy casting Mark E Smith with Mark E Smith around. Can you imagine? But given the choice, I would sooner he was still with us and could play himself. That would be my wish.”
The Otherwise: The Screenplay For a Horror Film That Never Was by Graham Duff and Mark E Smith is published by Strange Attractor Press