Like millions of other Britons I’ve been reading the new edition of The Otherwise, a screenplay Mark E.Smith wrote with Graham Duff about 7 years ago.
In the lengthy introduction, Duff explains that he met MES when the latter was brought in for a cameo appearance on the Johnny Vegas sitcom Ideal. Duff was the writer but also a long-time fan of The Fall, so inevitably the 2 got talking about their love of old TV anthology series such as The Twilight Zone. MES then stayed in touch and they worked together on ideas for a pitch for a show provisionally called The Inexplicable. This would have been a series of distinct stories in which hapless modern British proles encounter the sort of supernatural or absurd moments that turn up in Fall songs.
The full set of the 6 original synopses worked out by the duo are included in this book. There are 2 versions: the original pitch (credited to “Mark E.Smith & Graham Duff”) and the second version (credited to “Graham Duff & Mark E.Smith”) in which the same concepts have been re-engineered so that now all the stories happen to a recurring character.
Jeff Sherwin is a hapless Lancashire electrician whose life is going nowhere. Weak willed and disillusioned with his lot, Jeff frequently retreats into his various fantasy worlds.
However, what the dozy Jeff continually fails to comprehend is that his real life is already plagued by the fantastical. As he daydreams his way through the day, Jeff is oblivious of the fact he’s an absolute magnet for the uncanny, the paranormal and the downright frightening.
The lads did not have any luck with the production companies that Graham took their work to. The outlines are operating in the same areas that Black Mirror and Inside No. 9 succeeded at a few years later, but maybe it was already known in the industry that bigger established players had similar projects coming down the line. Reasons for rejection noted here are that the proposals were “too weird”, but also Smith’s involvement was a negative factor. As Duff mentions when they tried to market the screenplay version:
Mark’s reputation for difficult and contrary behaviour seems to make companies nervous of committing to a project that would involve him both on screen and behind it. One film executive snootily informs me,
“Like everybody, I saw the interview he did when John Peel died. I didn’t think it was very respectful, did you?”
“No, not really,” I agree. “But I have to say, I think Peel would have been utterly delighted.”
“Peel would have loved it” seems to be received wisdom, but I’m not too sure actually. They weren’t best mates and didn’t go on regular skiing holidays together. John wasn’t keen when Mark started becoming “erratic” at gigs in the mid 90s. See the sleevenotes he wrote for the 1999 Strange Fruit The Peel Sessions album (a selection made by Steve Hanley, who had left the group by the time it was released):
There have been times, as with football teams, when the fans have grumbled, feared for the future, left a performance shaking their heads in disbelief. I always cite a night at The Junction, in Cambridge, in this last context. But we always come back, yearning for more.
Steve Hanley didn’t have a happy experience at the end of his time in the group either.
The final screenplay takes one of the Inexplicable concepts (ghosts haunting a recording studio) and puts it out in the countryside, where spectres of the Jacobites who fought at the Battle of Preston are wafting around whilst The Fall turn up to record a new EP. Mark himself is around, talking to his manager oddly like he’s doing an interview.
Graham mentions an idea that didn’t make the final cut:
“In the recording studio we could look through my eyes, like fuckin’ Terminator. Lookin’ at the group, with data coming up: working out if I should fire ’em or not.”
Fun fact: actually the line-up from 2007 onward was the most stable the group ever had, Mark was beyond the point of fighting and sacking by then. I wish they’d also cut the bit on pg. 159 where “PETER and ED chuckle” after their employer makes a “quip”. This isn’t a Peter Gabriel biopic.
The action of the film includes some graphic violence with a stand-out scene reminiscent of a nasty moment near the end of David Lynch’s Lost Highway. The tone is close to the banter-with-bursts-of-menace style that is standard for modern Channel 4 TV sitcom writing, they all learn it from the hippie lecturers on their Drama courses at their bloody polytechnics that only serve lentil casserole in the canteen. There could have been a bit more reversing of expectations – for example, I would have had Bev easily defeating the entire gang of bikers in the car chase, then feeling pleased and accidentally running over the cyclist herself, instead of him getting killed by the gang. Altogether, this feels like only enough material for a one-hour TV special rather than a full-length film. There needs to be some more action in the middle. The trip to meet the drug-dealing city councillor sitting in his big house naked and with “escort girls” and a bored wife and teenage son nearby (based on a real-life incident when the young MES had to travel out from his office to get some paperwork signed) could have been extended as more and more rooms in the house were explored, or make it the start of an odyssey around other weird local dens of iniquity, and tie them in to plot line about witches and hauntology. More of the initial TV concepts could also have been reused by simply giving the film itself an omnibus structure of stories-within-the-story, like the classic Amicus movie Asylum. That would also be similar to Tales From The Lodge, an actual Brit horror from a few years ago, starring Johnny Vegas.
The rest of the book includes Graham’s summary of the appearances of the supernatural in Fall songs. Although it isn’t meant to be comprehensive, it’s disappointing the he doesn’t choose “Backdrop” from 1982, with its reference to “The Manchester regiment of the Stuarts”, and has the bonus fan-value that it was only ever played live in 82-83 and never released on a studio album. We also get a lot of recording transcripts of the 2 authors chatting together, and Mark mentions his love of Lindsay Anderson films as rooted in their portrayal of entirely realistic scenes from British life that no one else wants to record or talk about, such as the coke-headed civic dignitaries and their private squalor. Mark gets in a bit of precognition about the rise of “working from home”:
Early purchasers of the hardback edition also get a copy of The Future’s Here To Stay, which is Graham’s summary of all The Fall’s singles, with sprinklings of background detail from old members. The entry for “Touch Sensitive” has this priceless comment from Nev Wilding:
“The Fall had just got back from New York and were preparing for a live performance at Shephards Bush as part of the BBC John Peel sessions. A girl I was seeing was the sound engineer and she called me to say they were about to go live, and all they had was Mark and some lyrics and asked if I could get down there and sort it out. I arrived and met Mark who told me he had lyrics to five songs that he was to sing in half an hour, and asked if I could write the music for them… Somehow I managed to do it and Mark turned to me and said ‘I’ve just seen the new album,’ and booked a recording studio the next day.”
“Realm Of Dusk” was of course a track from Bend Sinister in 1986. I haven’t read all of Brix Smith’s memoir but I did see a bit where she talks about that album and says it wasn’t recorded as well as it could have been, in particular the extended surf guitar solo she did for the opening track deserves more back-up. I think several tracks on that album are a bit too thin-sounding especially as it really is the prototype version of the sound that U2 would use on Achtung Baby onward (The Fall did support slots with them in the late 80s, so the link is not too fanciful; in any case Brian Eno was pushing them to be influenced by lots of contemporary indie rock). The remastered edition from a year or so ago didn’t really fix things. I would also have had a different tracklisting, swap out one of the weaker moments (“Bournemouth Runner” or “Terry Waite Sez”) and replace with the great B-side “Hot Aftershave Bop”. I wouldn’t have put “Lucifer Over Lancashire” on the album, as it would have been too much to have that along with “Gross Chapel British Grenadiers”, though it could have worked as an A-side in its own right, instead of “Living Too Late”, which shouldn’t have been a single.