“It was an absolute buzz.” Graham Duff talks about collaborating with Mark E Smith on horror script The Otherwise
“Course it is, where do you think I get this golden glow from, Ready Brek?”. With these words in 2007 began one of the strangest cameo appearances in TV history: The Fall’s Mark E Smith as Jesus in the BBC Three sitcom Ideal. Starring Johnny Vegas, Ideal was written by Graham Duff, an ardent Fall fan from Blackburn who was all too delighted to invite Smith onto the show.
On meeting his hero at BBC Manchester, Duff couldn’t resist taking the opportunity to suggest that they might they work together on something else in the future.
Duff says: “I just thought I’d kick myself forever if I didn’t say to him, ‘if you ever want to do something with narrative, I’ll help you pitch it or whatever’. That was really my initial thought. It wasn’t ‘let’s write something together’. It was more like, ‘If you’ve got those sort of ideas, I’d be of service. I could script-edit or just advise. If I can be of any use to you in that process, let me know.’ Then a couple of weeks later, he phoned me up and said, ‘let’s write something together’.”
The end result, after several years of development between the pair, was a horror feature film script called The Otherwise, drawing on the deep fascination they both had for the genre. Never produced at the time, it’s now being published as a book by Strange Attractor Press.
To this day, Duff, a scriptwriter with a wealth of shows under his belt, still seems pleasantly surprised that his writing collaboration with Smith was quite so fruitful. “At first I was thinking ‘oh, it’s a nice idea but it probably won’t happen’, but Mark was very keen from the beginning. We started batting stuff backwards and forwards quite quickly. The point where I knew that he was really into it was probably about a month after we’d first started working together. I was asleep, it was about half two in the morning and the phone rang. I was thinking ‘oh God, this is not going to be good news’, but I picked up the phone and it was Mark. He was incredibly chirpy. He said, ‘Yeah, you alright, man? I thought you’d be asleep. I’ve just been on a plane back from Portugal and I’ve had some really good ideas. Have you got a notebook?’ So, I started writing it down, and I thought, ‘God, he is really into this’.”
It probably goes without saying that The Otherwise is completely barmy, a sinister, out-there yarn that blends black magic, time-hopping Jacobites, a countryside recording studio and a cult-like biker gang. But it’s also solidly written and engagingly told. It may have been that Smith was lyricist, singer and unassailable supremo of The Fall whereas Duff was already an acclaimed and experienced scriptwriter, but it certainly wasn’t a case of Duff doing all the script work.
“I don’t think he ever saw himself particularly as a lyricist,” Duff says. “He saw himself as a writer who worked in the world of rock. Sometimes he’d send me bits of script, or we’d talk about stuff on the phone, and I’d think ‘that’s just perfect as it is, I don’t need to do anything to that’. I mean, I don’t want to give the impression that he spouted a load of ideas and I turned them into scenes, because he would literally send me fully written scenes that ended up in the script. It wasn’t a case of him humming a couple of bars and me making a song out of it, if you know what I mean.
“Initially I did think it would probably be more me, that we’d brainstorm and then I’d go and turn it into something. But actually, I was surprised. Not by Mark’s ability to come up with fascinating ideas and weird ideas and great juxtapositions, but by his ear for natural dialogue. There’s a couple of things that he wrote which aren’t fantastical, they’re not supernatural scenes, they’re just people talking, and it really flows. I think people assume that he would write dialogue in the way he wrote lyrics, but he didn’t. He wrote proper dialogue.”
As well as the script itself, The Otherwise book is full of fascinating extras, including reminiscences by Duff about the genesis of the project, Smith’s ex-wife Eleanor Poulou on their home-viewing habits, and transcribed excerpts of Smith and Duff chewing the fat during brainstorming sessions. Duff’s admiration for Smith, and his sheer delight in their partnership, shines out like a light throughout, though in one piece Duff admits diplomatically of Smith that ‘his desire to keep everything in flux could be challenging’.
Indeed, there were times when Smith would weigh in with new suggestions that, while intriguing, just didn’t mesh with the story they were writing.
“We were probably about two-thirds of the way through doing the script when he came in and he’d got this idea. It was about some middle-aged Jewish couple in New York in the 70s. I can’t remember, but it was something like they’d had a big argument and weren’t talking to each other, but they could hear each other’s thoughts and stuff. It was quite a nice little idea, there’s loads of potential there, but I just said ‘it’s good, but it’s so disconnected from what we’re doing already. I’m not sure if it will just seem too weird – but we can do it, I’m up for it’. And he just said ‘oh, I can tell you’re not into it, forget that’. And then afterwards, I was thinking ‘shit, I should have been more into it, we wasted an opportunity’. The thing is, it’s Mark, and if he thinks something is a good idea, it probably is.”
The finished script was shown around to various companies but, as Duff says, “We never really got beyond first meetings about it at the time. I think it was Mark’s reputation that made a lot of people worry. Because he would on the screen and behind the scenes as well, I think it was it was a big leap for people.”
Mark E Smith died in 2018, seemingly putting paid to The Otherwise project for good. In the meantime, there’s actually been some interest in the script. Duff says: “I don’t want to jinx it but I’m sort of in discussions with some people at the moment. I’m not saying it’ll be out next year, but we’re talking about getting into development.”
If it ever gets made, it would require an actor to step into the shoes of Mark E Smith. Not only did he co-write the script, he included himself and the then current line-up of The Fall as characters. Not, as you might imagine, as the main characters – we’re a long way from A Hard Day’s Night here – but rather as incidental figures who are tangentially involved in the plot and don’t even turn up until part-way through.
“Mark was particularly conscious about not having them too upfront, of establishing the world and the story and then introducing The Fall into it, rather than them being in it from the beginning. We were thinking about Performance, the Nic Roeg film. That was the model in a way, that you establish the world and then introduce Mick Jagger, rather than starting with Mick Jagger…not that I’m in any way comparing Mark to Mick Jagger.”
As Duff says, the Mark E Smith character in the script is “more of an observer, in a way. But I think that sort of fitted in with Mark’s experience. A number of times he said he’d had supernatural experiences or something, but it’s almost like he just sort of walked through life with these things happening around him.”
What’s very evident from The Otherwise book as a whole is that the experience of working with Smith meant a very great deal to Duff.
“It was an absolute buzz. It delivered on so many levels. In 1978, I bought the first Fall releases as they came out, so they were my favourite band when I was 14. Mark’s thinking and Mark’s way of doing stuff has been a massive influence on the way I produce work. It’s probably there more than even I know. So, to then be able to connect with the source and create something together…I still can’t quite believe it happened. No, I really wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
“I do feel sad that we weren’t able to get the script into production while Mark was alive, because I think it would have been great. Actually, part of me thought ‘if this does go into production, this won’t be the last one he does. Whether or not he’ll do one with me again, I don’t know’. I just thought ‘this won’t be the last script he writes if we get this away’. I think he would have really got into it.”
Main image: Graham Duff by Xavier Itter
The Otherwise by Mark E Smith and Graham Duff is available now from Strange Attractor Press as a paperback or limited edition hardback.
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