The Wonderful And Frightening World of Mark E Smith


Images: BBC 4 archives

“I’m not about to give away me fookin’ secrets to some idiot at the BBC”. This BBC 4 documentary from 2005 is as insightful a portrait of difficult poet, anti- establishment miscreant and Fall  frontman Mark E Smith as we’ll ever get, given his recent passing.

With accounts from ex- Fall members Marc Riley, Steve Hanley and Una Baines, among others (many of whom wear haunted expressions when recalling their experiences with the pugnacious Smith) it’s a scathing but brilliant potted history of one of the greatest and most influential bands that ever was.

Smith is in the pub (naturally) for most of the filming, his face like a prematurely wizened windfall apple, vacilating between fiercely intellectual, incoherent and rambling.

One minute, he’s holding forth on the importance of literature and working class discipline, the next, he’s chuckling, drunk, and calling John Peel producer John Walters “Walter John”. It is occasionally textbook pub philosopher stuff, but often, far more abstruse.

The studio sessions for John Peel are pretty cringeworthy too. Smith’s rantings to the latest band members to “play harder” seem bizarre: they sound superb. There’s no skimping on tour bust-ups , fights and travel bans.


Yet, this is no prurient tabloidesque job. When Smith was good, he was very, very good (to paraphrase the children’s rhyme) a charming and focused presence, full of wit and invention. There’s a reason people gravitated towards him: he was a genius, like an existential bingo caller gone rogue.

Comedian Stewart Lee cites the complexities of his lyrics and admits it took a while to grasp their sound, whereas critic Paul Morley acknowledges the myriad genres The Fall assimilated and incorporated over the years, particularly in the Brix years, which he defines as “the attack of pop”.


The final word has to go to John Peel, the late great DJ who was the first to see the band’s potential: “They were always different; always the same”.


2 thoughts on “The Wonderful And Frightening World of Mark E Smith

    1. Thanks. It’s just brilliant. Hanley and Riley’s exchange is particularly hilarious.
      Hanley:’It was like a matter of life and death in a way, wasn’t it?’
      Riley (beat): “Oh,yeah!”

      Liked by 1 person

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