Mark E. Smith R.I.P.

Oh dear g*d, not another one, so soon? I’ve barely begun to mourn Ursula Le Guin, and now the man who was the Fall? Please tell me this is not going to turn into another of those years, there’s still a week of January left.

I was never a lifelong Fall fan. There was a time, from ‘Perverted by Language’ through to ‘I am Kurious  Oranj’, and I still have ‘The Wonderful and Frightening World of…’. I saw them live twice, once at Salford University where they opened with a ten minute plus version of ‘Bremen Nacht’ that was about seven minutes too long for a song I’d never heard before, and I was in a shitty mood to start with, but then they did a version of ‘There’s a Ghost in my House’ that blew the recorded version out of the ocean, and played a stormingly physical set that rescued my entire evening.

Mark E. Smith. You didn’t have to agree with him, you certainly didn’t have to like him, because he didn’t give a shit either way, he was just himself, so absolutely bloody rude, arrogant, uncaring and normal. He was like Manchester rolled up into one skinny, wrinkled, unconcerned body.

The place won’t be the same without him, the bastard.

Fall of The Fall

Let’s put a Hitchcockian ‘Ice Cold Blonde’ picture of Gillian Anderson here, shall we?

Eighteen months ago, in the company of four to four-and-a-half million other viewers, I spent five weeks watching BBC2’s very successful crime drama series, The Fall. It was pre-billed, and pretty much lived up to its reputation as a British equivalent to the influential Scandi-Noir crime series such as The Killing and The Bridge.

The Fall starred Gillian Anderson as Metropolitan Police Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson, seconded to the Northern Ireland Police Service to review the investigation of a murder case about a young, attractive professional woman, tortured and killed, and Jamie Dornan as Paul Spector as a bereavement counsellor, happily married with a daughter, who is Alice Morgan’s killer. Spector is more than that: he is a serial killer.

The series was broadcast in five hour long episodes. It was immaculately written, acted and directed, with a wide cast of characters both connected and unconnected to the central drama of Gibson’s increasingly personal duel with the serial killer. Both the leading parts were, in differing ways, carefully underplayed by Anderson and Spector, as undemonstrative, quietly spoken, clearly intelligent people, and both actors were extremely photogenic in their roles.

The series attracted a lot of attention over and above its setting in Belfast, against the background of the post-Troubles era, with the continuing antagonisms and hatreds of the people. Serial killers have long-since become a cliché in crime fiction: as was post-modernly observed in one such story (which one I can’t remember, nor whether it was TV, book or comic), ‘doesn’t anybody just kill one person any more?’ However, The Fall set out to present a deeper portrait, showing the serial killer in a different light as a man who is, in almost every other respect, a model citizen. He follows a caring, sharing profession, devoted to helping others, he is devoted to his six-year-old daughter, he loves his wife, he’s deeply handsome and sexually appealing.

Ah, but he kills attractive, young, independent brunette women in a horrifyingly ritualistic, drawn-out, tortuous manner after long weeks of very careful stalking and manipulation. Still, nobody’s perfect, eh?

The gift of The Fall was to make this creation plausible and, despite the intent of the portrait of Spector, to avoid glamourising him, an achievement aided greatly by Dornan’s low-key, thoughtful performance. That didn’t stop the series from attracting criticism, in particular for the fact that, yet again, what was being sold was the objectification of women and the bloody slaying of young, slim, physically attractive specimens, whose key characteristic was that they were independent.

You don’t need to go far along those lines to hit the misogynism buffers, and the series didn’t really have any answer to deflect criticism of that nature. Instead, it relied on the quality of its production and upon the strikingly independent Stella Gibson (ah, but whilst Gillian Anderson looked very good in her silk blouses, summoning Detective Sergeants to bed for a one-off fuck, she was different: she was older than Spector’s target group, and anyway, she was blonde) to escape serious consideration of the accusation.

I, like the other 4 – 4.5 million, kept the criticism in mind but was hooked by the programme’s dark style, its range of characters, its breadth of storytelling. Until the very last minutes of the very last episode when we got a real, serious kicker: there wasn’t an ending. Gibson got too close, Spector hopped it to Scotland with his family, the protagonists spoke for the first and only time, on an immediately-discarded mobile phone, and that was it. See Series 2.

It was a dreadful let-down. Nowhere in any of the pre-publicity, or the enthusiastic reviews and arguments that had followed the series, had there been any suggestion that we were only to get half a story. The ending was a gross let-down, a cop-out: Spector’s fled, swearing never to do it again but Gibson promises to get him, series over and everybody suspended in mid-air because we were presented with this series on the traditional, implied basis that it would be a complete story, with some form of resolution, however many loose ends it may be wrapped in for us to puzzle over. Instead, it was a cheat.

Nevertheless, The Fall had been so much of a success that a second series was guaranteed, which duly began last week on BBC2, with the first of a further six episodes, and presumably an ending this time. It was broadcast on Thursday night at 9.00pm. I was enjoying a week’s holiday, so was free to have watched the episode live if I wanted. I completely forgot it was on and ended up not watching the episode on i-Player until Sunday, having avoided reviews in the meantime.

Series two starts only ten days after the end of series one. Spector’s wife and daughter moved back to Ulster after only two days, Spector now secretively follows them. His last victim survived but is as yet not able to answer questions. His fifteen year old babysitter is once again playing with fire. His wife doesn’t want to see him, he’s practicing bondage on his daughter’s Barbies (one truly asinine little element). Gibson’s trying to get the woman who is their only lead to give her more information. In the meantime, Spector is asked to be the bereavement counsellor for his last surviving victim, and ends the episode by kidnapping the lead.

In short, almost nothing happened. It happened in a fairly straight line, with most of the complications of series one forgotten about. Anderson half changed out of dress uniform in the Ladies, giving up voyeuristic blimps at the well-stocked bra. And there was an embarrassingly stupid scene on the train with a woman who’d dyed her hair blonde so as not to be brunette, y’know, this serial killer thing, blithely spilling name, address, identity etc into Spector’s lap like a graven invitation to rape and slaughter.

And it was all so glacially slow. Nothing happened and it happened so slowly that I barely made it through the hour. And my interest in The Fall and the conclusion of this game of wits being carried on between Gibson and Spector was switched off. Just, as Tommy Cooper so eloquently put it, like that.

Episode 2 will be broadcast tonight. It’s my day off-shift. I can watch it tonight. But I can’t be bothered. The mystique has expired and only the mannerisms remain. Watching the rest of The Fall, learning how it all comes out, has become pointless. From the cheat ending of series one to the stunningly empty start of series two, my interest in what the show has to tell me, even to the extent of How It Ends, has fallen off, as if off a cliff.

I’m not going to draw any morals from this, or make any recommendations on how to retain interest better in future shows. Sometimes, you just go off things. But rarely so precipitately and so thoroughly. Now I’m looking through, not at, The Fall and instead of not liking what I see, I’m seeing nothing but a blank wall onto which has been projected nothing but smoke. There aren’t even any mirrors.

The Ones I Rarely Play: The Fall – The Wonderful and Frightening World of The Fall

Everyone goes through a phase in their life where they get into The Fall, for a greater or lesser period. Mine was the late Eighties, a small handful of albums, starting with Perverted by Language, and a couple of gigs.
I’d been listening to The Fall since 1978 and ‘Bingo-Master’s Breakdown’: well, you couldn’t listen to John Peel every night for that many years and be completely unaware of the band. But I never really took to their music: there was an ungainly, ragged angularity to it that didn’t appeal to my sensibilities, and Mark E Smith’s denunciatory voice is a taste to be acquired.
Some tracks stood out, nagging at my mental barriers, things like ‘Totally Wired’ and ‘How I wrote Elastic Man’, but even these were rushed and rough. The Fall were a band with rough edges: most of the time they seemed to consist of nothing else.
But if you are exposed to something for long enough, it’s hardly surprising that some part of their music starts to make sense. For me it was ‘Leave the Capitol’, from the Slates EP, and the Peel session version of ‘Who makes the Nazis?’, in which Smith’s sneer ceased to be repellent against the headlong rush of the band.
So I experimented: I bought Perverted by Language and struggled to get into it (though the splenetic ‘Eat Y’self Fitter’ was an instant gem).
The Wonderful and Frightening World of The Fall was the next album. I bought the cassette version, which included the Call for Escape Route EP, and had seven extra songs in total, a format which has been preserved for the CD. It’s the only one I’ve kept.
This is where Smith and the band – which at that point included Smith’s American wife, Brix, for a number of years before she ran off with that tit, Nigel Kennedy – came closest to being a tight, bright, melodic pop band.
Being the Fall, and being Mark E.Smith in particular, it really isn’t that close, though it’s noticeable that this is when The Fall scored their only singles hits, even if these were only two Top 40 placings and a high of no. 30 (with a cover of ‘There’s a Ghost in my House’ that never sounded anything like as good as it did in your head when the idea first appeared: they were much better on ‘Victoria’, which only got to no. 34).
And it’s not just the singles ‘Oh, Brother’ and ‘C.R.E.E.P.’ imported into the cassette/CD versions, with their chiming guitars and ringing title lines, it’s there in tracks on the vinyl itself, such as ‘2 x 4’ (what you should hit someone on the head with to attract their attention).
Even so, the ‘old’ Fall has plenty to say for itself, especially in the disjointed side one closer, ‘Elves’, a fantastic suspended gulf of paranoia and mystic leanings that suddenly gathers force and resolves into a structured chant of ‘not ever, no never no more/will I trust the Elves of Dunsinore’ that makes no sense but spits fire.
This sudden influx of conventional structure is present from the outset in the album’s best track,  the lurching, bass-dominant ‘Slang King’, an epic and forceful surge that, sonically, I’ve always been tempted to bracket with such differing tracks as Neil Young’s ‘My, My, Hey, Hey (Into the Black)’ and Joy Division’s awesome ‘Dead Souls’.
The Fall’s ‘pop’ years didn’t last long, and certainly didn’t out-lived Brix’s defection, but this album represents that influence at its most coherent and consistent, and thus it survives every cull of the collection.