Back in Issue 3 of Dawn of the Unread Michael Eaton and Eddie Campbell told the story of the Victorian master criminal Charlie Peace. Michael recently got in touch to share a story about how he was once asked by the BBC to dramatise the life of Howard Marks, the notorious drug smuggler and author of Mr. Nice, who passed away on 10 April.
It was with some surprise and not a little sadness that I learnt of the death of Howard Marks. Surprise because I was out of the country when he publicly announced he was dying from inoperable cancer; sadness because it brought back memories of an erstwhile relationship curtailed and unclosed – for Howard was the subject of yet another of my many unproduced screenplays.
In the late 1990s whenever I was on a train it seemed as if the only book students were reading was Mister Nice. So it was that with not a little delight that I was summoned by Michael Wearing – then the great Head of Drama at the BBC – to adapt this best-selling memoir of a roguish international dope dealer into a four-part TV series. Thus it was that I first met Howard in an axiomatically No Smoking office in White City where he cheerfully skinned up as his agent and my producer did the deal.
This was a story where, as so often, Truth was not necessarily stranger but certainly less plausible than Fiction. A Welsh-speaking lad from Kenfig Hill who had an illustrious Oxford career but who gave up Physics and the Philosophy of Science for the allure of smuggling – for him both an ideal and an adventure. It was Howard’s sincere belief that everybody must get stoned. His arrest was inevitable but what was entirely unpredictable was that he skipped bail and lived for six years as an outlaw with innumerable aliases whilst pursuing his avocation all the while periodically showing up at gigs to be treated as a folk hero by his grateful consumers. When eventually recaptured his Old Bailey trial was a Dadaist triumph as an out-of-work actor was engaged to give evidence from behind a screen impersonating a Mexican agent who had employed Marks as an undercover infiltrator to expose Latin American narco gangs. Verdict? Not Guilty. Thinking himself bullet-proof he continued to export massive amounts of his commodity, entirely unaware that a determined DEA officer was on his trail. Deported from Spain Howard was sentenced to a punitive 25 years in the federal pen of Terre Haute, Indiana. He was freed after serving years and returned to write a million-selling memoir.
How could I resist such an opportunity? But it all had to be hush-hush.
In the following months after that first meeting we spent a lot of time together. I stalked Howard on the campaign trail as he stood as a sole candidate for the Legalise Cannabis Party – for which he received a couple of hundred votes. Subsequently Michael Wearing and myself spent a couple of weeks in Mallorca with Howard and his family. Every day I would trawl through his voluminous archives checking every fact against his own account whilst Wearing sunned himself by Howard’s pool. At the end of each day I was desperate for a drink – my own drug of choice, arguably more lethal than his. For Howard, who had been smoking from dawn to dusk, remained fascinatingly coherent as he discoursed on current trends in scientific discovery.
It all went wrong when Wearing was ignominiously cashiered from the Beeb after making unguarded remarks about John Birt which an unscrupulous journo published. From then on it was downhill all the way. I had a call from a Sunday Times reporter who asked whether I thought it was ethical that public money should be given to a convicted felon. My reply was that I had been hired to adapt a book which was Number One on his own paper’s non-fiction chart.
My disillusionment began to set in when I went to see Howard’s inaugural performance at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire. The gig was sold out and scalpers were flogging seats far above the ticket price. Most of his audience could not have been born when he made his first connection. They idolised him. He bathed in their applause. Howard Marks had achieved what he had always aspired to: Celebrity. He had become Robin Hood. If he could have held a tune he would probably never have had to engage in a profession which guaranteed a rock star lifestyle.
Howard believed in what he did. He never, as far as I know, dealt in any ‘harder’ drugs. He was a champion of free speech and freedom of action. He had a fine mind. I enjoyed his charismatic company much more than, I suppose, he tolerated mine. It’s criminal that some methods people choose to get off their heads are considered illegal whilst others are advertised, taxed and encouraged. But whilst such absurdities prevail there is no such thing as a victimless crime.
Dawn of the Unread is a graphic novel celebrating Nottingham’s literary history. It was created to support libraries and bookshops. It began life online and won the Teaching Excellence Award at the Guardian Education Awards in 2015 and has since been published by Spokesman Books (2017). All profits go towards UNESCO Nottingham City of Literature.
- Charlie Peace: Inside the mind of a master criminal by Michael Eaton and Eddie Campbell (dawnoftheunread.com)
- Howard Marks Obituary (theguardian.com)
- Publishers pay tribute to Mr Nice (thebookseller.com)
- Howards Marks website (howardmarks.name)
- Legalising cannabis debate (petition.parliament.uk)
- Tennis with Mr. Nice (theparisreview.org)