It Couldn’t Happen Here
“I think our film is arguably better than Spiceworld” said Neil Tennant of his and Chris Lowe’s much-maligned It Couldn’t Happen Here, a quasi-musical, quasi-surrealist journey through the English landscape via the Pet shop Boys’ “own” history as envisaged by co-writer-director Jack Bond. Of course, Spiceworld could boast the presence of the illustrious Richard E Grant, while It Couldn’t Happen Here had to settle for Gareth Hunt. Is its reputation deserved? It’s arguably not very successful at being a coherent film (even thematically), but I have to admit that I rather like it, ramshackle and studiously aloof though it is.
Lowe: Where are you going?
Serial Killer: I’m going there, but I like it here, wherever it is.
I do think appreciating Actually, the album from which the majority of the tracks are lifted – only Shopping and Heart don’t appear; the latter single benefited from a Jack Bond promo video that helped push it to Number One – is pretty much essential to enjoying the picture, however. Also featured are five tracks from debut album Please (all from the first side, although that’s probably mostly explained by four of them having been singles) and Always on My Mind, which is probably the film’s biggest claim to fame.
Serial Killer: I had a girlfriend once who use to sing on the radio. Every time she used to walk under a bridge, you couldn’t hear her sing. Oh, she was a beautiful girl. A beautiful girl. When I first met her, she’d just been to a psychoanalyst. Yes, “It didn’t do any good” she said. I asked her why. She said, “I’m a Nymphomaniac you see and I only get turned on by Jewish cowboys“. “I’m so sorry” I said. “Let me introduce myself. My name is Bucky Goldstein“.
When it was decided to release the track as a single (it became the 1987 Christmas Number One) “a whole new scene was written for the film so that it could be included. That’s why the dialogue’s so corny in that scene. Joss Ackland ends up quoting What Have I Done to Deserve This? It’s hilarious“. Well… I wouldn’t go that far, but Ackland certainly isn’t underplaying. Its straightforwardness as a promo is definitely a virtue, however: Chris drives, Neil sings, Ackland gurns in the back seat (it isn’t identical, as the video version is edited down).
Other tracks are used literally or haphazardly; Hit Music pipes up briefly on the radio before a newsflash warns of Ackland’s killer (“The stranger has been known to masquerade as a priest“), about to become a passenger (he presumably offs the female hitchhiker for whom Chris has stopped).
Suburbia hardly gets a look in – oddly, since it’s such an evocative, visual track – playing while Neil buys some non-saucy postcards. Love Comes Quickly turns up in a transport café accompanying… well, a waitress (Carmen Du Sautoy of the short-lived Garden, Brooke-Taylor and Oddie’s Astronauts) squeezing sleazily past a guy at a juke box as Neil and Chris order a lavish meal (Tennant requests a 1942 Chateau de la tour).
The juxtaposition is cute, but the content random: Neil Dickson’s pilot – Biggles in the previous year’s dud of the same name, an amusing reference but a curious one for a character presence that is far beyond an extended joke – is at a table; Gareth Hunt appears in his third guise, apparently a part work of Neil and Chris’ Uncle Dredge, with vent’s doll presenting a discourse on the film’s ostensible theme, of which more in a bit. I wondered if Hunt was supposed to be an approximation of a doll, what with his slicked-down, Paul Darrow hair.
The subsequent Rent is a properly choreographed number, Neil selecting it on the café juke box and the wall lifting away; it isn’t particularly noteworthy, the kind of thing you’d expect from an MTV video yet set to a relatively down-tempo track. It’s a Sin (the Disco Mix) also gets dancers, more effectively if entirely obviously, as Neil and Chris as boys enter a theatre and witness nuns dancing in their frillies.
Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money) accompanies Chris, escaping Aunty Vi’s, filling a TARDIS-like suitcase with such essential items as a whale lilo. West End Girls is part-delivered by rappers X-Posse as Neil and Chris trudge by (the former takes up the miming). What Have I Done to Deserve This? (which had a fine promo video in its own right) is by far the most slipshod offering, with Neil on the phone to mum Babs Windsor, the latter miming Dusty Springfield in the least convincing manner.
Two of the best uses of tracks are examples of pervading, patented PSB melancholia, however. The title song – “probably” Neil’s favourite track on the album – shorn of its actual content (about a friend of Tennant’s diagnosed with AIDS), becomes a broader meditation on the state of a decaying nation as envisaged by Bond, first delivered over the opening credits as Neil gazes across the Clacton-On-Sea beachfront and again later as Neil Dickson’s Milton-quoting cabbie (lots of car journeys here) drives them through a long tunnel towards their destination (a rather ho-hum finale as Neil sings ho-hum One More Chance to a dancefloor of ballroom dancers). Kim Newman considered the Milton/Tennant pairing the height of hubris on Tennant’s part, even though it’s Bond’s conceit.
If Bond fails to make the most of many of the tracks’ potential – which, given how cinematic their first couple of albums are, is something of a black mark – It Couldn’t Happen Here, with its lush orchestral arrangement by Angelo Badalamenti, really does become the signature piece, when previously it was rather fazed by flashier album tracks.
Pilot: I say, what an extraordinary idea. A world with no teacups.
Likewise, album closer King’s Cross (“It’s about hopes being dashed“) is probably the most inspired piece visually. It features a station, but not the titular one (Neil and Chris sit on a bench, but at Paddington), and random unexplained zookeepers in zebra face paint pushing an actual zebra into a carriage (is this why some think its Greenaway-esque?). Along with a workman covering a billboard with brickwork paper to match the brickwork behind it.
There’s also a woman (Dominique Barnes, who made an impression in the previous year’s Sunday classic serial Brat Farrar) in her underwear (lots of underwear in the picture) who later fondles a snake on a train, and the bizarre sight of (her husband?) leaving the house in flames. In light of the King’s Cross fire, there was doubt about whether to include the imagery: “That was very spooky. Jack Bond… asked the widow of someone who’d been killed and she said, ‘You should leave it in‘ “.
Pilot: Numbers must add up. Two and two is four. Right! Let’s restore some bloody logic!
Then there’s Two Divided by Zero, a Please track that’s almost throwaway (albeit, it’s the opener), but is intrinsic to whatever thematic logic Bond is ruminating on here. Neil and Chris are driving – obviously – as Dickinson’s pilot, directed by the dummy in the control tower and ranting about the illogicality of the lyrics, strafes their car with bullets (“Ooo, I will miss you, Chrissy baby“).
Is the subtext the pilot’s world (his WWI world) of ostensible clarity being pulled apart by new conceptions of existence, of which the PSB are promulgators, in their own casually indifferent way? “What about the logic?” he demands, having devoured WH Newton-Smith’s A Structure of Time and struggling to digest “There would be no time… if there were no beings capable of reason“. Even though “The dummy’s a blasted existentialist!“, he obeys its instructions to destroy the PSB; in the transport café earlier, the dummy was offering a discourse on the nature of time as a logical state, while the pilot played a handheld video game first announcing “Two divided by zero”.
Uncle Dredge: It’s only a laugh. No harm done.
Following such a path, one exploring the subjective experiencing of time, explains the fractured reminiscences/realities the PSB experience (are they playing brothers here? It seems like it). We begin with Neil talking about being thrown out of Aunty Vi’s boarding house as a kid, where we could find “Uncle Dredge and his terrible jokes and ventriloquist’s dummy” Whom we quickly meet, courtesy of Babs and Gareth respectively, the latter running through a grating bygone music hall entertainer spiel during breakfast as Babs dotes over Chris. But adult Chris (which is particularly amusing, Lowe being his typically implacable self as Babs promises him a “nice little cuddle tonight“). That is, until he tips his breakfast over her and flees. (“Chris darling. What have I done to deserve this?” – Babs’ performance is typically immoderate)
Tennant’s comment “No wonder the audience wanted their money back with that bloody dummy going on and on about the nature of time” is front-ended but so meta that it could equally sum up the critics’ response to the picture (if they’d actually paid to see it). Apparently, the PSB made general suggestions to Bond but gave him a free hand, which is probably why, although they don’t jar with the content, for the most part, it doesn’t strongly reflect them. That is, aside from the Catholic guilt percolating the first part of the picture. What are we to make of Ackland as priest/killer (and killer disguised as priest)? I suspect it’s as understated as the priest being blind, and pursuing small boys.
Those pieces that aren’t diving in and out of their own history or discussing time itself vaguely seem to be exploring entertainment as a means of distorting reality. In particular, bygone end-of-pier entertainment (Neil goes to a fortune teller, revealed as Chris; both appear in a saucy Victorian mutoscope romp with Babs). There have been comparisons to Jarman, Greenway, Fellini, while the working title was A Hard Day’s Shopping. I was put in mind variously of Ken Russell meets Carry On meets The Entertainer (Tennant mentions Russell, but in the context of the film’s reception: “It was like a Ken Russell film; there’s no more unfashionable filmmaker today“).
The seaside setting is redolent of the same year’s (’50s-set) Wish You Were Here, while the nods to contemporary concerns (“Nowadays all you get is your hooligans and your bike gangs and your politicians“), courtesy of Hunt’s shopkeeper – “All they really want is a week away from the wife” he says of visiting politicians – suggests the cinema of the then lustrous Palace Pictures. Their Scandal was released less than a year after It Couldn’t Happen Here went wide (well…) It also featured Nothing Can Be Proved, sung by Dusty and penned by the PSB.
But Gareth seeing saucy seaside postcards come to life and nude bathers through his binoculars finds him channelling Benny Hill by way of the Carry On…-killing ’70s nudie pics. And just the presence of Babs announces the broad canvas approach to the arts. Bond isn’t being elitist; all modes of entertainment are equally valid.
Later, en route to their final number, the boys travel though a battlefield suggesting The Bedsitting Room meets Alex Cox. The scene exemplifies Bond’s approach, whereby unsubtle juxtapositions (the limo contrasted with decaying architecture) are relayed via all-purpose tracking shots.
Tennant: Ever since I was a child, the comic and the hostile seemed to go hand in hand.
It Couldn’t Happen Here undoubtedly has a sense of humour (it was co-written by James Dillon, a production designer who, I’m guessing, has a fairly robust funny bone, having worked on The Goodies (LWT) and The Mighty Boosh), but except for moments of exaggeration for effect, it’s very much a low-key, dry PSB sense of humour. Very much pre- their ’90s detour into over-designed tour outfits and intentionally cheesy computer graphics.
As actors playing themselves, the duo display both their pop versions’ strengths and weaknesses. They’re not unlike Jay and Silent Bob or Reeves and Mortimer in that sense. Chris fares best, because Lowe is mostly silent (and, as he has noted in interviews, he knows how to stand; further than that, though, an impassive expression is ideal for masking limited acting chops). Occasionally, there’s an inspired moment such as his dancing next to a broken-down car that has become an impromptu smoke machine, but mostly, he does what he does in the group: hangs back and allows Neil to lead.
And Tennant, like Reeves, shows he’s a performer but no actor. Anyone who thinks his singing voice is thin will come away convinced its positively beefy in comparison to this; during his voiceovers – which entirely don’t gel, particularly when they amount to a recitation of lyrics – it’s so flimsy, it could blow away.
Pilot: Let’s hear it for Acacia Avenue!
Still, there are moments where he raises a smile. Haggling with Dickinson’s used car salesman (repeatedly asking “How much?” as the latter continues his patter regardless), or walking blithely into a phone box surrounded by football hooligans to call mum. The walk-off with zeros on their backs is also a nice touch (“Oy, got far to go, have you?” asks the dummy, getting in the last word and presumably meaning it in a never-ending, existential sense). And Dickinson is a consistent highlight throughout, in whichever persona, probably the performer – aside from Lowe – who seems to innately understand how to pitch himself to match the material.
Wikipedia has it that It Couldn’t Happen Here cost $4m, and I wonder that it was considered commercially viable on that basis (what can it have earned back, particularly as it’s been out of circulation for decades and is in desperate need of a DVD/Blu-ray release?)*
On release, the aforementioned Kim Newman complained “The Pet Shop Boys indulge themselves by using their songs as an interminable, excruciating non-narrative ramble through rainy modern England… Probably the most difficult to sit through film of the year” (The Virgin Film Yearbook Vol 8), while Elaine Paterson in Time Out was as scathing: “Director Bond’s attempt at a narrative stringing together of the Pet Shop Boys’ themes is witless, aimless and pretentious. If this sickbag of kitsch communicates anything, it’s the anguish of a young aesthete on discovering that flying ducks still adorn the walls of his mother’s house”.
So, It Couldn’t Happen Here: better than Spiceworld? Well, yeah, but the comparison seems to characterise Spiceworld as some sort of abhorrence rather than fairly inoffensive, disposable fluff. Bond throws in some interesting ideas – pretentious, maybe, but so what, there was a lot of it about in British cinema at the time – but he doesn’t do enough to make them stick, or the songs.
Yet it’s a very watchable film; I suspect it was interminable for Newman, partly because he didn’t much like the tunes. At the time – prior to its reception – the PSB mooted making another and Bond, an arty director who had been relegated to South Bank Shows, was keen. Maybe they should just have gone the whole hog and signed up unfashionable Ken (he was still making diverting, if wildly variable, movies at that point). Perhaps the Boys should venture back into cinema for a belated sequel, like Bill & Ted. I’m sure Chris is still good at standing. And, if anything, Neil’s voice has only got higher.
*Addendum 01/08/22: It has since received one.