It Couldn’t Happen Here Blu-ray review: England out of time with the Pet Shop Boys

Charged with making a film to publicise their new album, the Pet Shop Boys instead conjured up a quaint, quixotic folly.

Sukhdev Sandhu
Updated:

Chris Lowe and Neil Tennant in It Couldn’t Happen Here

Chris Lowe and Neil Tennant in It Couldn’t Happen Here

Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe, the Pet Shop Boys, were near their commercial and critical zenith – their imperial phase, they called it – when, in 1987, they made It Couldn’t Happen Here. What their record label wanted was simple and commercially savvy: videos for the songs that would appear in their album Actually linked together with a bit of a story. What they got was rather different: the duo, who always insisted they were more pensive and caustic than their pop-chart peers, agreed to be directed by Jack Bond, who was best known for the fractured, psychologically complex films (Separation, 1968; Anti-Clock, 1979) he’d made with Jane Arden. The collaboration, a befuddling and semi-comic journey through the band’s inscapes, flopped at the box office, never made it to DVD, and is unknown even to many fans.

How to describe the narrative of It Couldn’t Happen Here? If you’re an academic or a curator the temptation is to use words such as ‘associative’ or ‘aleatory’ – others might say ‘messy’ or ‘nonexistent’.

It begins with Tennant walking along the beach at Clacton-on-Sea and ends with him and Lowe performing at a London nightclub. In between, there are scenes involving a blind priest (Joss Ackland), Chris Lowe chucking a dish of eggs and bacon at a seaside boarding-house landlady (Barbara Windsor), a suburban commuter setting off for work indifferent to the fact that he’s on fire, two men – faces painted with zebra stripes – escorting a zebra along a train platform. Small wonder that the film often gets called surreal, though there’s little disruptive or even particularly dark about these tableaux, which are more like zany inserts or sketch-show fare.

Anyone who cares for the Pet Shop Boys will pick up on biographical resonances: the early scenes at the seaside recall the duo’s coastal upbringings; the priest figure evokes the Catholic themes in their lyrics; Lowe is evasive and wordless, a sullen Harpo Marx, the same person(a) seen in previous promo videos and TV appearances. Tennant is tux’d and tousle-haired, a jaded bright young thing from an early Noël Coward play. Much of the film feels filtered, out of time, reliant on a repertoire of Englishness – Biggles, Donald McGill’s saucy postcards, greasy-spoon cafes, Brief Encounter-era railway stations – that seemed distant even in the 1980s.

Is It Couldn’t Happen Here a celebration of eccentric England? It’s more useful as a document of eroded and eroding Albion. The title brings to mind Kevin Brownlow’s It Happened Here (1964), a speculative chronicle of collaboration-rife World War II England that challenged one-dimensional ‘finest hour’ mythologies. The cultural historians Patrick Wright (in On Living in an Old Country, 1985) and Robert Hewison (in The Heritage Industry, 1987) had wittily deconstructed conservative nostalgia. Tennant often insisted that Actually was social critique, its song Shopping a poke at rather than a celebration of consumerism. Englishness in Bond’s film is a strange beast: campy, pick ’n’ mix, a drizzle of inanity – something not to be yelled against so much as laughed at… or shrugged off. In many ways, it’s a less righteous companion-piece to Derek Jarman’s The Last of England (1987).

Jarman, who around this time directed the video for It’s a Sin, is one of many experimental or arthouse filmmakers whose presence can be felt here. Early scenes involving a clown mask recall the Black Audio Film Collective’s Handsworth Songs (1986). A scene featuring swastika-waving thugs echoes Richard Eyre’s 1987 South Bank Show adaptation of Tony Harrison’s poem V.

A more useful frame of reference, though, may be another musical film of the period that was dismissed as a folly before disappearing: The Style Council’s JerUSAlem (1987), a costume-heavy self-designated “dream within a dream” of a road movie that travels into rural England to cock a snook at establishment mores.

The biggest surprise for many Pet Shop Boys fans will be the film’s use of music. Some songs are only heard, transistor-tinny, in the background. Other have their lyrics recited wanly by Tennant. Compared to British musical road movies such as Chris Petit’s Radio On (1979) and the KLF’s The White Room (1989), they don’t exert a vital presence. Compared to Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko (2000), which fed off and amplified the melodrama of 80s bands such as Echo and the Bunnymen, Bond’s film diminishes – provincialises – the Pet Shop Boys. Perhaps that was always the point: England felt small under Margaret Thatcher.

The BFI’s edition includes an interview with Tennant and sharp essays by Anthony Nield, Will Fowler and Jason Wood, which try to situate and salvage It Couldn’t Happen Here. “When I look back upon my life / It’s always with a sense of shame,” Tennant famously sang. It Couldn’t Happen Here certainly isn’t shameful – its ambition alone makes it worth seeing – but chock-full of bearded fortune-tellers, nuns in kinky boots and a hammy Gareth Hunt, it’s also overstuffed and overripe. A right old carry on.

 

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