Skip to main content

Right! Let’s restore some bloody logic!

It Couldn't Happen Here
(1987)

(SPOILERS) "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.


LoweWhere are you going?
Serial KillerI'm going there, but I like it here, wherever it is.

do think liking Actually, the album from 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 KillerI 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 at all. 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 Chris has stopped for). 


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 Garden, Brooke-Taylor and Oddie's short-lived 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 – he was Biggles in the previous year's dud of the same name, which is 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 picking it on the café juke box and the wall lifting away; it isn't particularly noteworthy, except that it's the kind of thing you'd expect from an MTV promo 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) plays as Chris, escaping Aunty Vi's, fills 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) – Kim Newman considered the Milton/ Tennant pairing the height of hubris on Tennant's part, even though it's Bond's conceit – 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). 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. 


PilotI 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 with zebra face paint pushing an actual zebra into a carriage (is this why some think its Greenaway-esque?), and 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 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' ".


PilotNumbers 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 here is intrinsic to whatever thematic logic Bond is ruminating on. 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 his world (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 DredgeIt's only a laugh. No harm done.

Following such a path exploring the subjective experiencing of time explains the fractured reminiscences/realities experienced by the PSB (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"), until he tips his breakfast over her ("Chris darling. What have I done to deserve this?" – Babs' performance is typically immoderate) and flees.


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, 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, whose 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.


TennantEver since I was a child, the comic and the hostile seemed to go hand in hand.

The picture 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, 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 which 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 believing it to be 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.


PilotLet'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 for 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. 


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Popular posts from this blog

You were this amazing occidental samurai.

Ricochet (1991) (SPOILERS) You have to wonder at Denzel Washington’s agent at this point in the actor’s career. He’d recently won his first Oscar for Glory , yet followed it with less-than-glorious heart-transplant ghost comedy Heart Condition (Bob Hoskins’ racist cop receives Washington’s dead lawyer’s ticker; a recipe for hijinks!) Not long after, he dipped his tentative toe in the action arena with this Joel Silver production; Denzel has made his share of action fare since, of course, most of it serviceable if unremarkable, but none of it comes near to delivering the schlocky excesses of Ricochet , a movie at once ingenious and risible in its plot permutations, performances and production profligacy.

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

People still talk about Pandapocalypse 2002.

Turning Red (2022) (SPOILERS) Those wags at Pixar, eh? Yes, the most – actually, the only – impressive thing about Turning Red is the four-tiered wordplay of its title. Thirteen-year-old Mei (Rosalie Chiang) finds herself turning into a large red panda at emotive moments. She is also, simultaneously, riding the crimson wave for the first time. Further, as a teenager, she characteristically suffers from acute embarrassment (mostly due to the actions of her domineering mother Ming Lee, voiced by Sandra Oh). And finally, of course, Turning Red can be seen diligently spreading communist doctrine left, right and centre. To any political sensibility tuning in to Disney+, basically (so ones with either considerable or zero resistance to woke). Take a guess which of these isn’t getting press in reference to the movie? And by a process of elimination is probably what it it’s really about (you know in the same way most Pixars, as far back as Toy Story and Monsters, Inc . can be given an insi

I can’t be the worst. What about that hotdog one?

Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022) (SPOILERS) It would have been a merciful release, had the title card “ The End ”, flashing on screen a little before the ninety-minute mark, not been a false dawn. True, I would still have been unable to swab the bloody dildoes fight from my mind, but at least Everything Everywhere All at Once would have been short. Indeed, by the actual end I was put in mind of a line spoken by co-star James Wong in one of his most indelible roles: “ Now this really pisses me off to no end ”. Or to put it another way, Everything Everywhere All at Once rubbed me up the wrong which way quite a lot of most of the time.

We’ve got the best ball and chain in the world. Your ass.

Wedlock (1991) (SPOILERS) The futuristic prison movie seemed possessed of a particular cachet around this time, quite possibly sparked by the grisly possibilities of hi-tech disincentives to escape. On that front, HBO TV movie Wedlock more than delivers its FX money shot. Elsewhere, it’s less sure of itself, rather fumbling when it exchanges prison tropes for fugitives-on-the-run ones.

Well, something’s broke on your daddy’s spaceship.

Apollo 13 (1995) (SPOILERS) The NASA propaganda movie to end all NASA propaganda movies. Their original conception of the perilous Apollo 13 mission deserves due credit in itself; what better way to bolster waning interest in slightly naff perambulations around a TV studio than to manufacture a crisis event, one emphasising the absurd fragility of the alleged non-terrestrial excursions and the indomitable force that is “science” in achieving them? Apollo 13 the lunar mission was tailor made for Apollo 13 the movie version – make believe the make-believe – and who could have been better to lead this fantasy ride than Guantanamo Hanks at his all-American popularity peak?

He's not in my pyjamas, is he?

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969) (SPOILERS) By rights, Paul Mazursky’s swinging, post-flower-power-gen partner-swap movie ought to have aged terribly. So much of the era’s scene-specific fare has, particularly so when attempting to reflect its reverberations with any degree of serious intent. Perhaps it’s because Mazursky and co-writer Larry Tucker (also of The Monkees , Alex in Wonderland and I Love You, Alice B. Toklas! ) maintain a wry distance from their characters’ endeavours, much more on the wavelength of Elliott Gould’s Ted than Robert Culp’s Bob; we know any pretensions towards uninhibited expression can’t end well, but we also know Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice have to learn the hard way.

We could be mauled to death by an interstellar monster!

Star Trek Beyond (2016) (SPOILERS) The odd/even Star Trek failure/success rule seemed to have been cancelled out with the first reboot movie, and then trodden into ground with Into Darkness (which, yes, I quite enjoyed, for all its scandalous deficiencies). Star Trek Beyond gets us back onto more familiar ground, as it’s very identifiably a “lesser” Trek , irrespective of the big bucks and directorial nous thrown at it. This is a Star Trek movie that can happily stand shoulder to shoulder with The Search for Spock and Insurrection , content in the knowledge they make it look good.

I think World War II was my favourite war.

Small Soldiers (1998) An off-peak Joe Dante movie is still one chock-a-block full of satirical nuggets and comic inspiration, far beyond the facility of most filmmakers. Small Soldiers finds him back after a six-year big screen absence, taking delirious swipes at the veneration of the military, war movies, the toy industry, conglomerates and privatised defence forces. Dante’s take is so gleefully skewed, he even has big business win! The only problem with the picture (aside from an indistinct lead, surprising from a director with a strong track record for casting juveniles) is that this is all very familiar. Dante acknowledged Small Soldiers was basically a riff on Gremlins , and it is. Something innocuous and playful turns mad, bad and dangerous. On one level it has something in common with Gremlins 2: The New Batch , in that the asides carry the picture. But Gremlins 2 was all about the asides, happy to wander off in any direction that suited it oblivious to whet

He’ll regret it to his dying day, if ever he lives that long.

The Quiet Man (1952) (SPOILERS) The John Wayne & John Ford film for those who don’t like John Wayne & John Ford films? The Quiet Man takes its cues from Ford’s earlier How Green Was My Valley in terms of, well less Anglophile and Hibernophile and Cambrophile nostalgia respectively for past times, climes and heritage, as Wayne’s pugilist returns to his family seat and stirs up a hot bed of emotions, not least with Maureen O’Hara’s red-headed hothead. The result is a very likeable movie, for all its inculcated Oirishness and studied eccentricity.