It Couldn’t Happen Here (1987)

What happens when you cross an avant-garde documentary film director, a 1970s action hero, an actress from the Carry On films, Biggles, random jokes about Magritte, Victorian-era peepshows and a 1980s synth-pop act at the height of their commercial success?

There’s not much point in attempting to explain the plot of It Couldn’t Happen Here (1987), because it doesn’t really have one. Initially intended as a straightforward video album to accompany the Pet Shop Boys’ second album Actually (1987), in the hands of director Jack Bond it was re-conceptualised as “a saucy seaside postcard come to life and gone mad.” Opening on a storm-wracked pre-dawn beach in Clacton-on-Sea, the camera pans from the posing of a muscular bodybuilder across a troupe of female dancers warming up in their aerobics gear towards the turbulent sea. A series of disconnected vignettes epitomising the nightmarish banality of dismal British seaside holidays ensue, interspersed with reminiscences of the more oppressive aspects of the pop duo’s childhoods. Shifting away from the coast into a road movie of sorts, the echoes of World War Two-era Britain become more prevalent, as scenes from contemporary England meld with 1940s fashions and assemblies of British soldiers – an aspect of the film which calls back to Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here (1935), a warning about the rise of fascist demagogues campaigning on the basis of a return to “traditional values”. Although It Couldn’t Happen Here can’t really sustain such an overtly political reading, the juxtaposition of a falsely idealised past with the societal values of Thatcher’s Britain goes some way towards explaining Bond’s recent joking reference to it as “the first post-Brexit film”.

Vocalist and ex-Smash Hits music journalist Neil Tennant is effectively the film’s lead, a melancholy disillusioned tuxedo-clad Bright Young Thing strolling through various scenes and incidents but incapable of connecting with them. Meanwhile the publicity-shunning Chris Lowe, who’d much rather vanish into the composition and performance of their music than be recognised, is very much playing himself – hanging around (mostly) silently in jeans, leather jacket and woollen cap, making his presence felt only reluctantly – although he takes centre stage in a couple of set-pieces, such as the scene in which he fills an implausibly capacious trunk with the eclectic contents of his rented room at a bed & breakfast. Their music is an integral part of the film, stretching back beyond Actually (eight of whose ten songs are used here) to incorporate the entire first side of 1986’s Please (i.e. the side with all the singles). The script by Jack Bond & James Dillon draws extensively from this material, elaborating on some of the imagery and taking whole stretches of dialogue directly from the lyric sheets, albeit recontextualised to accompany different songs, which helps to create a sense of interconnectivity that the movie might otherwise lack.

But it’s the other featured performers, some of whom appear in multiple roles, who really make this movie sing. Most notable to me is the great Joss Ackland, a distinguished actor better known to some of my friends as the villain in Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991), whose bizarre appearance in the music video for the Elvis Presley cover “Always on My Mind” (which almost acts a trailer for the film) propelled me on a months-long quest to locate a video library which stocked It Couldn’t Happen Here back in the late 1980s. Ackland’s eccentricity-packed performance here really has to be seen to be believed. He first appears in the film as a blind Catholic priest given the slip by two boys representing the young Tennant & Lowe, pursuing them across the boardwalk past vintage peep show machines to a burlesque performance of “It’s a Sin” performed by naughty nuns and leather boys. He then turns up as a mad killer picked up by the side of the road. Riding along in the back of the Pet Shop Boys’ newly acquired vehicle, he delivers a macabrely surreal standup comedy routine before bopping and then singing along to “Always on My Mind” on the car radio, sharpening his copious collection of knives before demanding to be let out because they are “no longer here”. As they drive off, he recites lines from the song “What Have I Done to Deserve This?” as if they were of the same elevated origin as the lines of poetry his priest declaimed earlier on the pier. Although pieces of this performance can be seen in the “Always on My Mind” video, it can’t convey the full glory of the complete sequence as shown in the movie, which (for me) is sufficient excuse in its own right for the film’s existence.

Central to the success of my other favourite section of the film is Gareth Hunt, previously the action hero heartthrob of The New Avengers (1976-1977) opposite Joanna Lumley and Patrick MacNee, but displaying here a strength as a character actor which I hadn’t previously suspected. His first of three roles in It Couldn’t Happen Here is a seedy purveyor of dirty postcards who complains to Tennant about “hooligans, bikers and politicians” bringing down the tone of the area, all the while sneaking sidelong glances at female passers-by who possibly exist only in his fevered imagination, clothes either whipped away by the wind or non-existent. He next appears as an intensely annoying novelty joke man in a bad checked suit and comedy ears whose every second sentence seems to be: “It’s only a laugh, no harm done!” But it’s his third role I want to talk about, a triumphal blend of closely observed comedy and deep character work. Tennant and Lowe have just ordered an incongruously upmarket meal of oysters accompanied by a bottle of 1942 Château Latour from a generic low-class diner when Hunt enters, moving with carefully calculated theatrical precision to take a seat at an adjacent table. His every mannerism speaks of a history as an over-the-hill theatrical performer who may once have achieved a modicum of fame but is eking out his twilight years as a ventriloquist performing in small English holiday towns. His overly made-up face and suspiciously dark and well-groomed hairpiece are the trappings of a man who refuses to acknowledge that his glory days, and his youth, are far behind him. Holding firm to his dignity in the face of Lowe’s barely controlled laughter, he orders the most basic British diner food you can imagine in the over-enunciated plummy tones of a performer delivering the most important information you will ever hear. It’s a tour de force which conveys far more information about the character than is present in the dialogue.

Adding to the success of this scene are two other actors worth noting. Carmen du Sautoy, the bellydancer from The Man with the Golden Gun (1974), is perfect as the archetypal diner waitress, sashaying slowly between the tables with a combination of disdain and professional pseudo-courtesy, missing only the fag end dangling from her mouth to complete the picture. Meanwhile, sitting at the table on the opposite side from Hunt’s ventriloquist is… Biggles?! And not just any Biggles – this is Neil Dickson, reprising his role from the recent flop Biggles (1986), which attempted to revive the character’s fortunes by grafting on an ill-advised time-travel plot (which nevertheless appealed to my 13-year-old self). Constantly muttering to himself about dividing by zero, he listens in gob-smacked wonder as the ventriloquist dummy seated opposite Hunt begins to expound on the teacup as a cultural artefact and the nature of time. He reappears later in a period setting, reading from a book which puts forth those same arguments while a tannoy voice repeats fragments of the meals ordered earlier (almost as if the two scenes co-exist simultaneously) before coming to the realisation that: “The dummy’s a blasted existentialist!” He continues to get more and more worked up as he moves to the hangar, declaiming: “Right! Let’s restore some bloody logic!” immediately before taking off in a biplane. After some aerial acrobatics, he disappears from the film before returning to destroy the Pet Shop Boys’ car with his front-mounted machine gun (having previously sold them that same car in his earlier guise as a second-hand car salesman whose suit is bedecked with light bulbs). Dickson returns one more time later in the film as a bewigged and velvet-clad courtier who chauffeurs them to their final location while reciting an extract from Milton’s “Paradise Lost” (1667-1674).

It would be wrong of me to move on from the acting talent without mentioning Barbara Windsor, a British icon whose work has mainly passed me by. Beginning with Carry On Spying (1964), she appeared in nine entries of the famous series of English sex comedies before co-presenting the “clip movie” That’s Carry On! (1977). Although the series made her name, it also hampered her career, typecasting her in roles which she eventually aged out of. After a significant gap she made a comeback as fan favourite pub owner Peggy Mitchell in EastEnders (1994-2016), continuing to play the role until Alzheimer’s forced her to retire. Like Hunt and Dickson, she’s given the rare opportunity to stretch herself here in three roles: the snobbish landlady of a bed & breakfast; the naughty maid in a vintage peepshow reel who chases Lowe with a riding crop; and a neglected mother miming Dusty Springfield’s part from “What Have I Done to Deserve This?” in a telephone conversation with Tennant (which reportedly delighted the then-ailing Springfield).

Director Jack Bond was an unusual choice to helm a project like this. Beginning his career making documentaries for the BBC, his work on 1966’s Dalí in New York introduced him to long-term lover Jane Arden, a feminist actress/singer/poet/playwright with whom he collaborated on over a decade of experimental film and theatrical projects, before returning to documentaries after her suicide in 1982. It was one of these documentaries – Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum (1986), which saw Roald Dahl interacting with his own characters – which drew him to the attention of the Pet Shop Boys. After some additional dubbing sessions following the 1987 London Film Festival debut of It Couldn’t Happen Here, Bond worked with the band one final time on the video clip for “Heart” (1988), one of the two songs from Actually which didn’t make it into the film. This time around he cast Ian McKellen as Nosferatu, charming away the newlywed Bride (Croatian actress Daniela Colic-Prizmic) from Tennant’s Groom. Disappointingly, this video was not included alongside the film on the British Film Institute’s 2020 Blu Ray/DVD restoration. (Two earlier singles from the album – “It’s a Sin” and “Rent” – were translated to music video by renowned queer director Derek Jarman; trying to imagine what his version of a Pet Shop Boys movie might have been like is an interesting thought experiment.)

Co-Screenwriter and Art Director James Dillon doesn’t have any other writing credits on his CV, but has a fascinating career as a Production Designer: from early work on Metal Mickey (1980) and the final season of The Goodies (1982), to the Richard O’Brien-hosted game show The Crystal Maze (1990-2017), the television adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere (1992), and – perhaps most relevant to the movie under consideration – the complete run of The Mighty Boosh (2004-2007), as well as the first season of its spiritual offspring Noel Fielding’s Luxury Comedy (2012).

Also worthy of mention is choreographer Arlene Phillips, or – as she is now formally known – Dame Arlene Phillips, DBE. Her first professional credit was for an ice cream advert directed by Ridley Scott. In 1974 she formed the dance troupe Hot Gossip, who memorably collaborated with Sarah Brightman on the 1978 single “I Lost My Heart to a Starship Trooper”. They were also a regular feature on The Kenny Everett Video Show (1978-1981) and its follow-up The Kenny Everett Television Show (1983-1988). Her choreography credits for film include Village People biopic Can’t Stop the Music (1980), John Huston’s Annie (1982), Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983), Rolling Stone Bill Wyman’s Digital Dreams (1983), Ridley Scott’s Legend (1985) and Ken Russell’s Oscar Wilde adaptation Salome’s Last Dance (1988). Her music video work of the 1980s had a significant influence on the development of the form and she met her life-long partner Angus Ion on the set of a Freddie Mercury video. She was one of the original judges on Strictly Come Dancing (2004-2008) and choreographed the UK’s 2009 Eurovision entry (although having just watched the video for that performance, it’s not one of her more interesting efforts). The most impressive aspect of her dance troupe’s contributions to It Couldn’t Happen Here is their insistence on continuing to film their routine for “Rent” during the great storm of 1987 rather than evacuating the premises.

But is it a good film? Well… that’s a complicated question. Its lack of plot is both a help and a hindrance. On the plus side, it frees up the creative personnel to come up with a range of vignettes – mostly successful – which don’t need to connect with anything that has gone before or is still to come. Those sections which are linked – whether thematically, lyrically or through actors recurring in multiple roles – generally benefit from those connections. On the minus side, the lack of a beginning, an ending or a coherent through-line runs the risk of alienating an audience and can result in the impression of a random jumble of elements. On the whole, I think its disjointed nature is a virtue – it’s difficult to conceive of an overarching conventional plot which would make the individual elements more engaging and it’s far more likely that any attempt to do so would result in a less interesting experience overall. I don’t think it’s completely successful at… whatever it is it’s trying to do, but I appreciate its overall creativity. The whole is less than the sum of its parts – but I enjoy some of those parts so much that I’d argue they’re greater than the whole.

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