It Couldn't Happen Here


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

It Couldn't Happen Here
"Not a great film but a fascinating cultural artefact."

The Pet Shop Boys have always been a difficult band to categorise. They produce pop, but even their early work was imbued with political critique, perhaps drawing on singer Neil Tennant's background as a journalist, and provided comment on gay issues during the suffocating silent years of Clause 28/Section 2A. When it came to making a film, the only thing they really knew was that they didn't want to fit into one of the usual templates - no wacky international adventures or desperate quests to make it to the big gig. They gave director Jack Bond an almost free hand, and he created one of the oddest pop odysseys in cinematic history.

Not a great film but a fascinating cultural artefact, It Couldn't Happen Here has two very loose, intersecting narrative strands, one of which follows the adult Neil and Chris (Lowe), the other a version of their earlier, Catholic schoolboy selves. Each pair wanders through a version of England that is only partly of its time and is focused, with extensive reference to theatrical tradition, on the place where humour and eccentricity meet cultivated cruelty. There's a clear debt to the work of Joe Orton, the developing (and short-lived) long form video or video album, and the experimental short film genre which was flourishing at the time thanks to investment by BBC 2 and Channel 4.

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This surreal seaside landscape is peopled by eccentric landladies, angry kiosk owners, bally brave pilots, cringeworthy would-be comedians, squint-eyed possible serial killers, gum-chewing waitresses and showgirls dressed as nuns. A possibly blind, possibly dangerous Catholic priest shouts at the boys in his charge and at the thundering sky as a giant wooden cross is lashed by rain. (The Catholic Church complained - these things were not done at the time, except by Ken Russell, and then always with an 18 certificate.) Tattoo-faced, Union Jack-sporting louts smash up an iconic red telephone box in iconic style. Actors accompanied by mannequins order sausage and eggs in sonorous tones. Sin is everywhere. The schoolboys are fascinated. Their older selves maintain a cautious distance; the only emotional scene comes when Neil shares a phone call with his mother (played by Barbara Windsor - everybody here has several roles), each failing to understand the other to the tune of What Have I Done To Deserve This?

This is not what people expect of pop groups and, unsurprisingly, it was a flop on release. Today it reads differently. Discourses around child abuse in the Catholic Church which were barely present in the public sphere at the time invite the viewer to see different - perhaps intended - things in the behaviour of the priest. Pieces of set decoration which, in their time, were synonymous with squalor and decay have since been reimagined as proud symbols of Brexit Britain. The dancers - once shocking - barely seem scandalous at all. The most striking thing about them is how skilled they are, in contrast with a world in which most of what we see is dilapidated, tainted by the growing despair that accompanied late stage Thatcherism in these neglected communities.

It's a difficult watch. Many of the jokes are designed to create discomfort and awkwardness rather than to prompt laughter. There's a constant though rarely acknowledged sense of threat, a reminder of how it felt to be gay in that era. In one scene, Neil is asked if he is one of them. "You know, a politician." Survival is reliant on knowing how to perform.

Without an understanding of the period and, perhaps most importantly, the language of the pop videos it produced, it's difficult to connect with the film today and it can easily feel like an incoherent mess. Dig a little deeper, though, and there's much to appreciate about it. An affectionate but unforgiving take on a not-so-distant world, it's full of the melancholy that marks out the Pet Shop Boys' songs. It's an outsider's story with a sense of nostalgic longing for what never was.

Reviewed on: 08 Jul 2020
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It Couldn't Happen Here packshot
The Pet Shop Boys explore a changing England.

Director: Jack Bond

Writer: Jack Bond, James Dillon

Starring: Neil Tennant, Chris Lowe, Joss Ackland, Gareth Hunt, Barbara Windsor

Year: 1987

Runtime: 86 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: UK


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