Tuesday 20 April 2021

On DVD: "It Couldn't Happen Here"

In retrospect, it's amazing to think the Pet Shop Boys were ushered towards the big screen within a year of "West End Girls" hitting #1; doubly so, if you remember how diffident - how downright stiff - Messrs Tennant and Lowe appeared during those early rounds of TV promotion. No Spice Girls these. But here they were in It Couldn't Happen Here, a 1987 promotional vehicle funded by label EMI, directed by Sixties survivor Jack Bond and choreographed by Strictly's Arlene Phillips. "West End Girls" and the song that followed it into the Top 10, "Suburbia", had promised urban alienation with a drop or two of kitchen-sink drama; yet what Bond and co-writer James Dillon proposed was a droll comic reverie set out around a coastal resort (in reality: Clacton) where end-of-the-pier meets the end of the world, a ne plus ultra of Englishness - and exactly the kind of place smalltown boys like Tennant and Lowe had been itching to flee for decades. (The Eighties single It Couldn't Happen Here most obviously chimes with, perversely, is Morrissey's "Every Day is Like Sunday", recorded the same year: here were diverse sensibilities running in parallel from a prevailing conservatism.) On some level, the film invites reading as a (doubtless exaggerated) PSB origin story, showing how the young boys we see being yanked round by Joss Ackland's blind priest have grown up to become sullen twentysomethings with romantic dreams of pop-star escape. Neil, all dressed up with nowhere to go, dolefully rolls his pushbike down the promenade and speaks in florid bursts of poetry; Chris we find on permanent vacation at a B&B doors down from Fawlty Towers, obliged to dodge Gareth Hunt dad gags and Babs Windsor's wobbling full English. (Oh, stop it.) Somewhere in these 80-odd - often very odd - minutes, you'll find an explanation for why Tennant was caught yawning on the front cover of the "Actually" LP, and another reminder that backwaters such as this can stifle you, if you let 'em.

Any narrative, however, proves secondary to the need to work in the songs everybody was here to promote, and here's where It Couldn't Happen Here takes reliable flight. It starts small, in this respect: "Suburbia" can be heard passing through a tinny transistor in Hunt's seafront kiosk. But "Opportunities (Let's Make Lots of Money)" plays out over Lowe packing the world's biggest suitcase, and "Love Comes Quickly" is pumped into a greasy spoon that features evocatively wonky blinds, lax table service (care of Carmen du Sautoy), and an amusingly expansive menu. (Just when you least expect it, just what you least expect.) "It's A Sin", the big hit of summer '87, elicits a major setpiece: it opens as handcranked, black-and-white peepshow, with Tennant in muttonchops, then turns into a very Eighties revue, with leather-clad biker boys manhandling frizzy-haired strutters. (This look back in Kenneth Anger feels more outrageous than the song's actual promo, but then Bond wasn't having to worry about it going out on primetime TOTP.) The linking material remains eccentric bordering on the scattershot, with elements that blow in on the coastal breeze and vanish into the mist. An RAF fighter pilot (erstwhile screen Biggles Neil Dickson) spouts temporal philosophy before strafing the PSB getaway car, perhaps representing that part of England that will forever be 1945; the finale wonders what would happen if you made it to the city only to find it ravaged by war, possibly nuclear (what had they done to deserve this?); and several jokes fall on the stony ground of the musicians' faces. Yet the whole remains equal parts melancholy and playful, and far more singular than reviews at the time acknowledged, with one for-the-ages Dali joke, Windsor making an acceptable Dusty substitute, and an undertow of yearning emotion, crystallised in the sequence that served double time as the "Always On My Mind" video. You could curate a mini-season with this, Pink Floyd: The Wall, McCartney's Give My Regards to Broad Street and Kate Bush's The Line, The Cross & The Curve to illustrate how the British music biz was still willing to take risks across this decade: no-one is doing this kind of thing - not even in standalone promos - with Ed Sheeran and Little Mix.

It Couldn't Happen Here is available on dual-format DVD/Blu-Ray through the BFI.


  1. You could add Hazel O'Connor in Breaking Glass to that list of chance taking, 80s British rock and pop movies you would never get now. The film spin-off seemed to die out with S Club in Seeing Double, which nobody remembers.

    Seeing this again, the Boys were no actors, but it is surprisingly funny in places, and has aged better than you might expect. Though I suppose the culture has changed, if Little Mix did this surreal stuff you'd think they'd taken leave of their senses. Not that ICHH was originally a hit anyway.

    1. Yes, everything's a lot more po-faced nowadays, sadly. Weirdly enough, *I* remember the S Club movie "Seeing Double", mostly because I was working night shifts at a DVD production house when it came out, and wound up having to quality check that film, over and over, for several weeks. As a consequence, I have probably seen the S Club movie "Seeing Double" - in English, French, Hungarian and various other languages besides - more times than just about anything else. (The DVD transfer was fine; the quality of the film itself remains... debatable.)