Looking Back At PET SHOP BOYS: IT COULDN'T HAPPEN HERE - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Martin Rayburn doesn't happen here.
Musically I've always been more of a classic rock fan; The Stones, The Beatles, The Who, Pink Floyd, even some Guns & Roses. I toyed with AC/DC and Def Leppard in the nineteen eighties but they never really stayed with me outside of the decade, whereas I come back to the old favourites time and time again. I'm not against electro-pop and liked quite a lot of the New Wave movement from the era; Gary Numan, The Human League, ABC etc, but I wouldn't go out of my way to revisit much of the style or genre today. Then there is the Pet Shop Boys. On paper, they are not my bag. But when I first saw them on Top of the Pops, stone faced and serious, performing West End Girls (and it was a performance) they stood out from the crowd. The sense of ironic detachment they bring to their cleverly crafted pop music is not lost on me, and although my younger self would've been embarrassed to have admitted it in company, Please, Actually and Introspective found their way into my Walkman as often as Sticky Fingers, My Generation and Dark Side of the Moon. Today they sit in their entirety within my iPod, and the three albums form the musical backdrop for the Pet Shop Boys 1988 film It Couldn't Happen Here. An intriguing production, if not necessarily a successful one.

Alternating between dark symbolism and pretentiousness, It Couldn't Happen Here was filmed at a time when the Pet Shop Boys were in their "imperial phase". They were the golden act of the day, finding praise and attention within every musical publication, from NME to Smash Hits! Their audience comprised of all ages and genre preferences - I'm a perfect example of their appeal, an absolute sucker for the melancholy soundscapes the duo produced, coupled with their trademark ironic performance which both Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe, the latter especially, brought to their Pet Shop Boys characters. And I believe, like many pop-stars, their stage personas are characters. Just as an actor in a film is acting the part, it's not the real them. Perhaps this is why so many pop-stars have tried, or been encouraged, to make the leap to the screen? It's really only another acting role, just not in song. With the characters of the Pet Shop Boys being so quickly defined from that first musical performance, the transition to full length feature should've been quite an easy one, and this film does nothing to stretch their established stage personas in any way, yet they're kind of lost among the surrealism of writer/director Jack Bond's at times unsettling road movie. Meaning It Couldn't Happen Here is more successful in parts than its whole.
Symbolism is evident throughout, linked alongside film referencing. Nods are given to Brief Encounter and North by Northwest, while the use of surrealism (men with zebra faces, burning businessmen, billboard posters of blank walls) go to show that Bond and the rest of the production team had been watching their Peter Greenaway movies. Lacing the whole plot thread together (and I use that word quite loosely, as it feels as if a lot of it was made-up as they went along) is a look at the more terrifying face of Catholicism. The forced suppression of urges, thoughts and feelings that adolescence brings, and the guilt growing up within this religion can bring ("When I look back upon my life it's always with a sense of shame"). There are vignettes where motorcycle gangs trade places with SS nuns and sexual intent is prevalent. Other scenes see the duo walk nonchalantly through a deserted English seaside town, which is all very self-indulgent. But I've never been able to decide if it's Neil & Chris or Jack Bond who is affording themselves the luxury of it all. I suspect much is the latter, as even though It Couldn't Happen Here is possibly what you might expect from the Pet Shop Boys, given their detached musical career of the time, it's almost as if they've had a further level of detachment forced upon them. Like it's Bond's visual interpretation of "Pet Shop Boys" after he heard It's A Sin, and the whole thing is a step too far.

If this all sounds a bit serious and heavy then one way to view the production is simply as a long form series of linked alternative music videos for the Pet Shop Boys' songs. There are times when It Couldn't Happen Here goes in this direction and it's often the better for it. For instance, the performance of One More Chance, the use of Rent and It's A Sin, and their version of Always On My Mind, which is featured in almost its entirety here and makes the segment all the more enjoyable. The title song, which opens the film and I feel is one of their best, is an esoteric album track that favours orchestra over synthesiser, standing apart from many other tracks but not really indicative of the coming 87 minutes in tone. Other songs and Pet Shop Boys lyrics form backdrops to the majority of the film, some spoken by Tennant, others by one of the actors who, to add to the weirdness of it all, play multiple parts.
Among the actors who appear in It Wouldn't Happen Here is Barbara Windsor who, at the time, was in a bit of a forgotten phase. Long past Carry On and long before EastEnders, it's some stunt casting for sure and nice to see her. But can you believe her as Neil's mum? Not one bit! She also plays a landlady and a French Maid, of which she fits the part far better. Neil Dickson, who had recently starred as Biggles recreates the character here in all but name in a scene where he frustratedly fiddles with a hand-held computer game that says "divided by... divided by... zero" (taking lyrics from the Pet Shop Boys track Two Divided by Zero). Dickson also pops-up as a car salesman and a chauffeur who reads passages from Milton's Paradise Lost at Neil & Chris as he drives them through a battlefield with bombs exploding all around them (it's as odd as it sounds). Joss Ackland drifts between seemingly having the time of his life and sheer bewilderment as to what he finds himself involved with, like a drunk uncle with early onset dementia. Then there's an irksome Gareth Hunt who is the worst offender of all the supporting actors; Uncle Dredge, the postcard vendor and the man in the cafe with the ventriloquist dummy, every one of his multiple roles just makes me want to do his coffee bean hand shake at the screen, aimed squarely in his direction! I can only assume he was cheap.

As for the two leads, Tennant & Lowe are just about passable as actors, but that is simply because of the absurdity of the production. Their stage personas are so detached already that they fit into this hodgepodge road movie quite well. The pair seem to have some form of communication between them, but it's entirely non-verbal, as they never exchange words with each other once throughout the film. In fact, Chris Lowe doesn't speak at all until almost half an hour in, only having 28 words in total. Which is almost perfectly in keeping with his Pet Shop Boys persona.

Neil Tennant, on the other hand, is quite the opposite - again, mirroring that stage persona. He carries the bulk of the plot (although, as previously mentioned, not that there really is a plot) through delivery of many monotone monologues. Some of these land quite naively. I don't know if that was the intention or not, but would-be meaningful commentaries such as the soliloquy "Ever since I was a child the comic and the hostile seemed to go hand in hand", don't really work as well as when he quotes from his own songs. Perhaps it highlights the strength in the band's lyrics over words he was given by Bond?
It Couldn't Happen Here feels a bit like the public-school educated eighties love-child of The Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour and The Monkeys' Head. A loosely planned meandering trip drifting between symbolism and pretentiousness soundtracked in the style of their respective eras. Where there was once a walrus, we now have a ventriloquist dummy. Neither of which really make a lot of sense. Where there was once Vito Scotti, we now have Gareth Hunt. Neither of whom were in demand at the time. If the goal was to depict a visualisation of a distorted psychological break, then the film really succeeds. Indeed, one could argue that It Couldn't Happen Here doesn't happen here. Not on any conventional sense of reality that is, but entirely in a twisted mindscape.

If you like the Pet Shop Boys music you'll get something out of it for sure. If you're a fan of the bizarre or enjoy watching films under the influence of something medicinal, then this will be right up your street too. It Couldn't Happen Here still remains interesting to watch but I think most people would take the musical content alone over the visuals any day.

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