The Almost Unreleasable Movie Starring the Pet Shop Boys

*contains spoilers

The Pet Shop Boys remain a talented synth-pop duo which formed in the early 1980s. They put out a new album in 2020 and have already sold over 100 million records.

VHS preview tape cover

Initially, the band was afraid to tour and instead the feature film It Couldn’t Happen Here (1988), a title taken from one of their songs, was formulated to fill the need of their burgeoning fan club.

Unfortunately, the results gave the producers headaches, as the film, which was directed by surrealist director Jack Bond, was deemed as damn near un-releasable as a feature film at the movies.

It cost a relatively minor $4,000,000 according to reports and was dumped direct to video cassette on most markets – if it did get a cinema release at all.

I’ll run what goes on in the movie by you and look at the filmmaker… The Pet Shop Boys are Neil Tennant (1954-) and Chris Lowe (1959-) and while the legend was that they met in a pet shop, it was in fact a hi-fi store where Tennant was buying a synthesiser, something which caused him to strike up a conversation with Lowe. The name of the band came from some guys they knew who worked in a pet shop…

Early publicity photo of the Pet Shop Boys

It is tracks from their first two albums which are featured in It Couldn’t Happen Here. Those albums were Please (1986) and Actually (1987). What was meant to be an hour-long film was decided to be made into a feature but no one knew what the result would be…

Tennant is dressed throughout the movie in a black suit with a bow tie and a scarf, while Lowe, with designer stubble wears a brown leather jacket with blue jeans and a black beanie.

The duo as they appear in It Couldn’t Happen Here (1988)

The film opens on a rainy day with dancers and a bodybuilder working out on a cold and wet beach for no particular reason while Tennant narrates as he buys four postcards from a shore-front café. He sends one of them to his mother as he speaks of memories from his childhood… including a bed and breakfast at this holiday by the sea town which was run by his aunt and uncle… then there is a surreal scene inside what maybe the uncle and aunt’s bed and breakfast where Lowe goes down for his bacon and eggs served by Barbara Windsor (1937-) from the Carry On… movies while Gareth Hunt (1942-2007 pancreatic cancer) tells endless jokes and pranks while saying: “It’s only a laugh… not harm done” over and over again. Windsor ends up covered in a platter full of bacon and eggs. Cue for a couple of songs including Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money)…

Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money) music video

“I’m a bilingual illiterate… I can’t speak in two languages,” says Joss Ackland (1928-) in the back of a car, who like Windsor and Hunt has multiple roles in the film, including one as a Catholic bishop or priest…. It is as this church official that he tells off a couple of schoolboys played by identical twins named Tennant and Lowe for watching a raunchy show where strippers dressed in underwear dance with leather-clad men…

I guess it’s not making any sense so far… It’s a Sin is played almost in its entirety which is not surprising as it was one of their biggest hits along with Always on my Mind…

Barbara Windsor and Gareth Hunt in the bed and breakfast

The Pet Shop Boys then enter another bigger indoor café – this is turning out to be some sort of road trip – where Love Comes Quickly is playing and as they study the menu, a waitress demands: “Ready to order?” to which Tennant demands a Chateau Latour 1942 and the waitress commends him on a good choice… Hunt enters again as some sort of rouge and lipstick wearing poseur and Tennant and Lowe giggle in the next booth which looks almost unintended. It’s the best piece of acting by the pair in the movie… It turns out that Hunt is a ventriloquist with a doll he carts around… and this all harks back to the first postcard Tennant sent to his mother about his uncle the ventriloquist…

Gareth Hunt wearing rouge among other things

Then a Biggles-type pilot played by Neil Dickson (1951-) dressed in World War One garb starts talking to himself: “Divided by…” which will eventually lead to the song Two Divided by Zero as the ventriloquist doll spouts existential psychobabble…

Gareth Hunt gives the best performances in It Couldn’t Happen Here as the man, who once was so serious in 1970s tv series such as Upstairs, Downstairs and The New Avengers, seems to throw caution to the wind. He was game in this movie as he was in Bloodbath at the House of Death (1984) and full credit for going all the way.

Hunt as he appeared in The New Avengers in the 1970s

“There are two ingredients to time…,” says the ventriloquist’s doll as it goes on and on… something which drives Tennant to the jukebox which cues another sequence with dancers in a warehouse dressed and dancing in a very 1980s days gone by style. This time the song is Rent…. Cut to Biggles the pilot: “How extraordinary a world without tea-cups,” he reads from a book about time. “There could be things to drink tea from like buckets…” and he climbs aboard his plane to the swelling of orchestral music and Two Divided by Zero in what must have been one of the more expensive sequences with a biplane flying about…

Always on My Mind is the only music video to use footage from It Couldn’t Happen Here

The Pet Shop Boys having bought a car for their road trip stop at a phone box where skinheads are loitering and this cues What Have I Done to Deserve This? with Windsor lip-syncing the Dusty Springfield (1939-99 breast cancer) lines on the phone to Tennant… and so the film goes on…

Director Jack Bond was responsible for the work on the South Bank Show on British tv in the 1980s and had made a documentary with surrealist artist Salvador Dali (1904-89 heart failure) in 1965. So, I guess some surrealism rubbed off, or Bond was a budding surrealist himself when he met Dali.

The ventriloquist doll in It Couldn’t Happen Here has the last word in the movie

Tennant has described It Couldn’t Happen Here as their Magical Mystery Tour (1967) in terms of The Beatles movies as opposed to that band’s A Hard Day’s Night (1964). Magical Mystery Tour was a made for television film that was a critical disaster for The Beatles as it too was a surreal, mixed bags of sketches and songs and situations. Magical Mystery Tour had the luxury of running only 52 minutes compared to the Pet Shop Boys’ film which went for eighty.

The severely criticised Magical Mystery Tour by The Beatles was also surreal

Paul McCartney went on tv to defend the film and The Beatles’ biographer said: “It was the first time in memory that any artist felt obliged to make a public apology for his work” as the film had been improvised by the band itself.

I haven’t read an apology from Bond for It Couldn’t Happen Here but to apologise now is a bit old hat in terms of movies and the results here aren’t as horrendous as Magical Mystery Tour.

Bond co-directed the science fiction oddity Anti-Clock (1979) with all-round artist Jane Arden (1927-82 suicide). This movie couldn’t find a distributer and stars Arden’s son amid images which use both the medium of video and film. But when a critic in the US gave the film a five star rating, it became an instant art-house hit.

Director Jack Bond

This wasn’t the first collaboration between Bond and Arden. Arden was an interesting experimental film-maker but her films are hard to take for the average viewer, especially The Other Side of the Underneath (1972). Jack Bond is only the producer on this one, although he had worked as director on the Arden written Separation (1967). He would work with her again on the short film Vibration (1975) before Anti-Clock.

Anti-Clock (1979) trailer

As for The Other Side of the Underneath: take an all-female acting troupe to Wales, use the innards of a dilapidated old building as a backdrop and explore madness… it’s disturbing and yet must have been a type of catharsis for Arden who herself had a bout of bad mental health, something which obviously claimed her life in the end.

You get the idea that some mental hospitals in the 1960s and 70s were as horrible as the one portrayed in this film. The madness seems real and indeed many of the performers apparently took drugs to attain near-psychosis for their performances and it is said that a couple of the actresses later committed suicide as a result.

Director Jane Arden (centre) was also an actress

Jack Bond was also reportedly Arden’s lover and she has him make love to an actress naked on camera. There’s no story to The Other Side of the Underneath, it’s an experimental art film and Arden was some sort of female Derek Jarman (1942-94 AIDS) who himself often experimented and worked in Super 8.

Essential to Arden’s vision in The Other Side of the Underneath is that sexuality is linked to madness and this is caused by certain taboos in society which causes it to generate.

One of the schizophrenic scenes in The Other Side of the Underneath (1972)

Her short film Vibration has mantras such as “mindfulness is mindless” and “shatter the sentence” repeated over and over. Shot on Super 8, the film also delves into the mysticism of Sufism.

As for Bond and Arden’s Anti-Clock, the tone in similar to Cronenberg’s Stereo (1969) although it is not as profound. That is probably because I am not a bona fide “thought reader” like the at times unpleasant lead character. What is definitely an experimental exercise has video recordings which are often slowed down frame by frame to produce scenes…

Poster art for Jane Arden’s highly experimental film

“What causes an event? How many factors are involved?,” it poses for its lead character, a pre-cognitive subject who sees ahead of time and so can win when gambling at cards. He is also facing himself in some sort of therapy session where like in John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness (1987) we are told “on a sub-atomic level, there is no time or space” while in the real world “time” and “money” are related. We are also told that human behaviour is just “automatic responses to blind belief” as there’s a montage of fascist leaders and war scenery.

Blu-ray cover for Anti-Clock (1979)

Anti-Clock is more interesting than the ragged schizophrenia of The Other Side of the Underneath which tails off into a peaceful performance which includes a woman on stilts and another with cymbals along with an ever-present cellist. This ending could be described as mind-numbingly boring, but Arden has laid bare her soul with this movie, so that would be cruel.

These films have been hard to see over the years, occasionally playing festivals before their DVD release, as Bond was probably protecting Arden’s visions for a time in the wake of her suicide in 1982.

A book about R.D Laing

Perhaps the art of madness of Arden’s films could be seen as an exercise in relation to anti-psychiatry, which is part of the concepts of R.D Laing (1927-89 heart attack playing tennis), who said: Madness may need not be all breakdown. It can also be breakthrough. It is potential liberation and renewal as well as enslavement and existential death.”

The Other Side of the Underneath and Anti-Clock are two very different looks at the self in those terms and the former finds renewal in its peaceful ending while for Arden it ultimately spelt death through suicide.

Bond’s It Couldn’t Happen Here is relatively ‘normal’ in comparison to his work with Arden which is definitely challenging and a most definitely a matter of taste.

The Kings Cross tube fire started under a wooden escalator

It Couldn’t Happen Here also doesn’t end with a bang… or maybe it does in terms of a pop performance by the Pet Shop Boys as they seem to pass through a war zone before ending up on a nightclub stage where they perform one of the weakest songs of the film – it peters out with lesser numbers by the duo.

There was controversy over the use of a burning man during the King’s Cross song segment in the movie. The song had accidentally predicted the King’s Cross St Pancras tube station fire which killed 31 people and injured 100. In the aftermath, it was reported that some of the victim’s families had consented to the burning man leaving his home for work to be used in It Couldn’t Happen Here.

Quad poster for It Couldn’t Happen Here (1988)

Just another scene for the producers to sweat over, not that it mattered, the damage in terms of them hoping to receive a picture with a linear narrative had long been done. It was released direct to VHS in Australia and worldwide was damned by critics and avoided by the public.

The Pet Shop Boys really can’t act and we would never see them as characters other than themselves in the film nor in future productions. By this fact, Bond was limited with Tennant and Lowe and so he had to do another type of movie although not one completely different to the ones he had already been involved with.

The music video for the hugely popular It’s a Sin

As a fan of their very catchy songs, of which there are many, I have watched this slightly pretentious mish mash many times for that very reason and for its brave naivete in believing that anyone would want to watch it in the first place. I dubbed my VHS to DVD. It’s finally been re-released on Blu-ray in 2020.

With its nuns in suspenders and further digs at the Catholic church, there is still an asexuality to it, which mirrors the repressed sexuality of the British, particularly in the years leading up to the era it was filmed.

The soggy beginning of It Couldn’t Happen Here was apparently shot at Clacton-on-Sea

Probably only Brits would really like this movie, with its typical rainy beach-side opening on Clacton-on-Sea being a place where Londoners would go on holiday or a day trip while not straying too far from home.

It Couldn’t Happen Here may stray far from being a mainstream film, but it is still possibly a movie where you can be taken on a strange and odd mystery tour far more magical than others of yore.

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