Pet Shop Boys’ Avant-Garde Anti-Thatcher Refrain: It Couldn’t Happen Here

The Pet Shop Boys’ 1993 album, Very, is identified as their unofficial “coming out” record by fans given its musical and visual stylisation, lyrical content, and the fact that lead singer Neil Tennant had recently spoken publicly of his sexuality before confirming that he was gay in a 1994 interview with Attitude magazine. If this period confirmed what most already suspected, it wasn’t because he and bandmate Chris Lowe had been trying to hide it. The music, which through the 1980s had fit quite comfortably in with the mainstream world of Brit-pop before veering towards euro-trance and global influences of later albums, had always had a queer bent to it, their music videos were directed by Derek Jarman, and they even collaborated with Liza Minnelli.

One can only imagine how flamboyant It Couldn’t Happen Here would have been if made in 1993. Nevertheless, the Boys’ first and only film stands as a genuinely strange curiosity. An avant-garde novelty that hasn’t gained much in the way of sense since its debut in 1988 (including a 1987 premiere at the London Film Festival). Filled with moments of crass surrealism and plodding nonsense that nonetheless gives way to a fleetingly fascinating glimpse into the Pet Shop Boys’ world at the time. Directed by Jack Bond, It Couldn’t Happen Here exists in a strikingly strange anti-Catholic, anti-Thatcher AIDS wasteland that sees Tennant and Lowe on a nonsensical road trip to Kings Cross with musical detours at every turn and discombobulating comedic vignettes featuring Barbara Windsor, Gareth Hunt, Carmen du Sautoy and Joss Ackland in multiple, yet equally baffling, roles.

I almost can’t tell if It Couldn’t Happen Here is any good. Whether it is or not might be completely irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. It certainly doesn’t look good. The visuals are rather flat, reminiscent of cheap British TV and music videos. Unsurprisingly, the project started out as a longform music video before being stretched to feature-length and released theatrically on a perplexed (presumably limited) British public and even America (once upon a time this film was released in an AMC multiplex in Century City!) When the film enters musical mode, such as a guffaw-inducing piece of choreography set to their 1987 single “Rent”, it lacks reason, but so does everything else in the film. It’s experimental in structure if not visually.

Still, for as bizarre as the 1980s were in the pop world, something like It Couldn’t Happen Here is something altogether unique. It likely would have been easy for the Boys to have made a film that told a more conventional story with their music even if they did decline the prospect in the late ‘90s for a Mamma Mia! Style jukebox music based around their hit songs. What’s left then is a film of limited appeal that trades in symbolism and mood. It’s of little surprise that the director made a documentary with Salvador Dali and here he uses the film to take crooked jabs at Catholicism and Margaret Thatcher’s conservative decimation of England.

Tennant, a child of Catholic upbringing, surely felt a desire to take on the church given they had criticised the band’s “It’s a Sin” and the film’s staging – much different to Derek Jarmon’s video take – of a salacious stage performance with stripping nuns is the amongst the film’s most obvious moments. It recalls Bob Fosse’s childhood burlesque from All That Jazz. It’s also one of its more immediate moments as Bond’s low-key directing of Tennant and Lowe (who rarely appear singing on-screen) tries to skirt around their lack of acting ability. Sadly, as if countering that, the other actors appear to have turned up their acting to eleven, making for frequently nauseating experience. Songs like “Suburbia” feel shoehorned into the backdrop, but at least “West End Girls” is given a comical rap interpretation by three youths, presumably a thorn in Thatcher’s side.

By film’s end the Boys have arrived in a seemingly war-torn King’s Cross (unsurprisingly to Tennant’s soulful performance of “King’s Cross”, itself a notorious song in British culture due to its close links to the King’s Cross Fire in 1987) as military guards march by wilfully letting buildings burn. They enter an empty discotheque and it appears the Pet Shop Boys’ queer sensibilities were in full effect. Just two years later they would release “Being Boring”, inarguably one of the most touching ruminations on the AIDS crisis that the pop world produced, and I think they’re clearly making a comparison between Thatcher and AIDS and how they both targeted the most vulnerable members of society, hollowing out their minds and bodies and replacing them with their misguided new world order. “The hungry sheep look up and are not fed, but swollen with wind and rank mist they draw. Rot inwards and foul contagion spreads”, reads a bewigged limousine driver from a verse of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. No doubt deliberately placed side-by-side with the Pet Shop Boys’ own “King’s Cross” lyric, “Dead and wounded on either side / you know it’s only a matter of time.”

As bomb sirens whirl outside, Tennant and Lowe enter a vacated dancefloor singing “One More Chance”, eventually joined by seemingly wholesome, and yet sickly, ballroom dancers suggesting a world of closeted silence that Thatcher hath wrought. That the Pet Shop Boys were able to break free of the conservative shackles that had been placed upon England and not only continued to do make outstanding, popular music for decades to come, but did so while outwardly projecting their homosexuality is impressive. “It couldn’t happen here”, their titular song suggests. Sadly. It already had, but many just hadn’t noticed. In that case, the satire of the piece doesn’t necessarily work – I doubt any conservatives would find themselves in a theatre watching this film – but it’s admirable.

As a work of film, It Couldn’t Happen Here is crude and gangly. It’s doesn’t always work, is frequently hilarious for presumably unintentional reasons, and doesn’t succeed at putting forth an always compelling narrative (even an experimental one) for its scant 82 minutes. However, as a record of its time, it fascinates. As a defiantly queer work of subversive, experimental art it has the ability to engage. Whether the Pet Shop Boys’ pop melodies were necessary is debatable, but as a means of expressing their feelings towards what they clearly saw as a dangerous situation it proves surprisingly appropriate. Its ambitions outweigh its results, but it’s a rare experience indeed and unlike any other one might expect to find come out of an outfit as sublimely refined as the Pet Shop Boys.

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