"The colour of infinity inside an empty glass / It's for this experimental film / Which nobody knows about / And which I'm still figuring out / What's going to go in my experimental film?"
So sang They Might Be Giants on their track “Experimental Film”, the album opener for their underrated 2004 opus ‘The Spine’. Sadly, TMBG have never actually made a film along those lines. But luckily, a British pop duo with a similar sense of longevity have.
It’s generally regarded that The Monkee’s ‘Head’ is by far the strangest movie starring a pop band ever made. However, there is a challenger for the crown: 1988 saw the release of It Couldn’t Happen Here (dir. Jack Bond), a frankly deranged outing for Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe.
We were a sprightly fourteen years old by the time we finally got to see the film, after having to wait for the video release due to being slightly too young to catch the limited cinema release (it was rated ‘15’). Before then, like most viewers of Top of the Pops, No Limits and The Chart Show, we’d seen the trailer-cum-pop-video for the movie umpteen times, used as it was for promoting the Pettoes' 1987 Christmas number one, their majestic cover of ‘Always On My Mind’. Basically, it looked like the best gosh-darned film ever.
Look at all that stuff going on. Joss Ackland playing a Stephen Wright-quoting serial killer. Neil dressed as Elvis. Glitzy London nightspots playing host to altercations with a trio of rappers. Babs Windsor on the phone to Neil. A giggling dummy in an air traffic control tower holding a gun. A biplane. Chris chucking a huge breakfast over Barbara Windsor. Gareth Hunt and a plastic chicken. Loads of other shenanigans. How could it possibly be anything other than a rip-roaring caper comedy to rival the Italian Job and It’s A Mad Mad World?
Then we finally saw it, and found out that all of the events in the promo aren’t actually connected. They’re just a bunch of stuff that happens, with little rhyme or reason attached to their place in the plot, such as it was. The basic story is this. Neil and Chris buy a car, and go off somewhere. Along the way, things happen, many of which make little sense, especially to a fourteen-year-old who doesn’t feel quite so grown up all of a sudden. But, surely when we grew up, we’d know exactly what was going on in this film. We were just too young to ‘get’ it, that's all. Surely.
Twenty years pass. We purchase a VHS copy of It Couldn’t Happen Here from a car boot sale for the princely sum of One British Pound. Earlier on today, we connected up our old VCR, and put the tape on. At long last, with the worldly ways we’ve picked up in the interim, this is all finally going to slide into some sort of coherent…. nope, it’s still utterly bewildering.
There are a few things we did notice upon watching the film, which we are about to outline in bullet point form, because it’s easier than putting them into proper paragraphs, and because then you’d all be expecting ‘context’ and ‘reasoning’ and shit.
* It’s not really a very good film. It is however quite interesting, not to mention oddly compelling. The sort of film that should be watched at least once by everyone who is into this sort of thing (either surreal British films, the Pet Shop Boys, or former Carry On actresses being pelted with fried eggs).
* Throughout the entire film, where Neil and Chris meet up then go off and have adventures on the way to somewhere, they never actually speak to each other. Not even once. For reasons we can’t quite put into place, this is an excellent thing.
* Watching this film proves just how brilliant the album Actually really is. We’d forgotten just how good, which is quite shocking as it was the first album we ever bought with our own money. At Our Price records in Wrexham, in 1987, for £5.99, on vinyl, if you were wondering.
* The overall experience of watching the film can be explained quite well by putting together snapshots of several choice moments from it, and then trying our best to explain what’s going on. If you haven’t got a copy of it, this might well be as close as you’ll get to seeing it, seeing as it’s now been removed from Google Video (mainly because Google Video doesn’t exist any more), it has long since been deleted on VHS, and there are no plans for it to be released on DVD.
SIX MAJESTICALLY DEMENTED BITS FROM ‘IT COULDN’T HAPPEN HERE.’
The intro to the tremendous Disco Mix of It’s A Sin swells in the background. Eerie blank-faced men in hats, overcoats and brightly coloured wigs clamour around What The Butler Saw machines, near the seafront of Clacton-on-sea.
One of the machines is being inspected by a youthful Neil and Chris, who have sneaked away from the blind Catholic priest who has taken their class to the seaside. The camera cuts to what is being played on said machine. A maid (played by Babs Windsor) is dusting.
A butler (played by Neil Tennant) mischievously sneaks behind and tweaks her bottom. The maid giggles, and butler Tennant gives her a peck on the cheek. RELEVANT INFO. in the film, Babs Windsor plays Neil Tennant’s mother.
The master of the house (played by Chris Lowe) appears, holding a riding crop. The butler scarpers, as the master proceeds to chase playfully after the giggling maid, practicing the swing of his crop as he goes. Suddenly, the maid grabs hold of the riding crop, and the tables are turned. Master Lowe slips, and falls on a chaise longue. The maid jumps on top of him, and they embrace.
The camera cuts back to the exterior of the machine. Young Tennant/Lowe are nearly spotted by Fr Joss Ackland (well, smelt – he is blind, after all), and they run off. With them departed, Fr Ackland tries looking at the machine, only to declare it isn’t working.
In the scene immediately following, the boys are in a different part of the funfair. They are standing next to a ferris wheel that Blind Father Ackland has stumbled onto.
Occupying the other compartments of the ferris wheel are:
A plump woman in her underwear eating a big cake,
Two members of a motorcycle gang getting drunk,
A pair of mud wrestlers,
Dracula and an unsuspecting maiden,
And a man doing horse.
The bit everyone know about. Neil and Chris stop to pick up a lady hitch-hiker, only for serial killer Joss Ackland to jump her (off-camera), and nip into the car instead. As they drive, Neil sings ‘Always On My Mind’, while Joss Ackland reels off a load of gags stolen from Stephen Wright.
Unlike the ‘Always…’ video (as embedded above), the scene in the film stays with the interior of the car. However, this remains interesting thanks to the cavalcade of wonderful facial expressions Ackland treats us to as Neil sings. If you do get a copy of this film, keep your gaze fixed on Ackland’s fizzog throughout the song. It’s a visual treat that keeps on giving.
A brilliant scene in an all-night cafe. Neil and Chris have just ordered an opulent feast from the waitress (“…and the Chateau La Fete 1942”), when a fastidious ventriloquist (played wonderfully by Gareth Hunt) enters, and sits down at the adjoining table.
His actions cause Neil and Chris to giggle themselves silly, as he very deliberately reels off his order to the waitress in his very best Shakespearean voice (“egg… beans… and chips. Two sausages… one large… one small…” – look, it’s funny when you see it, okay?).
Before his meal is served, his dummy demands to be let out of his suitcase. The ventriloquist relents, and as he scoffs his meal, the dummy trots out an existentialist dialogue on the very concept of time, and whether teacups actually exist. While all this is going on, a biplane pilot (played by Neil Dickson, pretty much reprising his role from Biggles: Adventures in Time) sits in the background, repeatedly trying to calculate two divided by zero on a Speak & Math machine.
After getting annoyed with the expensive feast enjoyed by the Boys in the all-night cafeteria, the ventriloquist’s dummy has now employed the biplane pilot, and tasked him with killing Neil and Chris.
As the pilot reads a book on existentialism (written by the dummy), his wooden paymaster’s voice plays out over a public address system. Sinister Dummy repeats the details of the meal ordered by the boys (“Oysters… finger bowls… on a silver platter…”) with scornful derision. Wowed by the philosophical musings on the subject of chronology, the pilot hops in a plane, and sets out to shoot the Boys’ 1952 Ford Zephyr off the road.
This he does, only doing enough to halt their car in it’s tracks, leaving Neil and Chris alive, but very much hampered in their quest to reach Wherever It Is They’re Going To. This pleases the pilot, who laughs manically, as does the dummy, watching from a nearby control tower.
In an earlier scene, Neil mentions to his mum (played, of course, by Peggy Mitchell, meaning Neil is at least step-brother to Grant and Phil) how “Dad used to leave the house in a flaming temper”. After the Boys fail to get their car fixed (by letting a load of skinheads bang out a tune on the engine with spanners, just after they’ve finished kicking the shit out of a telephone box), we see a scene where a much younger Neil’s Mum (played by someone who isn’t Babs Windsor) looks forlornly across the street to a neighbour snipping off a buttonhole for her husband. She looks down at her husband leaving the house, and thinks to herself why a similar floral accoutrement wouldn’t really work for him:
Yes, Neil’s dad would leave the house in what was – quite literally – a flaming temper. Well, a flaming suit anyway.
Real fire, mind. British CGI at the time could barely make it beyond the odd Quantel spinny box. A man hangs a 'brickwork’ poster on top of an advertising billboard, as Neil’s Dad walks to his car.
The car is, of course, similarly aflame.
Anyway, Neil and Chris get the train instead, which contains a menagerie. But going into more detail with that would involve listing another scene, so you’ll just have to track down a copy of the film if you want to see any more.
In summary: A wholly interesting (if not, as we said earlier, actually that good) little curio, all cobbled together to appease fans after Neil and Chris declined to go on tour. Now, why can’t Girls Aloud do something like this?
EXCLUSIVE BREAKING NEWS: Thrillingly, we've been contacted on Twitter by Chris Lowe (blimey), who tells us "Very interesting. There are plans to release it on DVD." You heard it here first, assuming that isn't already mentioned elsewhere.