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  • Writer's pictureMark Howitt

It Couldn’t Happen Here: A Mystery Unsolved

i. Always On My Mind

Memory is often an unreliable witness but this is how I remember it.

It Couldn’t Happen Here, a film featuring Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe, together the electronic duo Pet Shop Boys, was released in the UK on Friday 8th July 1988. The film was to be shown all week at Edinburgh’s Dominion Cinema, a five minute walk from where I then lived. The Dom is now a slightly shorter walk from where I live, not because I can walk faster but because in the intervening years I have moved several times, eventually landing up almost where I started, only a little closer to Thomas Bowhill Gibson’s 1938 Art Deco style cinema.

I was keen to see the film but, for whatever reason - and it certainly wasn’t due to a packed social life - I decided to delay the treat until early the following week. So, after finishing work on the Monday or Tuesday I rocked up to the Dominion. As I approached the cinema, its marble steps glistening in the evening sunshine, I noticed that although there was a poster displayed for Three Men and a Baby and a couple of other films, there wasn’t one for It Couldn’t Happen Here. In the foyer I was met by the cinema’s owner Mr Cameron dressed as always was in full evening attire, dickie bow etc., who politely said that they were no longer showing that film, his only explanation being “It didn’t really work out, Sir.”

And that was it. I went home.

Over the years I’ve thought about that short episode a lot. I’m a huge fan of the Pet Shop Boys, stuck with them through the lean years (eg that time they played at Teeside University) but I concede, I’ve probably thought about it too much. To the point that recently I’ve started to doubt myself, thinking it was maybe something that happened to a friend, or a story I made up to cover the fact that I simply never got around to seeing the film when I had the opportunity.

But by searching the Evening News archives for July 1988, I can now put my mind at rest. In the Entertainments section, the film was listed on Friday 8th in cinema 2 - “The Pet Shop Boys in IT COULDN’T HAPPEN HERE 3 separate performances, 4.25, 6.25, 8.25 (6.25 perf all seats £1.50)” - but by Tuesday 12th July it had been replaced by “Hilarious Comedy PLANES, TRAINS AND AUTOMOBILES”. And so confident was Mr Cameron of the popularity of the Steve Martin and John Candy film, it was advertised as “From Fri retained”.

So It Couldn’t Happen Here really didn’t happen here for me in 1988. In fact, it seems that the only cinema in Edinburgh and Glasgow ever to exhibit the film was the Dominion and there it was screened a mere nine times before being dumped.

ii Hit Music

By 1987 the Pet Shop Boys were at their commercial zenith with eight hit singles, including the cowbell-heavy number one West End Girls, two albums, Please and Actually, which together have now sold 7 million copies. For a band that consisted of two lads, one who wrote lyrics referencing T.S. Eliot’s poetry and the works of American historian Edmund Wilson, the other constantly stood behind his keyboard never saying anything, this was quite an achievement.

In contrast to their static appearances on TV shows such as Top of the Pops and The Tube, they made promotional videos which were inventive, funny and actually worth watching. The David Lynch-esque Suburbia, with dogs prowling the streets of San Bernadino and (less glamorously) Kingston-upon-Thames, and the mini costume dramas of It’s A Sin and Rent stylishly rendered by the late Derek Jarman were the cherries on the cake of Neil Tennant’s and Chris Lowe’s class act.

The one thing that Pet Shop Boys didn’t do back then was live shows, Tennant saying:

I can’t see the point really. I quite like the idea of being on the coach, having the meal beforehand, the party in the room afterwards, going in the swimming pool, signing the autographs in the lobby, and wrecking the mini-bar. The only thing I don’t like the idea of is being on the stage and having to sing for rather a long time.

That was all to change starting in 1989 when they toured with a lavish theatrical spectacle, another collaboration with Derek Jarman. But before then - as an alternative to touring (and wrecking mini-bars) - Tennant and Lowe spent most of November 1987 in Clacton-on-Sea and South London making a full length feature film.

iii Was It Worth It?

One’s only hope is that the stultifying awfulness of this embarrassing hodgepodge will dissuade pop personalities and their patrons at the record companies from the all-too-vain belief that their three minute talents will stretch to a full hour and a half. In this case the strain is quite, quite painful.

The List, 8th July 1988

I finally got around to watching the film last week, almost 36 years after it was released. That review in Glasgow and Edinburgh events guide The List is, in my opinion, unkind. It was written by a young Trevor Johnston who has subsequently gone on to be a film critic for the British Film Institute’s Sight and Sound magazine, but hey, what do film critics know? More than me it seems - earlier on in the review Johnston mentions “Catholic guilt” and “Oedipal fantasies” (was he watching the same film?) - but I know what I like.

It Couldn’t Happen Here is a mess, from start to finish I have no idea what is going on. Here’s Neil in a tuxedo cycling along Clacton’s beach front, there’s Chris not saying much (although more than I was expecting) (or wanting) throwing his breakfast at his boarding-house landlady (Barbara Windsor), Gareth Hunt (yep, Gareth Hunt) selling Donald McGill’s saucy seaside postcards, a blind priest stumbling all over the shop (Joss Ackland, “I smell youth”), a zebra, and that staple of the surreal, a ventriloquist dummy. Director Jack Bond was evidently an ideas man, he just didn’t know how to pull them together into a coherent plot.

The soundtrack to the film is culled from the Pet Shop Boys first two albums plus the cover of Brenda Lee’s Always On My Mind, although some songs are performed only as spoken word. The highlight is What Have I Done To Deserve This?, originally a duet with Dusty Springfield but here with Barbara Windsor playing Neil’s mother as he phones her from a village pay phone surrounded by National Front skinheads.

Incomprehensible it may be, but It Couldn’t Happen Here is great fun and I love it. And my god, handsome fuckers both of them.

iv This Must Be The Place I Waited Years To Leave

There are other films, some may say more significant films, that I have never seen: Psycho, indeed almost everything directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Citizen Kane, Jaws (although I did see a later sequel Jaws 3-D, so get the general idea). But for none of these did I go to the cinema with the intention of viewing the film at the time of its release only to find the film had been cancelled.

Derek Cameron took over running the Dominion Cinema from his widowed mother Jenny in the mid-1950s. Captain WM Cameron commissioned the cinema to be built in 1937 at a cost of £25,000 and the Dom remains in family ownership to this day. Mr Cameron was a constant presence there until he retired in 1996 and during that time, and while seeing off the threat of first TV, then home video, he ran a very successful and much loved local cinema.

Which begs the question: why did he decide to screen It Couldn’t Happen Here? And why was it pulled after three days?

Although Mr Cameron died in 2011, he did provide - at least indirectly - the answer to the first question. Once when I was watching a film at the Dominion the projector broke down. After a pause of at most a minute, the house lights came on and a completely unflustered Mr Cameron walked to the front of the cinema. With a big smile and a “Ladies and Gentlemen”, he apologised for the inconvenience and while the problem was being attended to, launched into a history of the Dominion Cinema. Among many other things, he explained that until - I think - the early 1990s, independent cinemas were passed by for major releases with the large film distribution companies also owning the large cinema chains. This meant that in Edinburgh films were initially exhibited in the Odeon, Clerk Street (now empty) and the ABC, Lothian Road (now the Odeon) with the likes of the Dominion often unable to show new films until weeks after their initial release.

Clearly, It Couldn’t Happen Here wasn’t a major release. Nevertheless, with the popularity of the Pet Shop Boys riding high (they’d scored another number 1 single with the thudding robot beat of Heart in March of 1988) and the school holidays just started, the opportunity to show the film exclusively at the Dominion in its first week of release presented the potential for good box office. But it wasn’t to be.

The obvious answer to why the film was pulled after only three days is that audience numbers were poor. However, in my experience, that's never been a reason for the Dominion’s management to end the run of a film half-way into its first week. One afternoon in 1992, there was only me and the projectionist in cinema 2 watching Blame It On The Bellboy. Not Dudley Moore’s and Patsy Kensit’s finest hour (nor mine) but despite that the film was retained for a full seven days.

But yes, audience numbers may have led to the early curtailment of It Couldn’t Happen Here.  With the advent of social media, news now travels quickly, less so in the 1980s. It’s doubtful then that many potential viewers would have been put off by reviews which panned the film eg the one in The List for the simple reason that they wouldn’t have seen them. But a contributing factor may have been the film’s 15 certificate, immediately preventing a swathe of the record buying / Smash Hits reading public from attending. The fact that it was at the Dominion at all - as opposed to one of the more central cinemas - may also have led to people unwilling to make the arduous journey to EH10.

For all I know though, the cinema may have been packed for those nine showings of It Couldn’t Happen Here and perhaps the reason for its short run was related to its 15 certificate. Early on in the film there is some - completely pointless - nudity and towards the end a man is seen leaving his house, walking to work engulfed in flame. Jenny Cameron had resisted pressure from film distributors to show X-rated material and Mr Cameron had continued this policy. The Dominion had always been a cinema that showed films which would attract family audiences. Incredibly, Bill Forsyth’s coming of age Gregory’s Girl had played at the Dom for three years and during his tenure Mr Cameron never screened anything with which he was not personally happy.

My guess is that he saw the Pet Shop Boys’ film over the weekend, didn't like it and decided that it couldn’t happen here.

Now it almost seems impossible

We've found ourselves back where we started from

I may be wrong, I thought we said

It couldn't happen here

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