‘It Couldn’t Happen Here’ (DVD/Blu-ray) reviewed

We Are Cult’s Ange Chan revisits the PSB’s offbeat road movie.

How best to sum up this wonderfully madcap film?  Neil Tenant and Chris Lowe aka the Pet Shop Boys meet a mad vicar in the guise of the great Joss Ackland, whilst driving through the south coast of England, encountering a variety of characters along the way.  That just about covers it for this arthouse classic, recently released on limited edition on DVD and Blu-ray formats for the first time.  

The film was brought about very early on in the Pet Shop Boy’s pop career, receiving its theatrical premiere at the London Film Festival in late 1987 prior to being released on VHS by Picture Music International (EMI’s home video line) on 16 June 1988, and then quickly became unavailable.  There was also no official soundtrack released to go with the film, although there was a limited promotional cassette released at the time.  In Japan and the US it was released on Laserdisk but was also discontinued, making this film a true obsolete cult classic.

The screen play was written the the Pet Shop Boys along with Jack Bond who also directed, and James Dillon.  The Pet Shop Boys had been introduced to Jack Bond who’d also made films about Werner Herzog, The Blue Hussar, and Salvador Dali.  The band gave him their basic ideas but essentially, he had a free hand in his direction.  The only stipulation was that the film wasn’t another ‘pop group in a film’ type production.  Tennant recalled at the time, “Some people critiqued the film as being like a long pop video but in the 1950s before there were pop videos, a movie made to music was considered to be a wonderful thing.  I don’t see why it still shouldn’t be considered as such”. 

The film also features Barbara Windsor and Gareth Hunt in a number of different roles.  Categorised as a ‘Musical/Comedy’ with a 15 rating (presumably for the brief nudity scenes) the film features tracks, from The Pet Shop Boy’s first two studio albums, namely Please and Actually.  The only track to feature in the film which was not on either of those albums is Always on My Mind which appeared on the 1988 album Introspective.

It Couldn’t Happen Here was released due to the Pet Shop Boy’s reluctance to go on tour at the time. “We’d planned to do this very theatrical tour with the idea of filming it,” said Tennant.  “We’d hired theatre directors and stage designers and then to our horror discovered we couldn’t afford to take the show on the road.  That’s when someone suggested we made a full-length feature film of it instead”. Since those days of course, Pet Shop Boys tours have famously become theatrical productions in their own right; much more of a musical experience than just a pop concert.

The movie was filmed in Clacton and Westcliff on the Essex coast and has a somewhat disjointed and bizarre storyline with an odd placement of a series of events (some of which you can only assume are autobiographical) which are based around the songs, rather than the songs being based around the film.  We Hear Love Comes Quickly on a jukebox in the background, or Always on my Mind being played on the radio in the car.  The film also has a number of dance sequences in it which soundtrack to their own pop songs, giving greater artistic freedom under the banner of the film.

My early memories of the film the first time around were predominately around the scene where the narrative said, “father used to come home in a rage”, with a burning man walking in the background.  This was very unfortunately around the time of the Kings Cross fire disaster where a number of people died and was further exacerbated by the fact that PSB wrote a song about King’s Cross which followed the aforementioned scene. The film was slated by the media for including this content, which was an unfortunate coincidence rather than a direct artistic interpretation.  It was going to be deleted from the film but was kept in at the request of the victim’s families.

The film is punctuated by scenes and implications of violence which the duo miraculously manages to side swipe at every turn; crazed knife attacks, vandalising yobs and a battlefield of bombs all randomly pass Chris and Neil by unscathed.  Clearly strewn with metaphors throughout, the film allows the viewer to pass their own interpretations on the proceedings.  For the literary astute there are a number of literary references within It Couldn’t Happen Here, including Milton’s Paradise Lost and Newton-Smith’s The Structure of Time.

This film is for lovers of music by The Pet Shop Boys and film buffs who like to be challenged and find their own artful interpretations of the script.  Either way, It Couldn’t Happen Here is a film project that only the Pet Shop Boys could have done.  A mix a wry comedy, voyeuristic content and dry delivery which is symbiotic of their delivery of their own lyrics and music.  At the initial release it was somewhat slated, but Neil Tennant somewhat sardonically said at the time in 1988, “It Couldn’t Happen Here was like a Ken Russell film and there is no more of an unfashionable film-maker these days.  People nowadays need to understand everything.  Twenty years ago, people would have thought that it was wild because they wouldn’t have the faintest idea what was going on!”

The Pet Shop Boys have since been involved in a number of art projects from silly songs to support Red Nose Day (I’m With Stupid) to writing a score for Battleship Potemkin (presented on a wet evening at Trafalgar Square, of which I was lucky enough to attend), to writing music for dance and movement, to writing their catchy pop hits of which the majority of the populous are familiar.  The Pet Shop Boys will tackle most things and do it in their own inimitable style.  It Couldn’t Happen Here is just one of part of their incredible legacy.

❉ It Couldn’t Happen Here was re-released on 15 June 2020, on limited edition format by BFI on DVD/Bluray format in a digipack release with hardbacked full colour booklet, and is available from the BFI website https://shop.bfi.org.uk/pre-order-it-couldn-t-happen-here-limited-dual-format-edition.html#.XutJxUxFxYc

Ange Chan is a regular writer for We Are Cult and has published six volumes of poetry and two novels of contemporary fiction.  She is currently also working on a long-standing project of her third novel Champagne Flutes and Pixie Boots.

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