Arts

Cult Movie: Pet Shop Boys star vehicle It Couldn't Happen Here ripe for re-appraisal

Chris Lowe and Neil Tennant in It Couldn't Happen Here
Ralph McLean

It Couldn't Happen Here

IT COULDN'T happen Here is a very strange little film. Not strange in the traditional sense of merely being a bit off-kilter – although its unlikely blend of pop music travelogue and kitchen sink reality is certainly bizarre – but strange in the sense that's it's hard to work out how it ever got made in the first place.

Directed by Jack Bond in 1987 and released theatrically the following year, it's a feature length vehicle for the Pet Shop Boys and a very odd one at that. Of course, pop stars who are going through a hot patch making films to cash in on their fame is a long pathway in British cinema, stretching back to Cliff and leading us right up to the Spice Girls and beyond – but this is something altogether stranger.

A madcap road movie through a broken Britain, from a rain-soaked seaside town to the crumbling mess of 80s London, it's got a soundtrack packed with Pet Shop Boy hits, an almost silent acting performance from the duo themselves, a wildly over-the-top turn from Joss Ackland as a priest and possible serial killer, plus guest appearances from Carry On Queen Barbara Windsor and one-time New Avenger Gareth Hunt to add to the madness. It's surreal and experimental and, a times at least, utterly insane.

Left for a long time to languish in that forgotten world of VHS hell, It Couldn't Happen Here has finally been re-issued by the BFI in a sparkling new DVD and Blu-ray combo – and to say it's ripe for rediscovery is a vast understatement.

The Pet Shop Boys have, of course, always been admirably arch in their pop culture dealings. Neil Tennant – a man with a background in pop journalism, lest we forget – was fully aware of the long tradition for such cheap and cheerful cinematic cash-ins. The working title of this curate's egg of an offering was apparently A Hard Day's Shopping and there's a knowing, world weary quality to what turns up on screen which echoes the pop duo's finest recordings.

It's also a film rammed with cultural nods and winks both high and low. There are sly shadows of Ken Russell and Lewis Carroll in the often striking visuals and Bond got the job of directing thanks to his documentaries on Salvador Dali and Werner Herzog rather than because he could knock out a box office busting payday for all concerned.

Such high brow concerns are balanced with nods to the humour of Monty Python and even Benny Hill at times. Bond, in the sleeve notes here, suggests it was "a saucy seaside postcard come to life" and that's really what it is. Viewed today, it's a mixed up series of stylish snapshots that apart mean little but together make for an impressive study of just how miserable Thatcher's Britain really was.

Made at the high water mark of the Pet Shop Boy's career when record companies still wallowed in surplus cash, it may have struggled to find a mainstream audience in the late 80s, but today It Couldn't Happen Here seems bang on the money.

:: It Couldn't Happen Here is available to stream through BFI Player

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