||The Pet Shop Boys are one of the defining bands of the nineteen-eighties, and continue to be successful to this day with their legion of fans, so back in the decade that made them famous they did what they used to do in the sixties when pop stars made it big: they made a film. Essentially a string of music videos with the most obscure of plot threads, it followed Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe on what amounted to a road movie, since the easiest thing to do with your musicians in a music movie of any era was to place them on a journey. Just as The Beatles travelled to London in their A Hard Day's Night, the Boys were travelling from Clacton to... somewhere.
They began in a seaside town for as much quintessential Englishness as they could muster, even better that it was a location closed for the winter; it's difficult to say whether they and director Jack Bond were lucky with the weather, given they could have wanted the skies overcast and the wind blowing a gale, but it certainly set the scene nicely for the following near-ninety minutes of surrealism. But it was British surrealism, and identifiably so, as if you thought it was only a matter of time before a ventriloquist's dummy appeared, you would not be far wrong. See also: seaside postcard humour, religious guilt (specifically Catholic), murder and greasy spoon caffs.
Among other things. Tennant and Lowe have rarely spoken about It Couldn't Happen Here, possibly because it was so badly received by the critics and general audiences alike. They were an anomaly in that the Pet Shop Boys had been designed to be a cult band with a small following, yet proved so irresistible across the world that they became huge stars, getting to work with other stars like Dusty Springfield (their duet What Have I Done to Deserve This? is included here) and Liza Minelli and doing more or less whatever they wanted with their careers confident in the knowledge that they would always have plenty of fans eager to see what they did next. Yet not so much with this.
Released in 1988, though premiered the year before, it did have one huge number one hit among many in its arsenal, their radical and inspired reworking of the old country hit You Were Always On My Mind, which famously had kept the Pogues and Kirsty MacColl's Fairytale of New York off the top that Christmas. There are many who grumble about that now, but not Neil and Chris, probably because the Pogues tune includes a gay slur halfway through that remains brushed off as a novelty bit of swearing in a catchy ditty to this day, but think about it: why wouldn't the creators of another megahit It's a Sin not take to the Fairytale effort and far prefer their own production?
It's a Sin is included and quoted in the dialogue here, what dialogue there was anyway, part of the melange of mixed feelings about their homeland that were elicited in the film, but back in 1988 when the reviews came in, there was one word that was both unwanted and inescapable: "pretentious". This was the kiss of death for its chances at the box office, and it did about as well as a Derek Jarman film, playing exclusively to a very specific group of people, not the ones who did not like to think too hard about lyrical content. Jarman had directed the It's a Sin video, and Bond was highly experienced in British art movies for some years by then, so mass appeal was not there.
Even now, the duo have little to say about their foray into the picture houses up and down the land, if you listen to their audio commentary on the Mind video on their disc compilation Pop Art, they have the barest minimum to discuss, gently making the occasional quip but largely sitting through it in silence. It must have chided them at the time to have garnered so much acclaim and then have what would have looked like a blot on that initial run of success with their flop movie, and even in the popular culture examinations that have shown up since, it is rarely mentioned, which made the BFI's rerelease of It Couldn't Happen Here so vital to reassessing its worth (it was previously on VHS).
Going back to it, with Neil quoted latterly how proud he is of the project, far from the straightfaced, gloomy and self-important experience of its admittedly small reputation, what may strike you is how funny it is, there is a genuinely mischievous sense of humour to the film that wins you over early on. Among its cast were Barbara Windsor, pre-EastEnders then most famous for the Carry On comedies of two decades before, and she should have been an indicator this was not as serious as claimed by others. Then there was Gareth Hunt, commonly regarded as a cheesy actor of small screen action and comedy roles but here putting in a great turn as the alternately absurd and unsettling joker - he's the one with the vent dummy.
Joss Ackland showed up to lend his actorly tones and a malevolent gleam as a blind priest who sums up the mistrust of religious authority as he may well be playing a serial killer, hitching a lift in the Boys' Ford Zephyr as they flee (without much visible excitement) the seaside town of their origins. Arlene Philips, famed as choreographer of Hot Gossip, contributed her trademark moves for dance routines to the Boys’ songs with a troupe of saucy nuns and more generic hoofers of the day, and Neil Dickson sent up his part in a then-recent flop Biggles as a World War One flying ace spouting non-sequiturs. You can both see why so many resisted, and why it should be embraced now - and why anyone who missed the point owes Neil, Chris and Jack a quiet apology. It's a lot more fun than Peter Greenaway ever managed, and has strange emotional resonance too, legitimately positioning the duo as heroic icons of British pop music and social change.
[On that BFI Special Edition Blu-ray are the following features:
Presented in High Definition and Standard Definition
Limited Edition 48-page Digi-book includes a new interview with Neil Tennant and previously unseen excerpts from his personal on-set production diary, as well as an introduction to the film by director Jack Bond and writing on the film by Anthony Nield, Jason Wood, Omer Ali, John Ramchandani, William Fowler and Vic Pratt
Comprehensive feature commentary by Jack Bond, James Dillon and Simon Archer (2020)
West End Boy: Jack Bond (2020, 27 mins): the director discusses his eclectic career as a filmmaker and his enterprising approach to the making of It Couldn't Happen Here
It Can Happen Here: Arlene Phillips (2020, 26 mins): the renowned choreographer reflects upon a life in dance and the trials and tribulations of working on It Couldn't Happen Here
Always on My Mind (1987, 5 mins): the full-length promotional video for Pet Shop Boys' acclaimed 'Christmas Number One' hit, featuring Joss Ackland and footage from the film
Actually: an unfilmed early version of the script for the film, included here in its entirety for the first time anywhere
As it Happened: Image galleries including the complete final version of the script, the director's shot lists, Pet Shop Boys reference lyric sheets and promotional materials for It Couldn't Happen Here
Original theatrical trailer (digitally reconstructed for this release)]