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Pet Shop Boys / It Couldn’t Happen Here

Pet Shop Boys / It Couldn't Happen Here review

Ian Wade reviews the newly reissued PSB film

Pet Shop Boys seem to be undergoing something of a reissue drive as they head towards their 40th year in operation. First there was last year’s completion and vinyl-ing up of the rest of their catalogue, then Chris Heath’s seminal books Literally and In America were republished with updated notes, and now, the thing that has long been left untouched in their catalogue, the DVD/Blu-ray reissue of their 1988 film It Couldn’t Happen Here.

Now, we know pop films are not a new thing – since the dawn of rock and roll, singers and groups have sought to ‘extend their brand’ via the medium of the feature length movie, with wildly varying results. They’ve gone from the amazing (A Hard Day’s Night, HeadTake It Or Leave It) through to the genuinely not great (Bee Gees Sgt. Pepper’s tribute) to the blatant cash-in (Spiceworld), and it would seem almost anyone who is, or has been, anyone, has sought to translate their pop success onto the big screen.

The advent of video in the 1980s gave musicians loftier ambitions to create some form of art piece to accompany their pop numbers which they couldn’t manifest in a four-minute promo, and record company budgets being what they were back then, making any form of sense was usually the first casualty. Examples might include video albums of Toni Basil’s Word of Mouth or The The’s Infected, the augmented live experience of Duran Duran’s Arena, and the extended ‘event’ videos such as Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ or Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s ‘Two Tribes’ and ‘Welcome To The Pleasuredome’.

Pet Shop Boys were no different. By deliberately approaching the whole escapade by not being as straightforward as what they appeared on the surface, their 1988 full-length It Couldn’t Happen Here is something only they could’ve come up with.

It Couldn’t Happen Here fits into the very British lineage of pop films, more in common with Madness’ Take It Or Leave It, ABC’s Mantrap, Style Council’s Jerusalem and Slade’s Flame (aka Slade in Flame), and a nod to David Essex’ That’ll Be The Day. The joy of being chart-toppers is not something they celebrate. The ‘deeper’ meaning may be incongruous with what they may appear to offer on Top of the Pops.

Director Jack Bond was given free reign to do what he liked. Bond has an incredible CV – making films for Salvador Dali, feted by Andy Warhol, directing South Bank Show episodes on Jean Genet, Werner Herzog, Camus and Catherine Cookson, which were usually funded by excursions into adverts for Maxell and Captain Bird’s Eye as well as the promo for ‘Heart’ – and it was him who turned what was initially set out to be a narrative around a selection of Pet Shop Boys songs into a full-length feature. A contemporary of Ken Russell, Bond pitches up somewhere between Derek Jarman, Lindsay Anderson and Peter Greenaway. An interesting character, who was quite into making somewhat divisive films, and here in that dank, uniquely British 1980s grittiness that carbon dates UK cinema during the Thatcher years, he excels in helping add surreal, often comic, mostly deeply pretentious, and occasionally edgy shades to selections from the duo’s first two albums.

Filmed mostly in Clacton-on-Sea, very much the ‘coastal town that they forgot to close down’ that Morrissey would soon parple about in ‘Everyday Is Like Sunday’, and where Blur would eventually deface spray-painting Modern Life is Rubbish along the seafront, It Couldn’t Happen Here curiously now feels both dated and timeless. Gareth Hunt’s dirty old man, or hideously OTT comedian; the occasional lapses into monologues, meaningless chase sequences; the none-more eighties and directional dance routines (choreographed by Arlene Phillips); Neil Tennant a-wandering around in a post-party dinner suit ensemble daze reciting postcards; the somewhat exasperating car salesman – it’s easy to understand a whole generation of PSB fans going “WTF” at it at the time. Now it’s been cited as some form of cross between Brexit and A Clockwork Orange – two things almost 50 years apart, but somehow signify the unpleasantness of Britishness. The grim, seedy boredom of English life via the prism of its epitome – a seaside town with the creaking B&Bs, wheezing fairgrounds – the sort of out-of-season places where people go to die – either of boredom or quite literally cease to exist.

Gareth Hunt and Barbara Windsor play a variety of grotesques, a host of bleak caricatures of seaside types, and they’re very much at home with the more theatrical, stage-based type of acting that they learned early on with the Royal Shakespeare Company or Joan Littlewood – while Joss Ackland playing a killer masquerading as a priest, doesn’t just chew the scenery, as treat every syllable and second he is on screen as a full buffet, (what is it with actors overdoing it when pop groups are footing the bill?)

As actors themselves, the Pet Shop Boys are effectively being the Pet Shop Boys throughout – Lowe has a good grasp of slapstick showbiz and not averse to sending himself up, whether throwing a plate of eggs over Barbara Windsor’s B&B owner or when he outruns some bikers, while Neil is the lofty, elegant, slightly detached observer, ie: the ‘role’ he’s been playing since the duo began.

Highlights? Well, the pair of them visibly corpsing and pissing themselves laughing at Gareth Hunt – then the Oliver Reed of instant coffee – arriving in a café dressed as a ventriloquist. Now this is the thing, Gareth Hunt is a riot of ham here, clearly loving it as he is able to shed his reputation as a housewife’s fancy piece as an Avenger – showing off his Royal Shakespeare roots, and proper acting farce-cum-panto chops. There’s the music too. No doubt many people’s experience of the film came in the edited highlights captured in the original ‘Always On My Mind’ promo (featured here as a bonus), but there’s also selections from Please and Actually.

By the end of the year, acid house was to enter the landscape and was staging a takeover of youth culture, with its killer rave drugs and illicit optimism that would effectively start the clock ticking to call time on the Thatcher cash-grab. By the time the Pet Shop Boys had released Introspective, It Couldn’t Happen Here had all been dismissed as some sort of bonkers folly.

However, it makes much more sense now, and holds a level of charm in the wider context and arc of the duo’s career some 33 years on, than it did in the white-hot period of their ‘Imperial Phase’. It’s a shame that it’s been so hard to obtain over the years as you could imagine a cult to have built around it – viewing parties attracted by the ‘so-bad-its-amazing’ allure, learning lines off by heart, or just something to enjoy while on light drugs – but it’s great to finally have it officially sanctioned and lovingly remastered. I’m by no means saying that it’s an essential purchase, if your Pet Shop Boys experience relies on just the hits, but it’s a long-awaited hole filler for any serious fan of the group.

It Couldn’t Happen Here is released today as a Blu-ray+DVD deluxe edition, newly restored  from a 4K scan. Note, the DVD is region 2 and the blu-ray is region B. Update: limited edition now sold out, but a standard edition will be issued in July.

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Neil Tennant

Pet Shop Boys - It Couldn't Happen Here (Std Edition DVD + Blu-ray)

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Extras:

  • The 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’ single, 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)

54 responses to Pet Shop Boys / It Couldn’t Happen Here

  1. Maryrose says:

    Great, insightful review. The standard edition DVD/Bluray will be released on July 20th by BFI

  2. Jez Orbell says:

    I bought the VHS…could even have been Betamax as I had one of those players for a while…at the time of release for, get this, £70. I can’t recall if the money was suddenly more appealing than the film but I returned it the very same week. I wasn’t earning much back then so Lord knows how I justified the expense. That record shop in Peterborough later became a restaurant and is now a walk-in dental practice. I think I felt the viewing experience at the time was a bit like pulling teeth so it seems somehow appropriate. I may have to get it again to give it another try but the standard edition will more than suffice.

  3. Pingback:First edition of Pet Shop Boys blu-ray sold out, but standard set on the way | superdeluxeedition

  4. DianeM says:

    *sigh* I ordered off of Amazon UK in February and my order is saying delivery July 1st but shows that it has yet to ship, I suspect it will never ship.

    • DianeM says:

      Color me absolutely stunned, my Limited Edition of It Couldn’t Happen Here showed up yesterday from amazon.co.uk.

      I had a chance to watch it last night and have plans to watch with the commentary this weekend now that I’ve reacquainted myself with it.

  5. TRACY says:

    It is apparently available at CeDe.com from Switzerland. I don’t know anything about this company, but it is the only place I can find it but there would be customs charges. I already have it so mentioning it for those who can’t find it.

    • Michael says:

      Sold out there too.
      But on PSB`s official site, it says that a standard edition will soon be announced !Pheww.

  6. Simon Horton says:

    Can’t find this anywhere to buy! :-(

    • KC says:

      I was hunting high and low, and I finally managed to find it on cede.com but it is a bit expensive there.

  7. jopla2 says:

    base.com:
    We have cancelled your order for It Couldn’t Happen Here (Limited Edition) [Dual Format Edition] as we are unable to get a firm re-supply date for this product from our suppliers.

  8. Mark says:

    It’s almost worth buying for Arlene Phillips alone. She only mentions the film towards the end of her interview, but she is thoroughly engaging.

  9. David Smith says:

    It seems to be sold out on Amazon and hmv with no date for coming back into stock. I can’t believe it sold out in under a week, that’ll teach me to wait for pay day.

    Anyone know of any other outlet, or if it’s strictly limited and not coming back

    • Graham Turner says:

      Yeah, the Limited version seems to be sold out everywhere online (BFI, Amz, HMV, base).

      Amazon now have a link for a ‘Standard Edition’ due 20 July so that might be your best bet:
      https://amzn.to/2UTvP0A

  10. Ern says:

    I got my copy and gave it a spin without trying to understand what was going on. Half way through it dawned on me that this is like a demented version of a Sapphire & Steel story.

    Time has folded in on itself, placing our two heroes in predicaments from their past lives against various aspects of society. The seasonal holiday goer, B&Bs, religion, biker gangs, con artists, greasy spoon cafes, serial killers, racist gangs etc. In the end, it looks like the Boys are going to be pigeonholed into an endless life of Strictly Come Dancing but they leave to find their own path in life.

    This is just my reading of what it is all about. Has anyone listened to the commentary track yet?

  11. Andreas says:

    When is it available in Germany?

  12. Ray says:

    Pre-ordered this on Amazon and arrived yesterday. Great presentation and the picture quality of the Blu Ray is superb. I live in Clacton and have two family members who were there when this was filmed, so its nice for them to finally see it after 30 years!

  13. Paul English says:

    Wow, went to order from Amazon and it’s gone to “Usually dispatched within 1 to 2 months.”

    Ebay prices are in the £30 – £47 mark already.

  14. Jason says:

    So frustrating that this is released specific to a region and not just release it as region 0! As a lifelong PSB fan, I have been waiting for this to be released on DVD and was absolutely crushed to find out that it was region specific.

  15. musicmen says:

    hi dear any of you have idea of plan for usa canada release date for pet shop boys movie ntsc region 0? thanks for all your comment.

  16. Mark says:

    Already sold out via the BFI website.

  17. Mark says:

    Thanks for this, Ian, even if the phrase “vinyling up” is thoroughly toe-curling!

  18. Patrick Cleasby says:

    Has anyone got this and has tried playing the Blu-ray on an Oppo UDP-205?

    Doesn’t work for me…

    • Paul Sinclair says:

      Mine is arriving today, so I’ll try it on 205

    • Martyn Alner says:

      It’s a bit hit-and-miss, my Panasonic Blu Ray took 3 goes before it eventually played. You may have to leave it for a few mins to load. Very odd.

  19. kokachoo says:

    will this be released in ALL region later?

  20. Paul Wallace says:

    I’ve always had a soft spot for this arthouse bonkers flick, probably because I love the early stuff of the PSB so much. The Blu Ray transfer is beautiful (finally hung up my tired VHS copy) and it’s all housed in a stylish package. You’ll watch wondering if it’s brilliant or a case of the Emperor’s New clothes and is indeed shit. I guess it’s a marmite thing, and I love to spread loads of that stuff on my toast. Whatever you think of it, you’ll watch the lot and it’ll get a reaction from you. Essential purchase? No chance unless you’re a huge PSB fan of their first few albums.

    The best way to describe it is an arty ‘Carry On’ film.

  21. Shane says:

    Sorry Paul but why is Spice World a blatant cash-in and all the other by-you aforementioned not?

  22. David M says:

    Nice review, Morrissey’s coastal town was actually Borth in West Wales. I have family in Clacton though!

  23. EE says:

    How fantastic is this re-release can’t wait to purchase

  24. Christian says:

    Will it be released in other european Countries as well?? E.g. Germany??

  25. Paul says:

    I loved and still love please and actually, so I was disappointed when I originally watched this film back in the day, so I ordered this deluxe set and just ended up skipping through the film. psb call it silly I call it just shit. (sent it back) sorry hard core fans. For the record I love prince and yes graffiti bridge is shit too. ;-)

    • David S says:

      Paul, I agree. I bought it having never seen it before, as a Pet Shop Boys fan, but I was unable to find any storyline to the film. Nothing made any sense to me. People can try and defend it and talk about it’s charm, but no, not for me, sorry.

  26. David says:

    “making any form of sense was usually the first casualty”. Indeed.

  27. Martin Kilroy says:

    Are the songs the album versions, or were there any unique mixes?

    • Craig Hedges says:

      The film only uses previously released mixes, there are no unique versions, other than some dubious edits.

    • Chris says:

      Not really.
      It’s A Sin is the Disco Mix and all other songs are album versions. But if I’m right, Always On My Mind sounded slightly different to me.
      Like the demo from Actually Further Listening.
      One More Chance was mixed and edited.

    • James C says:

      Nothing unique, no. From memory it features the earlier non-hit mix of Always On My Mind, and the extended mixes of It’s A Sin and What Have I Done To Deserve This?. Songs like Suburbia and It Couldn’t Happen Here get quite a few appearances too. Really looking forward to receiving mine, one more VHS tape that can be retired!

    • Andrison says:

      The film features mostly album versions, with the 12″ mixes of It’s A Sin and What Have I Done To Deserve This. Always On My Mind was the demo version that’s on Actually Further Listening. Plus Suburbia was the “Video Mix” that features on PopArt. There was a very limited promo cassette soundtrack album at the time the film came out: https://www.discogs.com/Pet-Shop-Boys-It-Couldnt-Happen-Here-Original-Motion-Picture-Soundtrack/release/2036936

  28. WILLIAM ENGLAND says:

    Still not as “out-there” as Barry Gibb’s Now Voyager film which defies description!!!

  29. Stephen says:

    My book appears to have the cover on upside down!

  30. Joe Atari says:

    i’ve never seen it, although the Actually album does feature the title track “it couldn’t happen here” which is very filmic. there’s also a whole video album for Eurythmics’ 1987 album “Savage”. video albums though, not sure they work, then or now. however the PSBs film, like a 1980s episode of Eastenders, sounds like it has more time capsule curiosity value long after the vent, like an old diary, even if the plot is flimsy.

    • Rickjapan says:

      The Eurythmics Savage video album has appeared frequently here as something that people want to be re-released, me included. I think it’s a thing of beauty, and works far better than most other video representations of music.

      Currently I have a PAL VHS video of it and am trying to find someone here in (NTSC) Japan who will convert it to a digital format for me without complaining about copyright issues. Of course, if they just re-released it I could buy it again, no problem…..sigh

  31. Tim says:

    Shame you don’t say anything about picture and sound quality…always helpful for a blu-ray review.

    • Craig Hedges says:

      The picture quality has been improved but sadly the sound hasn’t been upgraded. There is only the original stereo soundtrack, no 5.1 mix. This release is more focused on the director Jack Bond than the Pet Shop Boys. The packaging is very nice, only read Neils Q&A so far which is very brief and doesn’t give any new info.

  32. Rik Skyline says:

    I’ve never seen this film. I really must check it out. I do hope the PSBs will release an expanded/updated reprint of their book ‘Catalogue’. It’s getting quite hard to come by now – I remember a few years back they were selling off copies of the book in Fopp for £7.

    • Straker says:

      Catalogue is not being reprinted/updated. Straight from the horse’s mouth – Thames and Hudson. You can get a used copy on eBay for £50 or less.

  33. Graham Turner says:

    For anyone looking to save a few pounds and don’t mind waiting a bit, this can be had for £17.99 (incl free UK P&P) at base.com, although currently awaiting a restock.

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