Lost in half-remembered VHS limbo for more than three decades, Jack Bond’s 1988 Pet Shop Boys feature film It Couldn’t Happen Here has long been ripe for rediscovery and reassessment. Finally reissued this month in lovingly restored, lavishly packaged DVD and Blu-Ray formats, this Thatcher-era cult curio has lost little of its surreal power over the passing years. It remains a commendably weird, ambitiously arty project for a chart-topping pop group to make at the peak of their mainstream commercial period. It’s also a dense and challenging watch, but still, as Neil Tennant once quipped, “arguably better than Spiceworld”.

It Couldn’t Happen Here serves up a full English breakfast of kiss-me-quick kitchen-sink surrealism. The lurid end-of-the-pier excess is pure Ken Russell, while the broad humour often verges on Benny Hill, but there are more intriguing cultural echoes in the mix here too: Federico Fellini’s carnivalesque fantasies, John Osborne’s acrid musings on Englishness, Joe Orton’s subversively queer sex farces, Lindsay Anderson’s caustic state-of-the-nation satires, Monty Python’s genteel anarchy and Derek Jarman’s polemical poetic reveries. The film also taps into a fertile lineage of brash Britpop iconography, from The Beatles to Blur and beyond. Its tongue-in-cheek working title was A Hard Day’s Shopping, after all, though stylistically it owes more to the Fab Four’s garishly psychedelic 1968 misfire Magical Mystery Tour.

It Couldn’t Happen Here (1987)

The project was born when Tennant and his PSB partner Chris Lowe cancelled a planned concert tour with the English National Opera, having done the sums and realised in horror that they would make a huge loss. Even so, their record label EMI’s video division, Picture Music International, were still keen on making a film to capitalise on the duo’s hot streak of huge hits. Initially working towards an hour-long TV film, Tennant and Lowe first approached Zbigniew Rybczyński, the Oscar-winning Polish animator and director responsible for their 1986 promo video Opportunities. But they later settled on Jack Bond, a maverick British auteur with a strong track record of making both experimental film dramas and artful TV documentaries on Salvador Dalí, Jean Genet, Werner Herzog, Patricia Highsmith and others.

The Pet Shop Boys were particularly taken with Bond’s 1986 film Fe-fi-fo-Fum, an impressionistic portrait of author Roald Dahl for ITV’s long-running arts slot The South Bank Show, in which Ian McKellen “moved through the psychological landscapes” of Dahl’s books. They agreed to try something similar, placing Tennant and Lowe inside the landscapes of their songs. The duo gave Bond and his co-writer James Dillon a few general plot pointers, but otherwise allowed them creative freedom with the film’s narrative and visual style.

It Couldn’t Happen Here (1987)

“We decided our theme was to be a saucy seaside postcard come to life and gone mad,” Bond explains in his interview notes for the new reissue. “This allowed us to take the story anywhere, mixing surrealism and absurdism, all narrated by a crazy ventriloquist’s dummy. Neil and Chris cheerfully went along with all this.”

Expanded from a mid-length TV project to a full cinematic feature, the musical road movie that Bond and Dillon dreamed up is half nostalgic reverie and half garish nightmare. It plots a picaresque journey from rain-lashed Clacton-on-Sea in Essex to a dystopian London, all punctuated by grandly staged song-and-dance numbers taken from the first two Pet Shop Boys albums, including ‘West End Girls’, ‘It’s a Sin’, ‘Always on My Mind’ and the Dusty Springfield duet ‘What Have I Done to Deserve This?’ The cast includes a hammy Joss Ackland as a sinister priest who may actually be a serial killer, plus Carry On / EastEnders stalwart Barbara Windsor and former New Avengers star Gareth Hunt, both playing multiple caricatured grotesques. Tasked with minimal dialogue, Tennant and Lowe effectively play versions of themselves, deadpan and impassive.

The film’s disjointed script is a patchwork of cryptic riddles and creaky music-hall jokes, all marbled with quotes from Milton’s Paradise Lost and Lycidas, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Consolation of Philosophy by the sixth-century Roman statesman Boethius. Contemporary philosopher William Newton-Smith’s 1980 book The Structure of Time is also liberally quoted, perhaps a hint to viewers that we are on a journey through time as well as space. The film certainly seems to collapse multiple historical periods, with its background chorus of wartime fighter pilots and motor trade spivs, ballroom dancers and contemporary rappers.

What does it all mean? More than three decades later, It Couldn’t Happen Here remains impenetrably opaque and often jarringly pretentious. But time has been kinder to the film’s aesthetic aspects, especially its opulent visuals – something that the lustrous restored print accentuates. An extended opening credits shot of Tennant cycling along Clacton promenade over the film’s mournful title track, with its stately Ennio Morricone orchestration and sumptuous Angelo Badalamenti arrangement, has all the sombre grandeur of a classic Merchant-Ivory drama. A slow-motion Steadicam sequence of Lowe running along the seafront, ablaze with sunny lens flare, is pure poetry. The melancholy splendour of the crumbling English seaside, all rain-slicked piers and neon pleasure arcades, has rarely been so well framed on film.

It Couldn’t Happen Here (1987)

Bond’s flair for surrealistic imagery also makes for some striking trompe l’oeil tableaux. The climactic sequence for the song King’s Cross features animal handlers with zebra face paint, stunning footage of a commuter strolling through suburbia in flames, and posters that pay homage to Belgian surrealist painter René Magritte. These arch touches invoke the work of Peter Greenaway, a singular filmmaker that the cine-literate Pet Shop Boys would later directly homage with the videos to both their 1990 hit ‘Jealousy’ and their 2013 single ‘Love Is a Bourgeois Construct’.

On arrival in London, Tennant and Lowe travel by limousine into a perilous post-apocalyptic war zone. Shot around the Greenwich docklands zone that would later become home to the Millennium Dome, now the O2 Arena, this gorgeously filmed set-piece has the otherworldly beauty of Derek Jarman’s dystopian punk fantasias. Indeed, the Pet Shop Boys worked with Jarman himself just a week before shooting this sequence, on a video for their single Rent.

Shot in late 1987 and released in July 1988, It Couldn’t Happen Here arrived just as the 1980s boom for big-budget ‘event’ music videos and ‘visual albums’, often made by famous directors, was starting to implode. The trend began with John Landis transforming Michael Jackson’s Thriller (1983) into a lavish, Grammy-winning, 13-minute mini-horror movie. Meanwhile, Julien Temple tested David Bowie’s comedy acting skills to the limit with twin roles in his 21-minute extended promo clip ‘Jazzin’ for Blue Jean’ (1984). In the longer album-length format, Temple also directed Mantrap (1983), which wrapped live performances by ABC in a clumsy Cold War spy plot, while Russell Mulcahy’s Arena (1984) added muddled sci-fi elements to a Duran Duran live concert film, and Gerry Troyna’s Ricochet (1984) attempted an ungainly mix of Bowie tour documentary with thinly scripted drama.

It Couldn't Happen Here (1987) VHS Sleeve

The long-form album-promo video reached a kind of nadir with Richard Belfield’s excruciating Style Council film Jerusalem (1987) and Kate Bush’s self-directed The Line, the Cross and the Curve (1993). Bush herself later dismissed her stilted cinematic debut as “a load of bollocks”. The ‘visual album’ largely fell out of fashion at the end of the VHS era, though it has enjoyed a revival in the digital download age with artists such as Lady Gaga, Kanye West, PJ Harvey and Beyoncé all releasing noteworthy examples.

Earning mostly negative reviews when it opened in cinemas in July 1988, It Couldn’t Happen Here quickly passed into pop folklore as a hubristic vanity project. Even the Pet Shop Boys themselves appeared to disown it. “Chris wanted to put on the posters, A Wank of Epic Proportions,” Tennant told Q magazine in 1990. “I think maybe we should have had a story in the film. But the problem is neither of us are particularly bothered by the lack of plot in things.”

It Couldn't Happen Here (1987)

In fairness, with hindsight, It Couldn’t Happen Here is more imaginatively rewarding and culturally rich than its reputation might suggest. Viewed through the filter of the PSB’s subsequent body of work, it can be read as an anguished rumination on the economic, social and sexual battles of the Thatcher era, a subversive music-hall pantomime loaded with queer subtext. The title song, after all, is a melancholy ballad about a friend of Tennant’s who was diagnosed with AIDS.

“Many of the songs in it were written as a commentary on the Thatcherism we were living through, so that will have leaked into the film,” Tennant says in his interview for the new reissue package. “I don’t see it as a political film though.”

Visually, It Couldn’t Happen Here certainly predicted the self-conscious Little England nostalgia that Britpop bands like Blur would successfully exploit just a few years later. Bond has jokingly called it “the first post-Brexit film”. On his audio commentary for the new reissue, the director seems both amazed and delighted that he succeeded in making one of the most audaciously surreal music movies ever. “Anybody that doesn’t like this film is bloody insane,” Bond laughs. “Were we ever examined by doctors to see if we were sane or not…?”