"'Doctor Zhivago' on a shoestring": When Lisa Vanderpump ruled in new wave band ABC's cult movie 'Mantrap'

Lisa Vanderpump in ABC’s <em>Mantrap.</em> (Photo: Mercury Records)
Lisa Vanderpump in ABC’s Mantrap. (Photo: Mercury Records)
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Lisa Vanderpump is now reality TV royalty via her wildly popular Bravo show, Vanderpump Rules. But in 1982, she was the big-haired, big-shoulder-padded queen of the New Romantics, and ABC’s dapper, metallic-tuxedoed Martin Fry was her king, when she took on the femme fatale role of Samantha in Mantrap — the spy caper that accompanied Sheffield band ABC’s decade-defining, Trevor Horn-produced debut album Lexicon of Love, which came out on June 21, 2022. Directed by the legendary Julien Temple (The Great Rock ’n’ Roll Swindle, Absolute Beginners, many massive ’80s music videos), the surreal movie musical remains a little-seen “underground classic,” but thanks to the internet and Vanderpump’s marquee name, it has reached new audiences 40 years after its release.

“She’s pretty iconic in it, isn’t she?” marvels ABC frontman Fry to Yahoo Entertainment. “Lisa was a great foil to me. Or, I was a great foil to her. She had a lot of star quality, a lot of ‘old-school film star’ about her — that glamour we were looking for. We wanted a very strong woman. In the movie, I’m bewitched through romance by this beautiful woman, but she’s calling the shots.”

While many of ABC’s equally glamorous early-MTV-era peers enthusiastically embraced the then-burgeoning music video medium, Fry explains that ABC always wanted to take it to another level, which led to the Mantrap project and Vanderpump casting. “We were New Romantics. There were all those bands floating around, like Duran Duran and Culture Club and Depeche Mode, and it was always about being as modern and as brand-new as possible — redesigning rock ’n’ roll, basically. The medium was the message, and it was very important how you presented yourself,” he recalls. So, when the band was approached by the BBC television show Arena to star in a special “about four guys that had come out of Sheffield in the north of England and made good,” they didn’t think that was quite ambitious enough. And so, assisted by Temple’s vision, they “decided to go the fantasy route.”

It’s not all that easy to sum up Mantrap’s bizarre plot, but it goes something like this: One evening in a posh foreign casino, a lonely, down-and-out Fry meets the elegant and mysterious Samantha (“kind of a Cruella de Vil type”), and his luck immediately improves. Not only does Fry clean up at roulette, and not only do the two fall in love, but Samantha recruits him to join ABC — who become overnight pop sensations, touring Europe in a bullet train and headlining London’s Hammersmith Odeon as they perform The Lexicon of Love.

But Fry is an unwitting pawn in an espionage master plan: ABC’s shady new manager (played by villainous veteran character actor James Villiers) and Fry’s bandmates attempt to replace the frontman in the group with a doppelgänger Russian spy, in order to sneak the spy back behind the Iron Curtain. And so, in an epic, climactic fight scene, Fry must engage in a “battle of wills” with his look-alike nemesis — in order to “make the world safe for New Romantic synthpop,” of course.

“I suppose it was kind of mid-through the Cold War, and that’s what was on people’s minds,” Fry says of Mantrap’s Soviet plot twist. He amusingly recalls, “We went down to [London’s] Ladbroke Grove and Notting Hill, and there’s a supermarket. … It looked like a lookout post, and it’s the bit we used to pretend that we were traveling through the borders. We did re-create quite a lot of Communist Russia in Notting Hill, in surrounding areas. It’s amusing to walk past today... and think, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s the place where I stood in line with Lisa and we pretended we were traveling across Russia.’ It was Doctor Zhivago on a shoestring.”

Fry did his own stunts in the “all-hands-on-deck” budget film (“You threw everything you had, heart and soul, 100 percent, into what you were doing back then — that’s very much what Julien Temple encouraged”). And Fry’s gold-suited double in the fight scene was actually played by Lisa Vanderpump’s brother, Mark, who tragically passed away at age 59 in 2018, and with whom Fry had remained friends. (“I ran into her brother quite a lot; he came to shows sometimes and stuff,” Fry says sadly.)

Martin Fry and Mark Vanderpump’s <em>Mantrap</em> fight scene. (Photo: Midnight Films/Polygram)
Martin Fry and Mark Vanderpump’s Mantrap fight scene. (Photo: Midnight Films/Polygram)

Fry was amazed by the “very young but very experienced” Lisa’s thespian skills, even before Mantrap. They’d previously co-starred in ABC’s Temple-directed “Poison Arrow” music video — which introduced the Samantha character, and was later included as a druggy hallucination sequence in Mantrap, with Samantha trapping a shrunken Fry underneath an oversized martini glass. “In the video for ‘Poison Arrow,’ I’m constantly trying to impress her, and she’s constantly unimpressed,” Fry says with a chuckle. “I’ve enjoyed seeing Lisa’s ascent [as a television personality and restaurateur] since then.”

But despite his powering through the challenging martini-glass and fight scenes, Fry was “never 100 percent convinced” by his own acting — joking that his only previous acting experience was on Top of the Pops and American Bandstand. “I suppose I got away with it. It was definitely jumping in at the deep end, yeah,” he says, shrugging. Fry says he “wanted to be James Bond and Jerry Lewis at the same time” as he approached the darkly humorous role; other onscreen inspirations included Cary Grant, The Prisoner’s Patrick McGoohan, The Manchurian Candidate, Mick Jagger in Performance, various ’60s B-movies, and even Elvis Presley’s filmography. “You never really knew if Elvis’s movies were high quality. Some of them were brilliant and some of them were terrible, but they were kind of always highly entertaining,” Fry explains. “I remember, I think that’s pretty much the area we were working in.”

ABC’s <em>Mantrap.</em> (Photo: Midnight Films/Polygram)
ABC’s Mantrap. (Photo: Midnight Films/Polygram)

Unfortunately, by the time Mantrap came out, ABC had already moved on to a rawer sound on the sophomore album Beauty Stab, so they did little to promote the film — which Fry regrets now. But he says, “It was something we’re really proud of, because a lot of bands talked about doing something like that, but they never actually got around to it. And it was something we achieved. It does document the sort of aspirations of the time.”

But the legacy of The Lexicon of Love lives on, with Fry currently touring the U.K. playing the entire album with a full orchestra; a special anniversary show at London's hallowed Royal Albert Hall is taking place this week. It should also be noted that in the final scene of Mantrap, it was deliberately left unclear whether it was Fry or his Russian doppelgänger who won that new wave fistfight, or if Samantha had been secretly working for the Soviets all along. (“You don’t really know if Lisa Vanderpump’s character is a plant, a spy,” says Fry. “You don’t really know who gets deported back to Russia, and who stays to be on Top of the Pops and become the king of the New Romantics.”)

So... all this raises the question: Would there, could there ever be a Temple-directed sequel to Mantrap?

“Yeah, that’d be great. I like sequels,” Fry answers with a laugh. (In fact, in 2016 ABC released a well-received album sequel, simply titled The Lexicon of Love II, and reunited with Temple for the music video “Viva Love.”) “I’d like to do [a sequel movie] about the Russian pop star who made it, the parallel universe: He became like the Eurovision Russian pop star, and then he returns. Good story!”

But of course, Vanderpump would have to be involved. “Oh, yeah, it wouldn’t mean anything without Lisa,” quips Fry. “She can be on the posters.”

Lisa Vanderpump today. (Photo: People)
Lisa Vanderpump today. (Photo: People)

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