Looking back at Dennis Potter’s Brimstone And Treacle

Aliya looks back at Dennis Potter's powerfully disturbing, formerly-banned 1976 television play Brimstone & Treacle...

At the beginning of Brimstone And Treacle (1976), interspersed with the action, the screen shows two quotes. The first is by Kierkegaard: “There resides infinitely more good in the demonic than in the trivial man”. The second is from Mary Poppins. Dennis Potter chooses to remind us that just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. The title of his play comes from the novel of Mary Poppins – it’s the medicine that Mr Banks was once given by his horrible nanny in his own childhood – and can now be found in the modern stage version of Mary Poppins as a song.

It’s really weird to realise that the plots of Mary Poppins and Brimstone And Treacle have so much in common; a stranger arrives, and bluffs their way into a house. They come from nowhere, and will leave just as quickly. They act in a precise manner, and say exacting things like, “that is precisely my requirement” and “spit spot”. They can move objects simply by snapping their fingers. Both Mary Poppins and Brimstone And Treacle deal with the question of what happens when someone else proclaims themselves the saviour to your problems, for children and parents alike. The only difference is the intention behind their proclamation; Mary Poppins is practically perfect in every way, and the visitor in Brimstone And Treacle is a demon called Martin who wants to hurt people.

Potter makes it very clear to the viewer that this character isn’t to be viewed ambiguously. He states up front that he’s a demon, and he has hairy feet with clawlike toenails. He greets a portrait of Mick Jagger as an old friend, and lies easily and with great charm to Mr and Mrs Bates, whose house he infiltrates. They are the worn-out parents of a young woman called Pattie; she lies in a vegetative state in their living room, cared for by them alone, after a car accident. Mrs Bates has prayed for a miracle, and she gets Martin, who begins to sexually abuse the daughter in scenes that are very difficult to watch. He turns to the camera and makes us complicit, directly addressing us through the camera and performing song and dance routines for our benefit.

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Martin is a fascinating character – the extreme version of Michael Caine’s Alfie with all excuses removed, or even Alex from A Clockwork Orange with no possibility of redemption or rehabilitation. Looking at him perform his worst acts, Mr Blonde in Reservoir Dogs also springs to mind, dancing his way around sadism; in fact, the way Tarantino uses music from the past generally is so similar to Potter’s use of it. There is less music here than you find in his later plays, but when it does appear it provokes an immediate response, sitting so uncomfortably next to what we’re witnessing.

In this BBC Play For Today version of Brimstone And Treacle Martin was played Michael Kitchen, who went on to appear as Foyle in the ITV drama, and in films such as Out Of Africa, and My Week With Marilyn. There is also a later film version (1982) in which Martin is played by Sting, and I think that’s an interesting performance too, although a bit more languid in its evilness (it also changes some aspects of the events and timings). Kitchen is perkier, and spiteful, and impish at times that give way to sudden glimpses of a convincing diabolical nature. Perhaps he better fits Potter’s views about what he wanted to achieve with the play, as expressed in a BBC World Service interview in 1979, that, “…the modern world has slid into the assumption that evil is an adjective and not a noun, and I wanted to personify it in perhaps its most obvious and cheap, easy manner.”

But here’s the thing – although Martin acts with the intention of doing great harm in order to enjoy himself, evil is not the outcome. The motivation doesn’t always influence events, and this message strikes me as unusual for the stories we often find in television and film, where those who act for good are rewarded, and those who do what we consider to be bad things get their comeuppance; good and evil reduced to a straight line of cause and effect. Potter aimed to show how much more complicated morality can be.

There’s a real-life example that illustrates Potter’s point. Brimstone And Treacle was banned by the BBC, and remained unshown for years. In 1976 Potter wrote about this decision for New Statesman, responding to the words of Alasdair Milne, the Director of Programmes, that the play would outrage viewers and get no real point across. Potter pointed out that, “…if the best of what is to be forbidden to viewers is the possible nausea and outrage the programme might cause, then how come that in the same drear week that Brimstone And Treacle was due to be shown we had to put up with such proven emetics as Jim’ll Fix It, the 400th repeat of Star Trek, two uninterrupted hours of the Eurovision Song Contest…?” Over time and with fresh knowledge, our idea of whether Dennis Potter’s plays or Jim’ll Fix It are less palatable to an audience has changed.

Having said that, it’s not hard to understand why the BBC felt nervous about Brimstone And Treacle. It has lost none of its power over time, and it is still very hard to watch in places. But there are also moments of real poignancy that make statements about our society and are as relevant now as they were in 1976. Mr Bates (played by Denholm Elliott) is a man who has lost in faith in God and in the world he inhabits. He has joined the National Front and wants all immigrants to be expelled from the country. At first we feel nothing but dislike for him, but there’s a brilliant moment where, after a few drinks, he begins to talk about wanting to go back in time, to a better England. We know he’s really talking about wanting to go back to the time when his daughter was well, and through an amazing performance of a subtle piece of writing we find sympathy for this flawed man, particularly when Martin begins to talk of how to get rid of immigrants through concentration camps and mass killings, and Mr Bates quietly shakes his head, and says, “No.” His own experiences have influenced him, and he is not evil. In the face of real evil, he takes a step back, and decides he won’t be renewing his subscription to the National Front after all. In rare moments when evil becomes obvious to us, we reject it.

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Potter wrote, “no human motive is not mixed” and that is perhaps the meaning at the heart of Brimstone And Treacle. Even Mrs Bates, who prays so hard for her daughter, can be tempted on selfish grounds. Martin appeals to her vanity, offering to look after Pattie so that Mrs Bates can get a haircut and look years younger, and so he is left in the position to do terrible things. When Mr Bates points out that his daughter still has a body if not a mind, and that maybe Martin should not be allowed access to it, Mrs Bates tells him he has a filthy mind to even imagine such things. She wants Martin in the house for her own good as much as for any other reason. So nobody is a straightforwardly good character, but then, who would expect Dennis Potter to write anything as easy as a good character? Back in 1976 he wrote that Brimstone And Treacle was “the best play that I have written” and I wonder if he felt the same towards the end of his life, when time and experience had maybe changed his views. Certainly his later works are more layered and involving, but nothing is more powerfully disturbing than Martin’s gleeful demonic nature.

But then, time and experience change us all. Just as Mr Banks in Mary Poppins had placed his faith in the bank as a way of warding off his own fears, so Mr Bates had joined the National Front as a way of fighting his own demons. Having these safety nets wrenched away is painful and horrible, whether it’s done through good or bad intentions. At the end of the play Martin wanders off to work his magic elsewhere – who knows what the outcome will be? For a short play with only four characters, Brimstone And Treacle gives us so much to think about, long-term. Is the outrage it provokes worth the point it gets across? Perhaps Potter would like it best if we simply said that sometimes we must be cruel to be kind; now that’s the kind of motivation he liked to examine up close. Whether it comes with a spoonful of sugar or with brimstone and treacle, it turns out that the medicine is just the same.

The quotes from this article are taken from Dennis Potter: The Art of Invective (Selected Non-Fiction 1953-94), published by Oberon Books 2015.

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