Dennis Potter was frequently a controversial writer — but his TV play Brimstone and Treacle is possibly his nastiest work. Banned for over 10 years by the BBC, this play about a suburban family who gets the perfect houseguest (who is probably Satan) is just horrible. And kind of insane. See for yourself.
Most of us only know Brimstone and Treacle as an insane 1982 movie starring Sting — but it started out as a television play for the BBC. This bitterly misanthropic TV movie was written in 1974, but the BBC stalled on filming it for a couple years, before finally shooting in 1976 — and then once it was filmed, the BBC shelved it for another decade, not showing it until 1987. But meanwhile, Potter’s script was turned into a movie, which got a bit more exposure. (Denholm Elliott, who played the father in the TV version, returned to play the father again in the movie.)
And the TV movie is just brutal — witness the above scene, where Martin takes Tom Bates’ sentiments about those terrible immigrants to their logical conclusion, to Tom’s flabbergasted horror.
In Brimstone and Treacle, a mysterious young man named Martin goes to live with the Bateses, whose daughter is paralyzed and unable to speak following a car accident. Martin ingratiates himself with the family, especially Mrs. Bates, while also pointing up the hypocrisy of their middle-class Christian respectability. In the end, we learn that Mr. Bates was having sex with his secretary, and witnessing this infidelity was the trauma that really put the daughter Pattie in a coma. After Martin sneaks in and rapes Pattie, she recovers consciousness and accuses her father.
When the TV play was suppressed in 1976, it was mostly on the grounds that it might offend religious people. Leaving aside the fact that Martin is probably supposed to be Satan or some kind of demon, there are tons of pot shots at religious people who are basically awful. Potter said that this and similar plays he wrote were “based on the feeling that religion is not the bandage but the wound.”
But now, Brimstone and Treacle has been making a comeback, with stage performances. When it was performed theatrically in London in 2012, the anti-religion stuff wasn’t nearly as controversial as the part where Martin rapes a quadriplegic woman, as the Guardian explains:
When the young theatre director Amelia Sears, hunting for her next production, came across a copy of a play called Brimstone and Treacle by Dennis Potter, she had, she admits, “no idea of the controversy there was around it. I’d done a production of Potter’s Blue Remembered Hills and I found this in a library and thought: why hasn’t it been done?”...
Recorded in 1976, the play was referred to the then BBC director of television programmes, Alasdair Milne. In his memoirs, Milne records that a screening made him “almost physically sick”. While stressing the brilliance of the writing and acting, Milne ruled that the drama would be found “repugnant” by much of the audience and so could not be shown....
The most intriguing aspect of this revival is that the play may be more contentious now than it was 35 years ago. Its television ban was prompted by the fear that the plot might offend Christians; in 2012, the propriety of depicting a sexual assault on a quadriplegic woman is the more likely source of protest.
“I’ve had to think about this, from a woman’s point of view,” says Sears. “What, morally, is this suggesting? A woman gets raped and she is apparently healed. So that has been a challenge.”
So how does this barbed 1970s satire hold up today? For a thoughtful, and ultimately none too positive, opinion, read this recent review of a Canadian theatrical production. And you can see the original 1976 version on Youtube.