Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Brimstone and Treacle (1982)

Like Scum (1979) Brimstone and Treacle was a film born out of necessity, because both began as plays banned by the BBC in the 1970s. 

Dennis Potter's 1976 Play For Today, Brimstone and Treacle is a dark wittily camp parable that concerns itself with the theme of evil using its power for good - the exact fallout from which is left to the audience's mind as the play closes at that very point. The story concerns an enigmatic stranger calling himself Martin arriving into the lives of Mr and Mrs Bates and their disabled daughter Patricia, who has been in a vegetative state since she was the victim of a hit and run. As the plot unravels, Martin gets his feet under the table as far as Mrs Bates is concerned, but gets under the skin of Mr Bates. Meanwhile the audience is tipped the wink that Martin is more than just a conman chancer, he is in fact the devil. Unable to resist his urges, he rapes Patricia before fleeing the house. The very act of the abuse returns her to normal, allowing her to finally 'speak the truth' and reveal that it was her own father who had caused the accident and run her over after she had discovered he was having an affair. 

The director Richard Loncraine (who had previously directed Potter's Blade On The Feather for ITV) watched the original BBC play only to declare it ''bloody awful''. Convinced he could do better with a cinematic release, the production initially gained the attention of David Bowie who was desperate to play Martin aka Satan himself, a role which had previously been played with relish by the young Michael Kitchen. However by the time the film got in motion, Bowie proved sadly unavailable and the film makers went to another pop star, the Police frontman Sting. Bowie would still play a part (of sorts) in the film; his image appears as a poster on Patricia's lovingly maintained bedroom/shrine (In the original, the poster is of Mick Jagger, someone who - in one of many tongue in cheek moments - the Devil knows on sight and greets as if seeing an old, similar styled friend)  

Michael Kitchen as Martin, 1976

Sting as Martin, 1982

Denholm Elliott as Mr Bates, 1976

And again, 1982

Patricia Lawrence as Mrs Bates, 1976

Joan Plowright as Mrs Bates, 1982

Michelle Newell as Patricia, 1976

Suzanna Hamilton as Patricia, 1982

Sting had previously played in Quadrophenia and Radio On and it is said that he wanted to star here simply as an actor, but the American financiers and distributors wanted a Police album out of it. Once Potter's suggestion to rewrite the script to incorporate musical scenes a'la his Pennies From Heaven and The Singing Detective (yet to come) was vetoed, a compromise was made which allowed The Police to score the film and have Sting sing on it, as well as sing Spread A Little Happiness (Potter's choice) over the closing credits.  I have to say its a decision not to the film's favour; the moment you hear Sting's vocals over the proceedings, the moment you lose the already tenuous belief you have that the man on screen is Martin and not Sting.  

It doesn't help that Sting's performance is decidedly anodyne and is decidedly anemic in a role that requires the camp wittiness and mischief that Michael Kitchen had in spades. Never a great actor, and never going to be my favourite person either, I do nonetheless feel some sympathy for Sting as he has to share the film with Denholm Elliott, returning to the role of Mr Bates he had played on television, with an added vinegary caustic nature and a more subversive kink witnessed in scenes away from the home which were newly written to open out the film. It was Gabriel Byrne who once said ''Never work with children or animals. Or Denholm Elliott'', meaning the man was an inveterate scene, and indeed film, stealer. Coming from a fine actor like him, an amateur like Sting clearly had no chance. 

It's a shame the film wasn't made a little bit later, as one pop star I could actually see in the Martin role would be Morrissey, someone who I imagine could really convince as a character wheedling himself into the bosom of Mrs Bates with insipid pasty faced virginal 'charm' whilst rubbing Mr Bates up the wrong way and stifling his own dark ulterior motive underneath. 

But for Sting's poor performance there is an improved performance in the shape of Joan Plowright as Mrs Bates; it's a much more convincing and more serious and sympathetic turn than the one offered by Patricia Lawrence in the original, who is little more than a shrill harpy of a silly old woman. The rest of the performers are Suzanna Hamilton, an actress I really admire, in the rather empty though pivotal role of Patricia and brief appearances from Benjamin Whitrow and, in a new ending, Dudley Sutton who may be a con man about to give Martin a taste of his own medicine, or another spirit with the same intention. It's hard to ascertain really as the film doesn't really claim Martin is actually the Devil - unlike the original play.

In the end I'm inclined to agree with the author himself, Dennis Potter who claimed that the film was "definitely less successful" than the banned TV play. Ultimately whilst the film has better production values, a bigger budget and has managed to lose the air of theatricality that TV had at the time, it also has none of the aforesaid mischief nor the overwhelming and uncomfortably sweat inducing sense of claustrophobia that the original play had.

Four years after the film was released, the BBC relented and screened the Play For Today version some eleven years after it had been made (and it's available to watch in full on Youtube) It lives on, having become a staple for theatre productions up and down the country. Not bad for something that was deemed 'too much' for an audience to take in 1976 eh?

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