Sunday, 6 December 2015

Brimstone and Treacle (1976)

"There resides infinitely more good in the demonic than in the trivial man." ~ Kierkegaard

"A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down" ~ Andrews

Made for Play For Today in 1976 but not shown by the BBC until eleven years later, this infamous banned piece by Dennis Potter (withdrawn by then Head of TV programmes Alasdair Milne because he felt it was "brilliantly written and made, but nauseating") remains my favourite of Potter's work in the single drama format. It may not be 100% perfect, but it is a wickedly funny, thought provoking, dark and powerful example of Potter's 'visitation' plays.

Michael Kitchen is brilliant as 'Martin Taylor', the devil incarnate who inveigles himself into the suburban home of Mr and Mrs Bates (Denhold Elliott and Patricia Lawrence) and their severely disabled daughter Patricia (Michelle Newell) on the pretext that he is a former boyfriend of Patricia's from art college who left the country for America when she turned down his marriage proposal, just before the hit and run car accident that has left her little more than a vegetable and which has placed a great strain on the Bates' lives together. It's an impish and campy performance that totally gels with Potter's intentions in a far more satisfactory manner than Sting's woeful attempts in the later cinematic remake. For my money, this is second to Peter Cook's devil, George Spiggot, in Bedazzled as the most fun performance of Milton's fallen angel.

The play's title stems from the old sulphur-based medicine and that's key to our understanding of what follows because it - along with the in-vision quotes at the start of the play which I've shared at the top of this review - suggests that the truly demonic can possess the power of good and bring about a change for the better. Which brings us to the play's most contentious issue; Martin sexually assaults Patricia which cures her from her catatonic state. Taking the Kierkegaard quote in context, it is clear that Potter intentionally depicts Martin as the demon with infinitely more good within him than the trivial man, as characterised here by Elliott's Mr Bates, a seemingly respectable middle class suburbanite who, we learn as the play progresses is not only a racist who has surreptitiously subscribed to the National Front because he believes 'his' England is now overrun with  blacks and Irish, but is also responsible for his daughter's accident - a flashback at the moment of Patricia's 'curing' reveals Mr Bates in bed with Susan, her promiscuous friend, which led to his daughter running into the road and having the accident. 

Throughout the play, Mr Bates is shown to be extremely uncomfortable around his daughter's condition to the point of  embarrassment. He repeatedly shows that he prefers to think of her  as 'gone forever', in marked contrast to his wife's naive religious belief and the hope that she will one day improve and come round thanks to her repeated prayers. Only in the final scene do we realise that his attitude is more indicative of his own guilt, self-loathing and cowardice at facing up to the responsibility of his part in his daughter's fate, which he has subsequently projected onto her. 

When I first saw the play in 2004, thanks to the long awaited DVD release, I felt that one aspect of Mr Bates' character seemed less topical and as such didn't work or resonate with me all that much - this was his racism. In 2004 the dark days of mainland terrorism from the IRA were thankfully over and the casual intolerance of blacks too seemed to be fading from view (though I'm acutely aware it's perhaps very naive and rather easy for me, as a white man, to say this) Watching it again today for the first time in a few years I am struck by how relevant this character trait has become once more when considered against the rising tide in favour of UKIP who, like Mr Bates, believe England should be for the English, the rose tinted glasses view of the country in their youth and that immigrants should 'go back to where they came from'. Potter allows the devil to play devil's advocate here; a stunning, frenzied monologue from Kitchen which allows him to take Bates' xenophobia and intolerance to its logical conclusion - the death camps and holocaust of Nazi Germany. Here again we see the demonic as a power for good (albeit much to Martin's disappointment; "Why can’t people accept evil when they are offered it?"he bemoans) as Bates, having seen it all spelt out clearly, retracts his views and begins to reconsider his view on contemporary multicultural Britain. It's a great performance from Elliott who represents, in all its ugly glory, the total wheedling inadequacy of Mr Middle Class 1970s, veering from the right wing of Little England Conservatism to the extreme right of the NF (though they still give old clothes to the local Conservative party, Mrs Bates points out; <em>"They need that sort of thing do they?"</em> Martin bemusedly enquires."For the jumble" she explains - a delicious comedic moment in the script) in the face of rising immigration, strikes and subversion and IRA bombs.

It would have been easy for Elliott and Lawrence to play these characters as the stereotypes they could so easily appear to be (though admittedly Lawrence takes the hapless comedic reading within Potter's script at face value more, failing to invest as much a rounded characterisation as Joan Plowright would later deliver in the film adaptation) content to simply gain our contempt and our grim humour but, through the uncomfortable and desperate nature of the situation, they skilfully eke out our pity and even our compassion which helps to lift the piece considerably.

Away from the excellent performances from the four leads and the brilliant writing from Potter, praise must also go to director Barry Davis, who uses the three-dimensional space of the studio set with superb understanding of the story as a whole, placing Patricia lying in front of the frame, illustrating not only the division in the home at all times but also the importance of her character to the narrative itself. 

To get the BBC to consider repeating some of these classic plays, please sign the petition I started here

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