Foreign Countries #21: Play for Today: Brimstone and Treacle (1976/1987)

The visitation drama has formed a lasting sub-genre in plays and it’s not hard to see why, a stranger intruding in a home/family unit is both a simple and effective dramatic device. It is also straightforward and relatively cheap to stage. Nikolai Gogol’s The Government Inspector (1836) and An Inspector Calls (1945) by JB Priestley are arguably the most famous works of their respective writers (Fawlty Towers would use Gogol’s play as a basis for The Hotel Inspectors (1975)), and both use the device for wider purposes. In Gogol’s case, to satirise incompetence and corruption in Imperial Russia. For, Priestley, it’s a critique of capitalism and social hypocrisy.

In film, Passolini’s Teorema (1968), dealing with a potentially divine force that addresses sexual and religious taboos would seem to be an influence but of course if there’s one body of work that’s the starting point for Brimstone and Treacle, it’s Mary Poppins. The play’s title is taken from PL Travers’s books, and much of Martin’s dialogue could have been lifted from Julie Andrews. Who else says “spick and span” unironically?

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Even if today’s Mary Poppins will be taking Michael Mosley‘s advice on recommended levels of sugar in a sick child’s diet.

Potter isn’t shy about sharing this influence. Two quotes intersperse the opening film sequence, the first from Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-55): “There resides infinitely more good in the demonic than in the trivial man.” The second, “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down” is attributed directly to Julie Andrews herself. So we’re being told from the off that we’re getting an existentialist critique of morality done in the style of Mary Poppins. Sounds amazing.

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You could also imagine this with the roles reversed.

But not for everyone. Absurdly late in the day, Alistair Milne, BBC Director of TV Programmes pulled the broadcast, apparently worried that the play’s messages would be lost in the flurry of complaints over the rape of a mentally and physically handicapped young woman. It would eventually be broadcast 11 years later as part of a Dennis Potter retrospective. The BBC, not for the first time, having its cake and eating it.

Unlike other visitation dramas, we start before the visitor has even chosen their victim. Martin Taylor (Michael Kitchen) idly surveys the street wondering “which one?” Seemingly it could be anyone. Anyone has enough unburied skeletons to be exploited. Martin’s first approach is a failure, the man brushes him off and Martin looks for easier pickings. He finds them in the shape of Tom Bates (Denholm Elliott).

Bates and his wife, Amy (Patricia Lawrence) care for their daughter Patty (Michelle Newell), severely disabled after being knocked down by a hit and driver two years ago. Martin spins Tom a yarn about being an old suitor of Patty’s, recently returned from America and unaware of the tragedy. He inveigles his way into the Bates household and offers to become a full time carer for Patty. At the first opportunity he gets, he rapes her.

The mysterious strangers in visitation are exactly that, we don’t know about their origins any more than why no bugger can leave the room in The Exterminating Angel (Luis Bunuel, 1962). Who they are doesn’t matter, it’s what they represent and the change they’ve wrought that’s crucial. Priestley’s eponymous Inspector doesn’t seem to exist outside of the Birlings’ home, but in it he’s the Father Confessor figure that causes the family to examine their lives and their privilege. And while Martin’s role in the drama causes similar, fundamental change in the home he invades, there is nothing ambiguous or subtle about his origins: he’s the actual, literal Devil.

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See?

Potter’s masterstroke here is that while the Devil is universal he’s also pretty much a blank canvas, so you spend less time having to worry about what exactly Martin’s motivation is throughout this. But surely he has one..? Potter has fun with Martin and Kitchen plays him with a carefree lightness of touch. Mocking and subverting what the Bates’s hold dear but getting away with it because in Tom’s case he deflects suspicion back at him, and in Amy’s he uses erudite language and cultural learning to impress.

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And with his big hair and long scarf, is Martin’s appearance a nod to Tom Baker’s Doctor Who? Another stranger who appears in people’s lives from nowhere and causes chaos.

Most of the action takes place in the Bates’s sitting room. Patty’s bed is also here and every long shot frames her in the foreground, never letting the viewer forget and also making them confront any taboos they may have about mental and physical disability. Viewer complicity is a recurring device here and Martin’s asides to camera during the rape get to the heart of why this was pulled. “I know you’re watching.” Martin seems to say to the viewer. “And what are you doing about it?”

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Not allow anyone to watch it, would seem to be Alistair Milne’s answer.

But while these scenes were the reason for the ban, unorthodox home care is scarcely the central theme. Potter’s examination of how individuals deal with feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, and how people will latch onto anything that promises straightforward solutions to complex problems – be that religion or the National Front – just because it gives them false hope, is as merciless as it’s accurate. Amy thinks Patty is locked in due to trauma, that she can understand what’s being said and that with positivity and care she can come back. Tom thinks she’s little more than a vegetable, and that there is no hope. Both have also ‘had enough of experts’ (doctors) because for Amy they might be wrong and for Tom, they couldn’t save his daughter. Once again expertise is framed by its limitations rather than by its advancements. So while Amy turns to God, Tom’s anger and frustrations are turned outward, on what’s wrong with society. He blames “blacks, layabouts, drug addicts” – seemingly in that order – for the UK’s decline and thus seeks solace in the far right. The play’s second most famous scene takes Tom’s apparent convictions to the logical conclusion when Martin shows him the short steps from migrant repatriation to violence and finally racial extermination. Tom is horrified of course, and begins the conversation believing that Martin sees things as he does, delighted he’s able to tell anti-Irish jokes and bemoans people who “try and outmanoeuvre you” in conversation. Doesn’t feel a million miles from Twitter or Question Time today.

“I want the world to stop just as it is, and go back a bit.”

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Just leaving this here, again.

The most uncomfortable truth on display here is that Martin’s actions bring about positive change. Not just in the comfort he brings Amy or the realisation he gives Tom, his final attempt to rape Patty is aborted when she screams in horror and appears to make a full recovery. Martin flees into the night to find his next victim/test subject, while the Bates family are left to discover the horror locked up in Patty for the last two years: she was knocked down running away from her father after discovering him in bed with her friend Susan. We’ve heard of Susan before, a friend of Patty’s that Tom didn’t like because she was “common” and “a slut”. So as Potter shows the basis of all Tom’s prejudices to be hypocritical (because of course it is), is Potter himself guilty of slut shaming because he suggests that Tom’s prejudice is at least on this occasion justified? Certainly the main takeaway from the play seems to suggest that good and evil aren’t absolutes and morality is fraught with complications.

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Have you heard the one about the Republic of Ireland? It borders on the insane! I said it BORDERS on the…

When the play was eventually broadcast in 1987 the UK had moved on from union strikes and inflation, and Thatcherism was at its height. It wouldn’t have made the impact it would in the mid 70s and was therefore seen in a historical context even at the moment of its premiere. A film version was made in 1982, but this is a claustrophobic tale that should be viewed in one’s own living room. All three leads are superb with Elliott in particular conveying the helpless, tortured pain of someone who has lost all hope.

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Denholm’s got form here. Especially in 1976.

Of course watching Brimstone and Treacle in 2018 almost entirely removes the political and social context of its time, and yet so much of what is happening now fits almost exactly in to the same arguments that the BBC may have been better leaving its debut until now. I keep coming back to Martin’s motivation though. As I mentioned earlier, being the Devil and therefore the personification of evil reduces the need for one, yet if the whole point of the play demonstrating that morality is so many shades of grey, then surely there must be a motive. Does Martin know the abuse of Patty will ‘cure’ her? Certainly his decision to rape her in the middle of night whilst her parents are upstairs in bed, rather than when he has the house to himself, suggests he no longer cares about getting caught. So can this be seen as the final move in a game that empowers Amy and gives her daughter back to her while at the same time exposing her husband’s deception and hypocrisy?

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Devil in the detail.

Offence, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, and people don’t like having their prejudices challenged. So if you’re asked the question ‘would you allow your daughter to be raped if it cured her debilitating mental and physical disability?’, you might not like the answer. And you might not like yourself.

4 thoughts on “Foreign Countries #21: Play for Today: Brimstone and Treacle (1976/1987)

  1. Feels like this might fit into that tradition where the Devil isn’t evil, per se, just terribly terribly pragmatic. He does terrible things, but always with the goal of some transformation, and that transformation (exposing hypocrisy, curing a woman) might well be positive, at least if you aren’t the one being exposed.

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    1. Yes, Potter said that he thought that evil spread in sanctimonious terms. Martin cares nothing for the entire spectrum of social norms, he sees what is rotten at the heart of this family and exposes it, by whatever means necessary.

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  2. Watched this again recently and there’s lots of fun to be had, but really it’s the talent of these four actors who make it something special as I think the play itself is a bit uneven.

    The DVD of B&T includes the Ludovic Kennedy discussion about the delay and re-release, and I agree with one of the participants who says he thinks the ‘Devilishness’ is unnecessary and weakens the play.

    All references to the Devil (especially with the parish hall special effects) seem very overplayed and unsubtle, but worse than that they undermine the gorgeous dilemma of whether Martin is angel or demon. That queasiness forms the best central question for me, with the most moral traction and political subversion. Not coming down on one side or the other leaves room for a debating audience, so telling us the answer and ramming it home (!) seems to lessen the possibilities.

    Martin is good news for this family, he heals them all, so if he’s unequivocally Old Nick then it leaves little room for interpretation. Also, all that filmed ‘looking for people in the street’ business makes him a bit amateurish – better to have him just show up at the door and do the whole thing on a single studio set as straight one act play?

    If you enjoy that forces-of-light or forces-of-dark equivocation, it’s beautifully done in another disregarded movie called Meeting Evil (2012) which bizarrely stars Samuel L. Jackson as a strange visitor to a broken modern American town in the grip of recession.

    It’s an extraordinary film posing (one might even say ‘hiding’) as a semi-successful B-Movie thriller, but if you watch and listen very closely there’s something going on which rock your world. The dialogue is strangely precise from the start, and although the film works hard to convince the audience (and investors?) that Jackson is a ruthless force of darkness bringing his violence to our lovely little world, given that it’s a world of mind controlled consumers in a financial crash run by duplicitous banks and governments, could he be an Angel of Light rescuing the only good human from this Hellish town?

    Meeting Evil is a film you need to see twice to answer that, but the Tony Blair demon eyes leave in no doubt with Martin.

    Finally, is anyone going to mention Denholm Elliot’s second stab at the role, with Sting and Joan Plowright :()

    Love your site. Keep up the good work!

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  3. Thanks for your comments and for the film recommendation, I’ll check that out.

    The overplayed and unsubtle bits are common throughout Potter’s work. Here Martin knows he’s a character in a play and involves the audience as much as possible. As for a lack of ambiguity, I think the interpretation is as much about exploring how devil doing terrible things can have positive consequences and how that makes you feel, as whether Martin could be an angel or a demon.

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