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Brimstone and Treacle (1987)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Brimstone and Treacle (1987)
BBC, tx. 25/8/1987
75 minutes, colour
DirectorBarry Davis
ProducerKenith Trodd
ScriptDennis Potter

Cast: Denholm Elliott (Mr Bates); Michael Kitchen (Martin); Patricia Lawrence (Mrs Bates); Michelle Newell (Pattie)

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A diabolical young man insinuates himself into the home of a modest suburban couple who are caring for their physically and mentally handicapped daughter, with traumatic results.

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While Dennis Potter's final television drama, Cold Lazarus (Channel 4, 1996), concluded with a traditional but very moving depiction of a heavenly afterlife, his radical treatment of religious themes and symbols was a source of debate and controversy throughout his career.

This is spectacularly true of Brimstone and Treacle (BBC, 1976; transmitted 1987), the first of three Potter plays scheduled for screening in April 1976. Two weeks before transmission, however, Alasdair Milne, then Head of TV Programmes, decided to withdraw and ultimately ban it, on the grounds that the work was "brilliantly written and made, but nauseating". While the rape of a mentally and physically handicapped woman remains inherently shocking, Potter's darkly comic religious fable remains powerful without ever being gratuitous.

Although very compact (there are only three main speaking parts), Brimstone is densely structured and at times wickedly funny. The title comes from an old sulphur-based medicine, and likewise the play explores in religious terms how a great, perhaps even demonic, evil can still bring about good. Through Martin (Michael Kitchen, by turns impish and campy), the racist father (Denholm Elliott) is confronted with the logical extension of his own reactionary beliefs and finally recoils from them. The mother (Patricia Lawrence), despite the ridiculing of her blind and naive religious beliefs, is apparently rewarded in the end for her faith in her daughter's recuperative powers. The daughter, through an appalling act, seems not so much 'cured' as forced to face the events which led to her shock and subsequent retreat into catatonia.

This final aspect of the plot, revealed only in a split second at the play's end, acts like the twist at the end of Potter's 'Traitor' (BBC, Play for Today, tx. 14/10/1971). More than just a final frisson, it obliges the viewer to re-evaluate much of what has gone before, in this case linking a diabolical act of rape to a paternal scene of infidelity; one with undeniable oedipal overtones. Using Potter's recurring figure of an outsider or intruder as a catalyst, the play leaves us wondering if one of the family was responsible for conjuring up Martin. He is explicitly 'called' by both parents moments before his arrival, while the ambiguous ending suggests that it might be the daughter's own burgeoning recollection of her accident that we see build and develop in detail and length throughout the play, Martin triggering its final and devastatingly full revelation.

Sergio Angelini

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Video Clips
1. Which one? (3:07)
2. No god (3:06)
3. Prayer (3:24)
4. Old England (2:56)
Angels Are So Few (1970)
Elliott, Denholm (1922-1992)
Potter, Dennis (1935-1994)
Trodd, Kenith (1936-)
Play for Today (1970-84)