No amount of reading can quite prepare you for Dennis Potter’s notorious, taboo-breaking BBC play, banned by the corporation that made it back in the 1970’s, revived and adapted for this adaptation by the underrated Richard Loncraine. Even this review probably needs a warning; this film deals with adult themes, sure, but in a way that’s warped and transgressive. David Mamet said of his dramas ‘I don’t want people to come out of the theatre whistling the moral.’ A good point, but how should we emerge from Brimstone & Treacle if not utterly shell-shocked?
To back up; the BBC’s Play for Today slot terrified me as a kid. Every Tuesday, a fresh production, a tv movie but with none of the blandness associated with the branding. Instead, sex, violence, politics, bitter state-of-the nation rabble-rousing, you never knew what you’d get but it was often something that would sear your soul. That a play like this, with a devilish young man abusing a brain-damaged teenager under the noses of her parents, would be slotted between Call My Bluff and Come Dancing in an evening light-entertainment schedule boggles the mind looking back from 2020.
Emerging from a church in the opening scenes, Martin (played by Sting) is seen eating a carrot, then attempting to engage with passing strangers. When Mr Bates (Denholm Elliot) lets slip he has a daughter with a disability, Martin sets about working his way into the Bates household, claiming to have known her daughter before her accident. Martin is charming and credible, and manipulates Mrs Norma Bates (Joan Plowright) into a trip to the hair-dressing salon while her husband is at work; his target is the girl, who cannot consent to his advances.
This is dark stuff, mis-marketed as a horror film. In the tv play, Martin’s feet are revealed to be claw-like, but in the film version, it’s made clear that Martin is not the devil, just a deluded young man. So even the poster artwork sells Potter’s ideas short. It’s actually a far more obscene story if there’s no supernatural explanation; the play’s original ending shows the daughter recovering miraculously as a direct result of the assault. The author’s point seems to be that life is the product of the complex interaction between good and evil, but even he seems to have been stunned by the unjustified miracle portrayed in his own story.
Denholm Elliot played Mr Bates in the tv version too, and he’s perfect as the stumbling patriarch who has his own infidelities to hide, although the plot-point reveal is shifted unsuccessfully here. Another altered scene removes the way Martin wins Mr Bates’s support by applauding his joining the National Front organisation; the tv version seems to have been fearless in its attacks on the sacred cow of British decency. Sting also does well as Martin, twitchy, unstable, knowing in his evil behaviour; the scenes where he enjoys his own intrusion into the girl’s bedroom are genuinely chilling.
This film version disappointed at the box-office, although it’s hard to imagine the alternate universe where such subject matter could have spawned a hit. But it’s a valuable record of a brilliant, ground-breaking play, interspersed with bouts of unsuitable music (Squeeze’s Up The Junction, The Go Go’s We Got the Beat) and a strange 1940’s atmosphere. Turning up like a recurring nightmare on Amazon Prime, it’s worth a look if you can handle the subject; even with its flaws, this is a powerful, uncomfortable watch that raises unanswered questions about judgement and morality. At least it ends with a jolly old song, with Sting crooning Spread a Little Happiness, but you’re not likely to finish this film whistling anything but surrender…