The worst aspect of Dennis Potter's final two indulgent and indulged works (Cold Lazarus and Karaoke) was that they had the effect of retrospectively introducing doubts over everything else he'd done. Could he possibly be anything like as good as we'd always believed?
Actually, there's a case for saying that, if 1986's The Singing Detective marked the peak of Potter's career, it also preceded a slow and painful decline. It would only be slightly harsh to say that everything after 1986 was either formulaic reiteration (Lipstick On Your Collar) or tortuously introspective, failed experimentalism (Blackeyes, the film Secret Friends). By the time of his death in 1994, Potter had been lionized by the great and good everywhere, his reputation for controversy forgotten (or forgiven?). Melvyn Bragg's famous interview-cum-hagiography elevated Potter to the state of an unimpeachable morphine saint. All of this solemnity had the effect of devitalizing Potter's work, prematurely shrouding it with all the cobwebs of respectability and reverence.
Well, thanks to Sphaleotas I had the opportunity to see Potter's 1976 masterpiece Brimstone and Treacle again very recently. (The play is shortly to be reissued as part of a must-have Potter DVD boxset, which also includes The Singing Detective, Pennies From Heaven and Casanova). In 2004, when TV drama is corporate, committee-driven, blandly homogenous, Potter looks even more of an anomaly than ever. Today, there's almost no way of identifying TV dramas by who has written them; they are routinely conceived of as vehicles for actors, not authors. By contrast, even at its worst, Potter's work was marked by an indelible signature, characterised by a singular VISION. (The tendency to fall back on these trademark elements without remixing them was one of the weaknesses of his last pieces). It's hard to imagine that Potter's peculiar portfolio of obsessions and techniques (his playful anti-naturalism, his disturbed disquisitions on sexuality, politics and religion, his loving interrogation of the appeal of pop music and pulp genres, his exemplification/ analysis of misogyny) would get past our 00's culture's gatekeepers (which might be tolerant of representations of sex, but which are, in every other way, more censorious than those of the 70s). As The Independent pointed out when it reappraised Potter in the light of the US film version of The Singing Detective, his influence is more likely to be felt on American than on British TV, in an expressionist drama such as Six Feet Under or even in the delirial departures from naturalism of something like Ally McBeal.
In any case, Potter did fall foul of 70s sensibilities with Brimstone and Treacle. Filmed in March 1976, it was due for broadcast as a Play For Today in April, but was pulled at the last minute when the BBC authorities quailed at its 'nauseating' qualities. It didn't surface until over a decade later, when, in the wake of the success of The Singing Detective, the play was eventually shown in 1987. An inferior film version, starring Sting, was released in 1982.
Brimstone and Treacle features a young Michael Kitchen as the devil. In an echo of Potter's earlier 'visitation' plays, Kitchen's character, Martin, inveigles himself into people's lives and homes by cold reading them like a stage hypnotist.
Potter's vision of evil is a million miles away from the white-catting portentousness or Pacino-like histrionics to which countless cliched cinema renderings have accustomed us. Kitchen's devil is impeccably polite, insufferably, cloyingly nice, sanctimoniously religiose. 'Religiose' is a word Potter used with a particular contempt, carefully contrasting its pious pomposity with what he saw as the genuine religious sensibility.
The play opens with two epigraphs: the first from Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling:'there dwells infinitely more good in a demoniac than in a trivial person', the second from Mary Poppins ('A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down'). For Kierkegaard, the most pressing danger for Christianity was not doubt, but the kind of bluff certainty peddled by pompous philosophers like Hegel. Kierkegaard's Faith was indistinguishable from terrible anxiety. The paradox of Faith for Kierkegaard was that, if God completely revealed himself, Faith would be unnecessary. Faith is not a form of knowing; on the contrary. Kierkegaard's models were Abraham on the day he was asked to sacrifice Isaac and Jesus' disciples: tormented by uncertainty, unmoored from any of society's ethical anchors, staking their life on fabulous improbabilities.
Martin is a perverse double of 76's most iconic of icons, Johnny Rotten, that demonic purge of trivia and mediocrity. If Rotten's Nietzscheanism ('I yam an antichrist') concealed a burning core of righteousness, Martin's surface charm belies malevolence. At the limit though, what both Rotten and Martin show is the deep complicity of ‘good’ and ‘evil’, their mutual interdependence. Both Martin and Rotten are ultimately deliverers, destroyers of fragile status quos, bringers of disequlibrium and agents of chaos. Punk's greatest disgust was with the trivial and the mediocre, with the existential death of boredom. The decadence would be cleansed by rage (cf the apopleptic Colin Blakeley in Potter's 69 version of Christ's life, Son of Man.)
Brimstone and Treacle begins with Martin accosting Denholm Elliott's Mr Bates in the street. Martin's questioning quickly establishes that Bates has a daughter, suffering from apparently incurable neurological damage after being hit by a car two years previously. Posing as an unrequited admirer of the daughter, Pattie, Martin insinuates his way into the Bates' home.
The house is a suburban fortress incubating quiet desperation, nagging frustration and unspoken betrayals. You can almost smell the house, thick with the stench of unaired rooms, the pulped food with which Pattie is spoonfed --- and despair. Martin's incursion is greeted with initial suspicion and circumspection by Mr Bates, but welcomed by the easily beguiled Mrs Bates (Patricia Lawrence), eager to clutch at any potential escape route from the treadmill of drudgery in which she is confined. While Bates has given up any hope of Pattie recovering, his wife cherishes the seemingly impossible dream of a miraculous return to health.
Kitchen's performance is magnificent, but it is Elliott who steals the show. He manages, incredibly, to make the obnoxious and unpleasant Bates, a neophyte National Front supporter, painfully sympathetic. The scene in which Bates regales his wife and Martin with a desperately unfunny Irish 'joke' is excruciating. Elliot renders Bates’ typical expression as a grimace - of irritation, suppressed rage, bewilderment. It is the expression of a whole class’s, a whole generation’s, incredulity that the world no longer belongs to them, if it ever did. Bates’ political pathology is rooted in a bewildered and misconceived nostalgia, a bleary and inarticulate longing for the world to be like it used to be. He’s a bit like the average Britpop fan would be twenty years later.
Potter is at his most politically acute here, in his exposing of the proximity of a respectable, 'common-sense', Daily Mail agenda to that of the Far Right. Potter locates Anglo-fascism's 70s heartland behind the politely manicured lawns and privet hedges of suburbia. Martin wins Bates over by agreeing with him that ‘we need to get rid of the blacks’. ‘It’s so good to have an intelligent conversation like this,’ Bates enthuses, cracking open the scotch. However, Martin’s gleeful description of what will happen when ‘they won’t go’ – ‘we’ll round them up, put them in camps’ – makes Bates blanche. Mrs Bates is not so convinced. ‘You can be too nice you know.
Brimstone and Treacle is disturbing, ethically opaque. It is a troubling for reasons other than those of cultural or political conservatism. The denouement sees Martin's raping of Pattie shocking her into an unexpected recovery (which itself prompts the play’s final shocking revelation, which I won’t give away for the sake of those who haven’t seen it yet). There is no easily digestible ‘message.’ It’s a bitter pill rather than a spoonful of sugar.
Thanks to Sphaleotas for the tape, the conversations and the research.