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Brimstone and Treacle

Brimstone and Treacle is a 1970s play by Dennis Potter about a middle-aged middle-class couple living in a North London suburb who are unfortunate enough to have their beautiful undergraduate daughter's life reduced to a severely handicapped existence by a hit-and-run driver.

Outline of the plot

Warning: Wikipedia contains spoilers

For a couple of years now Tom and Amy Bates have been struggling to cope with their transformed lives, with their daughter Pattie (or Patricia) strapped down to the living-room sofa, unable to wash or eat by herself and uttering unintelligible sounds ("Okh okh yo ap", "Blllllllllbububoy", "Coo loo lay mmm"). Although uneducated and gullible, Amy Bates firmly believes that Pattie is able to understand what is being said in her presence, whereas Tom Bates has given up all hope of her recovery. ("Patricia is gone from us, Amy. She has gone for ever. You must accept it.") In fact, judging from the sounds she makes, Pattie seems to realize what is going on around her, but Tom Bates is beyond noticing.

One day on his way home from work he becomes a witness of an unusual scene: A handsome, well-dressed and well-behaved young man collapses in the street, and Tom Bates is among the passers-by who are offering to help him. The young man, who gives his name as Martin Taylor, quickly recovers though. A few hours later he shows up at the Bateses', handing Tom Bates his wallet, which, Martin pretends, he must have lost in the general hubbub. Though the cash is gone, Bates's credit card is still there. This is how, in a Pinteresque way, "Martin" -- a cross between evil incarnate and a con man -- gains access to the Bateses' household. Right from the moment he enters the house he casts furtive and knowing glances at the audience (according to the stage directions) so they know at once that he is not what he pretends to be: one of Pattie's former fellow students at the art college who, before she had her accident and before he went to the U.S.A. for two years, was in love with, and actually proposed to, her.

His offer to the Bateses is a very unselfish and humanitarian one: He wants to be at Pattie's side despite the changed circumstances; he wants to care for her for an unspecified period of time and, by doing so, give the Bateses a break. It is Amy Bates in particular who jumps at the suggestion, she who has not had an hour off since Pattie's accident and who is stranded in the house without a chance even to go to the hairdresser's or do some window-shopping.

It is Tom Bates who is reluctant to accept Martin's help. He has always been very choosy about his daughter's friends and, as he cannot remember Pattie ever mentioning Martin's name, does not want her to be left alone with what might well be a complete stranger. Eventually Martin can win him over by his excellent cooking and by paying lip-service to his racist tendencies.

Martin does not lose any time: At the first opportunity he rapes the helpless Pattie. When Amy Bates comes back from the shops she does recognize a change in her daughter's facial expression, but she attributes it to Martin's presence rather than any disturbing experience she might have had. However, when Martin tries to rape the handicapped girl again after Mr and Mrs Bates have gone to bed, Pattie starts screaming so loudly that he runs out of the house.

Different versions

Brimstone and Treacle was originally written by Potter as a television play, commissioned, paid for and recorded (1976) by the BBC, for their Play for Today slot. It was not shown, because then Director of Television Programmes Alasdair Milne (later, between 1982 and 1987, to be Director General of the BBC) found it "nauseating". The ban was eventually lifted in 1987.

The cast were Denholm Elliott (Mr. Bates), Michael Kitchen (Martin), Patricia Lawrence (Mrs. Bates) and Michelle Newell (Pattie); plus minor characters.

Rewritten by Potter for the stage, the play premiered on October 11, 1977 at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

A film version directed by Richard Loncraine and starring Denholm Elliott (Bates), Joan Plowright (Mrs Bates), Suzanna Hamilton (Pattie) and Sting (Martin) was released in 1982 and is available on DVD.

Potter in 1978 on Brimstone and Treacle

"I had written Brimstone and Treacle in difficult personal circumstances. Years of acute psoriatic arthropathy -- unpleasantly affecting skin and joints -- had not only taken their toll in physical damage but had also, and perhaps inevitably, mediated my view of the world and the people in it. I recall writing (and the words now make me shudder) that the only meaningful sacrament left to human beings was for them to gather in the streets in order to be sick together, splashing vomit on the paving stones as the final and most eloquent plea to an apparently deaf, dumb and blind God. [...] I was engaged in an extremely severe struggle not so much against the dull grind of a painful and debilitating illness but with unresolved, almost unacknowledged, 'spiritual' questions."

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