The Devil and Dennis Potter

In Dennis Potter’s banned TV play Brimstone and Treacle, the Devil is very real indeed — and it was too much for the BBC to handle.

English television and stage dramatist Dennis Potter (1936–1995). (Graham Morris / Getty Images)

Although perennially controversial, and frequently vilified in the press, British television playwright Dennis Potter was nevertheless sufficiently celebrated in 1993 to give that year’s James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture to an audience of TV industry luminaries. While unable to resist the opportunity to lay into the managerial style of the BBC’s new director general (“a churl in hob-nailed boots”), Potter also made an impassioned plea both for the power of the medium he loved, and for the way his own work used that power to focus his audience’s attention on “the victim, the one who cannot answer back, or, in many cases, the one who cannot talk at all.” In the case of Brimstone and Treacle, his 1976 televised play for the BBC, the author himself was silenced — the play was banned (“nauseating” though “brilliantly made” as the director of TV programs put it), and not broadcast until 1987.

Two of Potter’s abiding concerns meet in this recurring figure of inarticulate victimhood. In his class politics, it dramatizes the predicament of the working-class outsider struggling to find an authentic voice in middle- and upper-class bastions of cultural prestige. In his more troubled sexual politics, it stands for the terrible and imposed inarticulacy of the victim of sexual violence, the unspeakableness in ordinary language of what has happened to them. This same figure also has an inevitably mystical aspect: the stricken human animal will often be driven beyond language in the effort to articulate their sufferings.

The attempt to wrangle meaningfully with such a “beyond” is crucial to Potter’s dramatic technique. Famously, he will have characters break into song and dance routines, suspensions of realism in which they surrender their quotidian voices to lip-synced recitations of popular hits of the 1940s, “cheap songs” of earnest sentimentality that Potter described as having “something of the Psalms of David about them” in the longing they expressed for a world that was other than it is. Brimstone and Treacle follows another path out of language: not into the airy lightness of music, but into the guttural babbling and wailing of a severely disabled young woman.

Patricia, the victim of a car accident that has left her, in her father’s words, “a vegetable” is heard before she is seen, and is positioned in the near-foreground or far-background of most of the scenes. She is talked about more than talked to, while delivering her own commentary from a place beyond language in the form of a precisely scripted stream of inchoate vocalizations. Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we may yet hoot, gibber, and retch.

Potter described himself on several occasions as having felt that “the only meaningful sacrament left was for people to gather on the muddied and unlit crossroads at eventide in order to vomit,” but also recognized that this sentiment was an aspect of “an extremely severe struggle . . . with unresolved, almost unacknowledged, ‘spiritual’ questions.” In the play, the question of Patricia’s degree of awareness of her circumstances, described in religiose terms by her mother as the hopeful flicker of a “light in her eyes,” is explicitly framed as a matter of “faith.” But Patricia’s real human presence in the world is not a fugitive light of the soul glimmering in the pupils, but her voice, which is engaged in a severe struggle to compose itself.

The main setting of the play is Patricia’s family home, in which she lives with her father, Tom, and mother, Amy. There is no respite for Amy from the constant labor of looking after Patricia, and the family is slowly imploding. Dark political urges fester: Tom, wishing for a more legible society with less insolent “sniggering,” has joined the National Front, enticed by the prospect of ejecting the blacks and Irish from British soil. Into this decaying unit, the dapper and mercurial Martin Taylor, a virtuoso of cold reading and flattery, readily insinuates himself, persuading the parents that he was a rejected suitor of Patricia’s before the accident, and offering his services as a devoted helpmeet.

Martin is very literally the Devil personified — in an aside he speaks of needing breath mints to counteract the stench of sulphur — and his devilry reaches its fullest expression in the rape of Patricia, an act that precipitates her sudden and complete recovery from her impaired condition. This was as indigestible a conceit in 1976 as it doubtless would be today. What was Potter playing at? Himself a survivor of a traumatic sexual assault as a child, he was not unserious about rape. But the play does not frame sexual violence principally as a vector of gendered domination (Potter described his own experience as one of having been “trapped by an adult’s sexual appetite.”) Martin acts out of an almost disinterested lasciviousness and cruelty: he seemingly rapes because it is simply the most evil thing to do.

Is the play attempting a glib theodicy in which even the works of the Devil are shown to be in thrall to Providence? Patricia “recovers” at the point where she starts screaming, as Martin attempts to assault her for a second time: her first recognizable word in the play is “no.” Although the point is obscured by Potter’s clumsy recourse to the trope of the “shock to the system” that restarts it, like the patient on life-support who revives when an adversary tries to unplug them, the real concern of the play is human agency in the face of evil.

This concern is exemplified by Tom and Amy’s differing responses to the temptations of fascism. Martin ingratiates himself with Tom by appealing to his racism, giving him permission to express his bigoted views with hearty relief. Egging him on, Martin continues to paint a lurid picture of what will happen if the undesirables resist deportation, arriving by degrees at the necessity of interning the reluctant in concentration camps. At this point Tom, who clearly hasn’t thought things through, begins to balk and reevaluate his commitments. Nurturing, sentimental Amy however, previously silent on such matters, interjects with, “You can be too soft-hearted, you know.”

I believe we are meant to see Patricia, not Martin, as the principal agent in her recovery, a survivor who rises and shouts the adversary out of the house. As in Potter’s later The Singing Detective, at the heart of this drama is a figure goaded by evil into reassembling their shattered self.