I’ve always been attracted to the unusual, especially when it upsets the status quo. The BBC created another cause for me to espouse in 1978 when it made Dennis Potter’s television play Brimstone and Treacle and then promptly got cold feet over its theme and put a ban on it, locking the tapes away unshown in the archives. It was a gruelling piece about a brain-damaged paralysed girl being raped by a con man who charms his way into her family’s home and turns out to be the devil. Subsequently it had a brief West End run as a stage play, and in October 1981 I joined forces with Dennis to explore making a feature film based on his television script. The director was to be Richard Loncraine and the producer Kenith Trodd. Peter Hannan was signed as director of photography, with Milly Burns as production designer and Robin Douet as production manager.
Dennis was put in charge of his own script. Our budget was in the region of five hundred thousand pounds, with my investment, as executive producer, representing half that amount. The shooting schedule was timed to begin on 19 October, based at Shepperton Studios. Among the cast were Denholm Elliott, reprising the part of the girl’s father, which he had already acted in the withdrawn television version, and Joan Plowright as the girl’s mother. The part of the girl herself went to a gifted newcomer, Suzanna Hamilton. While our American backers had been attracted by the possibility of David Bowie taking the starring role of the visiting infernal stranger, in the end he was not available.
Instead the part went to Sting, the lead singer from the rock band the Police. Sting had some previous experience of working in the movies, having appeared in Quadrophenia, a 1979 film about the battles between the Mods and Rockers in Brighton. He now wanted the chance to do some straight acting, but the Americans insisted on a new Police album as part of the deal. Dennis was prepared to adapt the script to allow Sting a singing role, but this was an idea Loncraine promptly vetoed. He thought it would make it all seem too like a follow-up to Pennies from Heaven. In the end it was agreed Sting would sing a nostalgic standard to back the end credits. The number chosen was ‘Spread a Little Happiness’.
When this was eventually released as a single, to Dennis’s chagrin it attracted more public response than the film itself. He was quoted as saying on a Terry Wogan chat show some time afterwards, ‘I think I was sent into this world to spread a little misery.’ I first got to know Dennis Potter when Quartet published the novel version of Pennies from Heaven. He and I hit it off straight away, though he was a famously complex and cantankerous character. This was largely the result of the terrible chronic illness he suffered from most of his adult life. Known as psoriatic arthropothy, it affected his skin and his joints. He had to endure constant physical pain and was incapacitated in many ways, which gave him a focus for his anger. Despite these handicaps, he was a man of the most remarkable achievements whose delving into the seedy depths of human motivation riveted his audience. He had a feeling for the drama and its need to defy convention which gave his work a rare quality seldom equalled by any of his contemporaries. He had an obsessive nature that in some ways was not dissimilar to my own. Artistically he was driven and inflexible.
He loved a quarrel and his relationships with close associates were always tempestuous. This was especially so with Kenith Trodd, who had worked with Potter over many years on his television projects. Theirs was a relationship that oscillated between love and hate and caused consternation within their circle. Dennis’s perception of women was strange as well as intriguing. He was attracted to the dissolute type of woman whose sexual vibes stir man’s most basic instincts. He certainly preferred the image of woman as sinful to the idea of her as pure. The seething underbelly of nightlife with all its sexual connotations was a theme he was drawn to explore time and time again. The association between disgust and guilt was very real for him.
Somehow he felt at home in an environment where prostitutes lurked or had a dominant presence. But his was a unique talent and his output was prodigious, given the health constraints under which he worked. Of my own involvement I said in an interview with Screen International in early 1982 that ‘investing in films is a logical progression to my publishing activities’; that ‘I’ve always been interested in the media and I’ve always wanted to take risks. I do not see the point in investing in things that you know are going to work. For me the gamble of doing something you believe in is vitally important.’
Dennis told the Daily Mirror that in his ambition for the play to be turned into a film he was prepared to work for nothing to see the project through. The subject matter of Brimstone and Treacle was guaranteed to attract controversy. In the mixed reception given the movie by the critics after its London première in September 1982, discussion undoubtedly centred more on its theme than its artistic merit. There was a general consensus that Sting’s performance was a triumph, and most commentators agreed he was not its only revelation and Brimstone and Treacle was definitely a film to watch out for. It was remarked that it represented ‘a most impressive move into film production for the publishing impresario Naim Attallah’.
The party following the première was a lavish affair at a mansion in Regent’s Park. Billy Connolly and Pamela Stephenson were there, deep in conversation with Captain Sensible (wearing a skirt), while Lyndsey De Paul giggled with her new man, designer Carl Dawson. Sting arrived alone but was soon surrounded by a cluster of beautiful women, including Selina Scott and the singer Marsha Hunt. Everyone at the gathering heaped praise on Sting for his acting ability. ‘He was so good, he made me sick,’ joked Bob Geldof. Sting was in his element as he gasped, ‘It’s all so amazing.’ His sudden transition from rock star to film star left him quite bemused.
Even the great photographer Helmut Newton, who took the publicity photos for the film and had seen plenty of sights in his time, was dazzled by the event. Only one dissenting voice was raised: that of Virginia Gallico, the mother of Ludmilla Nova, my friend who had been lead dancer in Arabian Fantasy at the Royal Albert Hall. Virginia, who was also lady-in-waiting to Princess Grace of Monaco, was outraged and appalled by Dennis’s fable. She let me know her views in no uncertain terms but I chose not to engage in any heated exchange with her in case it damaged my relationship with her daughter. Years later, when I bumped into Virginia and Ludmilla by chance in Budapest, the incident was apparently forgotten and all was well.
When Quartet gave Dennis Potter a commission to write a novel treatment for Brimstone and Treacle, he passed the task over to his daughter Sarah, whom he was encouraging to do some writing. His utter devotion to Sarah suggested she was the closest to him of all the women in his life.