The Wednesday Play: Brimstone and Treacle (1976/1987)

So controversial, it wasn't shown for 11 years

It’s Wednesday so guess what. Yes, that’s right. It’s time for The Wednesday Play, a chance to watch a classic British television play in its entirety. This week, the play we’re going to be watching is Play For Today‘s Brimstone and Treacle, written by one of Britain’s finest television playwrights Dennis Potter and starring Michael Kitchem Denholm Elliott, Patricia Lawrence and Michelle Newell.

Brimstone and Treacle caused something of a stir in its day because despite being made in 1976 and adapted into a movie starring Sting in 1982, it was never screened on television until 1987.

Why? Because of the subject matter. Brimstone and Treacle sees Kitchen, who is possibly the devil himself – certainly someone who can break the ‘fourth wall’ – come to visit an ordinary household in which the daughter has been severely injured in a hit-and-run accident and is apparently in a near vegetative state.

Let’s just say that after that, bad things happen. But then so do good things. It’s the combination of the two that caused offence. Alasdair Milne, then head of TV programmes at the BBC, decided to withdraw and ultimately ban it, on the grounds that the work was “brilliantly written and made, but nauseating”.

Potter later said:

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.

So follow me after the break to one of British television’s most controversial works. Watch it to the very end or you’ll miss out on something important.


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.