The musician Sting (1951-) appears to have had a rather desultory film career. It all seemed to have started so promisingly with the big screen adaptation of writer Dennis Potter’s (1935-94 pancreatic cancer) tv play Brimstone & Treacle (1982). But his music seems to have taken precedence in the years that followed…
Not everyone is aware of how good Sting really was in that movie, since it really wasn’t made for his fans and so they avoided it. But it is the best thing he’s ever done, perhaps except for the cameo as himself in Zoolander 2 (2016). That was funny.
Going back nearly forty years and there was a time when it looked like Sting could act and glory on screen for him was a possibility…
Sting was born in the north of England in the shipbuilding town of Wallsend. He lived near the shipyards and his father was a milkman and his mother a hairdresser. He had a lightbulb moment as a child watching a member of the Royal family drive past in a car on their way to launch a ship and thought he would like to be the person in that car. It was about money, and the singer has been honest about his dreams and their fulfilment. He is one of the richest performers in Britain.
There are claims that Sting was obsessed with guitar since he was ten but in reality he spend much of his time “hammering away at the piano” in his grandparents’ front room. He went to an all-boys grammar school where he studied with distinction. This led to him becoming a teacher for a short time before he formed the band The Police in 1977, while in his mid-20s.
He said teaching was a good warm-up to performing on stage: “You get up in front of people and pretend you know something.”
Apparently, no one called him Gordon, despite Gordon Sumner being his real name, not even his mother and children, as it had always been Sting, since someone once made the observation that he looked like a wasp. It must be the blonde hair and blue eyes along with the sharp nose.
“Who is this Gordon character?,” asked Sting in the documentary Bring on the Night (1985), which was part of the establishment of the legend of Sting the musician.
In Brimstone & Treacle, we get a glimpse of the Gordon character and the waspish personality of Sting as he plays a devilish character called Martin Taylor.
Martin begins the film leaving a church after watching a choir performance and starts loitering with intent in the street, bumping into strangers, and using a pretence of having known them before: “Hello, fancy bumping into you…”
This youth, as presented to us by Sting, reminds us of the early performances of Malcolm McDowell (1943) in the 1960s and early 1970s and his anti-authoritarian characters… Martin is a mysterious stranger who will ingratiate himself into a household and turn it upside down for no other reason than to cause chaos and spread evil… Is he the devil himself? Perhaps he’s just your average youth who wants to get laid.
It is Denholm Elliott (1922-92 AIDS) who is hooked as Martin learns that his daughter Patricia is in a vegetative state and cared for at home by his wife played by Joan Plowright (1929-). We get the idea there is something dodgy about Elliott’s character despite the fact he writes inspirational Christian hymn and evangelical prayer for a living while his wife is a devout Christian who lives with the faith that her daughter’s condition is not totally hopeless.
Back at home before Sting/Martin turns up at their front door with Elliott’s wallet, which he lifted, he raised his voice at his wife for believing that there’s still a spark of genius in the mindless body of Patricia.
“I just want to be sick,” he says about the prospect that his adult daughter could still hear and see them but is unable to respond. Poor Patricia was hit by a truck crossing a road years ago after seeing her father on his office floor copulating with his middle-aged secretary.
“I used to believe… but now… I no longer accept there’s such a thing as a loving God… There’s no God. There’s no hope for Patty…”
Dennis Potter wrote Brimstone & 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 mediated my view of the world and the people in it.”
Potter said when he wrote the play that the only meaningful sacrament to him was for people to gather in the streets in order to be sick together “in the final and most eloquent plea to an apparently deaf, dumb and blind God.” I guess that social sickness happens as people physically fight and unhappily grumble to one another.
If this God is symbolised in the form of Patty, then Sting upon entering the ‘Christian’ household wants, perversely, to have sex with it. This is probably why the play was originally banned from being shown on television as Martin does have sex with Patty while her father is as work and her mother is at the hairdresser. He is the babysitter. Elliott was also in the original tv play, which was filmed in 1976 and remained un-transmitted until 1987.
The very idea that those in a near vegetative state just need a ‘jolly good roger-ing’ to cure them was also seen as perhaps unacceptable and vile to the average viewer.
“God is a rumour,” said Potter in his final interview before his death from cancer. Brought up as a believer, as a child, who loved the style of writing in the New Testament, it appears his contempt of the idea of God reached its peak as mentioned when he wrote Brimstone & Treacle. Potter said the possible reason for the banning of the tv play was that the cry made by Patty when Martin’s has sex with her again at the end of the movie made it look like rape when really it is a cry of accusation against her father.
“If the visitor had been an angel, you’d learn nothing… What if it were the devil?,” said Potter about the curing of Patty. “An evil act can lead to good consequences and a good act can lead to evil consequences… It was a reversal of a situation which would be seen as sanctimonious and sentimental.” This is the key to the drama of Brimsone & Treacle and the reason why it hasn’t really dated.
Sting holds his own with such experienced actors as Elliott and Plowright. He captures a kind of impish innocence of a totally corrupt character who speaks of peace facetiously to Elliott’s bitter curmudgeon.
“Peace. The quietude that befalls upon a soul when it meets and recognises ordained destiny,” says Martin, who seems to have accepted his place on Earth as opposed to one in heaven. Patty also seems peaceful once her mother returns from the hairdresser and relieves the ‘babysitter’. Plowright also knows that inner peace within her microcosm of a ‘little box’ or house where there is a blind faith in the presence of a deaf, dumb and blind God. There is a scene when Martin and the mother pray together which is almost heretical in that they are praying to totally different entities. Meanwhile Elliott’s lack of faith is blindsided by Martin’s apparently outward goodness and feigned piety, as he claims to have even asked Patricia years ago to be his bride… He says he knew Patty before the accident as a part of his plan to win the affection of the couple.
Sting’s launch as an actor seems to be a character who is sexually opportunistic but is not necessarily sexy. It is a straight acting job and Martin is kind of nerdy. There is no pretence of Sting being ‘cool’ or a sex symbol. This idea of him as a sex symbol was tried with the box office bomb Dune (1984), a couple of years later, where Sting had to suffer the humiliation of entering a room wearing only a cod-piece and oil on his body as the sexual object of his pox-ridden uncle played by Kenneth McMillan (1932-89 liver disease). Sting looks slightly embarrassed in that scene compared to the stills where he strikes a pose.
He would strip off again later in his career for a love-making scene in the movie The Grotesque (1995) possibly after rumours of the musician’s endless sessions of tantric love-making became legend. It is an ordinary movie.
The moral ambivalence of Martin/Sting in Brimstone & Treacle as he stays his first night alone in Patty’s bedroom is matched by the posters of sexually ambiguous actors James Dean (1931-55 car crash) and David Bowie (1947-2016 liver cancer) staring into space. And when he is home alone the following day, Martin dresses in Plowright’s jewellery, and while staring into the mirror, places a black lace glove on his hand and caresses his face saying to himself: “Beautiful. You’re beautiful.” Sting captures the essence of both his feminine and masculine sides in this scene which is something which has fascinated him over the years and which he has also expressed in his music.
Sting would never have another iconic moment like this in his film career as The GoGo’s song We Got the Beat, which was part of the changing mixture of punk and popular music at the time, plays in the background.
The fact that Sting perhaps lost interest in acting, after having learnt how it worked, and knew he had the knack for it, also relates to the film careers of the musicians David Bowie and Mick Jagger. Really, it was their music careers that got in the way too. Jagger had climaxed with Performance (1970) and Bowie with The Man who Fell to Earth (1976).
Sting had played Ace Face, the top mod in Quadrophenia (1979), who looked cool in leather with a Zippo lighter but who in fact was just a bellboy at the local hotel. Previous to this first film appearance, Sting had written the song Roxanne, which was released in April 1978 and was promptly banned by BBC radio because the song was about a prostitute. It failed to chart as a result. Released a year later after its success in America and it was a hit in Britain. The fact that Sting was in Brimstone & Treacle, which in its original form had also been banned by the BBC, and that he performed the once-banned song Roxanne live in The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball (1982) the same year must have made that 1982 seem rather glorious in terms of revenge or karma. It would have been hard to beat.
Sting said of his performance in Brimstone & Treacle: “It was all in a day’s work. I wasn’t acting…” The interviewer responded: “Was it very close to your own persona?” Sting responded: “My own lifestyle, in fact.”
Part of Sting’s ambition to be in a movie and not necessarily be a sex symbol may have been influenced by his mother who was “desperately in love with movies” according to the musician. He discovered early on that his mother had an affair, something which would later have repercussions in his own life. Brimstone & Treacle “wasn’t made for the fans, really… it was made for mums” said Sting in an interview. Both of his parents died of cancer in their 50s within six months of each other around late 1986 and 1987. Sting had made the movie he wanted to make and gave his best performance before his mother died. And he would appear opposite Meryl Streep in a couple of scenes in a movie. Perhaps another of his mother’s dreams fulfilled!
Sting said: “My mother even in a way encouraged infidelity. When I first left home she was very keen I should be a libertine.”
What appeared to be Sting’s further ambition movie-wise, after the release of Brimstone & Treacle, was a pipe dream to make a movie from the Gormenghast novels by Mervyn Peake (1911-68). It may have been a dream inspired by his love for his teachers at school and a fondness of Peake’s work which he may have read at the time. Sting mentioned in one interview that there was an adaptation in the works and he was seeking ten million pounds to put it into production. But it was perhaps naivety about how the Hollywood and British movie making system worked which immediately stymied this dream.
The Gormenghast novels are an alternative to Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings and that book’s mythology and Christian philosophy. Peake’s books are set in the castle Gormenghast and are made up of three books and a novella before the series ended with Peake’s death. The books are considered to be the first fantasy of manners novels. This means they are a native of the comedy of manners which isn’t necessarily comedy but it is certainly related to Potter’s Brimstone & Treacle with its witty straight-faced black dialogue amid the sarcasm of a conventional yet dysfunctional suburban household. This kind of comedy of menace, in other words, relates to Harold Pinter’s play The Homecoming and the subversive works of Joe Orton. Fantasy of manners could also be seen as a type of surreal historical fiction.
The fantasy of manners of Gormenghast in its crumbling castle has its heroes pitted against its peers and neighbours in contrast to Tolkein’s style of mythical creatures and monsters. And Gormenghast is argued by some critics to be a more accomplished work than Lord of the Rings. Sting’s positive memories of his English teachers was at the heart of his dream to bring the epic of Gormenghast to life… Ultimately, he had no chance and his appearance in the failed epic Dune is the perverse culmination and realisation of this dreams and ambitions for this project in reverse. It’s like the big-wigs deliberately humiliated him for daring to think big without properly consulting them. Gormenghast was never mentioned again and it has never been tackled for the big screen to this day. However, in 1984, Sting appeared as the voice of Steerpike in BBC radio adaptations of two of the novels Titus Groan and Gormenghast. Steerpike is a kitchen boy who rises within the kingdom…
Another possible reason why Sting didn’t continue to act was that in 1983, his band The Police had perhaps their greatest success with their album Synchronicity which was second in the United States only to Michael Jackson’s hugely successful Thriller. The song Every Breath You Take was such a hit that it probably sealed Sting’s ambition as a songwriter. This song alone won two Grammy awards. Where does your future lie?
The Police broke up the following year along with Sting’s marriage to actress Frances Tomelty (1948-) which made headlines after he had an affair with her best friend and neighbour, who he eventually married, Trudy Styler (1954-).
Sting officially shed The Police and his wife and started to cement the Sting legend and brand in 1985 with two film appearances. The first was as Baron Frankenstein in the horror-lite The Bride (1985) and the other was in the Meryl Streep (1949-) movie Plenty (1985). There was also a new solo album and the documentary Bring on the Night (1985) which was all about Sting also had a soundtrack album. He could not fail in terms of the music.
But both The Bride and Plenty failed at the box office and ended Sting’s movie star ambitions. The failure of The Bride is hardly surprising. The credits read: “…and Sting” rather than the musician being top-billed. You get the idea he was meant to be top-billed but this was dropped after he was outshone by the other stars of the film. Sting’s working class and domestic persona from Brimstone & Treacle has been dropped and he is miscast in The Bride with a mullet hair-cut and collars so sharp and stiff they could put an eye out. Given the grandiose production of The Bride, Sting presence pales in comparison against the intimate canvas of Brimstone & Treacle. He is cast opposite Jennifer Beals (1963-) of Flashdance (1983) fame and their acting together is on a par. The best way to approach the film is to watch the great performances of Clancy Brown (1959-) and David Rappaport (1951-90 suicide by gunshot) as the monster and his dwarf friend as they travel together and join a circus. I guess any Bride of Frankenstein (1935) remake which uses the elderly trans writer Quentin Crisp (1908-99 heart attack) in the Ernest Thesiger (1879-1961 in sleep) role isn’t too misguided but this one doesn’t completely work.
Meanwhile, in Plenty, Sting’s accent is not convincing and he’s overshadowed by the rest of the cast which includes award-winners Streep, John Gielgud (1904-2000) and Ian McKellen (1939-).
“Leave my mother out of this,” is a line from Sting in Plenty and he would write a memoir years later which would deal with his mother’s memory and how her marital infidelity affected his own relationships.
Just a little more on Brimstone & Treacle and the title is a mixture of the fire and brimstone of the Old Testament and the sweet treacle tart of the personality of Christ in the New Testament. It is the masculine and feminine again in terms of these two books. Potter’s attempt to try to reconcile his lost religious spirituality with the possibility of the innate goodness of a true Christian woman rubbing off or influencing his lead character, in the end, doesn’t happen and even a ‘miracle’ brings only mixed blessings. There is no resolution for Elliott’s character and Potter remained cynical about spirituality to the end. It seems the devil will always win until he finally meets his match – as Sting does in the end scene in the movie.
The song Bless this House is performed by Elliott and Plowright as they celebrate the appearance of the devil in their lives in a conventional celebration amid the disillusionment and suffering that is suburbia. Sting goes to church not as a hypocrite but as a predator and we may well ask ourselves: How many people go to church just to meet a sexual partner? It is sex which is the cure for Patty, in the end, just as it was the root cause of the accident. It’s the horror of guilt and original sin all wrapped into one seemingly Godless package. If you’re a believer, or not, the film is thought provoking. Sting performs the – perhaps – ironically titled song Spread a Little Happiness for the end credits of Brimstone & Treacle and there is other work by The Police on the soundtrack.
The film was directed by Richard Loncraine (1946-) and he won an award at the Montreal World Film Festival for his work. Loncraine directed one of my favourite horror movies The Haunting of Julia (1977) which is regarded by one of Mia Farrow’s biographers as her worst movie. Loncraine would also direct Harrison Ford in Firewall (2006) and Maggie Smith in the tv movie My House in Umbria (2003). Recently he made 5 Flights Up (2014) with Diane Keaton (1946-) and Morgan Freeman (1937-). Brimstone & Treacle has a certain feel and ambience amid the performances and script. He’s done a good job and added some fine directorial flourishes. He also directed The Missionary (1982) starring Michael Palin (1943-) as a character who tries to save fallen women – or “women who’ve tripped”.
Sting perhaps revelled in the chance of a possible ongoing controversy by appearing in the big screen version of the Potter’s defiant play Brimstone & Treacle and he gave a good performance for his mum… It was like a gift and the results were promising… but with the failure of another coveted film project to get off the ground as well as critical disapproval over his miscasting in subsequent roles saw his financially successful pursuit of music take precedence. He has won over a dozen Grammys and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his musical contributions to the industry. Acting honours eluded him, just as they did Jagger and Bowie, as the rock and roll loving public was more interested in the sexual aspect of their lives and their stage personas … something used to great effect by Sting’s appearance in Zoolander 2.
Even if it was about the money and not the art, in the beginning, for a boy who thought: “I don’t want to be on this street. I don’t want to be in this shipyard. I want to be in that car.” At least those dreams have been achieved beyond avarice. And he’s recorded a few classic songs along the way.