The BBC has, in recent weeks, been rolling out new, one-off adaptations of literary classics in an impressive mini season. Last week we had Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and next week we have a new version of LP Hartley’s The Go-Between. While these two examine repressed lust and forbidden trysts, the one in the middle – An Inspector Calls – is a different kettle of fish, not least because it was never a novel.
Written in the mid-1940s by JB Priestley, it’s set in 1912 and tells the story of a posh, upper class Edwardian family who come apart at the seams when an inspector, yes you guessed it, calls around to ask them a few questions about the suicide of a young woman.
Aside from the ever-popular and long-running play, there have been a few adaptations over the years (a 1954 film and a 1982 TV movie), but this is given the full BBC period drama treatment. There are lush, Downton-esque interiors, but also a dollop of the working class drudgery that this era provided in spades. And, of course, there’s a top-notch cast – there’s Ken Stott (who I’ll watch in anything), Miranda Richardson, Sophie Rundle and David Thewlis as the inspector. I first saw Thewlis in a few Mike Leigh films in the early 1990s and his performance in Naked, especially, marked him out to be one of Britain’s best young actors. I still get shivers thinking about his character Johnny in that film, to my mind one of the best performances I’ve ever seen.
But back to An Inspector Calls. I’ll admit to not having ever seen the play or the previous incarnations, but so enduring has Priestley’s work been that you can’t fail to at least be aware of the story.
It all starts with the Birling family. In an age where rich people dressed up for dinner in their enormous houses, the well-to-do Birling family are gathered for an evening meal to celebrate the engagement of daughter Sheila to young businessman George.
The men are in the dining room discussing manly things; the women are off somewhere else chatting about womanly things. That’s the way it was back then. There is much chatter about impending knighthoods and business in the men’s area; and of duty and dresses in the women’s area. The Birlings are so entrenched in the Edwardian class system they’re almost caricatures… which, in a lot of ways, they are and the whole point of this piece.
“You take it from me,” blusters Arthur Birling, cigar in hand, cheeks flushed with excess post-meal port. “Man must look after himself, his family and everything else…”
He’s interrupted by the maid, who comes to tell him that an inspector, an Inspector Goole, has called. “Three hours ago, a young woman died in the infirmary,” he ruefully tells Arthur Birling and the assembled male members of the family. “She’d taken steps to take her own life. The doctors tried to save her, but it was too late. Her name was Eva Smith. Do you remember her Mr Birling?”
From that moment on the family begins to unravel. Goole stalks the room, quietly and patiently, skilfully probing them. He knows Eva Smith’s story; the Birling do not. Or they think they do not. As Eva’s story unfolds each member of the family begins to sweat, and, more importantly, remember…
Arthur Birling dismissed her from his mill; young George had an affair with her; Sheila got Eva fired from her new job on a whim; Eric Birling also had a romantic relationship with her, siring a baby; matriarch Sybil and her charitable organisation refused her financial help when she most needed it, again seemingly on a whim.
Each encounter with Eva is a tragedy but look deeper and her brushes with the Birling family (which are shown in flashbacks) signify a comment on the state of human society in the Edwardian era – we saw Eva challenge Arthur Birling about wages and women’s rights in the workplace; with George and Eric, men’s attitudes to women, especially those in the upper classes towards those in the working classes; and with Sybil ad Sheila, attitudes of the upper classes towards the working classes in general.
From upper class pomposity and initial derision (how dare you come into our house and speak to us in this way?!), Goole’s gentle but unwavering probing pricks at their conscience and he slowly gets under their skin. Before the night is out father-and-son relationships, mother-and-daughter relationships and all kinds of relationships have been examined, the Birlings questioning their own place in society.
But of course there is no real crime here. A young woman has taken her own life, which is no mystery. The only crime on show here is the way the Birling family – so pumped up with their own superiority – treated her.
Those familiar with the story will know the twist. After Goole leaves, his work done for the night, the Birlings soon fathom that Goole was not an inspector at all and there was no dead young woman. What was he? Did he exist at all? Did Eva exist at all? Were they just supernatural entities sent into the human world to prick the Birlings’ – and those like them – arrogance? The final scene, were Goole tends to Eva’s body in the mortuary, both of them fading away like ghosts, confirms this.
So An Inspector Calls is not a crime drama as such, but a morality story wrapped up in a mystery, concerned with the way humans treat each other within a wretched class system that was so prevalent in the Edwardian era. Even though 100 years have passed since 1912, it tells you a lot about society that the issues Priestley explored back then are just as timely and as important today.
Well made and extremely well acted, An Inspector Calls was a must-watch.