Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: “An unfaithful rich man walks into a bar and picks up a lonely, desperate girl.” Oh. You have? What about: “An infantile, rich woman feels flustered by pretty shop staff”? Or: “A pompous rich man makes a move on one of his ‘troublesome’ female workers”? Surely not: “An egotistical rich woman has an opportunity to give charity to someone desperately in need”? Last one. It’s a peach. “A young rogue of a rich man gets a poor woman pregnant”?
Okay, so for anyone raised in a world in which the social stratifications of Downton Abbey can nestle in our collective cultural nexus next to 37 seasons of Technicolor CSI crime-porn, the punch lines to all of these class tales invariably culminates in the lifeless body of an “Eva”, a “Daisy”, an “Alice”, or a “Sarah”.
In the recent BBC adaptation of English dramatist J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls (2015), almost everyone but the butler “did it”, as all of these scenarios are woven into one audaciously compounded 90-minute dirge about moneyed morality and social responsibility.
Written at the end of World War II, An Inspector Calls is a pre-World War I drawing room drama in which an Inspector Goole (as in ‘Ghoul’; not Batman’s nemesis, Ra’s al Ghul) arrives at the home of the Birlings, a well-to-do self-made Northern English family. The Birlings are celebrating an engagement/strategical alignment of factory-owning families. But with Goole’s (David Thewlis) appearance, a systematic disassembly of their corrupted capitalist belief system whirls into place. The Inspector sequentially elicits confessions from each family member regarding their own personal contribution to the downward spiral and eventual suicide of a young woman, who had been found dead earlier that night.
Goole does not just raise a moral mirror to the Birling household. Rather, in taking on the full weight of the forcibly silenced underclasses, he toys with them, adopting a rise and fall pattern to his investigation with his smugly self-satisfied, captive audience (which could also include the viewer). Goole consistently allows the Birlings to assume that they have some measure of control of the situation before whipping the carpet from under them and then striking their panicked and shocked faces, ethical glass in hand, splintering it into a cascade of tiny refracted fragments designed to get under their skin or, even better, into their (and our) brains. As the Inspector reminds the emotionally battered Birlings: “You each helped to kill her. Remember that. Never forget.”
David Thewlis’s Inspector offers probing proverbs, such as “It’s better to ask for the earth than to take it”, and “public men have responsibilities as well as privileges”, but it’s his demeanor that dominates the crumbling family dynamic, whether it’s in taking off his jacket and sitting down when asked to leave by a blustery Arthur Birling (Ken Stott), or maintaining a stony expression of indifference when recalcitrant characters proffer their all-too-late apologies.
Watching the Birlings reel and clamber over each other to shift the blame before the emotionally taciturn Inspector is one of the pleasures of the story, and in this adaptation, their bull run of moral scurrying is carried off particularly well. For example, when Goole tells the son, Eric Birling (Finn Cole), that he won’t show him (or the viewer) a photo of the deceased, asserting, “One line of inquiry at a time”, both Eric and the audience already know that his moment of reckoning will arrive once his holding pattern has been broken. The intensity of the delay, with Eric almost pulling his hair from his head and restlessly pacing about the room, is far from comfortable for the young Lothario, but highly engaging from a viewer’s perspective. Tick, tick, upper middle class boom.
When the children become fully cognizant of their part in the story (it’s noted by the Inspector that the younger generation are better at discovering and owning their own faults), all social graces are quickly dropped as they start to wildly berate their own willfully blinded parents. When Sheila Birling (Chloe Pirrie), turns on her controlling and sanctimonious mother, judging by her mother’s reaction she may as well have sucker-punched Mrs. Birling (Miranda Richardson) in the bread basket and run off with her no-doubt exorbitantly priced and dubiously acquired pearl necklace: “Oh don’t you realize how ridiculous you seem? Putting on airs. Both of you. Pretending that we’re above all this when we’re not, we’re really not. We’re up to our necks in it.”
Ken Stott’s Arthur Birling and Kyle Soller’s Gerald Croft (Sheila’s on-off-definitely off fiancée) are compelling as stock figures of “philanthropy at a price”; it works especially well when, in platonic appreciation of each other, they embrace their mutually brash machismo in the face of real humanitarian empathy. Yet, it is Miranda Richardson’s bullish Sybil Birling who reignites the narrative at the mid-point, when the procession of the guilty starts to become a formulaic domino display.
I celebrated aloud when Mrs. Birling’s revelation finally came to full fruition, and her expression changed markedly, from igorged on her own self-satisfaction, to a rapid dissolve into traumatized surprise and denial – rather like an emotional version of the liquefied Nazi from Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Enjoying moments like that, where the actors really get a grip on the pacing and delivery of the scenes, elevates this drama beyond your average stale adaptation.
However, in a deviation from the original play, Helen Edmundson’s script is bookended with heavy-handed diversions that feature the dead girl repeatedly discussing how she believes in God because she “can’t believe in people”. It sadly reminds me of the terrible exchange from Gothika (2003): “I don’t believe in ghosts”, “Neither do I, but they believe in me”; it’s uncalled for and unnecessary. Sadly, instead of adding depth to a character that the audience should be allowed to construct entirely within their own minds (as the stage play calls for), her presence in these scenes only serves to force a simplistic pseudoreligious viewpoint to the foreground among the many competing threads already within the body of the drama.
Although I appreciate the visual, and by extension symbolic, similarities between the priest arriving in The Exorcist (1973) and the Inspector arriving at the outset at the Birlings, playing with Goole’s character outside of the Birling household also adds a hokey The Sixth Sense (1999) element that ultimately diminishes the impact of the dénouement, making it drag on for far too long and complicating what should be a comparatively linear narrative structure.
Worse, scenes of the Inspector strolling the streets of a drab northern town at night to wistfully look up at a young woman’s window, veers more toward Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street” than Sherlock Holmes’ natural habitat, threatening to make the brilliantly acted cypher unfairly appear more maudlin than metaphysical.
Unlike in the play, each encounter is also presented as a flashback vignette. This adds to the production value of the adaptation — who doesn’t enjoy seeing a period appropriate reconstruction of a factory/shop/house/bar/hospital (delete as appropriate)? These diversions also serve to visually reinforce the colliding spheres in which Georgian class divisions would have been most keenly felt by both the under- and over-privileged. Again, this is one way in which the BBC adaptation lavishly guides the viewer who might not quite grasp how figuratively compartmentalized is each member of the Birling family.
But, in deviating from the original structure of the play while keeping most of the key dialogue, allows repetition to creep in as the characters (especially Eric) in the present tense start to explain to other characters what had just happened in the flashback that viewer was privy to, and vice-versa. I understand the appeal of moving from the drawing room to expand the scope of the story, but towards the end of the drama, this is especially frustrating as it slows down and breaks up the pace of the Birlings’ oncoming fate.
I would argue that being bluntly told the circumstances in which the young woman died, and gauging the characters’ reactions that follow from it, negates the melodramatic need to then see the action enacted for the viewer 60 minutes later. As with the religious shoehorning, the scene feels more calculated for spectacular impact and modern shock value than offering anything of real value to consider.
In the UK, Priestley’s play is on the English Literature GCSE syllabus, which means that many hundreds of thousands of younger viewers have already been introduced to the socialist principles at play within the text. Unless you’re a self-styled Donald Trump, I would imagine that the Inspector’s prescient admonishment won’t be entirely lost on those that are new to the play:
There are millions and millions of Eva Smiths and John Smiths still left with us, with their lives and hopes and fears, their suffering and chance of happiness all intertwined with our lives, and what we think, and say, and do. We don’t live alone upon this earth. We are responsible for each other. And if mankind will not learn that lesson, then the time will come, soon, when he will be taught it in fire … and blood … and anguish.
Whilst Priestley, through the Inspector, is reflecting on the two world wars, one could just as easily apply this speech to numerous contemporary issues: the recent refugee crisis in Europe, the Occupy Wall Street movement, the financial crisis of 2007-08, and the rise of ISIS.
As a part of the BBC’s ‘Literary Dramas’ season for 2015, this adaptation is one of at least nine that the BBC has produced in both television and radio formats over the years; yet, despite the fluctuations of socialism in the past century, this latest iteration addresses issues of accountability and responsibility at a time when it seems especially pertinent to reflect upon such matters. Of course, this is more down to the perpetual power of Priestley’s play than any especial need by the BBC to cause an uprising of the disenfranchised; however, it does make for a thoughtful and much-needed break from the typical domestic period dramas that proliferate on our TV screens in the name of culture.