An Inspector Calls – but needn’t have bothered

David Thewlis

I’d meant to watch the BBC’s new adaptation of J.B. Priestley’s classic play, An Inspector Calls, when I got home from work on Sunday, but forgot about it until it was too late to crank up the i-Player. I did watch it on Monday night, when I got home, but by then it was too late to sit up and blog it at the length it demands. A night’s sleep has done nothing to diminish the horror of a thoroughly misguided and dramatically inept adaptation by Helen Edmundson.

I first encountered Priestley in the early Seventies, when I was first let loose on the adult side of our local library. I recognised the name, from where I can’t recall, enjoyed a couple of books and became sufficiently enthused by them, in my completist fashion, that at one point I had all his novels, a project that took years of scrabbling round second hand bookshops.

Subsequently, I refined my collection down to those books that, for one reason or another, directly appealed to me, not all of them the ‘classics’ that Priestley was justifiably noted for.

I’ve also seen a number of his plays, most recently taking a friend on her first theatre visit to a local performance of the comedy When We Were Married. I’m also extremely partial to the extraordinary Time and the Conways, but like nearly everybody else, I regard An Inspector Calls as Priestley’s finest and most significant work and, in film, television and on stage, I’ve seen half a dozen different performances and half a dozen different inspectors.

The story is simple in outline, and the play’s point is straightforward, impassioned and will never cease to be applicable. The Birling family, a prosperous, upper middle class family, mill-owners in a North Midlands industrial town, have just finished a celebration dinner for Sheila’s engagement to Gerald Croft, son of Lord Croft, owner of a mill competing with Arthur Birling, who looks upon the match  as akin to a future merger.

Birling, who has had word that he’s in line for a knighthood, is expounding on his philosophy that a man must look after his own, put himself first and always, and reject these crank ideas about humanity being inter-connected, and all of us responsible for and towards everyone else, when a Police Inspector arrives.

Goole has come to question the five diners about a young woman, admitted to the Infirmary that afternoon, who has committed suicide by drinking disinfectant, burning out her stomach in agony. Over the course of the play, all the Birlings, and Gerald, will discover that every one of them has played a part in this pretty girl’s life, changing its direction, and that their actions had led the young woman to this dreadful suicide.

It’s a decidedly political message, reflective of Priestley’s very strong socialist beliefs, which he maintained throughout his life, and it’s an attack upon capitalism and its overt message of exploitation of the workers. The play was an initial hit but was strangely dismissed as a ‘bourgeois drawing room comedy’ for several decades, until being re-discovered in 1992.

It’s also very much a stage-bound play. It takes place in a single room, in 1912, over three continuous acts. Apart from the Birlings, Gerald and Inspector Goole, there is only one, minor role. Much of the ‘action’, in the form of the events of the young victim’s life, take place off-stage, created in the recollections of the various culprits.

And after the Inspector leaves, there are recriminations, reservations and retractions amongst certain of the cast – the Birling parents try to shrug off what has happened, the Birling son and daughter have clearly been changed by the experience, and Gerald is a moral belllwether, swinging in the direction of self-exculpation – but this is the set-up for an extraordinarily powerful closing twist.

Adapting something like this into a film, with its need for wider vistas, and more visual elements, is always a very tricky job. It was first done in 1954, with Alistair Sim a strange choice for the titular role, in which some flashbacks were substituted for the characters’ accounts. This was the route Edmundson chose, and it was an utter disaster.

I had a terrible sense of foreboding from the opening credit sequence, which showed the various characters going about their business in preparation for the celebration meal, capped by some horribly clunky invented dialogue out of nowhere that proved to be a cliched flash-forward to the end of the film. Amongst those shown going about things was the girl herself, Eva Smith/Daisy Renton/Alice Grey.

This was a mistake in itself, not to mention being painfully badly devised, all quivery and nervous, telegraphing for the audience what they were supposed to feel, in advance of the main drama, which is all about the gradual, inexorable revelation of a web that has already closed.

It also set the tone of the film: from the start, the play had been Downton-ed to within an inch of its life, lavish in period detail and so much concentration upon the scenery and how evocative it all was that the facts and the dialogue were threatened with being overwhelmed. And we were equally swamped by incidental music, which rippled on and on and on, leaving very few moments when the story was allowed to speak for itself, to create the effects Priestley had designed.

It was bad enough during portentous moments, when the music insisted on explaining how the audience was supposed to be feeling instead of, and here’s a radical idea, leaving it to the actors and their lines to bring it out, but it was even worse to hear it chugging away continually, as if the play were not taking placer in a prosperous family’s dining room but rather in an old-fashioned, genteel tea-room, with a tired trio playing in the background, oblivious to any dramas or emotions occurring away from them.

The casting was of high quality, though Ken Stott as Arthur Birling was somewhat out of place, his Scottish accent striking a strange note, and his performance definitely undercharged. Brumley, the fictional setting, is supposed to be a North Midlands town, but the role always comes over best when played as a self-important, loud-voiced Yorkshireman (Priestley came from Bradford). Stott was unable to summon up the degree of bluster the part needs.

Miranda Richardson, as Mrs Birling, was very good but again seemed off the mark for a similar reason. Though filmed in Saltaire, West Yorkshire, this version was completely lacking in a sense of place. The accents were lacking in a northern locality, except when characters put on a cod-Yorkshire accent, to mock the working class women, and the play suffered badly for it.

John Boynton Priestley

As the Inspector, David Thewlis was his customary more than excellent as long as he was being asked to do things within the play. His flat, deliberate voice, his self-contained movements, his total self-assurance allowed him to dominate proceedings exactly as the Inspector must, yet also fade completely into the background when he has drawn one of the other characters into self-revelation.

Yet there’s a crucial speech, just before the Inspector exits, when the play’s moral is made explicit, when Inspector Goole adverts deliberately to the First World War and the lessons it will teach in ‘blood and fire and anguish’ only two years after the play is set, and Thewlis lost it. It needs fire in itself, it’s a moment in which the Inspector is stripped bare and in which a seething, albeit controlled anger must be revealed, and Thewlis’s performance was unchanged and he threw it away.

But, of course, these are all things that relate to the play in itself, and if the BBC had been content to treat An Inspector Calls as the play it is written to be, the worst that could be said would have been that this was a middling production with one almost entirely first rate performer.

If only. Edmundson’s insistence on opening the play out filmicly was disastrous. To begin with, whatever else you may think of Priestley, he was a consummate stage technician, a complete craftsman. His plays ‘work’. Not a line is wasted, not a line is needless. Events and characters enmesh. The plays are structured so totally around the elements the story comprises, and changing that hermetic structuring inevitably means breaking the whole thing.

I’ve seen various adaptations of Priestley’s work down the years, enough to know that the additional material an adaptor brings in is, without fail, inferior to Priestley’s own dialogue (this goes for even the late, great Alan Plater). Edmundson brings herself to the play in great chunks. The opening lines of dialogue were enough to show how bad it was going to be, and there was more where that came from.

What Edmundson did, as I said, was to swathe the film in flashbacks, almost all of it invented (the only successful example of this used dialogue converted from Gerald’s confession in the play). At best, it was utilitarian, unnecessary time-filling, like most of the exterior Downtonising, at worst it was embarrassing.

It was also dramatically fatal to the structure of the play, creating problems in the end-sequence that Edmundson simply could not resolve, and which she tried to cover up with flim-flammery, but I’ll deal with that section separately.

An essential part of the play’s structure is Inspector Goole’s insistence on only showing one person at a time the picture of the girl victim. Later on, in the end sequence, this unusual behaviour is seized upon by the morally vacuous elders to give themselves hope it has all been a hoax: since no two people saw the picture together, how do they know Goole has been talking about the same girl, and not five different, unconnected women?

By concretising each character’s confessions, Edmundson simply blows that aspect out of the water. We see the girl every time, we listen to her talking, we verify for ourselves that she is, indeed, a very pretty girl (kudos to Sophie Rundle, who is), but we see that she is the same girl in every instance. An interpretation of the facts that is vital to the climax – and vital to the theme – is kicked in the head at the first opportunity. And Edmundson’s flashbacks are universally emotionally manipulative and, in the groping scene (repeated twice) unnecessarily crude.

It’s bad enough that the adaptation took every opportunity it could to leap out of the play and throw out large chinks of Priestley, it was also dramatically inept in following the story. In the play, Goole leads the Birlings et al through their respective parts in Eva/Daisy’s life chronologically from Arthur to Sheila to Gerald. He then leaps to the current day, and to Sybil Burling’s part in setting up the actual suicide.

There’s a gap, and the horror is intensified as the audience starts to realise that this will be filled by Eric, and how his part will dovetail with the outcome (this shift in chronology is also used to set Sybil up as the most determinedly obtuse of the characters, condemning herself and her own over and again as she continues in her wilful ignorance that the audience knows will only be exploded the more dramatically for her superciliousness).

And Edmundson shoves in a whole amateurish sequence of Eric nipping outside for a crafty fag and lots of sweaty, guilty ‘memories’ that give the game away long before the dramatic point Priestley designed for maximum effect.

But all of this is nothing when set against the extended, utterly risible ending sequence. Before I begin to describe this, let me note another structural change Edmundson makes to the plot. In the play, Gerald departs after his confession is made, to go home, the engagement broken. The Birlings remain for the final two stages and only they receive the Inspector’s overt moral warning.

Once he’s gone, the recriminations start, with the Birlings falling into two. generational camps. The elders are concerned about the impact on themselves, the scandal, the shame, Arthur’s putative knighthood, the potential criminal proceedings. The younger pair can only think of the impact they have had on Eva Smith, on their shame and guilt which they cannot escape, and upon what they will need to do so as to be better people, and more concerned for others.

There’s some unpleasant scorn from their father as to their naivete, and their failure to consider what’s really important.

At this point in the play, Gerald returns, unexpectedly. He’s missed the last two confessions, including that where Eric confesses to also having slept with the woman Gerald had made his mistress, and indeed fathering a child on her. He’s also missed Goole’s moral warning.

He’s returned because he’s bumped into a policeman on his beat who has advised that there is no Inspector Goole on the Force. Arthur Birling confirms this by telephone call to his friend, the Chief Constable, and Gerald goes one further by ringing the Infirmary and determining that no young woman has been brought in today as a suicide victim.

The news is an immediate relief to the elder Birlings: no Inspector, no suicide, no shame, scandal or threat. They can immediately write it off as an unpleasant hoax, dismiss the entire evening. That Sheila and Eric can’t, that they have been too deeply impressed by the moral web, makes them subject for even more caustic contempt from their father (cut out in the film).

It also throws the audience into doubt. Goole is a fake, there has been no death, there may not even have been a single girl. The underpinning of the story has been ripped out by objective facts, coming from an uninvolved outsider. The whole thing accentuates the atmosphere of relief and escape and prepares for the climactic twist.

But Edmondson undercuts all of that. She’s already concretised Eva Smith: we’ve seen her too often, we’ve recognised her as the same girl, we know the Birlings’ relief is spurious. And in her adaptation, Gerald does not leave to go home, merely to take a temporary trip into another room. He brings no outside, objective evidence. He merely posits it as a potential exolanation fior why Goole did not act like a conventional policeman.

By keeping Gerald in the play throughout, Edmondson removed the element of doubt from the audience. She turns the relief into something based on thin ice. When it snaps, there is no impact.

What do we get in return? A brief moment of male bonding with Eric over the shared loss of a shared bed-partner that, whilst appearing to be genuine sympathy, nevertheless is based in a male entitlement and possessiveness that goes completely against the grain of the play. And an horrendously bodged scene between the two young Birlings in which Eric hopes this whole thing will smash his parents and an explicit declaration that he will not turn into them. Subtlety? Allowing the audience to draw inferences from the text and the actors? Everybody seems to be scared that the audience will not get anything unless it’s thrust under their noses.

Because the twist is thus: at the height of the elder Burlings and Gerald’s relief, their complete abdication of any of the responsibility we might hope they’d have learned, the telephone rings. Birling answers, listens quietly and puts the receiver down. That was the Infirmary, he announces. A young woman has just been admitted, who has committed suicide by drinking disinfectant. A Police Inspector is coming round to ask them some questions.

Everything that Edmondson has done in adapting the play has been directed towards the killing of that moment, but everything she has done is as nothing when set beside the travesty that is the extended final sequence.

In the play, the Inspector appears as if summoned by Arthur Birling’s creed of selfishness. When he departs, it is final. He exists only for these scenes in the Birling dining room. In every other respect he is a mystery, an unknown. The audience is not told who or what e ‘really’ is, that is left to their individual interpretations.

Edmondson has already trespassed upon that at the start of the film, showing the Inspector standing outside the Birling residence, waiting to time his entrance for the best possible moment. It creates an impression of malice, smears the tabula rasa that the Inspector should be when he enters. It gives him an agenda before we even know that there is anything to have an agenda about.

But once he goes, Edmondspn goes haywire. We intercut scenes with the Birlings with scenes of the Inspector striding purposefully away, striding down to narrow streets. We intercut with Eva Smith, pale and nervous in her rooms, writing her diary one last time, placing in it her photo, dressing and leaving. She looks iut of her window, The Inspector can see her from the street, but she only sees the street as empty. She leaves. The Inspector enters her rooms, lovingly fondles diary and picture. We follow Eva to the Park. It’s dark, it’s near closing, everybody’s leaving, she’s alone, (please, please stop this shite). She gets out her disinfectant bottle, screws up her nerve and swigs it down. A park keeper finds her hunched up and coughing. She’s rushed to the infirmary, her stomach’s pumped, Goole is among the medical staff but she can’t see him. She dies. He cradles her cold, lifeless hand (this is awful, please  stop it, now, wipe the tape, anything, cannot anyone see what awful shit this is?) but to anyone else looking in there is only Eva’s lifeless body. We last see the Inspector striding purposefully down a corridor: what for, where to? Who the hell knows?

On any level this is conspicuous, barely articulate, melodramatic, hammy, cloth-eared garbage, not fit to be seen on TV. In so carefully designed a play, it is the worst kind of nonsense to bring in, as if you could write anything remotely as well as the playwright, because it also fucks over to hell and gone the timescale of the story, showing actions that make, at minimum a two hour period occurring during ten minutes of post-climax dialogue.

And it is a piece of effrontery as well as every kind of dramatic disaster to force your own, mumbo-jumbo, one-sided interpretation on a play designed specifically to engender doubt.

On every level, the last twenty minutes of the film are a complete, unwatchable disaster. That the film version is at all watchable to begin with owes everything to Priestley’s theme of community, brotherhood and collective compassion and responsibility that survives over and above the adaptor’s every effort to clog up the story’s drains with emotionally manipulative, insecure rubbish.

I’ve gone on about this at some length because I think An Inspector Calls is an important play. Adaptations don’t come round all that often and this is likely to be this generation’s principal exposure to the play, and it’s been twisted about almost out of recognition, and I think it important to point out just how badly this production has treated the story, and why it has been such an enormity.

And anyway, it’s never out of season to castigate the kind of adaptor who sees their task as an opportunity to chuck out large chunks of the source material and use the space thereby created to write great wads of material demonstrating by just how far they have missed the bleeding point!


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