Film 2021 – The Hours

The Hours

I dunno.

When you buy a film starring Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore and Nicole Kidman, you create a certain expectation of what you are about to watch. I deliberately did not read much about the film before watching it: I have a passion for coming to things with the least amount of foreknowledge possible, so that I can experience all of it without preconceptions, just like film and television used to be: a completely fresh experience.

So I knew only vaguely what The Hours was about, that the three stars played women in different time periods, and that Nicole Kidman played the novellist Virgina Woolf but that Streep and Moore played fictional characters. There’s a conventional approach to such a film that the subject matter dictates. The screenplay will flit, sometimes seemingly capriciously, between the three characters, that the events that affect them will each be individual but that there will be parallels and reflections throughout, experiences shared in differing forms. And that was what The Hours delivered.

The acting was of the highest quality, as you might expect. I am constitutionally incapable of mentioning Nicole Kidman without a comment as to her prettiness, but there was none of that in this film, and all the better for it: indeed, there were times, and many of them, that I stopped noticing that Mrs Woolf was being portrayed by her and was watching Virginia Woolf, the novellist, the disturbed woman who, after previous attempts, killed herself by weighing down the pockets of her long, straight, flat dress with bricks and walking into the middle of a river.

That’s where the film begins and ends, in 1941. In a way, it creates a false expectation that the rest of the story refutes. In between, the film is firmly anchored to its respective time periods – 1925 for Kidman, 1951 for Moore as Californian housewife Laura Brown, and 2001 for Streep as editor Clarissa Vaughan in New York – and confines each to the events of a single day.

The key to the film is Woolf’s novel, Mrs Dalloway, which I have not read, nor any of her work. Perhaps I would have enjoyed the film more if I knew the book, because it is the theme to each story and the template for the film’s structure in staying within single days. Woolf begins to write it, the unhappy Laura, five months pregnant with her second child, is reading it, Clarissa is a modern-day Mrs Dalloway, and is addressed as such several timews by her friend and former lover, poet Richard Brown, dying of AIDS and about to be honoured by a celebrated Award: Clarissa is organising a party.

(A brief sidestep to the Wikipedia entry on the novel indicates just how much the film has taken from it, and how it is spread around among the three characters).

The problem with the film is pace. A film like this is never going to be fast-moving, full of action and contain melodramatic elements: these would be contradictory to its nature. But at the same time, for most of its first hour, and again in its later stages, The Hours is conspicuously slow, self-consciously slow, and the soundtrack, composed by Philip Glass, is obtrusive and too loud. The acting is excellent, but there are many scenes where it is too noticeable: the camera will sit on characters’ faces whilst emotions wrestle with each other to decide which will speak the delayed dialogue. This is particularly so for Streep and Moore, and especially in the one scene they share. They are both brilliant but their acting calls attention to itself and breaks the hold the film has on you, if it has one at all.

Kidman, playing an Englishwoman in the Twenties, and a lady accustomed to good society, is much less conspicuous. Her role calls for her to be withdrawn, almost passive, her difficulties subsumed to a large extent into her ‘confinement’ in Richmond, a quiet town, thought to be ideal for giving her time, space and silence, avoid disturbance. But when she does erupt, on the railway station, in an argument with her devoted husband, Leonard, the scene is the highlight of the film. The stilted, literary dialogue feels altogether real and natural, the intensity, and the simple depth of Leonard’s love and fear for his wife is awesome.

Only one other scene matches the power of this. I’ll come to that momentarily, but let me speak for a moment of Laura, the housewife seemingly living the dream of 1951, a loving husband who’s devoted and a good provider, an All-American kid son (what an unbelievable performance by Jack Rovello, aged about 4), another on the way. But Laura is deeply unhappy, so much so that, after baking a beautiful cake for her oblivious husband’s birthday, she leaves her son – who gets called all sorts of names, from Bug through to little Richie, but who only once is addressed as Richard – with a childminder whilst she rents a hotel room with the intent of overdosing, but cannot do it. Little Richie is deeply affected by his fear that his mother will not return, even after she does.

You may remember that I mentioned Clarissa’s friend and ex-lover, Richard Brown, poet, with whom she is still in love? The film keeps the connection under its hat for a very long time but I twigged it the moment Riuchie was named Richard, about twenty-five minutes before the film tips its hand. It’s Richard who gets the film’s suicide, throwing himself from a window, which is the catalyst for Clarissa’s meeting with Laura, in heavy old-age make-up, revealing that after her daughter was born, she left her family, abandoning.

It’s this scene, where Richard’s intentions are plain from the outset, that is the only other dominant scene in the film.

There are other parallels between the characters’ lives, such as a hint of bi-sexuality, and other allusions, and there is a phenomenally strong supporting cast which includes Toni Collette, Miranda Richardson, Alison Janney, Claire Danes, Stephen Dillane and Ed Harris, but whilst the film is full of complexities, it is nevertheless very slow, determinedly slow, and it sets out to deter your investment in it over the first hour. It’s title is the last two words of the screenplay and is, of course, the working title for Mrs Dalloway.

Good Omens: e06 – The Very Last Day of the Rest of their Lives

good omens

And so it ends.

Much as I like Good Omens, and much as I enjoy watching it, and much as the acting throughout is superb, even down to the youngsters playing the youngsters, on a critical level I’m still concerned about how Neil Gaiman structured the adaptation. Clearly, in part because it was his book and in honour of his friend and co-author, the late Terry Pratchett, he has stayed as faithful to the book, and has put in as much of it as was humanly possible, but this has led to his losing sight of that age-old stricture, that a book and a tv series are two entirely different things demanding different approaches. In giving us so much of the one Gaiman has, I regret saying, given us so much less of the other.

Take this final episode. It’s the crunch, its Armageddon, the world is about to be destroyed by all-out, all-country nuclear war. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are gathered. The Antichrist has only to say the word. Four children aged eleven, an ineffectual angel and a sneaky but equally ineffectual devil, a mad Witchfinder and an ageing lady of discipline and fake medium, one professional descendent and one absolute nerd are gathered against them. As dear old much much-missed Terry would have pointed out, million to one chances come up nine times out of ten.

Of course they’re going to win. Not only would we not have a book, or series, if they didn’t, we wouldn’t have anyone to read it afterwards. The fun is in the unlikelihood of how, most especially the notion of absolute power NOT going to the head of William Brown, I’m sorry, Adam Young.

But it’s over and done with so quickly, not even a full third of the way into the episode. Even Satan, an effects-laden cameo from Benedict Cumberbatch that’s waaay too short, doesn’t hold things up for long. And then we have the aftermaths.

In the book, these are nicely balanced. Pratchett and Gaiman wrote these not too short nor too long: Agnes Nutter’s sequel book of prophecies arrives with Anathema and Newton, who have settled into being a couple with no demonstrations and Newton persuades his girlfriend to burn it, Sergeant Shadwell and Madame Tracey settle into being a pair with admirable economy (and the best joke functions perfectly by being implied in print instead of having to be blunted by being spoken out loud on air), Crowley and Aziraphale find themselves back where they were, and the book ends in a literally poetic, and poignant moment, on Adam Young, former Antichrist, now an enigma, slouching towards… Tadfield. To be born as, what?

On screen these feel stretched out. And the episode is certainly stretched out as Gaiman chooses to import a lost scene, written but excluded from the book (or perhaps for its mooted but never written sequel, ‘668: The Neighbour of the Beast’, another one to check out of Lucien’s Library). This deals with Crowley and Aziraphale’s aftermath with their respective sides, unhappy about having their respective intentions thwarted, and seeking to effect consequences. No, I’m not going to reveal how our faithful central pair escape their fateful destructions, with the aid of Agnes’ last prophecy, and yes, the scene is wonderful, bright, intelligent and with that close connection to reality and logic that is the hallmark of the best fantastic schemes: not only could it happen but it would, given the premises on which the book is anchored.

I just question adding it to the series and extending the aftermath sequence to positively Lord of the Rings proportions. And I regret it switching the focus of these final sequences. This, ironically, is an example of Gaiman being only too television oriented: you have to feed the stars. So instead of the poetic and enigmatic, and let’s not forget poignant ending on Adam Young, we end on Aziraphale and Crowley, the superb Michael Sheen and David Tennant, and Gaiman’s pal Tori Amos singing ‘A Nightingale sang in Berkeley Square’, to concretize a nice little footnote-aside that is better as the brevity of a footnote, for its precision and conciseness.

imdb has references to a potential sequel series being put into abeyance by the COVID crisis and I’d watch that but I wonder what Gaiman would have to do to top this, and how he’d have to wriggle out of a final ending next time. The trouble with a sequel to this story is that I cannot imagine it happening without going down one of two disturbing routes, either to play for comedy and a more trivial storyline, which would be flatly unequal, or else accept the inevitable darkening of the drama and squeeze the comedy out.

But there’s a reason why Gaiman is a world famous best-selling author and I’m a blogger: he could make it work. If he can, I’d love to see it. The book is still better though.

Good Omens: s05 – The Doomsday Option

good omens

Now all roads were running together to the East to meet the coming of the War, wrote Tolkien in The Return of the King and, save for the fact that Oxfordshire lies west of London, it goes for the penultimate episode of Good Omens as well. Though Neil Gaiman took a lot of trouble to keep all the narrative strands spinning in as many disparate corners as he could, there was no question about it: everything was now leading to one place only, and that was Armageddon.

Considering how much of this section of the book had to be left out to prevent it flying apart under its own centripetal force – I really did regret the excision of the Four Other Bikers of the Apocalypse – there was still a lot of territory to cover. There’s Aziraphale, unexpectedly discorporated anf having to improvise by possessing the body of Madame Tracey, albeit on a purely co-operative basis, of course, and Crowley going hell-for-leather in a car on fire, the only instance of weak CGI in the series, let alone the episode, there’s Anathema and Newton, having hung out between episodes and now concentrating on the urgent matter at hand, and there’s Adam Young, Antichrist, doing the one thing unexpected of him, the one thing you thought was beyond even his red-flashing-eyed power: being human.

So the Four Bikers ride to Tadfield Airbase and kickstart the end of the World – now a mere 17 minutes hence – whilst the opposing forces gather. Adam’s supposed to meet his friends here, his new friends. But instead he brings his old friends with him, his real friends. I’m here, he calls. And we go into the credit sequence in disbelief that already 52 minutes have passed, because we sure didn’t notice them going by…

Good Omens: e04 – Saturday Morning Funtime

good omens

Adapting any book for film or television automatically requires simplification. Themes are altered, characters reduced, emphasis shifted towards those things that visual representation does better. Sometimes, though, a television series offers the opportunity to expand. Sometimes it demands it, requiring transitional scenes that can be sped through on the page. What Neil Gaiman has done, on many occasions, is to concretize parts of the book that existed merely as comic asides: footnotes a la Pratchett.

There’s a perfect example in the open to episode 4, as Gaiman and Amazon go to a lot of time and trouble and expense, not to mention the CGI, to animate the near throwaway paragraph where Atlantis rises from the ocean depths. It’s a direct transition from the previous episode. which ended with Adam Young – the Antichrist, you may recall – under the influence of Anathema Device’s New Age concerns, dreaming away an entire Nuclear Power Plant, and this is his raising Atlantis.

It’s fun, and very well-made, but I think he and Pratchett got it right first time, since the joke works well as a quick, clipped, absurdist sting, setting up and smacking you with its punchline and clearing out of the way for the next gag. Here, it’s spectacular, but inevitably slow. The camera has to linger to make it worthwhile.

There are other examples that are more important in that they directly impinge on the story: the UFO landing and the message of Cosmic Peace delivered to Newton Pulsifer that blows it thanks to some very poor acting by the Alien Leader, and the Tibetan pair digging a secret tunnel and causing Pulsifer’s Reliant Robin to crash outside Anathema’s cottage. They have to be done but in each case, the concretization doesn’t completely work because the book version is more compact and the series has to convert things into real-time, not reading-time.

On the other hand, since time is now at a bit of a premium, our Delivery Driver has to summon the two remaining Horsemen, Pollution and Death. And you can guess just how he has to attract the latter’s intention. So before this happens, Gaiman throws in a scene early on Saturday morning, in his bedroom. The Driver’s wife, Maud, an ordinary middle-aged woman in a garish orange nightie, doesn’t want him to go. She’d rather he came back to bed, It’s nothing sexy. It’s just an understated scene demonstarting the love and commitment between two people, who you wouldn’t look at twice in the streets, but who together make up a pair, committed to one another, for whom love-making is every bit as vital as it is for the handsome and the virile, yet is just one of many ways in which they share their lives together. And which is about to stop dead.

This concretization expands wonderfully on the implications in the book. Death describes the Driver’s demise as ‘leaving early to avoid the rush’, but it’s a foreshadowing of what’s actually at stake here, an understable and touching microcosm represzenting the macrocosm that is at the end of this story but which is simply too much to imagine or take seriously. This we can, and do, take seriously.

We’re now in the back half of the series and, more importantly, it’s Saturday, the day of Armageddon, so not much time left. Crowley and Aziraphale are still not working together, a combination of the Angel’s genuine concerns about the propriety of working with the Demon and the total contrast between their attitudes to where they are. Crowley has given up hope, it’s all useless, Armageddon is going to happen and nothing, least of all the pair of them, will stop it. Aziraphale, on the other hand, is still blessed with the belief that everything can be resolved without all this nasty destroy-the-Earth-and-everybody-upon-it business, if only everybody would just sit down and discuss it sensibly, over a nice cup of tea and some thinly-sliced sandwiches. Cut diagonally.

It’s just not going to hapen. Things are coming to a head. Wars have been stigmatised as merely the end product of economic competition, which is basically blinding yourself to the truth: that often they are just what happens when people reach the point of not being able to tolerate the sight of each other. All the Angels in Heaven and Devils in Hell, except one on each side, are set upon War. It wouldn’t be such a bad thing if we weren’t stuck in the bloody middle. And it’s going to be bloody alright.

Because the focus of it all is an 11 year old boy who happens to be the Son of the Devil, the Antichrist, etc. Adam Young, leader of the Them, a Just William mischief-maker for no better reason than that he’s 11, and his friends Pepper, Wensleydale and Brian are 11, and they live in an idyllic land that Adam has, subconsciously, made into the perfect children’s book playground, and he’s the World Champion at filling up the endless hours with the best games, to keep boredom at a distance.

And Adam Young has just stared at an image of the Devil in Anathema Device’s cottage. He may not have had the least instruction or inkling as to who he is and what he can do but he’s still the trigger for Armageddon and, matephorically he’s started ticking. Adam is taking control of the world, starting with the rest of the Them, and he’s terrifying them. With an 11 year old’s zeal he’s going to wipe the world clean and re-start it with all the games that an 11 year old mind can conceive, free from anything constraining him or them from doing whatever they want whenever they want it. Adam’s so lost in himself he can’t see that he’s doing the exact oposite to his friends, who are left with no option but to do whatever Adam wants whenever Adam wants it. When he removes their mouths so that they cannot even say they disagree it’s a moment of utter horror, all the more forceful for its relevance to a world in which one political party is doing everything it can to stifle even the most inefectual opposition to its actions.

It’s also a moment in which trust is irrevocably breached. This is a story, and things will change, but I for one could never again give the remotest amount of trust to a ‘friend’ who forced that on me.

So it’s begun. Not only are Crowley and Aziraphale out on their own, without support, but their respective sides have begun to suspect them of collaboration with the enemy. Which is, to be fair, true. Aziraphale finsally reaches as high as he’s going to get, the Matatron, the Word of God, Derek Jacobi’s floating and talking head. The rot goes all the way to the top. He’s going to have to ally himself with Crowley, because there is no-one else on his side. Which is when the misunderstanding Witchfinder-Sergeant Shadwell intervenes, performing an on-the-fly exorcism that results in Aizraphale stepping over a line he shouldn’t have, and discorporating. And his bookshop catching fire.

Things aren’t looking very hopeful, are they?

Good Omens: e03 – Hard Times

good omens

It was once again noticeable that the third part of Good Omens began by diverting away from the mechanics of the plot, the onwards progression to the end of everything, or tomorrow as the episode’s final image firmly indicated. But you can hardly call it a tangent when the pre-credits sequence actually lasted slightly longer than half the show. An obtuse angle?

Either way, what we got was a ton of material only a tiny bit of which – the Voice of God asking the Angel Aziraphale where his flaming sword is, last seen as a footnote about an unusual edition of the Bible – actually came from the book, whilst all the rest was about the slowly developing relationship between the Angel and the Demon throughout many different historical settings and producing the ‘Arrangement’ that prevails today. It was astonishingly long but, unlikle episode 2, didn’t feel as if it was delaying out getting back into the swing of things because, firstly, it was incredibly entertaining and I just love seeing Michael Sheen playing Aziraphale, and secondly because it all went to buttressing and building.

Atr the end of the day, you’re asking us to accept that an Angel and a Demon – once but no longer identical creatures of God’s devising – are working together and any residual doubts as to the credibility of that notion were well and truly dispelled.

The other half of the episode, called the plot, sees Aziraphale try to divert the War only to discover his side wants it to happen come what may, fall out with Crowley over working together when they so obviously have nothing in common but a like for the Earth where it is and the desire to keep it that way, both call in their private army of secret operatives, namely Sergeant Shadwell and Private Pulsifer, and Adam Young (an Antichrist) meet Anathema Device and become overwhelmed by New Age philosophy, resulting in something extremely odd happening to a Nuclear Power Station.

This is a hard series to write about, principally because it’s very good.

Good Omens: e02 – The Book

good omens

Good Omens is very much a discursive book. It builds slowly, it follows diverse paths, it has multiple criss-cross elements that havbe no seming relation to one another but which we know are tributaries that will eventually come together into one major river of story. You can do that in books. It’s a lot harder in television, especially when you’re dealing with an exaggerated reality that exceeds normal expectations. There’s a a lot of it about in episode 2.

Last week’s opening episode was mainly linear, keeping everything going in a straight line so that the audience knew what they were getting: Armageddon and an Antichrist who comes over as a less sullen Just William. With the train on the tracks, episode 2 decided to devote large parts of its running time to the branch lines, and a whole horde of new characters we didn’t get to in the opening episode.

First up was a plot reminder. The Angels Gabriel and Sandalphon visit Aziraphale’s Soho bookshop to check all is well, and make a holy show of themselves in ‘fooling’ the simple humans into accepting them as material beings, whilst Hastur and Ligur (I do so relish Ned Dennehy’s performance and look as Hastur!) replace a Breakfast Show hosting pair to demand the same of Crowley: neither angel nor demon admit they’ve absolutely no bloody idea where the Antichrist is.

So the narative drive this week is set upon finding him, except that it’s not being done with any urgency and without any great plan, and in the meantime, enter the following: Agnes Nutter, a Lancashire Witch (Josie Lawrence) to be burned by Witchfinder General Thou-Shalt-Not-Commit-Adultery Pulsifer (Jack Whitehall): the first of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, War, aka National Weekly News War Correspondent Carmine Zuigiber (Mireille Enos), and an outsourced summoner, a delivery driver (Simon Merrells): profesional descendent Anathema Device (Adria Arjona), carrying the only copy of the #nice and Accurate Propheies of Agnes Nutter, Witch, dressed from head to toe to wrist in heavy, faintly archaic, form-concealing clothes, the way Melanie Safka always did: professional failure Newton Pulsifer, who’s ‘not good with computers’ (Jack Whitehall again, of course): Witchfinder Sergeant Shadwell (Michael McKean with a Scottish accent that keeps nipping back up to the Highlands, leaving him floundering) and his landlady, Madame Tracey (Miranda Richardson, still looking pretty good). That’s a lot of characters to take care of in one go, and they need time which detracts from Aziraphale and Crowley’s presence and kee[ps us from getting to the Them, the Antichrist’s little gang, until well down the running time.

And Gaiman does insist on keeping as much of his and Pratchett’s amusing little asides as he possibly can, like the wyt Crowley talks to his plants.

These are all well and good in the book: in the book they’re more than good, they’re hilarious. But this is the difference between books and television/film. In any kind of decent television series I’m eager for this kind of multiple strand approach, setting up theaudience to guess, and red herrings are fair game. But I didn’t think it worked here. That’s because, after setting things up, and that reminder of what this story is all about, the episode went all over the place, at some length, to avoid taking the next step. When are we going to get on with it was the prevailing response.

Which leads us to the matter of the writing. Thgis is very much Neil Gaiman’s project. It adapts a book of which he is the co-author and it is driven by the desire to do seriously right by his co-author and his very dear friend, the late Terry Pratchett – is it really six years? On the one hand, the teleplay writer knows and understands the material and can be alert to it and its nuances in a way no-one else can. On the other, how detached can he become? How distanced can he be to carry out the essential task of the adapter, which is to reconstruct the book in a medium alien to the original work?

Episode 2 shows Gaiman to be perhaps a bit too determined to get in as much of Good Omens as he can, which isn’t necessarily the best thing to do.

Mind you, I had fun with it. And we’ve four more episodes in which to draw things together even tighter.

Film 2018: Chicken Run

What else needs to be said about Chicken Run?

I was amazed to realise that Aardman’s first full-length production (after the Wallace & Gromitt shorts) was as long ago as 2000: what a different world we lived in then! It’s an astounding technical achievement, considering that it’s made in stop-go animation, and I’d call it flawless but for the fact that nothing is ever absolutely perfect, only in all this time I’m yet to see a flaw.

The concept is simple but one of genius. It’s a World War 2 Concentration Camp movie, complete with escape, only instead of British prisoners, it’s a farm in Yorkshire populated by plastiscene chickens who look nothing on earth like chickens. Put like that, it sounds potentially awful, with a high risk of cheapening the experience of the real-life POWs, yet with Nick Parks as its presiding spirit, the whole thing is carried off with a straightfaced realism that only makes the film even funnier.

Respect for the form enables the parodies to be even stronger, a point I’ve made several times now, but which bears repeating for the hard of thinking. The script, and Nick Parks’ ingenuity in creating visuals, wastes no opportunity to cram in clever gags, riffs and references. There are, of course, some overt parodies: Rocky’s late run riffs off Steve McQueen in The Great Escape when he flies over the fence, pedaling furiously on a kid’s tricycle, and Ginger’s already played the Cooler King part, bouncing a sprout off the wall and floor of the coalbin. But over and again, something smart, funny, absurd will just flash by in the background, or a corner of the screen, and you roar with laughter as you recognise it.

The film pulls off a coop  (heh heh, coup, sorry) in snagging Mel Gibson to play Rocky the Rhode Island Red, though he’s surrounded by a host of British voices, mainly female, that you wouldn’t normally expect to do voiceover work. Everybody does a brilliant job, and the aptness of every voice to the plasticene grotesques they portray is a tribute to the casting office as much as it is to the designers. Julia Sawalha is perfect as Ginger, the late Benjamin Whitrow a hoot as Fowler, the farm cockerel and a stick-in-the-mud old-style RAF officer (mascot brigade), and I love Jane Horrocks in anything, let alone her performance as the permanently muddled Babs.

Aardman are even confident enough to throw in a chicken-and-egg argument for the film’s coda, running on into a post-credit scene, which sums up just why Chicken Run is so bloody funny.

The film was another of those, like The Princes Bride, where we saw a clip from it on Barry Norman’s Film 2000 at John M’s house, after an evening at the Crown & Anchor. The bit where Fowler exclaimed ‘The turnip’s bought it!’ had us in fits and cemented the desire in all of us to see it as soon  it was out.

When that happened, I remember asking my professional partner if he was going to see it. he looked at me almost in amazement, and asked why he’d want to see something made up out of plasticene. There are people who can’t see beyond the surface, and who cannot understand the appeal of something that is so obviously ‘not real’. The best thing about Chicken Run is that for eighty minutes it involves you in a story made up out of artificial material designed in a way that no living or natural thing has ever looked, and whilst the implausibility of the characters is itself an essential part of the fun, it brings you into this life and engages you in a story that is literally life and death for those who go through it. You believe in it.

It’s a perfect illustration of the aphorism I coined thirty-odd years ago: the irreducible requirement of fiction is that it must make you care about something that never happened to someone who never existed.

Shall I watch it again?



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!