An Inspector Calls: a snapshot of 1912 — and of 2015

Alex Hort-Francis reviews the BBC’s adaptation of An Inspector Calls, and considers why it is still “better to ask for the world than to take it”.

I first read JB Priestley’s play at school. Amongst the terribly tedious Austin novels and obscure poetry we were compelled to study, An Inspector Calls has always stuck in my memory. Its atmosphere sinks deep into your imagination – the dimly-lit cosiness of an upper class home saturated with delicacies, as if the finer things in life could pressurise the air against the collective anguish eager to seep in. Back then I was — as far as anyone can be — apolitical. Watching Sunday’s BBC adaptation, I’m struck by just how subversive a choice of reading material Priestley’s play was for a grammar school in Kent.

The plot is simply synopsised: a wealthy family relax after dinner, congratulating themselves on their shared social and economic fortune. The daughter, set to marry into even more money. The father, certain to acquire a knighthood. Their jubilations are interrupted by an abrupt visit by a police inspector, who grimly informs them of the recent suicide of a working class woman. He interviews each family member in turn, revealing that their actions have all contributed to her demise over the past few years.

Their victim, intentionally generically named Eva Smith, is a metaphor for all those exploited masses. Indeed, An Inspector Calls is deeply metaphorical; although no single member of the Birling family is responsible for her death, as a class they push her further and further towards helplessness, despair and, eventually, death. It examines the ideological comfort blankets the Birlings use to justify their actions: the industrialist father’s belief that wealth is inevitable to anyone who works hard, his wife’s belief that charity only discourages personal responsibility – you’ll see identical arguments presented by any Government minister on the news, today. Some interpretations see the aptly named Inspector Goole as a literal spectre, a supernatural entity summoned to deliver judgement on the Birlings for their misdeeds. The BBC adaptation plays to this, with David Thewlis’ Inspector watching Eva Smith’s agonising death sorrowfully, visible only to her.

But the play is no museum piece; while things have evidently improved for most of us in the hundred years since it was set, many of the same daily struggles remain; the employees forced to hide their union activity to keep their jobs, the young women turning to prostitution to earn enough to live. It’s what hasn’t changed in the last century that is so striking. Were JB Priestley – a life-long socialist – alive today, he would be undoubtedly disappointed at how relevant his play has remained.

The Inspector’s final lines say it all: “We don’t live alone. We are responsible for each other. If men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish.” Words not delivered gleefully, with the expectant promise in his eyes of those who salivate at revolution like a Texan Christian at ‘the rapture’, but regretfully. A quiet, sober reflection.

An Inspector Calls can be found on BBC iPlayer.

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