Many of us will have studied An Inspector Calls for GCSE English. I did, and l liked it, but it’s not a play I had given much thought to for quite some time. This adaptation reminded me how much I liked it and that I’d quite like to see the play again. I hope it enjoys a revival.
The play was written by J.B. Priestly in 1945, but set in 1912. This adaptation part of the BBC’s Literary Classics season, was broadcast appropriately enough on the 13th of September, which was J.B. Priestly’s birthday. The play was adapted by Helen Edmundson, directed by Aisling Walsh and filmed in Saltaire, a Victorian model village in Bradford, West Yorkshire. To those unfamiliar with the play it may have looked at first glance to be a Sunday evening murder mystery drama, but while it features a detective, an investigation into a death and a stately home, the story is something quite different.
Rich industrialist Arthur Birling (Ken Stott) is holding a dinner party to celebrate the engagement of his daughter Sheila (Chloe Pirrie) to Gerald Croft (Kyle Soller), the son of a business rival. Also attending are Arthur’s wife Sybil (Miranda Richardson) and their son Eric (Finn Cole).
Inspector Goole (David Thewlis) arrives, investigating the suicide of a young working class woman, Eva Smith (Sophie Rundle). As the evening unfolds, it turns out the Birlings and Gerald were all involved in her life in some way, and all contributed to the downward spiral she found herself in.
Eva had once worked for Birling & Co. When the workers went on strike she was seen by Arthur as the ringleader. Eva tells him that the employees can’t afford to live on the low wages he is paying them. Their rents are going up all the time, but they haven’t had a wage increase in two years. Arthur at first offers her a promotion with higher pay, but Eva wants all of the workers to get a wage increase. Arthur knows that his employees won’t be able to last long without any money coming in from being on strike, so they’ll have to come back soon. They do, and he sacks Eva, to get rid of her and to make an example of her.
Eva later found work in a shop, Milwards, which Sheila and Sybil are regular customers. One time they were out shopping. Sybil constantly put her daughter down, saying she doesn’t suit fashionable clothes and that a dress Sheila likes would look better on Eva. Sheila wants to try it on, and already jealous of Eva’s looks, she interprets Eva smiling to be mocking her. Sheila tells the manager of Milwards if she ever sees Eva in the shop again the Birlings will take their custom elsewhere, so Eva is fired from another job.
She decides to change her name to Daisy Renton. At the Palace Theatre Bar she is being harassed by lecherous Alderman Meggarty. Gerald Croft spots this, and rescues her by pretending she is his girlfriend. After finding out she has nowhere to live and is hungry he buys her dinner and lets her stay in some rooms a friend has asked him to look after. Gerald is courting Sheila at this time, and Daisy becomes his mistress. But she begins to fall deeper in love with him, and Gerald decides they should end the relationship. Daisy decides to move out of the rooms.
She still goes to the Palace Theatre Bar, having turned to prostitution as a last resort, and is picked up by a drunken Eric. He knows her as “Sarah”. They see each other several times, and she becomes pregnant. Eric offers to marry her, but “Sarah” knows it just isn’t a realistic proposition for someone of Eric’s social class to marry her. He gives her money to help her, but after she finds out he stole the money from one of his father’s clients, she tells him it’s best for him if her just leaves her alone.
She then goes to a charity set up to help women in trouble, calling herself “Mrs. Birling” saying her husband has abandoned her. Unfortunately, heading the organisation is a real Mrs. Birling, Sybil, who takes offence to her using the name. She then tells them her name is “Alice Grey” and tells them the truth about her situation. Sybil refuses to give her any help.
The Inspector tells the Birlings and Gerald they can no longer do Eva any harm, but they can no longer do her any good either. They should remember that there are many Eva Smiths and John Smiths, that people’s lives are linked and that we should all take care of one another, and if we don’t learn that lesson now it will be taught in “fire and blood and anguish”.
The Inspector leaves, and the family are devastated after all their secrets have come out. The older ones, Arthur, Sybil and Gerald, feel very little if any remorse and are desperate to try and cover it all up. The younger ones, Sheila and Eric fell ridden with guilt at what they have done and see no way back. Sheila in particular seems impressed with the Inspector and determined not to forget what he has taught them.
After making a couple of phone calls, the party finds that there is no Inspector Goole in the local police force, and there is no record of a woman committing suicide that day. Again, Arthur, Sybil and Gerald are overjoyed, thinking they are off the hook, but Sheila and Eric aren’t, as what they all told each other still happened.
We then see Eva writing her final diary entry and drinking disinfectant as a way of killing herself. She is taken to hospital where the doctors and nurses try in vain to save her life. She sees the Inspector as she dies. The Inspector is in the morgue with her body, but then we see a nurse talking to another police constable and the Inspector is no longer there. He is some sort of spirit rather than a living person.
The Birling household gets a phone call informing them about Eva’s suicide and that a police inspector is on his way to ask some questions.
In some ways, I think adapting a play or theatre piece to screen is more difficult than adapting a book to screen. A book has more details in the text and it’s a case of how you ”bring it to life”. But plays are written to be performed on stage and written with the strengths and restrictions of theatre in mind. Adapting a play rather than a novel also means people may have an idea of how it is to be performed anyway.
In the play all the action takes place in the Birling’s house. But a TV film allows us to see more locations, such as the Birling & Co. factory. The biggest change is that we see Eva Smith. In the play she is only referred to in dialogue. We see flashbacks featuring her interactions with the family. This will probably be the main point English teachers will debate when they think of how good of an adaptation it is. Showing Eva Smith might be seen as a bad choice, as the point is that Eva Smith could be any working class person. From a dramatic point of view though, I think it was a good idea to show her. Seeing Eva’s life unfold emphasises the tragedy of it. It just gets worse and worse, mostly through the actions of others, and sometimes because she wanted to do the right thing. The scenes of her slow and painful death are particularly upsetting.
For how the other characters are portrayed, Sheila is quite interesting. In many adaptations she’s fairly ditsy and bubbly, here she is presented as very repressed and with a thinly veiled unhappiness. Similarly, Eric often is depicted as having a carefree jack-the-lad facade at first, but here, like his sister, he seems quite repressed and barely masking unhappiness from start, though in his case he masks it through drinking too much.
Arthur Birling is not quite as overbearingly pompous in this version, but he strongly believes in looking after number one and hates the word “community”. He has connections in high places, playing golf with the chief constable. He tries, unsuccessfully, to use his status and connections as a tool to get Eva to stop the strike and to get the Inspector to stop questioning the family.
Sybil Birling is an out-and-out snob in pretty much every version, but she is quite notably callous and cold-hearted in this adaptation. Perhaps it’s because we see her refusing to help Eva. Eva is desperate for help, but all she gets from the charity is contempt from a judgemental, unsympathetic Sybil.
Gerald is quite foppish in this version, and stands out somewhat as coming from a slightly more upper class background than the “new money” Birlings. This social class division even within the upper class is noted to, with Arthur mentioning that Sybil was of a higher social class than him and her parents had some reservations of him marrying her for that reason.
Inspector Goole is a supernatural being. His name ‘Goole’ suggests ‘Ghoul’. When I was taught this play, our teacher suggested that the Inspector was some sort of time traveller. A version of the play I went to see once had the Inspector dressed in more of a 1940s costume than a 1912 one. Some people who watched this TV version thought Inspector Goole might be some sort of guardian angel or a ghost of a relative of Eva. But what exactly the Inspector is open to interpretation. What’s more important is what he does, he gets the Birlings and Gerald to confront their actions.
The play was set in 1912, a couple of years before the First World War, but performed in 1945, just after the Second World War, and that gives it an interesting context. Arthur Birling believes that only good times are ahead, but the Inspector knows that what is to come is “fire and blood and anguish” with the two world wars.
But a lot of what is raised in An Inspector Calls is still very relevant today. The simple message of not being selfish and that we are part of a big wide world and should show more thought and consideration for each other is one that definitely applies.
This adaptation was fine. It was a ratings hit, winning its slot, and was generally well received by audiences and critics alike. I wouldn’t have minded more humour, which the play has. It’s good to have a bit of light and shade. It is popular to perform, many actors having fun with the characters. Having said that, I think it was a deliberate choice to make this version of the play very understated and focusing on the serious issues raised. It put the central themes over well. The whole cast was good, but David Thewlis in particular was great, giving a very authoritative and haunting performance, and a lot of gravitas to the Inspector.