This review contains spoilers for JB Priestley’s 1945 play, as well as subsequent film and TV adaptations.
For the most part, the BBC’s TV adaptation of JB Priestley’s classic AN INSPECTOR CALLS, broadcast last weekend, is polished, if conventional. The left-wing, anti-capitalist undertones of the play have never been more relevant to British politics and society and the addition of a feminist slant appropriate for a modern audience courtesy of screenwriter Helen Edmundson is a welcome one. It’s well performed across the board (unsurprising given it stars David Thewlis, Ken Stott and Miranda Richardson) and it is a handsomely put together by director Aisling Walsh. Taking the first half of the adaptation in isolation, it would be good, but unmemorable. During its final act though, this adaptation becomes something pretty special.
The an engagement party held by the wealthy mill-owning Birling family is interrupted by the sudden arrival of Inspector Goole (David Thewlis). The Inspector questions the Birlings one by one over the suicide of a young woman, Eva Smith (Sophie Rundall), and despite the family’s denials and pleas of ignorance he seems to hold each and every one of them responsible one way or another.
Pleasingly this version of An Inspector Calls restores Inspector Goole’s powerful final monolgue that was bafflingly absent from the 1954 film. The stage play ends shortly after the Inspector’s final flourish, leaving the audience with their thoughts and the Birlings with their squirming consciences. It is at this point that Edmundson’s TV adaptation strikes, when we are at our most vulnerable state. Sophie Rundle is a dignified, heartbreaking Eva Smith/Daisy Renton and David Thewlis as the Inspector, her sad guardian angel, both performances working in harmony to reduce the viewer to an emotional wreck during the crescendo of pathos at the end of the piece. Never before have the future echos/time-travel elements of Priestley’s story been handled so elegantly and so poignantly.
The BBC’s adaptation progresses much as the 1950s Guy Hamilton/Alistair Sim film, particularly in terms of narrative structure. It’s not taking place on stage, so it expands beyond the limitations of a chamber piece. Rather than making extensive use of studio backlots it relies on the genuine and tactile Victorian background of Saltaire, West Yorkshire (JB Priestley’s backyard) where the flashbacks and connective tissue scenes were all filmed. Much like Hamilton’s film, we experience the tragedy of Eva Smith through the guilt of the Birling family as they recollect their parts in her eventual destruction. Unlike the film, we actually witness first-hand her graphic demise. At this point time itself appears to warp, giving way to the sheer tragedy of this innocent, unlucky and mistreated young girl’s fate. As he appears in the morgue, the look in Thewlis’ Inspector’s eyes – the perfect mixture of sadness and rage – neatly sums this sociopolitical fable up.
I wouldn’t quite rate the BBC’s take on An Inspector Calls quite as highly as the stage production overseen by Stephen Daldry that I saw a few years back, taking place as it did in an impressive, and oppressive, giant doll’s house. For me it certainly has higher impact and is more faithful to Priestley’s vision than the Sim film, as iconic as that adaptation is considered. I’d enthusiastically recommend seeking this TV movie out, enjoy, think, and of course make sure you catch An Inspector Calls the next time it’s on a stage near you. SSP