The BBC recently announced it was going to remake An Inspector Calls. It’s unlikely that the remake will be able to match the power of the original screen adaptation. Certainly not if their latest version of Jamaica Inn is anything to go by.
It is strange to think that in the Swinging Sixties, An Inspector Calls (1954) was thought of as a stodgy drawing room drama that had no relevance. It’s true that the action does indeed revolve around a drawing room, but only in the way the eye is at the centre of a hurricane. After all, the play originally had sufficient bite to mean that the Russians staged it in Moscow and Leningrad in 1945, a whole year before anyone dared in the UK. Finally it was Stephen Daldry (of Billy Elliott fame) who rediscovered it as a work of trenchant social criticism in his 1992 National Theatre production.
Superficially An Inspector Calls looks somewhat similar to Downton Abbey. It shares antique furniture, starched collars and repressive social attitudes, but its politics are actually more radical. Whereas Julian Fellowes is a Tory, the author of this play, J.B. Priestley, was a socialist. Yes, the key characters in Downton display a degree of tolerance that is positively 21st Century, but the show is basically accepting of the status quo. Lord Grantham is a good egg and has the best interests of his employees and tenants at heart. The upper classes, or at least the upper middle classes, are not such paragons in An Inspector Calls.
The drama starts at a dinner party to celebrate the engagement of Sybil Birling (Olga Lindo) to Gerald Croft (Brian Worth). Her “hard-headed businessman” father (Arthur Young), mother (Sheila Moore), and feckless younger brother (the great Bryan Forbes) are also in attendance. However, when a policeman, Inspector Poole, is shown in, these evening pleasantries are exposed as sitting on a raft of lies and exploitation. The inspector is played by Alastair Sim in what is one of his most memorable roles.
Sim was a character actor best known for his role as Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol he’d played three years earlier. He was a versatile actor who was happy in comedy roles too – also in 1954 he played both the role of the headmistress as well as her dodgy brother in the first of the St Trinians films. Here he is an august, inscrutable presence, keeping numerous secrets hidden beneath his hooded eyes, before making revelations at key moments.
Without giving too much away, the secrets that the inspector reveals all revolve around the way the family treats a young woman, Eva Smith, who has recently committed suicide. All of the party, man and woman, have treated her either thoughtlessly or even abominably. Each small story shines a light on a different aspect of the Edwardian British class system. This includes industrial relations, and remarkably for a play that was written in the prudish 1940s, sexual hypocrisy.
An Inspector Calls is a socialist wolf in frock coated sheep’s clothing and a great bit of story telling too. The various encounters with Eva Smith are shown in flashback, while they are merely narrated in the play, which broadens the action. The script is also very quotable – “It isn’t only Eva Smith, it’s all the other Eva Smiths.” Quite. Directed by Guy Hamilton who went on to make four Bond movies, this is a first class drama that is unlikely to be bettered in it’s latest incarnation.
An Inspector Calls is released on Blu Ray on Monday 12 May, 2014.