An Inspector Calls by J.B.Priestley

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BBC 7, 23 February 2008

J.B.Priestley’s classic play still packs a powerful punch in its criticism of unrestrained capitalism and its destructive effect on the individual. The last West End revival in the 90s was most notable for its dilapidated set that suggested a world in a state of collapse. This seemed especially appropriate for a piece which, although first performed in 1947, is actually set in 1912 – at the end of the Edwardian era when Britain’s position in the world was coming increasingly under scrutiny.


Rosalind Ward’s production for the BBC World Service (re-broadcast on BBC7) vividly underlined the sense of complacency that dominates the Birling household. Arthur Birling (John Woodvine) confidently spouted clichés about the bright future ahead, when he would receive a knighthood, while continuing to prosper in business as a result of his daughter Sheila’s (Sarah Jane Holmes) marriage. His wife Sybil (Maggie Steed) likewise predicted a future of domestic bliss, where life for a comfortable northern bourgeois family would continue in the same calm, unhurried manner as it had always done.


Inspector Goole’s (Bob Peck’s) appearance was signalled with a short burst of tubular bells. This not only suggested a shiver of apprehension (foreshadowing what was to follow, as the Birling family’s guilty secrets were revealed), but also indicated something other-worldly; that the Inspector might not be all that he seemed. When Goole appeared on the scene, his patient questioning thoroughly unnerved the family; he was determined to get to the truth about how each one of contributed to the death of the unfortunate Eva Smith (aka Daisy Renton). Peck’s patient, calm tone of voice contrasted with the family’s rapidly increasing hysteria: Steed’s Mrs. Birling kept pausing before replying (as if unwilling, or unable to confront the truth of what the family had done), while Woodvine’s voice (once so confident) became shriller and shriller. Peck’s questions were like pistol-shots, penetrating the Birlings’ complacent façade; none of them could muster an effective response.


In truth, the play’s structure is somewhat melodramatic, as revelation follows revelation about the Birlings’ past. However Priestley makes some trenchant observations about the importance of community in which everyone, regardless of class, should look after everyone else. This revival emphasized this point very clearly, as Peck’s inspector informed the family in slow, measured tones that Eva Smith was an Everywoman – one of the millions of workers suffering as a result of exploitation. Their lives would only improve when they had the opportunity to complete a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay without fear of being sacked. Such issues are as important today as they were nearly a century ago, in a world dominated by part-time and/or casual labour, where job security seems a thing of the past. Perhaps this helps to explain why An Inspector Calls still packs a punch for contemporary listeners.



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