The message of dramatist JB Priestley’s An Inspector Calls might not be a subtle one but it is particularly pertinent, given the current crises modern society faces. “We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other”, warns David Thewlis’ mysterious Inspector. And though he’s addressing the period characters, it feels as if it’s us, the viewers at home, that he’s really talking to.
This second of four 90-minute adaptations in BBC One’s classic 20th century literature season is decidedly more successful than last week’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Set pre-WW1 in 1912, the detective drama tells the story of a downtrodden working-class woman called Eva Smith (Sophie Rundle) who takes her own life. The upper-middle class Birling family is celebrating the engagement of their eldest child when they receive a visit from The Inspector (David Thewlis), who proceeds to unravel the mystery of how each family member contributed to the young woman’s ruin and ultimate suicide.
With the aid of flashbacks, the tragedy of Eva’s life unfolds as every family member divulges the part they played in her downfall. What starts as a standard whodunit murder-mystery slowly evolves into a shrewd social commentary on archaic Victorian values, class structure, morality and hypocrisy.
Helen Edmundson’s adaptation breathes new life into a play that has developed a stale reputation, no doubt as a result of its inclusion in the GCSE syllabus. Bolstered by strong performances and eerie cinematography, the BBC version is an absorbing and sensitively told tale with a powerful message that’s perhaps more important now than when it was debuted in 1945. David Thewlis is a commanding presence as the enigmatic Inspector Goole; the Birling family might have ignored the ghoulish name, but its significance is not lost in translation on-screen. Thewlis holds court as he moves between the Birling family members, aloof yet confident in his ability to draw out the truth. The Birlings, meanwhile, are predictably detestable; each so absorbed in their own personal misfortunes that the magnitude of the situation brushes off them like raindrops.
Miranda Richardson’s haughty Sybil is the perfect example of hypocrisy as she sits on the board of a charity with the sole purpose of helping women in need, only to decide that Eva – a woman utterly alone in the world – isn’t worthy of aid. Her egotistic husband, Arthur, played brilliantly here by The Hobbit’s Ken Stott, is the one who set Eva on her path to suicide, and yet he refuses to acknowledge his part in the tragic event; more concerned with maintaining his social status than accepting responsibility and causing a scandal.
It’s only with the younger generation – daughter Sheila (Chloe Pirrie) and her brother Eric (Finn Cole) – that the penny seems to drop; they represent a changing of ideas during that era, albeit too late to make a difference to Eva’s life. In their respective roles, Pirrie and Cole do a sound job at revealing a level of remorse their pompous parents aren’t capable of feeling.
With LP Hartley’s The Go-Between (going head-to-head with the return of ITV’s Downton Abbey) and Laurie Lee’s Cider With Rosie still to come, Sunday night TV is once again something to look forward to.