It’s no secret that the BBC churn out some of the best period dramas we’ve ever seen. Sure, ITV may have Downtown Abbey, but compare that with the extensive and excellent list over at the Beeb, which includes the likes of Call the Midwife, Poldark, Tess of the D’Urbervilles and The White Queen, and it’s evident who the winner is.
Meet the latest period drama to hit the channel, An Inspector Calls. Based on the play by J.B. Priestley, the one-off TV film event drew in 6 million viewers when it premiered last Sunday.
Why, you ask? Not only is An Inspector Calls a gripping piece of literature, but it’s something the majority of us British folk spent a year studying in a stuffy classroom for our GCSE examinations. Back when I was a high school student, I adored An Inspector Calls and its clever twists and insightful plot. Watching the book I studied be brought to life on screen gave me so many flashbacks to school, but it also reinforced just how important Priestley’s work is.
If you haven’t studied An Inspector Calls, don’t fret. Here’s a crash course on what it’s about and why you need to get watching, or reading, it.
Set in 1912, it stars Harry Potter‘s David Thewlis (That’s Remus Lupin to all you Potterheads!) as the mysterious Inspector Goole who interrupts the affluent Birling family during a celebration to question them about the suicide of a young woman named Eva Smith.
One by one, it seems all the Birlings had a part to play in Eva’s untimely death.
1. The Birling Bunch
Perhaps what makes An Inspector Calls so amusing are the ignorant and wealthy Birling family.
Mr Arthur Birling, played by Ken Stott, is a portentous man who is extremely proud of his achievements. He is selfish, prejudiced and he is the catalyst who sets Eva, a poor factory worker for Mr Birling, on a downward spiral that eventually leads to her taking her own life.
If you think Arthur’s bad, then you’ll loathe his missus! Miranda Richardson was perfect as the unapologetically snobby Sybil Birling. Chair of a Brumley Women’s Charity Organisation, Sybil turns away Eva when she needs help the most.
With parents like Arthur and Sybil, you’d expect their children to be the spawn of Satan. However, Eric and Sheila are probably the more likable of the Birling bunch.
At the start you’ll dislike Sheila as much as the rest, but after learning that her ignorant actions can have disastrous consequences she immediately feels guilty. Sheila becomes wiser throughout the duration, having her social conscience awakened to the injustice people below their class face – especially women.
Ah, Eric. The Birling’s drunk and rebellious son will become your newest period drama crush in no time at all. Played by Peaky Blinders‘ Finn Cole, you can’t help but love Eric despite his wrongdoings. Much like Sheila, he understands that he and his family all had a responsibility for what happened to Eva.
2. The Significance of Eva Smith
We never get to meet Eva in the play, we only get glimpses of her through recounts that the Birlings and the Inspector give us.
Finally getting to actually see Eva’s unfortunate encounters with the Birlings and Sheila’s husband-to-be, the swarmy Gerald Croft, that led to her suicide was both heartbreaking and wonderful at the same time.
Ultimately all of Birling clan’s actions drove her death, but I’ll leave you to decide which one was the most cruel and did the most damage.
While the Birlings don’t view her as important or even care about her, Eva is the most significant character in An Inspector Calls. She is the unsung representative of the lower classes and how they were treated, or rather neglected, by those above them with more wealth and status.
Terrifically played by Sophie Rundle, each part of Eva we see shows the way women were easily victims of the Edwardian double standards.
3. A Goole-ish Message
David Thewlis does a fantastic and captivating job as the strange Inspector Goole. (Those who have watched or read it, feel free to share your theories on who or what Goole might be with me!)
The pivotal part of watching, or reading, An Inspector Calls is that you pay attention to the message Goole gives in his finale speech and take away a life lesson from it.
“But just remember this. One Eva Smith has gone – but there are millions and millions and millions of Eva Smiths and John Smiths left with us, with their lives, their hopes and fears, their suffering and a chance of happiness, all intertwined with our lives and what we think and say and do. We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other. And I tell you that the time will soon come when, if men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught in fire and blood and anguish.”
Those words, relevant back when Priestley had written the play, are still very much applicable to today’s society. It could relate to an endless list of recent news stories like the Syrian refugees, the Rotherham child sex exploitation cases, profit-protecting, tax-avoiding companies. Even today, there are endless instances of the wealthy buying influence and power. Where privilege is still a defining factor in whether or not you are successful.
Goole’s words are a lesson to those who believe that we should only be concerned with looking after our own and disregard any responsibility for what happens to other people. And it is a lesson that we should never stop learning.
An Inspector Calls is a socialist stance against the hypocrisy and privilege cleverly disguised as a detective drama. In the case of whodunnit? Well, all the Birlings and Gerald are certainly guilty. But the most important thing you could possibly take away from An Inspector Calls is the message and how magnificently clever Priestley was.
‘An Inspector Calls’ is available on iPlayer to watch if you’re in the UK.
Otherwise, you can yourself a copy of ‘An Inspector Calls’ on DVD here
Please consider picking up a copy of the play here while you’re at because it really is an intriguing read.