I have a terrible confession to make: I have never seen a JB Priestley play nor read any of his books nor essays. Whilst reviewing a programme about Churchill’s electoral defeat of 1945, I spoke to Henry Elkins about him. He told me that he was the son of a headmaster from Bradford and enjoyed success from an early age for his writings. He broadcast in the early part of the World War Two till it is said Churchill removed him for his left wing leanings. The play An Inspector Calls made its debut not in England but in Russia in 1945.
The play is set in 1910. Sir Arthur Berling (Ken Stott) a wealthy mill owner presides over a family dinner with his snobby wife Sybil (Miranda Richardson) their son Eric and daugher Sheila who has announced her engagement to Gerald the son of Lord Close a business rival. The play dramatised as part of the BBC series on three celebrated works of the 20th Century ( the other two are The Go Between and Cider with Rosie) was shown on Sunday. At first sight when I saw the butler set the table, the diners all in white tie or formal gowns, the grand house I thought it was Downton Abbey or any of those class dramas such as Upstairs Downstairs that the viewing public like so much.
I became rather engaged not least by the mesmeric performance of Ken Stott as the omnipotent mill owner father clearly reflecting Priestley’s aversion to captalism. All is going swimmingly well. Berling is delighted with the union wich might lead to a business merger and social advancement, he is on line for a knighthood. Certain cracks appear , the son Eric drinks too much and is rather bolshy in every sentence. Berling has married above himself, endured snobbery and is fearful his daughter will do the same. Then the inspector calls and confronts each person present with their role in the death of Eva Smith who has just committed suicide and left a journal implicating each and every one of them. The son and son-in-law had affairs with her, the father sacked her, the mother as chairwoman of charty refused her financial assistance when she was pregnant by her son, the daughter had her dismissed from a local store as she was jealous of her looks.
The plot is over-contrived and the depiction of a working class girl abused and cast adrift by rich haughty cruel capitalists all rather trite. In fact the story takes a few more improbable turns. The problem of broadcasting as in any play is that it’s a drawing room drama and although we saw scenes of the factory, the store, the theatre bar for pick ups, the action took place in the constrained setting of the dining room table or sitting room.
I have read C.P Hartley’s fine and only novel The Go Between with its memorable first paragraph:
” The past is a different country. They do things differently there” and I have seen the film starring Alan Bates, Julie Christie and Dominic Guard whom Alan Tanner met many times as he was a Fulham fan. Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee was my first rite with words. Clearly class values are going to dominate our Sunday evening viewing.