An Inspector Calls is poisonous, revisionist propaganda - which is why the luvvies love it

Yet despite the oppressively didactic set-up, the BBC's new TV adaptation of J.B. Priestley's weird melodrama grips and compels

19 September 2015

8:00 AM

19 September 2015

8:00 AM

What a load of manipulative, hysterical tosh is An Inspector Calls. It wasn’t a work with which I was familiar till I saw the latest TV adaptation. Now, of course, I see exactly why the luvvies — see, for example, Stephen Daldry’s highly acclaimed early 1990s National Theatre revival — adore it so. It confirms everything they think they know about the world: rich people bad, heartless, oppressive; poor people the long-suffering and saintly salt of the earth.

In case you’ve not had the pleasure, J.B. Priestley’s play is like a socialist game of Cluedo: a lovely innocent young working-class woman has died and the toffs all dunnit. Self-made millionaire mill-owner Arthur Birling bludgeoned her with his ruthless capitalism; Mrs Birling with her hypocritical sanctimoniousness; young Sheila Birling with her hysterical upper-middle-class insecurity; Sheila’s betrothed, Gerald Croft, with lasciviousness dressed up as human sympathy.

Then young Eric Birling, the drunken son and heir, finished her off by borderline-raping her and impregnating her with a child for which he neglected his responsibility. All right, so they didn’t literally kill her — she drank bleach — but they might just as well have done. As the mysterious nocturnal visitor Inspector Goole makes abundantly clear, this is a case of murder.

You can see, too, why it has become a standard GCSE text. Not only are its politics perfectly aligned with those of the teaching profession but there are so many big themes to explore, so many dramatic coups-de-théâtre at which to marvel. That Inspector, for example. As his name subtly indicates, he’s a supernatural figure: a red avenger from the netherworld come to strike a blow for social justice in a callous world ripe for righteous retribution.

Being a prescient sort of fellow, the Inspector knows — the play being set in 1912 — that that righteous retribution lies but two years hence. Prescient but not omniscient. What he doesn’t seem to be aware of (odd, given that his creator served in the trenches, first with the ranks, later as an officer) is the disproportionate burden of sacrifice that will fall on those despised public-school classes. (Eric, we can infer, is definitely for the chop; as is Gerald, whose father is a lord.)

Or perhaps he does know and thinks it’s a jolly good thing. If so, then I don’t think that reflects very well on J.B. Priestley, who, it is often said, created the Inspector as his mouthpiece. By the time of the second world war, when he wrote the play, Priestley had become a national treasure. A pretty repellent view for a national treasure to hold and to celebrate in a potboiling drama, if you ask me: those bloody toffs, they had it all coming.

Mind you, I’m not sure even Priestley himself would have guessed that his weird melodrama would have become such a standard of dramatic literature. Not least given its tragically dreadful implausibility. Five members of the same family, all with a hand in this random girl’s death? Pull the other one. As for the nonsense with the Inspector’s ludicrous investigation, whose purpose has less to do with inquiry than with delivering portentous moral judgments: it’s so unprofessional and impertinent that Arthur Birling would have seen him off the premises in five minutes, not waited an hour before belatedly realising, ‘That inspector didn’t half ask some funny questions.’

But for all that, it’s amazing how intensely it grips and compels. Once you forget the implausibilities — which you do quite often — you cannot help but be sucked into the emotional maelstrom. Yes, the set-up is almost embarrassingly schematic, oppressively didactic, risibly contrived, but the characters and their relationships (domineering father, feckless son, indulgent mother), though clichéd, are persuasively drawn. It’s an actors’ play — every part meaty, with hidden depths, requiring hugely satisfying shifts of mood. Another reason why the luvvies love it so.

Boy, do they inhabit those roles. They did in this TV production anyway: David Thewlis as the Inspector; Ken Stott as Mr Birling; Miranda Richardson as Mrs; etc. It’s quite invidious to name names when the entire cast was so good. They believed in their characters — even when required to do crap things like get an innocent shopgirl sacked on a toffee-nosed whim — and so, thanks to their conviction, did you.

The play, though, does not deserve this reverence. It’s poisonous, revisionist propaganda on a par with that of Barbara and John Lawrence Hammond, the northern bourgeois liberals who, in the wake of Engels and Toynbee, invented the popular modern notion of the industrial revolution as the bad thing it simply wasn’t. Most serious historians now recognise that for people like Eva —the play’s suicide victim — the owners of dark satanic mills like Birling’s generally did far more good than harm. If the public still often doesn’t, then it’s those celebrity purveyors of cast-iron bollocks like J.B. bloody Priestley we have to thank.

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  • amicus

    Thanks. I really enjoyed that; having watched the Alistair Sim film version, some years ago,I can say that this review is spot on.

  • Temporary ID

    It premiered in the USSR, where it was very well received and which tells you all you need to know about the play.

    • terry

      This was a superb drama. The hysteria seems to be mainly on this feed doesn’t it. I am not a member of the Labour party or of any party. Stop getting so angry, your’e party is in government isn’t it.

      • andagain

        As a political play, it makes its political play in a manipulative and dishonest manner. To that extent, it annoys me.

        But if I ignore that aspect, it works perfectly well.

        • JimHHalpert

          The play is obviously boll*cks of the worst kind, but I love your kind of zeugma thing going on there. V. good.

      • vieuxceps2

        “Your’e”? ‘eh?

    • Les

      It premiered in Moscow in 1945. At that time the Soviet Union was our ally against the Nazis and Japan. It was premiered there due to lack of suitable venues in bomed out London. This was done in the same spirit of co-operation as the arctic convoys.
      So no , I do not know what you mean.

      • Curnonsky

        So during the war Moscow became the new home of the West End? Come off it – it only opened there because it pleased Comintern.

    • even stares


  • ChrisTavareIsMyIdol

    The implausibility is overcome in the original play because each of the events may have happened to different girls (except Eric of course) . I saw the 1992 “revival” and thought it was awful.

  • Billy.

    “What a load of hysterical tosh”

    Please dont spoil the content of your review in the first line James.

  • Tamerlane

    Ghastly socialist tosh masquerading as culture. It is punctuated mid way by the worst example of a playwright not understanding the basic concept of show don’t tell (odious lefty speech about the consequences of one’s actions). If it was rated purely on its literary merits it would have died the death it has long deserved long ago.

    • Les

      Says Tamerlane the apologist for Hitler.

    • Leon Wolfeson

      So basically, you only want things you agree with to exist in your “culture”. Right. Monocult, more like.

      • Tamerlane

        Yakety yakety yak.

        • The Mayor of Trumpton

          Very clever. Nothing to say , so resort to child like gibberish. Numpty.

      • Damaris Tighe

        I would be happy if only some of the things I agree with exist in our ‘culture’. But they don’t & your lot have won.

  • drgreat

    And I thought it was the Trots that were supposed to be obsessed with class!
    The point of the play is to remind us about the consequences that our own selfish acts can have on the lives of others. Class has nothing to do with it. Mind you, the Spectator is the bastion of free market principles, where individuals acting in their own rational self-interest is king, so it’s no wonder it flew right over your head.
    In this instance, I think your reaction to the play tells us more about you than JB Priestley.

    • FG

      Very well said. Can’t see the wood for the trees is a phrase that springs to mind with this review.

      • global city

        Well, in that case it should wok just as well if set in a pit village, with the cast all given worker’s characters?

        Perhaps the NT should arrange that for their next production?

        • Allow me to show you a fantastic ways to earn a lot of extra CASH by finishing^ basic tasks from your house for few short hours a day — See more info by visiting >MY_DISQUS_ACCOUNT

    • Les

      Only the Spectator could deride one of the best plays written in the English language in the 20th century. Priestley was a hero of WW1 serving right through the conflict. He was buried alive by a trench mortar and very badly wounded. A grammar school boy who got to Cambridge aged 30.
      He was well placed to highlight the hypocrisy of the Edwardian toffs who so badly led our troops on the western front. He saw the collapse of trust and respect for the gentry at first hand.

      • Scylla

        None of which prevents this play being a load of self-satisfied bollox.

        • Abie Vee

          Pearls before swine, eh?

      • Ooh!MePurse!

        CND? Are you having a laugh? It was lack of money that forced Gorbachev’s hand and ultimately led to the demise of the USSR.

      • Damon

        “[…] CND whose protests convinced Gorbachev to step away from the trigger.”

        • The Mayor of Trumpton

          Give us a clue Demon. What is “bless”meant to mean?

          • BenTorch

            Dear oh dear.

          • Johnnydub

            Bless – as in “ah just look at this cute muppet’s delusion”

      • plainsdrifter

        ‘Edwardian toffs who so badly led our troops on the western front.’ Who says? You say. Oh right.

        Your comment is a foolish generalisation and a wicked slander.

        • The Mayor of Trumpton

          The toffs did not get their officer appointments on merit, but on the strength of being good csps from good schools. Tigers led by Geese.

          • plainsdrifter

            The attrition rate for subalterns was greater than for the men that they led. You are talking populist bourgeois liberal nonsense. Like Priestley.

          • The Mayor of Trumpton

            Are the incompetent toffs somehow more noble for dieing in greater numbers?
            Junior officers died as they insisted in wearing starched white collars. Easily spotted by snipers.

          • plainsdrifter

            I didn’t say they were. And after weeks in a trench no one had white collars. Your views are odious.

            No further comment.

          • The Mayor of Trumpton

            The toffs did. The toffs had bunkers. The toffs had batmen and laundry collections.

          • Tamerlane

            Balls. Only on Blackadder. Get a brain you uneducated fool.

          • The Mayor of Trumpton

            Go to the western front and read something before automatically gainsaying those in the know. You vulgar, uneducated oik.

          • Tamerlane

            Move along Islamo-fascist this isn’t a Respect Party convention, keep your odious views to yourself and we’re not doing Tony Robinson’s socialist Blackadder history for thickos here either. Get a brain dimwit and start thinking for yourself.

          • The Mayor of Trumpton

            I imagine Blackadder is the extent of your WW1 knowledge. I expect t you have never even spoken to Richard Holmes let alone read his books or lectures.

          • Tamerlane

            It is certainly the extent of yours.

          • Tamerlane

            Rubbish. What a wimp you are. Keep your lunatic Islamist propaganda off here, this isn’t a Respect Party convention, show some respect for the officers that gave their lives – they were a million times the man you will ever be.

          • The Mayor of Trumpton

            You have become quite the repetitive bore Tammy. Run out of idiot comments have you? Anyone who has spent any time studying the Western Front ( I am a member if the Western Front Association) knows that the British Army was badly led by placemen officers due to a system if patronage and sycophancy.
            I show more respect to the War dead than you ever will. I have been in Ieper for armistice day on 12 separate occasions. You are quite the twit we all thought.

          • Tamerlane

            I don’t give a stuff how much time you’ve spent studying the Western Front you spineless coward. I don’t give a stuff how badly led you decided they were either. You can’t begin to relate to what they had to go through, all classes, all ranks in appalling conditions. You insult them now because you can get away with it, you wouldn’t have dared do so back in the day. You despicable little coward.

          • The Mayor of Trumpton

            You ridiculous buffoon. You just cannot abide the fact that I once challenged your crass, glib nonsense. So now you spend your life monitoring my posts in some wierd vendetta. You shallow pratt. Stooping to constantly name calling.
            I have spent years studying the Great war. It is a passion of mine. I have more empathy with the tropsbin thevtrenches in my little finger than in twenty of the empty shells you have as an excuse for a body.
            You spent days trying to challenge me on the Battle for France when you knew precisely nothing . In the end you just admit your love of Hitler.

          • Tamerlane

            Move along scum bag. Change your name as many times as you like you’ll still be cowardly vermin from the Respect Party. Take your sicko agenda elsewhere Yvonne/Barry.

          • The Mayor of Trumpton

            What is this obsession with the Respect party? I voted for them once. To oppose the Iraq war. I make no excuses. I considered it the correct way to oppose Blair at the time. But idiots like you love to labour a point.
            I won’t be moving anywhere. I am here to keep crass intellectual midgets like you busy. You are a lazy knee jerk Nazi who hides on these narrownarrow right wing threads reassuring yourself that you might be right listening to the drone of your own voice among the like minded.
            Shallow twits like you have to be opposed at every twist and turn and exposed as the liars you are.

          • The Mayor of Trumpton

            I don’t give a stuff for anything you write. Trivial I’ll informed bile. Not on back to the Tory graph where there are more reactionary old bores to give you an uptick.

          • Tamerlane

            And yet you always reply to it. Oh you care alright.

      • Daniel, Oxford

        Please explain how the Edwardian toffs were being hypocritical by joining the army and dying in vast numbers in the First World War?

        • The Mayor of Trumpton

          Not hypocritical. Incompetent , in jobs that were not awarded on merit.

    • Caractacus

      That doesn’t make it a good play.

      • Abie Vee

        That doesn’t make it a bad play.

        • The Mayor of Trumpton

          In the eyes of the Spectator if a lefty surgeon saved the Queen’s life it would be wrong.

  • willshome

    If you’d ever seen the play before you’d know that the girl (or girls) remains (or remain) unseen. The Inspector draws the protagonists’ sins together. Much neglected till Stephen Daldry’s unexpected rediscovery. I found Cornelius, recently evived by the Finborough and taken to New York, much more intesting.

  • FG

    A piece of critique unmatched in its level of pretentiousness and verbosity as any I’ve ever had the displeasure to read. The evident bias and hypercritical tone adopted from the outset made all of the criticisms (justified or otherwise) seem completely contrived and almost vindictive in nature. In short, it read like little more than an apologist piece for the Birlings’ and Crofts’ of this world.

    • alfredo

      Birlings and Crofts do not need apostrophes.

      • FG

        Does that detract from the point I was making?

        • alfredo

          I didn’t say it did. But to be accurate, you’re not so much making a point as expressing an opinion or reaction.

          • FG

            So aside from pointing out an incorrect use of apostrophes and clarifying the distinction between making a point and expressing an opinion (you knew what I meant) did you actually have anything to contribute?

        • vieuxceps2

          Does the misuse of language detract from the point you are making? Yes, it does. Sorry.

          • mammal

            Two misplaced apostrophes renders a fairly articulate point completely ‘pointless’ – isn’t that a tad intolerant?

          • vieuxceps2

            If the word “detract” means “to render completely pointless” you are right. Since it means to reduce in value, to diminish,then you are wrong. Your misuse of language is an excellent example of my original point. Sorry.

  • Gilbert White

    Not too deep. He writ it cos the rent man also calls!

    • Les

      The Barclay’s publications are in turmoil since Corbyn won. They have had to resort to saying lefties don,’t like rugger and now a lefty wrote an indifferent melodrama.
      The righties are desperate for something to attack. Why not Jeremy’s PMQs about mental health funding?

  • Petra

    If you love the industrial mill owners do much, go and relive the experience for yourself and work in one of China’s factories. They’d be glad to have you, and your review would be well received I’m sure.

    • andagain

      If you hate the industrial mill owners so much, go and experience the alternative employment prospect as a Chinese peasant farmworker. I’m sure it is a wonderful experience compared to being a factory worker.

  • MrJones

    I’ve seen the film with Alastair Sim and I took it as a sermon on noblesse oblige but I may be wrong.

  • Dogsnob

    A second-rate, rather stodgy play, made to look vital by some great acting.
    Thewliss is exceptional.

    The distinct sound of basements and outhouses being cleared across middle England; the banners hung, proclaiming ‘Welcome’ in Farsi. Let us share your pain.

    What do you mean, you’re from Sierra Leone and you want a flatscreen?

    • SimonToo

      We must not confuse Art and Truth. Reifenstahl made some wonderful films. That the subject matter was profoundly dodgy does not affect the outstanding quality of the films as films.

      • Dogsnob

        Do you regard art and truth as being distinct and exclusive?

        • SimonToo

          Distinct, but sometimes they may coincide.

          • Dogsnob

            And it’s in that area of coincidence that truths, sometimes hidden – forbidden – can come to us.

  • Maureen Fisher

    James should do some investigative journalism in a factory to see the goodness for himself. I know a fudge (excuse the pun) factory that’s recruiting right now.

  • David Houldsworth

    No, you are correct, market driven CEO’s are really the salt of the earth. You can tell this by the the way they don’t accept their multi million pound/dollar
    bonuses and distribute them to the workers instead (their lack of avarice is remarkable). Yep, you just have to look around the world to see the good that
    them and the free market has done – it’s those stinking workers like binmen, carers, nurses etc that caused the 2008 economic collapse you know – greedy ratbags

    • Daniel, Oxford


  • James, bit of a misfire on this one. I’m as suspicious of the teaching profession and the luvvies as the next man, but Priestley’s morality and message was primarily Christian. he’d soon fall foul of the metropolitan left if he were around today (and if Orwell were around today he would be down the boozer with Rod Liddle, shaking his head and thinking of voting UKIP).

    ‘An Inspector Calls’ is about all our responsibilities, and the unintended negative consequences of what even good people do in their bad moments. I agree the setup up of wealthy family and poor victim is tiresome and cliched, but this was the milieu that Preistley was operating in, he doesn’t bear the sole blame for it. As Correli Barnet has pointed out, the whole culture was uncompetitive, anti-business, and wet liberal by 1939. I also agree that because of that the play may be liable to misinterpretation by narrow minded lefties, but, like the poor, it seems that idiots with big mouths, who cannot see the big picture, are always going to be with us.

  • Scylla

    Anyone spot the reference to ‘actively’ seeking work when our victim was looking for a hand-out? See what they did? Clever, clever luvvies!


    I think Ill write a radical, edgy version set in Rotheram featuring an “Asian” business family celebrating an arranged/business marriage, just like in the original play.

  • SimonToo

    A good play does not need to be truthful, any more than truth is beauty or beauty is art. An Inspector Calls is, as you acknowledge, well constructed and provides strong parts for actors. Need it be more truthful than A Midsummer’s Dream?

    Mind you, I listened compulsively to it on radio a while back and, although I had no wish to drag myself away, I did wonder whether J.B. Priestley was a nom de plume of Dr. Heinz Kiosk.

    (I do not think that my waiting at that time for the RAC to come to take away my crashed car had any influence on my views).

    • Damaris Tighe

      Completely disagree. You seem to be advocating ‘art for art’s sake’. But great art is great in both form & content. Great structure, strong characterisation, beauty don’t alone make a good work of art. It has to communicate a truth. Both are important.

      Great structure etc means it communicates. Truth means that what it communicates corresponds to something real – not propaganda, least of all stereotypes, but perhaps something complex about being human. That requires that the poor are depicted as as capable of evil as the rich.

      As Iris Murdoch writes, the best art is a work of close attention to ferret out what is real & true.

      • SimonToo

        Some art is art for art’s sake, and much art is not great.

  • Caractacus

    I adore most of Priestley’s work, but yes, An Inspector Calls is risible drivel. By far the worst thing he ever wrote.

  • agua negra

    Always interesting to see how political correctness shifts like chaff blown in the wind of political climate.

    • vieuxceps2

      I wish Political Correctness would shift like chaff. The trouble is that its diktats have become the latest stone commandments. If anything has moved, it is us and our docile acceptance of its powers.

      • agua negra

        The new political correctness…….. those who always thought they were a small & courageous vanguard of “Voices of reason brandishing the banner of sanity” who have failed to wake up to the realisation that they are now the flock of sheep sneering and bleating the new orthodoxies of our times.

        • TheJustCity

          A sad but verifiable truth.

  • Andrew Klepatsky

    Why, don’t you see, people, what this play is about? How actual it is today. It is not propaganda – it is reality. The Berling wealthy family – it is the happy successful European Union. The poor Eva Smith – it is the people of South Africa and Middle East, whose lives were ruined after America and EU tried to force on them Democracy. The following misfortunes of people in distant countries did not prevent rich Europeans from being happy. Like Mr. Berling they believed that it was not their business. But then came the asylum seekers to remind the Europe of its fault. Well done BBC. A very exact timing for the Priestly drama remake.

  • Abie Vee

    Infamy, infamy… they’ve all got it in for me!

    Poor little Jim. Does he check for Reds under his bed every night I wonder? I expect he thinks that Tinky Winky is a covert homosexual too.

    How long before poor little Jim turns his faux-outrage and blue-pencil to the New Testament I wonder… there’s plenty of socialist ammunition in there for him, eh?

    It’s a gey slippery slope yer on wee Jimmy: yer bum’s oot the windae! Be careful, for that way lies madness.

  • Margot5000

    Oh dear, methinks definitely a protest too far. Raw nerve being touched somewhere.

  • Treebrain

    ” …rich people bad, heartless, oppressive; poor people the long-suffering and saintly salt of the earth.”

    What a juvenile premise?

    The whole point of the play was never about ‘rich vs poor’ but all about the class system in the UK!

    It makes clear that there are decent people who are rich and that those who are poor who are not decent?

    • Holly

      It makes it clear that drinking household cleaners is not very good for you.

  • Ken

    As so often with Delingpole he over-eggs his argument and rather loses the point in his determination to be offensive. Yes, JBP was a lefty at heart – though an intelligent one. In old age he backed CND, which may or may not have been an error. But he was a very significant writer and a hugely popular one – read English Journey (1933) for a very moving account of Depression Britain. An Inspector Calls should be seen as a modern morality play. I found the TV version entertaining and very well acted. Implausible? Yes, but then so were the medieval plays from which it takes its cue. Indeed, its message was more Christian than Socialist. But then James D would probably have condemned Jesus as a dangerous radical. Frankly this man is not one of your better writers!

  • Damaris Tighe

    I turned off after the first half hour. Couldn’t stomach it.

  • Holly

    I quite enjoyed it.
    ‘Thought provoking’, ‘not class war’.
    Would the characters really have been any ‘nicer’ if they had been poor, and wasn’t it their character and actions, (vindictive, spiteful, jealousy and lust) rather than their money that caused all the grief.

    These traits are alive and well today, mainly in Labour/lefty, circles/areas.
    The glaring difference being, the hiding, spinning, lying about a lot of it.

    Maybe, if an ‘Inspector had called’ decades ago, we wouldn’t be having this ‘chat’.

  • Toby

    James Delingpole you have missed the point! And you have absolutely zero understanding of the meaning behind this play / drama.

    1. “In case you’ve not had the pleasure, J.B. Priestley’s play is like a socialist game of Cluedo: a lovely innocent young working-class woman has died and the toffs all dunnit.”

    The Birlings are not toffs! Arthur Birling is middle class and self made – so thats nonsense. He was the ultimate social climber.

    2. “Five members of the same family, all with a hand in this random girl’s death? Pull the other one.”

    Its not a true story – its a metaphor for life and how people of any class should not treat those of a supposed lower social status just because they can.

    The set or the plot may not be to your liking and the characters may be out of line with what you would prefer but the messages themselves are all poignant reminders of all things bad with society.

    “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.

    Its as relevant today in 2015 as it was in 1912 or just after WW2….. Shoddy review

  • Bill Cole

    Apologist piece for the Birlings and Crofts of this world intended to absolve the wealthy upper classes of any moral responsibility for the lower classes upon whose toil vast fortunes have been built. Although considering it was written by an old school chum of David Cameron, the stance is hardly surprising.

  • Cringe Hunter

    A biased, unprofessional viewpoint looking to make a quick buck from the hordes of Priestly enthusiasts swamping in to defend their socialist hero. Although, the last part didn’t happen, so in the end – it’s just a biased, unprofessional viewpoint. I feel like the words ‘controversial tryhard’ apply.