J.B Priestley, who in the 1930s and into the Second World War set himself up as the BBC’s master of socialist propaganda in his regular radio talks – so much so that Churchill believed he was undermining the war effort – must be smiling from on high today.
A new bells-and-whistles version of his play An Inspector Calls – written in 1945 and actually first performed in Stalin’s Russia – was chosen by the right-on comrades at Portland Place to go out on a Sunday night BBC1 primetime slot to mark the election of their hero, Jeremy Corbyn.
Coincidence, do I hear you cry? Not a chance. The BBC has a promotions unit whose job it is identify and head off scheduling clashes that might cause offence to the politically correct. Have no doubt, the timing was deliberate. What a lovely wheeze to celebrate the election of the most left-wing Labour leader in a generation.
But, then again, maybe even Priestley might be turning in his grave about how the BBC comrades mangled his most famous play.
His masterful plot – in which a mysterious inspector arrives to tell a mill owner’s family of the death of a poor hapless woman who, it transpires, they had all in different ways abused – reveals their moral culpability and shows them to possess almost every negative human characteristic imaginable.
The inspector, by contrast, emerges as a brilliant, incisive sleuth who exposes and nails every aspect of their selfishness, nastiness and hypocrisy. The working class heroine, Eva Smith, only referred to but never actually seen in the stage play, was mistreated in different ways by each member of the family. Because of their amoral self-interest, she is first sacked for union activism, driven into poverty, then forced into prostitution, and finally denied the charity she seeks. They, in effect, force her into agonising suicide by swallowing disinfectant.
Gosh, how the BBC went to town on her on Sunday night..
In a massive hijacking of the original text of the play, they decided to bring Eva directly into the plot in a series of flashbacks.
We saw Eva, a solid, flesh and blood character, descend into hell thanks to this evil, rich family. In this subtle-as-a-brick change, the intent was for the audience to see and empathise with the capitalist exploitation of her, and to witness her transformation from a porcelain, stunning beauty to an emaciated wreck. The manufactured additional scenes were scripted and shot for maximum impact so that there could be no doubt that the upper/middle class tyrants who tormented Eva were unambiguously bad.
This was a subtle and disturbing tale of 19th century morality, conscience and class transformed into a crude anti-capitalist rant. All traces of subtlety were smashed to smithereens.
Is this over-egging the pudding in terms of claims of BBC bias ?
Well the BBC’s chums at The Guardian clearly got the message. Its television drama critic Sam Wollaston said the plea to the audience by the inspector at the end of the play to heed the plight of the working class could today be substituted using the word Syrians instead of Eva Smith and made direct reference to the little boy found drowned on a Turkish beach:
“There are millions and millions of Alan Kurdis 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.”
Did the BBC press office maybe suggest this to Wollaston behind the scenes?
Every aspect of this beautifully shot, directed and acted production worked in similar vein. Ken Stott, as the mill-owner, and Miranda Richardson, his wife, used all their formidable acting talent to emphasis just how thoroughly, deeply vacuous, unpleasant and unprincipled this capitalist couple were.
In other words, an ode to Corbyn mania. Elsewhere, too, the BBC has been bigging up the message.