Disclaimer: I would watch and listen to Ken Stott and David Thewlis read a telephone directory to each other. This is not about them…
Yesterday I watched the first 20 minutes or so with my Year 10s who have read Act 1 thus far. We have spent much time on the initial stage direction and the exposition of the play being used to establish character and purpose in this well-made play.
So whilst I applauded the initiative to put the film on prime time TV when the BBC made this version, I am always disappointed when I show it in school.
Why the Downton Abbey treatment?
Priestley is so clear in his directions – drawing room of a ‘fairly large suburban house’. There you have it. In the film the family live in a small mansion removed from any neighbourhood, approached up a driveway through a small park. In one stroke Priestley’s political comment and moral questions are lost in a rush for ratings.
The whole point is the ordinariness of the house and the overdone dress code for the party – an arriviste manufacturer with little sense of what may or not be appropriate. The white tie dress code should be out of place among the ‘good solid furniture of the period’. In the film it is Gerald who seems out of place in his neat black tie – why had he not been told the dress code? If we take the film’s setting as apt, then this is a clear case of toff-bashing. But Priestley is so much more subtle.
The devout socialist who had grown up in the heartlands of manufacture and the Birlings of this world wanted us the change our ways. For this to happen, the message must be that we could be the Arthur or Sybil Birling of our world if we are not careful. The whole point is that an audience are watching a recognisable facsimile of their own home on the stage. Only those who had never felt a twinge of a wish to show off or to over-indulge might be free of taint.
This wish to simplify and to reduce the overt moral message of the play leads to a wasteful watering down of Birling. His great monologues of praise to Capital are reduced to a few lines – gone is the awful lack of foresight regarding the Titanic (for Birling, size matters – absolutely unsinkable and the repeated glorification of the tonnage…. Mr Trump anyone?); the careless abuse of Russians and Balkans and the reference to the putative party in 1940. Gone with them is the clear message about ‘the party’ and the sort of men who represent the Tories in this society. Priestley’s Birling is set up as the image of all we should hate; the BBC’s Birling is merely arrogant and pompous, but in this setting shouldn’t we expect this? The power of Priestley’s vision lies in the unexpected attitudes within complacent little suburbia.
Enough. I can cope with the flashbacks and heavy-handed interpretative insertions such as Sybil stressing for the audience that Sheila has ‘secured her future’ once she has accepted Gerald’s offer of marriage – they are quite useful in the classroom as long as no one quotes them.
For me the production undercuts both Priestley’s political vision and his attempt to shame the ordinary suburban family into shifting their political allegiance.
The BBC version – grandeur and scale….
That’s more like it – a fairly large Edwardian house.
I have discussed Priestely’s political vision and background in more detail on line: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MUDfYtfZhio&t=30s and elsewhere on my blog.