The BBC took an unexpected – but welcome – turn to the Left for an hour and a half on Sunday evening (September 13), when it screened a new adaptation of An Inspector Calls.
The play, first performed in the then-Soviet Union in 1945, is considered to be a scathing critique of the hypocrisies of pre-World War One English society and an expression of Priestley’s Socialist political principles.
It details a visit by an ‘Inspector Goole’ to the stately home of the prosperous Middle Class (some might say Upper Class) Birling family, where he questions each family member about the suicide of a young working-class woman, Eva Smith (also known as Daisy Renton), revealing that they have been responsible for the young woman’s exploitation, abandonment and social ruin, effectively leading to her death.
Having seen Les Miserables only a few weeks ago, it seems likely to This Writer, that Priestley may have taken his inspiration from Victor Hugo, whose character Fantine’s fall begins when she is sacked from her job at a factory – just as Eva Smith’s does when Birling sacks her, after she calls a strike for higher pay to meet ever-increasing rent costs. Both are reduced to prostitution of one kind or another.
Does this seem familiar to anybody, here and now, in the 21st century?
We have ever-increasing rents and a government that is unwilling to do anything about them other than worsen them with its Bedroom Tax – because it forces the poor out of desirable residential areas.
We have employers who won’t raise wages to cover these spiralling costs, and can remove troublesome workers with impunity because the government has compliantly weakened the trade unions to the point of impotence.
We have a benefits system that, despite being the last resort for people who are otherwise without hope, withdraws payments from the neediest people for the flimsiest of reasons, leaving many of them in the belief that suicide is their only escape.
In the 19th century we had Les Miserables. In the 20th century we had An Inspector Calls. Where is the 21st century expression of this exploitation?
The plot is already written for us: This time, the doomed character would be sacked from their job for complaining that conditions there had created health problems that put them in permanent pain. An appeal to their trade union would fall on deaf ears. Forced to resort to benefits, they would face the inhuman work capability assessment – and fail to achieve the number of points needed to gain incapacity payments, meaning they would have to sign onto Jobseekers’ Allowance. But JSA demands that a person must be fit for work, and forces claimants to carry out ridiculous tasks in order to prove that they are doing all they can to find work. An invalid, unable to comply, would be forced off the benefit if their illness was obvious, or sanctioned if it wasn’t. With no money and no health, what is left for them but death – either slowly due to their illness or quickly due to suicide?
All it needs is a 21st century way of bringing this home to the Middle- and Upper-Class vermin who participate in this degradation of their fellow citizens, or support it with their votes.
Would any writers care to take on the task?
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