Why now is the perfect time for An Inspector Calls

When the march of world events falls accidently into step with TV drama, the result can be tasteless, or illuminating. If, say, a fictional shooting or bombing too closely mirrors a real and recent tragedy, the response is usually to pluck it from the schedules in respect for those suffering. Nobody facing the real thing wants to be confronted with it re-enacted in play.

Then there are the more serendipitous collisions between real world and fiction. Happenstance meetings that can spark a fire inside a drama, turning it into a beacon. The BBC’s An Inspector Calls airing in a week where front pages are dominated by people fleeing war in desperate need of help, and the political conversation is about who should be responsible for these strangers, was just that.

J.B. Priestley’s 1945 story about the corrosive nature of class privilege was always a call for compassion. Arriving on BBC One after recent headlines, its message felt white-hot.

Set in 1912, the story tells of the collective role members of a wealthy family played in the suicide of a young working class woman. With its dead body, manor house, dinner party, visiting inspector and would-be aristocratic suspects, it first assumes the shape of a detective drama but quickly reveals itself to be an entirely different beast; less whodunit, more socialist polemic against hypocrisy and privilege.

Start to finish, writer Helen Edmundson and director Aisling Walsh did a very capable, neat job with this adaptation. The first hour, in which the mysterious Inspector Goole (David Thewlis) asserts his power over the assembled players, was tense and gripping. Even for those whose GCSE English Literature curriculum had revealed the ending years before, watching Goole one by one draw in the lines he’d caught each member of the Birling family on the end of was immensely satisfying.

The final third, in which the carefully built story is first deconstructed and then reconstructed, was deftly managed too. Flashbacks to each Birling encounter with Eva Smith were cleverly folded in to the drawing room drama, with Peaky Blinders’ Sophie Rundle managing to leave an impression even in the thankless role of the tragic paragon who’s less a character than an idea.

David Thewlis though, was the stand-out as avenging angel, Goole, the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future rolled into one. Thewlis’ natural charisma commanded the role, creating a Goole without a hint of playfulness, one moved to ire by hypocrisy and to tenderness by injustice. They should pipe Thewlis’ version of the fire, blood and anguish speech into the central lobby of the Houses of Parliament before every debate.

Because it isn’t only the Syrian refugees this twentieth-century morality play brought to mind, but any number of recent news stories. ATOS work capability assessments; the Rotherham child sex exploitation cases; profit-protecting, tax-avoiding companies threatening living wage redundancies… Any instance of the wealthy buying influence and power, any repetition of the privileged lie that hard work is all that’s required to climb out of poverty, and any insistenc­­­e that we should look only after our own and that what happens to other people isn’t our responsibility, recalls the fierce lesson Priestley teaches in An Inspector Calls. We should never stop learning it.