Harry Potter star David Thewlis plays a police inspector out to expose the dark side of the privileged Birling family in BBC1’s new feature-length adaptation of An Inspector Calls (Sunday, September 13).
David talks about the role, what makes JB Priestley’s 1945 play so relevant to 2015, and why he panicked and tried to avoid Alistair Sim and Toby Jones’ versions…
Inspector Goole is a mysterious character. Did you find him difficult to portray?
“It is a challenging part to play because Goole is open to interpretation, more so than most parts in theatre. No one is ever absolutely sure who or what he is. Are we even dealing with a real human being? Instinctively I found myself playing him low key. I wanted to dwell in the shadows, as he’s voyeuristic and possibly some sort of phantom.”
There’s always been a question mark over Goole, who interrogates the wealthy Birling family one-by-one about the suicide of a young-working class woman they’re all connected to. Did you reach a conclusion whether he’s real or a phantom?
“I did. I reached a private conclusion as to whether he’s real or a phantom, but it’s a secret that will stay with me. I didn’t discuss it with the director or other actors, but it was something that worked for me in thinking what could Goole be. I’ll reveal it on my deathbed, if anyone’s interested!”
Ken Stott plays factory owner, Arthur Birling, and Miranda Richardson plays his snobby, upper-class wife, Sybil. Had you worked with either of them before?
“One of the advantages of doing An Inspector Calls was working with these outstanding actors. I’ve known Ken and Miranda for a long timem but I’d not worked with Miranda before. Ken and I were at The National together 28 years ago! It was really enjoyable working with them.”
Did you enjoy working with the younger cast, Chloe Pirrie, Kyle Soller, Sophie Rundle and Finn Cole?
“I was really impressed with the four younger actors as well, who I didn’t know as well. And not just when I saw the finished piece, but also while we were filming I was openly impressed by the power of these young guys. They’re all excellent. Peaky Blinders star Sophie Rundle is exceptional as the traumatised suicide victim. I feel lucky I’ve taken on this script and we all had a good time.”
What did you get up to while working together?
“Most of An Inspector Calls was shot in one big room in a house in Yorkshire, except for a few bits and bobs of Goole outside near the end of the piece most. Any set becomes tedious after a few weeks, whether it’s a dining room or a magical forest, so we did get a little stir crazy towards the end. There was too much playing with the props and too much eating of the food!”
While preparing for the role did you revisit any of the other An Inspector Calls adaptations?
“I must admit I watched a few moments of Alistair Sim before panicking and turning in it off! Alistair Sim’s performance is very loveable and gentle and I thought, I’m not going to go against that nor am I going to reject it.
“I also listened to about 30 seconds of Toby Jones’ radio version, but quickly thought I mustn’t listen to that either! Toby’s a great actor, but I didn’t want his voice in my head. I’m not used to playing roles that have been created before, because a lot of the time on film I’m originating the characters. I’ve learned [revisiting] isn’t the thing to do. It’s the dumbest thing to do!”
It’s set in 1912, but what do you think makes An Inspector Calls relevant to a 2015 audience?
“It’s ripe for a start. An Inspector Calls has a message about our responsibilities in our daily lives, rich or poor, whatever class you are. It’s what makes this a relevant piece of drama and a British classic. It’s not just about these people; it’s also a political piece and an anti-capitalist tract. It was set in 1912 but written in 1944. Certainly, in Britain the class system, far from going away, seems to be having something of a resurgence in recent years. Unfortunately Inspector will be relevant for a long time.
“Interestingly An Inspector Calls was first performed in the Soviet Union in 1945 before it was ever performed in the UK. I’d have loved to have seen that and how it was reviewed at the time!”
It’s a popular play and also part of the GCSE curriculum. Did that put any extra pressure on your shoulders?
“It feels a privilege to be honest. Knowing it’s not just going out on TV and then will be forgotten about, but that people may discuss it and use it as part of their education. It’s a well-respected and well-studied piece and I hope I’ve done it justice!”