The more he thinks about An Inspector Calls, the more Ken Stott comes to see parallels between the Britain of today and the one portrayed in JB Priestley’s classic drama.
Though it was written and produced at the end of the Second War, it was set more than thirty years earlier, just before the outbreak of the First, with the issue of housing, or rather the chronic shortage of it, as a recurrent theme.
“Of course,” says the 60-year-old actor already famous as that other inspector, Rebus, “in those days the big question was that of homes for heroes, but, not unlike today, you had the landed classes, and the upper mids, all terrified of change and just hoping the problem would somehow go away.”
It’s worth remembering, he says, that its premiere was not in the UK but in the Soviet Union, at the Moscow Arts Theatre. That was in 1945, with its first performance in Britain not given until the following year. This was in the wake of Clement Attlee’s Labour landslide victory in a nation altered not only by six years of war but also by such radical innovations as free education and the National Health Service.
“When I re-read it,” he continues, “ I thought it might come across as a period piece, but I soon realised that it hasn’t dated at all.”
Nor have two of the other authors who have affected him most profoundly over the years, in both professional and personal ways. These are Chekhov, whom he likens to Mozart (with Shakespeare as Beethoven), and Arthur Miller. For him both authors display “this wonderful ease of dialogue, while making you feel, as it goes on, that it could be meaningless, while in fact there is an urbane quality that means you don’t fully recognise its depth until you are wrapped in it.”
Of Chekhov’s plays, Uncle Vanya is his favourite, full of bleak wisdom. “It is the most beautifully observed tragedy of circumstance and geography,” he says, “about a man throwing away his last opportunity to live – if this was ever going to happen.”
As for Miller, the great American dramatist made a profound impression on Stott not only through his writing but also through his presence. “I saw a good deal of him when I was playing Willie Loman in Death of a Salesman. I was 43 at the time and thought I might be a little young to be playing that part, but he said ‘No, no, he should be portrayed by a middle-aged actor rather than an older one. The past is real, the future is playable.’
“Miller was not only the most intelligent man in the whole of the USA, he was also married to this iconic beauty [Marilyn Monroe]. The dichotomy of that was there for all to see. He had a genuine love of humanity and refused to give up on it. They [sections of the American people] hated him for having it all.”
If there is one book that everyone should read, he says, it is All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Remarque’s 1929 account of the traumas endured by German troops during the First War. “Boy or girl, old or young, doesn’t matter. It’s essential reading.”
The often influential Jane Austen, a favourite of his English teacher father in Edinburgh, does not find such favour. “I’m afraid I don’t get it. I can understand that in an English society so enclosed and claustrophobic there was a joy to be had from saying something that meant something else; and the idea that only through constraint can you measure freedom. But the point is made, and I don’t think it needed all those volumes.”
An Inspector Calls is on BBC1 on Sunday September 13 at 8.30pm