Sunday, 11 March 2018

Isn’t ‘An Inspector Calls’ so pretty?

We are in the eye of the exam preparation storm and we are looking, as a department, at how we can help our students with the exams. A recent mock showed us how students struggled with A02 when exploring ‘An Inspector Calls’. And, I’d have to agree it is hard, and, I have read modern drama at university. Prose and Shakespeare can be relatively easy when exploring language choices because they are reliant on rich language and description to paint a picture of a character, situation or event. Shakespeare didn’t have the painted backdrops, or enough actors or props to convey an army or a boat at sea. Dickens told his story over months so he needed people to remember what characters looked like so they could remember them many months later. A playwright and especially a modern playwright have very little dialogue and speeches to convey complex emotions, because they are traipsing the thin line between realism and story-telling. A playwright is focused on relationships and the subtle behaviour patterns of people. The relationships and behaviour is subtle and so too must the language of a play be subtle.

Students will probably skip around plot with ‘An Inspector Calls’ more than any of the other texts. The characters are closer to being real people for them. They act and behave like real people. It is hard for them to separate the person from the character. The problem with ‘An Inspector Calls’ is it is hard to break the ‘suspension of disbelief’ and it is real. Yes, we know Gerald does that, but how does he use language to show it. 

I’d argue that we have to be even more explicit with the choices a playwright makes. We have to be visual with these choices - something, I have alluded to before. Students can pick up subtle nuances from everyday speech, but it needs to be more explicit when reading the play. Tone is useful. However, tone can easily lead to plot level idea.

The Inspector uses an aggressive tone to show he is determined to get to the truth.

The playwright gives the Inspector an aggressive tone here so that the character shows their determination to get to the truth.

Yes, I could add another sentence and add ‘symbolises’ to extend the level of explanation, but it doesn’t really convince me that the student understands the text fully. Students can easily recall the tone as again it is something that real people do. That’s why I am working hard on drawing attention to the choices made by the writer. The students might think the events of ‘An Inspector Calls’ is like real life, but I am going to work harder to show the artifice.

Take these specific choices:

·         Inspector describes Eva Smith as ‘not pretty’ after the death but alive she had been ‘very pretty’

·         Eric describes her as ‘pretty’ and a ‘good sport’

·         Sheila is described as being ‘pretty’ in stage notes  

·         Gerald is described as ‘attractive’ in the stage notes

·         Gerald refers to Eva Smith (Daisy Renton) as ‘pretty’- ‘soft brown hair and big dark eyes’ 

I’ve not really given much thought to how pretty characters are in ‘An Inspector Calls’. I don’t read a play and go, ‘Phwoar, look at that Lady Macbeth!’. Nor, do I rate the characters on who I’d snog, marry and avoid in ‘Pride and Prejudice’.  You don’t really. However, there is a running thread of how attractive Eva Smith in the play and it is repeated. But, why does Priestley use the word ‘pretty’ several times in the play.

·         Make a connection between Sheila and Eva so she identifies with her more

·         To show that poor and rich are alike physically

·         To show us that physical looks are not enough to sustain a person in society

·         To show us how the poor are only noticeable when they ‘pretty’

·         To show how ‘like attracts like’ – ‘attractive’ Gerald went for ‘pretty’ Daisy Renton

·         To show us how Eva is better than your average poor person – she is an innocent – Eric describes the rest of the women as ‘fat old tarts’.  

·         To romanticise the poor

·         To challenge the notion that the poor are dirty, disgusting, unhealthy and unattractive

·         To visually represent what the rich have done to the poor – they make her ugly – ‘not pretty’

·         To reflect the journey she travels – pretty to ugly – all cause by men and women

·         To show the audience that the poor are deserving.

·         To show personality – a pretty person is a good person and an ugly person shows an ugly personality  - What about Gerald?

·         To highlight how she is a victim – Victorian melodrama – perils of Pauline

·         To make the audience care for her

I could go on and on. That’s even before I start looking at how ugly characters are. Those five explicit choices help step up a discussion of the role that Eva Smith holds in the text. When students read the play, they just get the idea that she is ‘fit’ and everybody wants a bit of ‘hanky-panky’ with her. There’s something more and more interesting than her being a bit pretty. Priestley does what Dickens does – he romanticises the poor. In a sense, both Dickens and Priestley are guilty of the same thing: they ‘poor wash’ texts. We don’t get realistic characters; instead we get ciphers who idolise the poor.    

Right, I am off to plan my starter for tomorrow’s lesson.

Who do you fancy most?

Belle                      Mrs Cratchit                       Mrs Birling           Eva Smith            My Last Duchess

Only joking. That’s an essay instead. Anyway, I have attached the text I am using for students to see the explicit choices made by Priestley. We are going to turn it into an A5 booklet and get students to highlight choices linked to a theme. They have to think about why that choice has been made by the playwright. Feel free to use *.

Thanks for reading,


*If I see this resource copied on TES or another site without my permission, I will get my specially trained piranhas to eat you. And, they don’t care if you are pretty or ugly.   

Staging  – A02 Choices

·         First line in the play is directed to Edna ‘ Giving us the port, Edna’

·         We see no other part of the house

·         The 7 characters in the story – four male / three female

·         Audience never sees or hears of Eva Smith – audience are not aware of what she looks like – only know her through the characters telling their stories which link to her  

·         Starts with an engagement party

·         Set solely in the dining room

·         Set in real time

·         Set in 1912 – historic setting for the audience – recent past – before the war

·         House of a prosperous manufacturer

·         Three act play

·         Every act ends on a cliff-hanger 

·         Order of the interrogation – Mr Birling – Sheila – Gerald - Mrs Birling – Eric

·         Eva Smith’s story is revealed to us in chronological order – there are two narratives in the story – the events of Eva Smith’s life and the events of that night. However, technically, Eric met Eva before Mrs Birling so it should be him before Mrs Birling

·         The last word in the play is ‘questions’

Act 1

·         All the characters are happy in the stage directions – ‘smiling’, ‘gaily’, ‘half playful’, ‘suddenly guffaws’

·          The women leave the men to talk after the main celebrations – Eric, Mr Birling and Gerald are all left on stage when the Inspector is announced

·         ‘Sharp ring’ of the doorbell announces the Inspector’s arrival during Mr Birling’s line – ‘a man has to look after himself and his own’   

·         When the Inspector arrives the men act light-heartedly – ‘humorously’, ‘lightly’. Eric doesn’t behave in the same way – ‘uneasy, sharply’ 

·         The levels of aggression increase with Mr Birling, Eric and the Inspector during their conversation (‘rather angrily’ / ‘sulkily’). Sheila’s entrance deflates that with her ‘gaily’ comment

·         The Inspector changes the way he describes the death of Eva Smith between the men and the women – ‘Burnt her insides out’ /‘a young woman drank some disinfectant and died, after several hours of agony’

·         Mr Birling leaves the stage after it has been discovered that Sheila has a connection with the dead girl – ‘I must have a word with my wife’

·         Eric and the Inspector leave to fetch Mr Birling

·         End of Act 1 contains two characters alone on stage – Gerald and Sheila – then the Inspector arrives

·         Act 1 starts and end with a different point in the relationship between Gerald and Sheila

Act 2

·         The Inspector fools us into thinking he will interrogate Mrs Birling before Gerald, but then questions Gerald

·         The Inspector repeats the fact that Eva Smith was ‘pretty’

·         Gerald thinks that Sheila should leave as she has had ‘as much as she can stand’

·         The stage directions between Act 1 and Act 2 change considerably. In Act 1, characters tended to be ‘angrily’ or ‘distressed’. In Act 2, characters are ‘cutting in’, ‘sharply’, ‘ coolly’, ‘bitterly’, etc.

·         Sheila uses the pronoun ‘we’ to apportion blame – ‘And probably between us we killed her’

·         Idea of her diary is introduced at the middle of Act 2

·         Sheila returns the ring to Gerald after listening to the story about the affair 

·         When Mrs Birling is being interrogated, the scene is interrupted several times by the search for Eric

·         The characters tend to get more emotional towards the end of the scene – ‘distressed’, ‘terrified’, ‘sternly’, ‘thunderstruck’

·         Act 2 ends with the arrival of Eric and the discovery of his link to Eva Smith

Act 3

·         No time has passed between Act 2 and Act 3

·         The majority of Eric’s confession is with male characters only

·         Eric was absent from Mrs Birling story so we have the story told to Eric again in reduced form

·         The Inspector recaps the whole narrative of Eva Smith’s journey before he leaves

·         As the Inspector leaves, the characters are physically changed. Sheila –crying / Mrs Birling –collapsed / Eric –brooding / Mr Birling – active, moving about

·         The characters attack each other. Mr and Mrs Birling attack Eric and Sheila responds.

·         The structure of Act 3 is an inversion of Act 1 – both involve the Inspector leaving or arriving towards the middle – a dramatic shift

·         Sheila once again repeats the narrative of Eva Smith’s life – copying the Inspector

·         Both Act 1 and Act 3 involve the doorbell ringing  to change the events – Gerald returns in Act 3 – second time is more dramatic based on previous events 

·         The characters after being investigated by the Inspector now investigate the Inspector

·         The characters get more and more angry and aggressively towards each other – ‘protesting,’ shouting’, ‘shouting, threatening’, ‘ bursting out’, ‘flaring up’

·         After having Eva Smith’ story repeated a few times, we how have Gerald retelling the story but trying to disconnect the parts each person played

·         The use of the photograph is questioned

·         The characters group themselves off – Gerald, Mr Birling and Mrs Birling side together and Sheila and Eric side together

·         Use of telephone call to establish the truth

·         Birling’s last speech repeats the Inspector’s description of Eva Smith’s death, but removes all traces of emotion.

Characters – A02


·         Mr Birling has an accent – ‘provincial in his speech’

·         Mr Birling is pompous  – ‘portentous’

·         Birling gives long speeches

·         Mr Birling constantly like to refer to his famous connections – Chief Constable , Colonel Roberts (golf)

·         Mr Birling makes reference to Titanic being unsinkable and a war with the Germans never happening

·         Mr Birling insists on telling the Inspector of his daughter’s engagement to the son of Sir George Croft

·         Mr Birling takes his frustration of the Inspector out on Eric – ‘Look-just keep out of this’

·         Mr Birling is shocked when Sheila is too candid – ‘only escaped with a torn blouse’

·         Mr Birling protects Sheila from the Inspector because she is ‘a young unmarried girl’

·         Mr Birling refers to himself as a ‘public man’ and not a private man and he worries later about the ‘Press’

·         Mr Birling orders Sheila to remove Mrs Birling when she hears Eric’s story

·         Mr Birling has so much money that he did not realise that Eric stole money from him

·         Eric calls him as ‘not the kind of father a chap could go to when he’s in trouble’ 

·         Mr Birling’s main concern when the Inspector leaves is the ‘scandal’ it will cause and its impact on his ‘knighthood’ – returns to the start

·         Mr Birling at the end attempts to silence Sheila and control Eric – ‘If you’ve nothing more sensible than that to say, Sheila, you’d better be quiet’  - ‘Eric, sit down’

·         Mr Birling is described mocking the Inspector at the end of Act 3 before the truth is discovered – ‘Imitating INSPECTOR in his final speech’

·         Mr Birling describes his children as ‘hysterical’ at the end of the play and that they ‘cannot take a joke’


·         Gerald is described as ‘attractive’ in the stage notes

·         Gerald always agree with Mr Birling at the start of the play

·         Gerald picked the ring for the engagement – is it the one you wanted me to have?

·         Gerald’s connection to Eva Smith is discovered in a different way – he recognises the name rather than have the Inspector point out the connection

·         Gerald uses the euphemism ‘women of the night’ to describe prostitutes in the Palace Variety Theatre yet is quite negative about them - ‘hard-eyes dough-faced women’

·         Gerald refers to Eva Smith (Daisy Renton) as ‘pretty’- ‘soft brown hair and big dark eyes’  

·         Gerald starts calling Eva a ‘girl’ then uses her name when in the story his relationship is closer

·         Gerald uses the euphemism ‘make love’ when denying he intend to support Eva Smith for sexual gratification

·         Gerald asserts to others that the affair wasn’t ‘disgusting’

·         Gerald offers the ring again to Sheila at the end of the play


·         Described as being ‘pretty’ in stage notes  

·         Sheila uses slang at the start of the play ‘squiffy’ and refers to her mother as ‘mummy’. This changes as events get serious.

·         Sheila and Eric are the only characters who ask questions to find out more about Eva Smith when they first hear about the suicide

·         Sheila gives an emotional response when she views the photograph – ‘half-stifled sob, and then runs out’, ‘almost breaks down’ and changes emotionally to ‘miserably’ and ‘distressed’

·         Sheila is the only character to visibly cried as a result of events – ‘Enter Sheila, who looks as if she’s been crying

·          Sheila refuses to leave when her connection to Eva Smith is revealed and the Inspector confirms he is finished with her

·         Sheila is the only character to not know Eva Smith by a name before the events of the play

·         During Act 2 Sheila starts to argue, challenge and laugh at her parents – who don’t like it

·         Sheila reverts to sarcasm when Gerald is telling the Inspector his story

·         Sheila refer to Gerald as the ‘hero’  and ‘the wonderful Fairy Prince’ of his story

·         Sheila refers to herself as ‘not a child’

·         Sheila ‘respects’ rather than hates Gerald after the affair 

·         Sheila was influenced by a woman to go to the Palace Bar – ‘There was some woman who wanted her to go there’

·         Sheila is drunk when she meets Eric – who is also unsurprisingly drunk too

·         Sheila refers to her parents as being ‘childish’ for not facing up to the facts and their role in Eva Smith’s fate

·         Sheila tries to leave the room at the end of the play – ‘ I want to get out of this. It frightens me the way you talk’

·         Sheila repeats twice that the way her parents ‘talk’ scares her



·         Eric helps himself to a drink in Act 1

·         Eric and Sheila are the only characters to use slang

·         Eric is the one character that interrupts and questions Mr Birling during his big speech in Act 1

·         Eric refuses to go to bed when instructed by his father because of the Inspector – yet he doesn’t stay in the room

·         By Eva Smith he is described as ‘ a youngster – silly and wild’

·         Eric is more forthcoming than the other characters with his connection – ‘You know, don’t you?’

·         Eric still acts childish at the end – accusing his sister of being a sneak for telling his parents about his drinking

·         When explaining his story, Eric has another drink

·         Eric doesn’t really use euphemistic terms to describe his sexual relationship with Eva. He simply describes it as ‘it’

·         Eric couldn’t remember Eva Smiths name after their first encounter

·         Eric doesn’t think he stole the money because he ‘intended to pay it back’

·         Asserts his maturity – ‘I’m old enough to be married’

·         Eric links his behaviour to his father’s friend’s behaviour – ‘fat old tarts…. I see some of your respectable friends with’

·         Eva Smith treated him like a ‘kid’ in relation to the pregnancy

·         Mr Birling refers to Eric as ‘spoilt’

·         One discovering his mother’s actions, Eric’s thoughts are broken down with dashes and pointed use of pronouns – you, her, she, you, me, you, her, you, her, she,  my, your, you, you, you   

·         Eric, after discovering that the Inspector isn’t real, is still affected – ‘I say the girl’s dead and we all helped to kill her’ 

·         After spending the majority of the play being vague and distant, Eric spends the last act being blunt, direct and honest – ‘we all helped to kill her’

·         Eric agrees with his sister at the end of the play 

Mrs Birling

·         Mrs Birling greets the Inspector ‘smiling’ even though her husband has told her the reason for his visit 

·         Mrs Birling refers to Eva Smith and the suicide as ‘a girl of that class’ 

·         Mrs Birling calls her son a ‘boy’ and not a ‘man’. She refers to Gerald as a ‘man’ and Eric as a ‘silly boy’ later in the play.

·         Mrs Birling is shocked to discover someone she thought as a good man is a ‘womaniser’ – Aldermand Meggarty – but according to Sheila ‘everyone knows’ 

·         Mrs Birling constantly tries to shut the conversation down – ‘I think we’ve just about to an end of this wretched business’

·         Mrs Birling is the one character that lies about her connection – the other characters avoid talking or misdirect the audience: ‘You’re not telling the truth’.

·         The Inspector describes the organisation Mrs Birling works at as an organisation helping ‘women in distress’ – Mrs Birling does not describe its purpose

·         Mrs Birling was the ‘prominent member’  / ‘chair’ of the organisation

·         Mrs Birling’s dislike of Eva Smith stems from her use of their name – ‘impertinently made use of our name’ 

·         Mrs Birling refer to the Inspector having ‘no power’ over her and even blames her husband for Eva Smith’s situation rather than take any responsibility

·          Describes the father of Eva Smith as not being of her ‘class’

·         Mrs Birling doesn’t explain what she did to Eva Smith to Eric


·         Inspector is roughly the same age as Mr Birling

·         Inspector controls the flow of information by only showing the photograph to one character at a time  - he also stand in front of characters to block their view

·         Inspector makes a clear point of starting his investigation by clearly stating that it is a ‘Suicide, of course’ and there is no reference to murder

·         Inspector is quite direct and emotionless at times. Repeats ‘of course’ twice when introducing the death of Eva Smith

·         Inspector tends to speak ‘dryly’ and ‘steadily’ occasionally suggesting a level of detachment or subtle address to the audience

·         He speaks to Sheila ‘harshly’ and ‘sternly’ - Act 1

·         Inspector is inflexible and has a plan – ‘he must wait his turn’

·         Inspector uses the word ‘mistress’ when describing Gerald’s link to Eva Smith

·         Depending on the person, depends how vivid his description of the death is. To Mrs Birling, he describes ‘she lies with a burnt-out inside on a slab’ 

·         When referring to the sexual relations between Eric and Eva Smith he refers to it as pretty ‘make love’

·         After the last revelation, the Inspector’s speeches get lengthier

·         His last speech places him in the same position of them – us, our, we, we, we, we. Then, he distances things by stating ‘I tell’ and refer to people as ‘men’ 

·         Then, the last speech he ends by saying ‘Good Night’ and no discussion of the procedure related to the case

·         Sheila describes him as ‘never seemed like an ordinary police inspector – others late describe him as being ‘frightening’ (Sheila), ‘peculiar’, ‘suspicious’  (Birling), ‘rude, extraordinary’ (Mrs Birling) 

·         Birling describes him as possibly being a ‘socialist’ or ‘crank’ – showing he seems they are both the same thing


·         Has the least amount of speech in the play

·         Only responds to orders

·         No opinions

·         Refers to characters as ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’ 

·         Has no surname

Eva Smith

·         Not seen on stage at all

·         Inspector describes her as ‘not pretty’ after the death but alive she had been ‘very pretty’

·         Twenty-four when she died

·         Each character knows her by a different name or identity – Sheila is the only character to not know her by a specific name 

·         Told Gerald when he left her that she was ‘the happiest she has ever been’ with him

·         Eva Smith only lies at the end with Mrs Birling and not before

·         Eric describes her as ‘pretty’ and a ‘good sport’

·         Didn’t want Eric ‘to marry her’

·         The Inspector links Eva Smith to John Smith a common name in British culture – meaning a common, ordinary person – an everyman  

Saturday, 3 March 2018

Building character in people, objects and places

There is a direct link to between this blog and my teaching. That’s why the content is varied and surprising. Often, what I write about is either something I have done in a lesson or something I am going to do next week. In my last blog, I wrote about how we need to declutter writing and help students to write clear, effective writing rather than overblown, heavy writing. In that little exploration I explored how Roald Dahl described a character. I then went on to teach a lesson on creating character in a line.

When preparing for the lesson, I explored how Dahl introduces a character in his anthology ‘Completely Unexpected Tales.’ Roughly, he has one sentence alone to introduce a character. There is more character building through dialogue or action, but often or not Dahl creates a character simply through one line. Below are some examples:

·         Gladys Ponsonby is an unusually short woman, certainly not more than four feet nine or ten , maybe even less than that – one of those tiny persons who gives me, when I am beside her, the comical, rather wobbly feeling that I am standing on a chair.

·         She was about forty-five of fifty years old, and the moment she saw him, she gave him a warm welcoming smile.

·         All her life, Mrs Foster had had an almost pathological fear of missing a train, a plane, a boat, or even a theatre curtain.

·         Mr Eugene Foster, who was nearly seventy years old, lived with his wife in a large six-storey house in New York City, on East Sixty-second Street, and they had four servants.

·         Mr Boggis was driving the car slowly, leaning back comfortably in the seat with one elbow resting on the sill of the open window.

·         All his life Albert Taylor had been fascinated by anything that had to do with bees.

·         She and her husband were new people in town.

Source: Completely Unexpected Tales by Roald Dahl

I found them fascinating to look when viewing them under the perspective of character. In shorthand form we have a character’s backstory easily presented. Take Mr Boggis. The character oozes confidence, arrogance and relaxation. You don’t need to describe his flowing hair. You don’t need to describe his Rolex watch.  You don’t need to describe the car. Interestingly, the car isn’t described, but you could easily picture the type of car a man like this would describe.

Then, you had Dahl describe a character’s personality deftly. Mrs Foster’s fear of missing thing gives you a picture of a character always on edge, rushing, anxious and hesitant.   

You also have the ominous ‘new people in town’ description. In fact, you don’t need that much description for that. You get the idea that they don’t fit it. People are suspicious of them. Or wary, at least.

Not only did this lesson help us look at character, but it helped us infer aspects about the character. Where do we get the idea that this character has money? If we look at the new AQA GCSE English Language exam, students have to be really precise with their reading and interpretations. A hat could have massive repercussions in a story and if students don’t picked on the fine details in a line, then big erroneous suggestions could be made. Yes, we do need students to read lots of stories, but we also need them to read lines and read lines really closely. Two students working on the summer 2017 paper thought that there was a theme of racism in the text and that the woman had just returned from the circus. If students don’t get the fine points of the story, they make huge leaps of imagination. With or without common sense.  

As a class, we made up our own examples of character. Typical for me. I picked on two students to model an example.

       Tim was a boy who couldn’t sit still even if his life depended on it and that’s was often the case.

       Mary rarely smiled, but when she did it was signal that she had something mischievous on her mind.

Then students created their own. The emphasis was clearly on suggesting their character and personality. We explored the different ways you could do this. And, how this could be adapted if there was more than one character.

Tyler Smith was a man of very few talents, but being nosy was one of his specialities. His wife kept this from her friends: it was her embarrassing secret.  

We then started turning them into our versions of a Dahl story. Here’s a draft opening of my effort:

Tyler Smith was a man of very few talents, but being nosy was one of his specialities. His wife kept this from her friends: it was her embarrassing secret. His sixty-five-year-old hands were often opening the curtains at night to see who was making noises in the street, what had knocked the bins over, and which car had zoomed down the street without consideration.

The street was a typical street, with typical cars and typical houses dotted around carelessly. On Tuesday, the postman casually walked down street and visited one house at a time. The postman wore shorts even when it was snowing. Thankfully, this day there was sunshine instead of snow.

‘Morning,’ shouted Tyler as he opened the door, curious to see who was moving about his street.

‘Glorious morning, isn’t it’, responded the postman, for he was never negative.

‘Yes, indeed, you could say that.

I discovered, to my surprise, that this made for much more varied and interesting writing from the students. If you think about how students typically describe a character is through the physicality of the character and that alone. Through physical appearance we describe if a character is good, bad, ugly or smelly. This shorthand to character made for much more interesting writing.

But, for me, this has further implications for developing writing. Rather than using an adjective, an adjective, a simile and personification before a noun, we can be a lot more playful. In fact, we can be playful with object, people and settings – leading us to the merry path of Question 5.

The chair admired its position on the bus; it was the first to be picked as it was next to the door.

 The 917 enjoyed the quietness of a late Saturday night after the noisy bustle of drunken youths squabbling and singing.

To be honest, I am bored on the writing of Question 5 as it ends up with lists of adjectives and verbs. Wouldn’t it be more interesting to add more character to a setting? How could you add more character to a setting of a beach?

The waves played their favourite game and chased the sand away from the rocks.

The wind, fed up of being ignored, pushed and shoved at everything and anything it could find.

The gulls rarely lifted their heads. Instead their glum eyes and dour beaks rested on the ground.

Instead, we get something like this:

The waves crashed and smashed against the sandy rocks.

The reckless wind wiped the smiles and hats off the people.

The noisy gulls wait for food.

Maybe, we need to be developing our ways of building up character in writing. Too long we have people telling us that schools should be building character. Maybe this is what they mean. We build character and personality through their writing.

Thanks for reading,