3 June 2012


Impertinent … it’s a word that come up often in JB Priestley’s drama, An inspector calls. Megan and I saw this play last night, performed by the Tempo Theatre. It’s local theatre. Local theatre is good, like most local things. This is community, and community is important. It’s not Bell Shakespeare professional quality, but it’s valuable, personal, connected. The great artists are great to see, but I remain committed to the value of local. So it shouldn’t be surprising that I riled at suggestions that the licensing company would prevent me taking a few pics of the performance. I felt sorry for the representative of the local theatre company who felt he had to enforce a right. But that’s how it works, as the corporates gain increasing power and people succumb to threats and fear of the law. Let’s investigate this.

Betty Longbottom, Statue of John Boynton [JB] Priestley [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

JB Priestley writes a play about the self-serving and self-satisfying, even self-delusionary, industrially-wealthy class. It’s a class-ridden piece from an obviously left-leaning intellectual of the era when all intellectuals were communists or fellow-travellers (it was first performed in Moscow in 1945). The play is set in 1912; written in 1944; Priestley died in 1984; copyright continues to 50 years (now extended to 70 years thanks to Howard’s subservient US-Aus FTA) after his death. Copyright presumably now resides in some multinational that owns the text. I just checked the site of the Australian Copyright Council. This is a theatrical work. I expect there are also rights in stage design, costume design and the like, but these rights would be local and not controlled by the licensor of the text. The ACC publication, An introduction to copyright in Australia (Australian Copyright Council, Information sheet G010v17 January 2012) seems to answer my queries. This is classified a “dramatic work”, so the owners of the work have an exclusive right to: “reproduce the work (including by photocopying, copying by hand, filming, recording and scanning); make the work public for the first time; and communicate the work to the public (for example, via fax, email, broadcasting, cable or the internet). / Owners of copyright in … dramatic … works have two additional exclusive rights: to perform the work in public (this includes performing a work live, or playing a recording or showing a film containing the work, in a non-domestic situation); and to make an adaptation (for example, a translation or dramatised version of a literary work, a translation or “non-dramatic” version of a dramatic work, …)”. Now I am not an IP lawyer, but this suggests to me that I could not reproduce significant portions of the text, reproduce the work by displaying a video or publishing a video online or playing an audio recording, etc. A photo does not seem to me to infringe on any dramatic rights here. A photo does not communicate text, and essentially this work is textual. Perhaps it could infringe on rights of a set designer or costume designer, but it’s a long bow to claim that it infringes the written theatrical work. So I am both sorry for an amateur company that understands they must protect a claimed right and angry about (presumably) corporate claims that rail against the very meaning of the work they seek to claim rights against. JB Priestley would be turning in his grave at all this. If it’s the law, it’s a travesty, but I doubt it is the law. For the sake of Tempo Theatre and their peace of mind I will not include a pic, but damn anyone who claims a right to prevent a photo in this context.

Now, this sounds like a rant against Copyright. It isn’t. I feel perfectly comfortable with artists earning a decent living from their creations. But I don’t warm to corporations owning creations they had no role in creating, and especially then expanding the extent of their rights through influence on poltical processes. But enough.

So how was the play? It’s a dining room drama. A prosperous industrial family is celebrating the engagement of their daughter. A police inspector arrives with questions around the suicide of a poor woman. All the family have had some interactions with the dead woman and had some part to play in her suicidal state. The second half sees the family deconstruct the inspector’s findings to excuse themselves. A final twist destroys this reconstruction but leaves the plot unresolved given questions of timing. It’s essentially a dig at the self-satisfied, self-serving, pompous and sometimes corrupt wealthy strata in class-ridden Victorian-cum-Edwardian England. Interestingly, the family members who question the status quo are the daughter and son, so it’s also a tale of generational change and even historical-materialist progress. And it’s often funny too. It’s a typically wordy piece of drawing room theatre; dated, but witty and with purpose. It wasn’t professional theatre but we enjoyed the performance and I admired their commitment and considerable work. Great work by the cast and a worthy work to perform. Congratulations to Tempo Theatre and the cast: Kim Wilson (Arthur Birling), Paul Jackson (Gerald Croft), Clare Rankine (Sheila Birling), Margi Sainsbury (Sybil Birling), Sean Flynn (Eric Birling), Amber Spooner (Edna), Mark Bunnett (Inspector Goole).

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