In his 7 July BBC Postscript broadcast, Priestley told his listeners about “the two most heartening and inspiring things I’ve seen this week”.
One was a duck and her ducklings on the Whitestone Pond in Hampstead. Priestley was delighted by the “minute ducklings, just squeaking specks of yellow fluff”. He saw them as symbols of hope and the energy of life to set against the “death-worship” of Nazism.
The other was at the House of Commons, where Priestley heard the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, make a statement about his decision to sink the French fleet. Churchill, despite the gravity of the situation, gave Ernest Bevin a dig in the ribs and grinned at him. Priestley found it inspiring that, although burdened by such great responsibilities, the leader could still show humanity and humour.
Many of Priestley’s listeners found these incidents as inspiring as Priestley did. Over twenty years later, he wrote that “To this day middle-aged or elderly men shake my hand and tell me what a ten-minute talk about ducks on a pond or a pie in a shop window meant to them, as if I had given them King Lear”. As he explained in this section of his autobiographical work Margin Released (1962), “I didn’t see then – and I don’t see now – what all the fuss was about”. He felt that the Postscripts had been “ridiculously overpraised”. He did not want or like the sudden fame that overtook him for what he considered had taken little effort.
I think these talks had their impact because they were simple and sincere and timely: Priestley took one or two incidents that would ring true for listeners and used them to offer hope and inspiration. As the last Postscript of 20 October 1940, showed, Priestley understood that once this particular phase of the war was over, and Britain no longer stood alone facing invasion, matters would be more complex and such broadcasts would have less impact.
Other wartime radio broadcasts by Priestley illustrate that the original Postscripts were an ideal combination of the broadcaster and his time. The 1941 series of broadcasts are fascinating to read now, full of detail about food or transport problems and what Priestley thought should be done. But they lack the single powerful image or idea that sparks almost every one of the original Postscripts and makes it live in the listener’s mind.