Tag Archives: 1940s

The Inspector’s Russian Journey

Seventy years ago, in September 1945, a great English play had its world premiere.  J.B. Priestley and his wife Jane travelled to the USSR to see An Inspector Calls staged in Leningrad and Moscow.  Since its rapturous Russian reception, and a rather cooler (“almost hostile”) one in London the following year, the play has been seen, enjoyed, and studied by thousands worldwide.

Priestley, JB Russian journey

Front cover of Russian Journey, a pamphlet by J.B. Priestley

It uses the device of a mysterious inspector to explore how each member of a prosperous family contributed to the fate of a young girl who has killed herself.  Inspector combines Priestley’s fascination with the nature of time and reality with a powerful moral message.   While many aspects of the play are ambiguous and open to interpretation, its message could not be clearer – and remains highly relevant: “We don’t live alone.  We are members of one body.  We are responsible for each other.  And I tell you that the time will soon come when, if men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish”.

So why the USSR?  No theatre was available in London, and Priestley’s work was popular in the country.  He was at the peak of his fame, so it would be something of a coup to host his new play.  Not to mention that Inspector would be seen favourably, as it can be interpreted as an expose of capitalism.

PRI21_8_30. Russian Album. Priestley and Jane greeted at Moscow aerodrome, 1945

Priestley and Jane greeted at Moscow aerodrome, 1945 (PRI 21/8/30)

Visiting Britain’s ally so soon after the end of the Second World War was an extraordinary experience for the Priestleys; fortunately both wrote about it.  They found a warm welcome and wonderful cultural life, but also extreme poverty, repression, and squalor.  This weekend’s Guardian Review featured a lively account of their Russian Journey, written by Valerie Grove and based on the vivid letters Jane wrote to her children.  You can find out more about the fascinating poster and photograph album featured in the article (and shown here) in our 100 Objects exhibition.

PRI21_8_30. Russian Album. Priestley's birthday with members of the Kamerny Theatre, 1945

Priestley’s birthday with members of the Kamerny Theatre, 1945 (PRI 21/8/30)

If this has tantalised you, you can see two interpretations of Inspector in the next few months:

  • A new tour of the 1992 production by Stephen Daldry, which led to a great revival in the popularity of the play.  Touring from 5 September 2015.
  • A new BBC Drama, filmed in Saltaire and featuring David Thewlis as the Inspector, will be broadcast on Sunday 13 September 2015.  A DVD will be available from the 21 September.

If you don’t know the play, now is the time to catch up and see what all the fuss is about!

Credits: quotations from An Inspector Calls and Margin Released.

J.B. Priestley and the Little Ships: 75 years on

In June 1940, the British Army faced disaster.  France had fallen to the Nazis and they were trapped on the beaches at Dunkirk.  They were saved by a fleet of “little ships” which sailed across the Channel to rescue them.  A humiliating defeat was transformed into a miracle of survival.  The courage of the rescuers (many of whom did not return) helped inspire Britain as the country faced the threat of invasion during the perilous summer that followed.

PRI21_8_6. Priestley standing by car

J.B. Priestley, circa 1940 (ref PRI 21/8/6)

Bradford-born author and broadcaster J.B. Priestley played a key part in the creation of the Dunkirk story, thanks to a BBC radio broadcast on 5 June, the first of his celebrated Postscripts series.  We see Priestley turning the raw news into history – and legend.  “Doesn’t it seem to you to have an inevitable air about it – as if we had turned a page in the history of Britain and seen a chapter headed ‘Dunkirk’?”.

Priestley doesn’t blame anyone or dwell on the defeat.  Instead, he pays tribute to the little ships, especially the frivolous little pleasure steamers, evoking the English sea-side world his listeners would know so well: “pierrots and piers, sand castles, ham-and-egg teas, palmists, automatic machines, and crowded sweating promenades”.  The steamers had left this to go into “the inferno” and face unimaginable dangers for the greater good.  Some would not come back but would be remembered forever, like “Gracie Fields”, a ship Priestley had taken many times to his Isle of Wight home.   Priestley’s listeners were doing the same:  he was reminding them that it would be worth it, that they were part of an incredible story already turning into history.

Listen to Priestley’s Dunkirk Postscript.

Find out more about the Postscripts:

Journey into Daylight: J.B. Priestley’s VE Day broadcast

Seventy years ago, at 9pm on 11 May 1945, the author J.B. Priestley made a very special broadcast on the BBC to mark VE Day: war was over in Europe; Nazi Germany had surrendered.

PRI21_8_31

J.B. Priestley at his typewriter, a little later in 1945.

The piece, “Journey into Daylight”, feels like a Postscript to Priestley’s Postscripts, which spanned the summer of 1940 from Dunkirk to the London Blitz.   Like them, it is a moving and personal account, warm, inclusive, and rich in everyday detail which emphasises the sense of shared experience: titles of popular songs, spam sandwiches …  It also gives the impression of natural speech while actually being consummately crafted to raise Priestley’s political and social ideas in a gentle way acceptable to the BBC and the government.

In Journey, Priestley compares the experience of VE Day to waking up in a railway carriage after a long dark journey: now, at last, a “thin grey daylight” is appearing round the edge of the blinds and it is time to get up and move on to the next stage.

But first, “let us go back – and remember”.   First the phoney war of bewilderment and waiting, then the spring of 1940 when countries fell and victory was salvaged from defeat at Dunkirk …

“We put on LDV* armlets and took a few old condemned rifles to the tops of hills: we were alone, and the world thought London had joined Babylon, Nineveh and Carthage; but we knew better.”

The summer of 1940: a terrible, glorious time in which the community worked together for a common purpose – and there was a glimpse of the possibilities of such action in peacetime.  The grim struggle of 1941, new allies in the USSR and the United States, the terrible lows of 1942 when Singapore fell and all seemed hopeless.  Then hope: the battles of Alamein, Stalingrad and D Day …

PRI21_8_6. Priestley standing by car

J.B. Priestley standing by a car, 1940s

Priestley warns that the shocking discoveries about Nazi atrocities show the dangers of mechanistic thinking leading to loss of humanity.   This could happen to any society:  the Allies after all had won not by virtue but by out-doing their enemies’ technology: “we made bigger bombs than they did”.

With this in mind, the piece is far from triumphant: Priestley, a veteran of the Great War trenches, knew the price of victory in lives lost and shattered.  He knew, too, that the War was far from over (fighting continued in the Far East, to be ended only by the dropping of two atomic bombs in August, and the starving people of Europe in their devastated cities desperately needed help).  Characteristically, however, Priestley ends with a ray of hope: the spirit of communal effort of 1940 could be repeated, and society changed for the better.

* LDV = Local Defence Volunteers i.e. the Home Guard or “Dad’s Army”.  JBP was indeed one of the volunteers and in a beautiful Postscript meditated on the  fellowship he felt with Wessex men throughout the centuries protecting the land from invasion.

Read/hear for yourself

The piece was printed in The Listener 17 May 1945 and reprinted in that magazine on 18 January 1979.  The radio broadcast survives and has often been used in BBC programmes.  It is worth looking out for it over the next few weeks as the Corporation marks the VE Day anniversary: if it is used, it is likely to be available on the iplayer for a while.  As far as I know, neither version is currently freely available online.  The Listener Historical Archive is available to subscribers.

Postscript

In some ways, Priestley’s call was not in vain.   The Labour government, elected in July 1945, instituted the modern welfare state and the National Health Service.  However, this was top-down state bureaucracy rather than the communal efforts that Priestley valued … and in other ways, society returned to its previous patterns, elites still on top and Cold War developing between the War’s two great allies.   During the 1950s he became increasingly disillusioned as a result.  However “Journey into Daylight” stands alongside the Postscripts as JBP the broadcaster at his most inspiring.

They Came To A City: Priestley’s 1944 utopian film on show in Bradford

On Sunday 20 October 2013, the National Media Museum in Bradford and the J.B. Priestley Society will show a rare and fascinating film by J.B. Priestley.  Originally a 1943 play, They Came To A City was filmed in 1944 by the director Basil Dearden.  Experts Bill Lawrence, Michael Nelson and John Baxendale will lead a discussion about Priestley’s role in cinema, a comparatively little known aspect of his work.

They Came to a City (PG) + Talk: JB Priestley and Cinema

They Came To A City is part of the conversation that was going on throughout the Second World War in Britain: what should society be like after the War?   J.B. Priestley was deeply engaged in this debate.  He addressed these questions rather gently in his famed Postscripts and much more directly in his essential Out of the People.   He believed that new better ways of living could come out of the War, that the mistakes made after the First World War did not have to be repeated.

In the play and film, Priestley used the idea of a city whose society encapsulated his happy egalitarianism.   Nine characters, spanning Britain’s social classes (bank manager and his wife, a charlady, a plutocrat and so on), are allowed in for a day.  We don’t see the city itself, just their responses to it, which vary widely.  Each character must decide whether to stay or leave …

Postscript Sunday 8 September 1940

This broadcast tried to comfort and inspire listeners facing the terrible bombing raids on London and other cities.  Intense bombing of London had started the previous day and was to continue throughout the winter.

At least in this war, civilians were sharing the danger – in a sense, there were no civilians now. In the First World War, civilians had had to wait helplessly at home for news while “whole towns in the North – my own amongst them – lost at a stroke the fine flower of their young manhood”.  Priestley’s childhood friends, in the Bradford Pals, died in one battle, the Somme.  He felt that “we are much better off now.  At least we are sharing such danger as there is”.  He admired how people had risen to the challenge, carrying on with their lives in the middle of a battlefield, with the world’s attention on them, and was proud to describe this in his overseas broadcasts.

From Britain under Fire

From Britain under Fire

The image is from Britain under Fire, a Country Life publication,  containing over 200 photographs of the damage done to Britain’s historic buildings by the bombers in the winter of 1940-1941.  The typography and design of this book is typically 1940s, resembling the Ministry of Information “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster which has seen a recent surge of popularity.  The book encapsulates this message: people are seen going about their daily lives amonst the rubble.

Priestley wrote the foreword, emphasising to overseas readers that Britain was not in ruins – everyday life was going on – but the damage had been terrible: “Let the camera tell its twofold story, of a great crime, and of a still greater people”.

Dozens and dozens of Delights …

114 delights in total in Priestley’s 1949 essay collection of simple pleasures, now re-issued by Great Northern.  Along with Modern Delight, its celebrity-penned update, it has been extensively reviewed and discussed this autumn …

Brian Viner in the Independent 5 September 2009 reflects on “The sound of a football”.

“From frost to frogspawn” Yorkshire Post 8 September 2009.

“Yorkshire relish” Mike Amos in the Northern Echo 9 September 2009.

Radio 4 Today interviewed Tom Priestley and Alexei Sayle, one of the contributors to Modern Delight, 9 September 2009.

“Life’s little delights” Daily Mail 10 September 2009.

“Uncommon readings: delightful prose from a grumbler” David Robinson in the Scotsman 12 September 2009.

“The simplest of delights …” India Knight (a contributor to Modern Delight) in the Sunday Times 13 September 2009.

“Delights by the dozen” Jim Greenhalf in the Bradford Telegraph and Argus 5 October 2009.

Review by Lisa O’Kelly in the Observer 27 September 2009.