Tag Archives: Broadcasts

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.

JBP, the BBC and Churchill: Inside Out discusses the end of the Postscripts

Why did J.B. Priestley’s Second World War Postscripts come to an end?   Did Winston Churchill have him taken off the air?

This intriguing and perennial question was aired again on the BBC’s Yorkshire Inside Out programme on the 21st, which discussed a recent book by Richard North.  I showed materials from the J.B. Priestley Archive that might shed light on the story and we also saw Churchill’s own Archive at Churchill College.  If you missed the programme, catch up on the iplayer until Sunday – we are about 10 minutes from the end.

I should point out that North’s book and the interpretation put on the Priestley/Churchill story by the programme are controversial.  If you’re interested in exploring this further, check out my Postscripts exhibition and Nicolas Hawkes’ pamphlet which used the BBC’s own archives and many scholarly sources (available to purchase from the J.B. Priestley Society).

Postscript Sunday 16 June 1940

J.B. Priestley made his third Postscript broadcast just after Paris had fallen to the Germans on 14 June.  He had recently joined the Local Defence Volunteers near his home on the Isle of Wight. The Volunteers, later known as the Home Guard, had been set up a month before.  Men between 17 and 65 who were not in the regular army (too young or old, or in a reserved occupation) could volunteer their services to help repel an invasion: they would receive uniforms and be armed, but not paid.

In this broadcast Priestley told his listeners about his first night on duty.   It had reminded him of Thomas Hardy’s novels: gathered high on the down with the hurdle-maker and the shepherd, talking about hay and barley, facing the threat of invasion.  He had felt part of a community, and part of a tradition: “There we were, ploughman and parson, shepherd and clerk, turning out at night, as our forefathers had often done before us, to keep watch and ward over the sleeping English hills and fields and homesteads.”  This was comforting: the current threat, like the Napoleonic threat so often invoked in Hardy’s works, “would come down upon us; it would be terrible; but it would pass”.  Priestley ended the piece by quoting Hardy’s poem In time of the breaking of nations.

This is my favourite Postscript, because of the way Priestley evoked the Wessex landscape and Hardy’s perspective of deep time.

Jacket of Britain Speaks

Jacket of Britain Speaks

Two days earlier, Priestley had broadcast a piece about the same night for one of the BBC’s overseas services.  A Night on Duty with the Parashots was longer and much more informative, describing the uniforms, weapons and men in detail, particularly the gawky but very keen-eyed sentry Bill.  Priestley explained how life in Britain now felt, how everyone was hurling their energies into the war effort.

Matters for the French were of course even more difficult.  He ended by quoting Walt Whitman’s O Star of France, published in 1871 when France was also in crisis.

A Night on Duty … was published in the book shown here, Britain Speaks, a collection of Priestley’s overseas broadcasts (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1940).  This volume can be misleading:  the dustjacket implies the broadcasts were solely to the US and the title page confuses them with the Postscripts.

The two pieces show how well Priestley understood radio and his audiences, subtly adapting the same experience for different purposes: comforting the British that this threat too would pass, providing overseas listeners with more detail and showing them how the British were coping.  His wide knowledge of literature helped him choose the right poem for each audience.

Postscript Sunday 9 June 1940

J.B. Priestley’s second Postscript radio broadcast began “I don’t think there has ever been a lovelier English spring than this one, now melting into full summer”.  In one of the most beautiful of his many descriptions of his beloved English countryside, Priestley evoked the loveliness of the flowers, the birdsong, and how unreal it all felt against the news of war.  Yet these things were as real, and would endure long after the madness of war was over. He ended the piece by comparing, as he had done in the first Postscript, the Nazi approach with the English.  He had recently seen Nazi propaganda film, Baptism of Fire, and thought it to be all bullying and force, in contrast to the lighthearted humanity of the recent British effort, The Lion has Wings.  Priestley emphasised that the Nazi approach did not allow for the greatness ordinary people could achieve, and that this would be their downfall.

Cover of The English Spirit

Cover of The English Spirit

This image shows the jacket of The English Spirit, published in 1942 by Allen and Unwin.  It is an anthology of radio talks broadcast by the BBC’s Empire Service, including one by Priestley, This Land of Ours, which clearly dates from May or June 1940.  As in the Postscript, Priestley began with the beauty of the spring. The description is as beautiful and evocative as the one in the Postscript, though Priestley chose different flowers and views to make his point. He then continued to explore a theme that runs through so many of his works: the English character.

Priestley’s finest hour 4. How can I access the Postscripts?

Print

It is fairly easy to access the 1940 Postscripts, J.B. Priestley’s famous series of radio talks, in printed form.

1. Published first in the journal Answers, the scripts were collected in one small volume, Postscripts, by Priestley’s publisher Heinemann, later in 1940.  This book is widely available in libraries and the secondhand book trade.

Full bibliographic details here in our catalogue record.

2. More recently, Priestley’s Wars, published by Great Northern, also reproduced the scripts.   It is still in print and is highly recommended if you are interested in modern history, politics, or literature.

Amazon details.  Also available from bookshops and elsewhere online.

Individual Postscripts were sometimes reprinted elsewhere, but the two books mentioned here are probably more accessible.

Audio

BBC Archive recording of Priestley’s 5 June 1940 Postscript, about Dunkirk.

The Dunkirk Postscript is available on various records, and is often on sale as an MP3 download.  When last checked (Nov 10) 3 MP3 downloads available on Amazon.

Priestley’s finest hour part 2: Let the People Sing

As promised in a previous post, over the next few weeks I will be discussing Priestley’s Postscript broadcasts and some of his World War II writings. I will try to stick to the Postscript broadcast schedule, starting with his first Postscript on 5 June.

Cover of Let the people sing

Cover of Let the people sing

Meanwhile, a look back at a novel published just as the war was beginning, in September 1939.  Let the People Sing was serialised by the BBC before its publication in book form.  Priestley explained in his Author’s Note that there was a special reason for his agreeing to the BBC’s commission, when he had never allowed such serialisation before: “I agreed to let the BBC have a novel, partly because I felt we might be at war in the autumn … and that broadcasting would then be extremely valuable to the public”.  He read the first broadcast himself, “on Sunday, the Third of September, the very day war was declared”.  Priestley already understood the value of radio.

BBC Archive: front cover of Radio Times 3-9 September 1939, advertising Priestley reading the novel, with picture of him at the microphone.

Let the People Sing contained many of the elements that had delighted the public in Priestley’s Good Companions in 1929.  It offered escapism at a dark time (the start of the Depression in GCs, the coming of war for LTPS).  It is comic, lighthearted and benevolent in tone.  Three diverse entertainers meet by chance (one a music hall comedian), and campaign to save Dunbury Market Hall for local music lovers, rather than United Plastics, who want to use it as a showroom for their products. The title became a popular catchphrase, and the novel was filmed in 1942 with Alastair Sim as Professor Kronak, the Czech professor who delights in etymology.