Tag Archives: Radio

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:

An Experiment with Time: Priestley and Dunne on Radio 3

J.B. Priestley, like many of his Great War veteran contemporaries, was a time-haunted man.  He was intrigued by the work of J.W. Dunne, not only to provide plots and ideas for his plays, but because he sought answers to deep questions about time and the meaning of life.  You can hear more about Dunne and Priestley and time in I Have Been Here Before, a recent BBC Radio 3 documentary.

Dunne, Experiment

The broadcast highlights an extraordinary part of the J.B. Priestley Archive here at Bradford.  Lecturer and author Katy Price discusses the “Time” letters written to Priestley by members of the public in response to his interest in precognition, dreams and other time-related phenomena.  The letters show how people trusted Priestley, pouring out experiences and thoughts they had never shared with anyone else.

Further reading: Dr Price recently published an academic article which uses the evidence in the letters to explore mid-20th century mentalities and psychiatric experiences: Testimonies of precognition and encounters with psychiatry in letters to J. B. Priestley.

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).

Angel Pavement on Radio 4 this weekend!

J.B. Priestley’s great novel of the City of London and the working lives of Londoners during the Depression, Angel Pavement, will be broadcast on Radio 4 on Sunday 5 May 2013 at 3 pm.  Part 2 will be broadcast on Sunday 12.  I expect it will be available to listen online for some time after the broadcasts.

Great Lives: Cryer and Wainwright on Priestley

New in the BBC Radio 4 Great Lives series: Barry Cryer nominates J.B. Priestley.  Broadcast 11 January at 4.30 pm, repeated at 11 pm and presumably available later via iplayer.

Barry Cryer knew Priestley well.  The programme also features Martin Wainwright, who helped make the Postscripts programme last year work so well.  The presenter, Matthew Parris, will apparently add a sceptical note.


A Postscript to the Postscripts

Writing this series has been a remarkable experience.  I thought I knew the Postscripts well, but exploring them in this way has revealed so much more, which I have been delighted to share with readers.

Working to the weekly deadline, which clashed with other deadlines and commitments, has given me greater respect for Priestley’s achievement in creating such simple, sincere, well-pitched pieces under pressure.

I feel as if I have experienced events alongside Priestley and the British people and understand better how they unfolded.  So much happened in such a short time.  My immersion in 1940 was greatly helped by other archives and museums sharing their collections in real time via social media e.g. the Imperial War Museum Duxford and the National Archives War Cabinet Papers.

The series has been viewed by several hundred people already, and will be maintained online indefinitely for others to enjoy.  Please comment, or contact me directly, if you have any feedback.  I will continue adding to the series: I have several pieces in mind already.

Want to know more?  I’ve sent a more detailed, scholarly version of this post to the J.B. Priestley Society Journal. I also write about the project for a professional audience on my personal blog, Collections in a Cold Climate.

Postscript Sunday 20 October 1940

“This is my last Sunday postscript for some time, perhaps the last I shall ever do.  The decision was mine and was in no way forced upon me by the BBC “.

In this final Postscript, Priestley said goodbye to his listeners and gave his reasons for ending the series.

It is often stated that the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, had Priestley “taken off the air”,  for using the Postscripts to discuss building a better world post-war.

The real story was more complex.  Priestley’s calls for social justice worried certain politicians and journalists.  However, the decision to end the first series of Postscripts appears to have been his, as he explained:

Firstly, he didn’t want listeners to become bored of hearing him.

Secondly:  the “situation of the country and also the mood of the country” had changed.   Priestley had started his Postscripts after Dunkirk and had made them during the strange heightened atmosphere of the Battle of Britain summer and autumn, followed by the start of the Blitz.  Britain had been in grave danger of invasion, and Priestley had expressed and helped inspire the people’s magnificent response to that threat.  Now the immediate danger was over, the War was entering a different phase, less compelling to him as a broadcaster.  Maybe other speakers could do better with this new phase?

Priestley gave a second series of Postscripts in 1941.  This series was brought to an end by the intervention of Duff Cooper, the Minister of Information.  The full story of the roles of the BBC, Ministry of Information, government and journalists, has been researched by academic Sian H. Nicholas: her findings are probably most accessible in The Echo of War (1996).  I can also highly recommend a pamphlet by Priestley’s stepson, Nicolas Hawkes, “The story of J.B. Priestley’s Postscripts”, published by and available from the J.B. Priestley Society.

In this last Postscript, Priestley defended himself against the various attacks on him.   He had not, as accused, brought “party politics” into his talks: he had called for what he believed to be right, what the country claimed to be fighting for: democracy, social justice, decency. After a last call for the country not to sink back into privilege and apathy post-war, he offered his listeners thanks or apologies, as appropriate:

Apologies if they didn’t like his accent,  “if they wearied of me talking about myself, though sometimes the most honest way of discussing general topics is to be personal about them; if they became impatient because I couldn’t … convert a ten minutes postscript into a six hour … lecture”, or if he hadn’t replied to their letters.

Thanks for writing the letters,  and for listening. “I’ll always be proud to remember how many times I caught your ear as we all marched through the blitzkrieg together.  It might have been worse, mightn’t it?”

Postscript Sunday 25 August 1940

J.B. Priestley returned to his Postscript series of broadcasts on Sunday 25 August 1940.  He had been on holiday in Wales, where he had had an adventure.  On a walk with two of his daughters, ill-prepared, they had climbed a mountain, but got lost in rain and mist on the steep slate slopes of the descent, ending up in a valley miles away.  They were rescued by some kind Welsh people, who gave them tea and took them home.  After vividly describing the incident, Priestley suggested a parallel: “We’re all on top of a foggy mountain, with slippery steep slopes on every side”, in great danger and confusion.

Cover of Drucker's End of Economic Man

Cover of Drucker's End of Economic Man

The way to cope mentally with the war, Priestley advised, was not to follow every news event obsessively, but sometimes to break away completely, or to take a wider view: “Don’t be a mere cork bobbing about on a stream of information and rumour and dejected wonder, but cut through to the causes, the ideas”.  He recommended reading Peter Drucker’s The End of Economic Man, not because he totally agreed with Drucker, but because he found the book thought-provoking.  It would help lift the fog and give a glimpse of a way out.

Drucker’s book was subtitled A Study of the New Totalitarianism.  Written in early 1939, it analysed the sudden rise of fascist totalitarianism.  This image shows the J.B. Priestley Library copy,  published by Basis Books in 1940.  Basis was a subscription-based cheap edition publisher, set up by Phoenix.  The original UK publisher was Heinemann, who also published Priestley.  Our copy was presented by a Mr W. R. Moss; its cover is tatty and some pages missing at the front, but the text is still readable.

The cover design shows (I think) statues from the temple of Rameses II at Abu Simbel, which is confusing as there is no mention of Egypt in the book.  It appears to be a standard design for the series – our copy of Foreign Affairs 1919-1939 by E.L. Hasluck has the same cover.

JB takes a holiday

Following my series of day by day blog posts about Priestley’s Postscripts and wondering where the blog post for J.B. Priestley’s Postscript of 18 August 1940 is?   He went on a family holiday in Wales  so there is a gap between the 11 August and 25 August broadcasts!  He had an adventure on the holiday, take a look on the 25th to find out more.

Full list of the Postscript blog posts.

Postscript Sunday 11 August 1940

In this BBC Postscript broadcast, Priestley described his recent visits to ENSA performances in munitions factories.  The Entertainments National Service Association had been set up in 1939 by theatre and film director Basil Dean to provide entertainment for the armed forces.

In the first factory Priestley visited, two thousand young women, “very natty in their coloured overalls”, pushed aside “what remained of the meat pies and fried plaice and chops they’d had for lunch” and sang “Oh Johnny, Oh Johnny, how you can love!” along with the orchestra.  The second factory was “grimmer and more masculine”, full of power and noise, shotblasters dressed like “divers or perhaps creatures from Mars”; the workers laughed heartily at the concert party of comedians telling what Priestley felt were old jokes.  Priestley praised these concerts for making the hard lives of these workers more enjoyable, and went on to express his life-long belief in the value of culture.

Aircraft factory, from cover of US edition of Daylight on Saturday

Aircraft factory, from cover of US edition of Daylight on Saturday

As this piece shows, Priestley was fascinated by the new forms of social and cultural life that this war was creating so quickly, particularly in the great factories which had been hurriedly built to make the machines needed for war.  In the novel Daylight on Saturday, published in 1943, Priestley confined the action to the inside of an aircraft factory in the South Midlands, a working environment he compared to a cave, a mountain, or the bottom of the sea.  At the very end of the novel, it is Saturday and Priestley’s large cast of characters, a cross-section of the factory and of society, stream out into the open air, hope, and what feels like a new world, maybe a metaphor for the end of the war.  As Priestley himself noted in a letter to his publisher*, Daylight on Saturday offers a wartime parallel to his other great group novel about the world of work, Angel Pavement.  Both contain a rich variety of plots and perspectives, and use a work setting to bring unlikely people together and set up conflicts.

*Cited by Holger Klein in J.B. Priestley’s fiction (Lang, 2002) p.132.