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Five Fascinating Facts about J. B. Priestley

Interesting trivia about the life of writer J. B. Priestley, author of An Inspector Calls

1. John Boynton Priestley (1894-1984) wrote the first play ever to be televised. Although he’s better known for An Inspector Calls, several of Priestley’s other plays are notable. Priestley’s romantic comedy When We Are Married was the first play to be televised unedited from a theatre, on 16 November 1938. (On the subject of romance, Priestley himself was something of a ladies’ man, despite having what one acquaintance described as a ‘potato face‘ – see the excellent David Low caricature of Priestley below for more on this.) An Inspector Calls (1945) is, however, his most popular play, centring on the titular inspector’s visit to the home of the wealthy middle-class Birling family. In the course of his interview with the family, Inspector Goole discovers that every member of the family played a part in the tragic suicide of a local working-class woman named Eva Smith.

2. Priestley’s wartime broadcasts were hugely important. His Sunday night Postscripts broadcasts for BBC radio during the Second World War had a huge audience of some 16 million listeners, making him arguably the second most important wartime broadcaster in Britain after Winston Churchill. However, his broadcasts came to an end in 1941; for a long time the precise reason for their cancellation remained a mystery. It is often claimed (including, we confess, by us here at Interesting Literature, until Nicolas Hawkes of the J. B. Priestley Society alerted J B Priestleyus to our error) that it was Churchill who dropped Priestley from the schedules, but in fact, Hawkes informs us, the agent of the shortening (not sacking) of Priestley’s series of 8-12 broadcasts in 1941 was the Minister of Information, Duff Cooper, who was being badgered by a rather unpleasant group of right-wing Tories.

If any reader would like to know the details they can go to the website of the JB Priestley Society, and contact the Society for Hawkes’ 46-page book The Story of JB Priestley’s Postscripts (2008). Full primary and academic sources are given.

3. He had curious ideas about time. Priestley’s ‘Time Plays’ – which are usually understood to comprise Dangerous Corner (1932), Time and the Conways (1937), I Have Been Here Before (1937), and Johnson Over Jordan (1939), but also sometimes include that milestone in televised plays, When We Are Married – are notable for their experimental treatment of the nature of time. Johnson Over Jordan is like a Yorkshire version of It’s a Wonderful Life, as others have pointed out: after his death, the ordinary businessman Robert Johnson has to review his life before he can earn peace and be released from the spiritual limbo in which he is trapped. Each of the ‘Time Plays’ experiments with a different theory about time, many of them influenced by the work of philosopher J. W. Dunne (who would also inspire C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien to write short works of fiction influenced by his ideas). Dangerous Corner, which was adapted for film in 1934, centres on a chance remark made by a guest about a cigarette-box at a dinner party, which sets in motion a chain of revelations. At the end of the play, however, time spools back to the start of the evening, the guest doesn’t make his ill-advised remark, and none of the revelations comes to light. Sliding Doors for the 1930s, perhaps. Dangerous Corner was revived for the London stage in 2014.

4. He was a founder member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. In November 1957, Priestley wrote an article for the New Statesman titled ‘Britain and the Nuclear Bombs’, calling for nuclear disarmament. The letter proved popular with many readers, and shortly afterwards the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, or CND, was set up, with Priestley on the board alongside others including philosopher Bertrand Russell and journalist and Labour politician Michael Foot.

5. A statue of J. B. Priestley stands outside the National Media Museum in his hometown. The city of Bradford, where Priestley was born, has honoured its most famous literary son in a number of ways: he was given the Freedom of the City in 1973, and the library at the University of Bradford is named after him. Throughout his life, Priestley was a proud Yorkshireman. He was also a committed socialist, something that led George Orwell to add Priestley’s name to his ‘list’ of suspected Soviet sympathisers (though Orwell’s notes suggest that he added Priestley only tentatively). His socialism runs throughout his work, which included novels as well as plays – even his most enduring work, An Inspector Calls, is shot through with criticism of the way working-class people are treated in twentieth-century Britain. (Indeed, on the issue of Orwell’s suspicions about Priestley, it’s worth mentioning that the first performance of An Inspector Calls was in the Soviet Union rather than Britain.) The BBC adapted An Inspector Calls for the small screen in 2015.

If you’re looking for an affordable edition of Priestley’s plays, we’d recommend An Inspector Calls and Other Plays (Penguin Modern Classics), which contains An Inspector Calls as well as several of his ‘Time Plays’.

Further reading: if these J. B. Priestley facts have got you hungry to know more about the man, we’d recommend the biography of Priestley on the J. B. Priestley website. More biographical trivia can be found in our facts about Arnold Bennett and our compilation of great George Orwell facts.

Image: Caricature of John Boynton Priestley by David Low in Ye Madde Designer (1935), Wikimedia Commons.

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About interestingliterature

A blog dedicated to rooting out the interesting stuff about classic books and authors.

Posted on April 12, 2015, in Literature and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. I have Priestley’s book Man & Time that examines the history of time through artists and scientists. Very insightful!

    • Hi Paula
      I’ve got that book too; fascinating isnt it with the Ouspensky?Gurdjieff stuff! Priestley was a readable essayist and he has a description of his own ‘numinous experience’ in Rain Upon Godshill.

  2. excellent as always………..anyone who annoyed Churchill is okay by me!
    Terry

  3. John Baxendale

    It’s worth adding that he wrote a lot of novels too, not just plays – notably The Good Companions (1929), Angel Pavement (1930), and Bright Day (1946), but many others, all of which were best-sellers in their time and still well worth a read. Some have been recently reissued in the UK by Great Northern Books, and the others can be picked up second hand. Although he was often stigmatised by modernists like Virginia Woolf as a ‘middlebrow’, his realist technique appealed to more readers, and, he argued, was more successful at dealing with ‘people in society’ than the more poetical modernists. His non-fiction is also worthy of attention, not just the Time book, and the wartime broadcasts collected in Postscripts, but English Journey, which is a critical exploration of the state of Britain in the 1930s as well as a readable and entertaining travelogue. Priestley is also a useful corrective to the prevailing notion that the only person from that era worth reading is George Orwell. In many ways Priestley had the better grasp of society and history from a left of centre standpoint.

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