The Unfashionability of JB Priestley


An author bullied out of print by the arrogance of the intelligentsia.

When I asked if my mother wanted something to read, she instantly requested JB Priestley.

‘The plays?’ I asked.

‘Of course not,’ she replied testily, ‘the novels.’

John Boynton Priestley is mainly known for his theatre work, but Priestley was remembered to an older generation for some 26 novels that contained an astonishingly rich amount of social realism. He first found fame as a master of the short essay, working in a wool firm by day and writing at night. He had grown up in a respectable suburb of Bradford, a graceful Victorian town whose destruction at the hands of rapacious developers he later decried.

The First World War broke out when Priestley was twenty, so he joined the Duke of Wellington’s regiment and was invalided by mortar fire, an event that inspired fierce criticism of the officer class in his autobiography ‘Margin Released’. Initially developing a reputation as a humorous writer, his novel ‘Benighted’ was transformed by James Whale into the bizarre Gothic satire ‘The Old Dark House’.

This was followed by the vast picaresque novel that turned him into a national celebrity, ‘The Good Companions’, about a trio of discontented lonely people who join the Dinky Doos, a failing concert troupe that tours around the rundown towns of Middle England. Beloved by the reading public, it received only lukewarm critical reviews, probably because it was written from a middle-class viewpoint at a time when the Great Depression proved so devastating to working class families.

Even so, ‘The Good Companions’ has proven remarkably durable, surviving two film adaptations, a TV series and its inevitable transformation into a rather charming musical by André Previn starring Judi Dench. Its period subject probably shortened the book’s shelf life, as the genteel Pierrots became part of a vanished world at seaside resorts, to be replaced by pinball machines, Mods and Rockers.

Priestley reached huge audiences on radio during WWII and continued to develop his playwriting career, delivering his best-known play ‘An Inspector Calls’ in 1946. It’s a deeply moral, supernatural-tinged work successfully restored in recent times by Stephen Daldry.

This difficult, generous, grand lover of life (and a great many women) is undergoing re-evaluation, but with hindsight it seems that Priestley was bullied out of print by the arrogance of the intelligentsia.

Andrew Marr said that Priestley was ‘once too much everywhere. Now he’s not anywhere enough.’ The critical darlings of academia, FR Leavis, Orwell, Greene, Woolf, Waugh and co., conspired to disdain and destroy Priestley’s reputation. He was blanked by them in analyses of great 20th century works for writing about the human condition from the ground, instead of tackling ideas at a more cerebral level. Priestley thought that novels should look to Dickens, Cervantes and Shakespeare – his social detail is extremely Dickensian – and paid the price for commercial success. He was disrespected by authors who never had to worry about finding work; Woolf considered him ‘a tradesman of letters’ – the Bloomsbury set loved mocking anyone who sold well.

While pejoratives for some bestsellers are often appropriate, Priestley’s victimization was wrong. Here was a theatrical giant who helped found the National Council for Civil Liberties, a radical wartime broadcaster and founding member of CND, who helped set up the Albany Trust during homosexual law reform. He was a popular and familiar figure, then too familiar not to be dismantled.

This would merely merit a historical footnote were it not for the fact that Priestley’s writing has proven extremely durable, even prescient.

My favourite of his novels is ‘Angel Pavement’ (1930), a densely detailed portrait of London seen by the employees of a veneer company, Twigg & Dersingham, when the genteel firm is upended by a tough new employee. The articles Mr Smeeth reads from his paper could be from today’s tabloids. He is concerned that his children’s growing independence and indifference to his values will damage them. His staff feel fear and exhilaration at the thought of sudden, irrevocable change. Presenting recognisable behaviour in characters is hardly a talent to be despised, but it would be dull if that were all; it’s not, because Priestley is presenting a forensic, damning, yet humane indictment of desperate lives under attack on all sides.

Ultimately Priestley’s own humanity and decency was considered to have undermined his work, a ludicrous idea that with his victorious re-emergence is now mercifully heading for history’s dustbin, returning ‘Angel Pavement’ to its rightful status as one of the greatest London novels.

NB It would appear from the cover showing Islington’s Upper Street that Angel tube is being built?

22 comments on “The Unfashionability of JB Priestley”

  1. Will certainly read Angel Pavement – looks fascinating.

    We had to read Priestley’s ‘English Journey’ (1934) at school and his savage attack on Jarrow and the North East put me off his novels. Daft.

    Priestley was a major influence on Keith Waterhouse who I know from ‘Forgotten Authors’ is a favourite writer of yours. Very sad that they are both in danger of fading away.

  2. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    Angel Pavement is somewhere on my shelves, unread.
    I think I’d better add it to my reading pile.
    There’s a statue of Priestley looking out over Bradford from its position in front of the National Science and Media Museum, so he isn’t quite forgotten.

  3. Andrew Holme says:

    Don’t be put of with ‘English Journey’, there really is some superb writing in it, particularly Priestley’s Battalion Reunion section, which I read to some Yr.9s last year. It had one or two blinking away tears, and provoked a strong discussion on how we ask our young men to fight for us, yet treat them appallingly during peace time. A little known novel is ‘Bright Day’ which I picked up in Oxfam some time back.Written after WWII it harks back to his early career in the wool trade in Bradford in the 1910s. He was always capable of inserting a few paragraphs that produce an atmosphere of strangeness, that knocks you sideways slightly. Walpole did this as well. I love the original film of ‘Good Companions’ with Geilgud and the incomparable Jessie Matthews. I also remember the TV version with fondness. Alan Plater wasn’t it? Try and find the piece he wrote about his strong, silent father. Very affecting.

  4. brooke says:

    As I recall Priestly, he could punch back hard when it came to critics. In some essay (can’t recall) he says it’s the duty of a writer to speak for those who can’t. With two caveats… amen.

  5. Bob Low says:

    ‘Benighted’ is an excellent novel, which manages to combine sharp observations about the societal changes wrought by the aftermath of the First World War, with genuine Gothic creepiness. The ending is also perfect – it’s the ending James Whale apparently wanted his film adaptation to have, but the studio preferred something cheerier. My wife and I recently came across a DVD copy of ‘They Came to a City’, a British film adaptation from 1944 of one of Priestley’s plays. It’s a fantastical allegory about how society could be improved after World War 2. Priestley himself actually appears in short prologue and afterward scenes. The script becomes a bit too preachy to be taken entirely seriously, but overall it’s a fascinating oddity, with clever use of the opening fanfare from Scriabin’s Divine Poem used in the soundtrack.
    And best wishes to you in your health travails, Mr Fowler. Your postings are inspiring, and put most of the drivel I’ve seen about the current situation churned out by irresponsible ‘journalists’ to shame.

  6. Tony Walker says:

    I’ve always enjoyed reading Priestley’s books, but my favourite one is ‘Lost Empires’, which tells of a magician’s assistant in the music halls just before WW1.

  7. Brian Evans says:

    “Lost Empires” is one of my favourites. The TV series of the early 1970s with a young Colin Firth is available on Amazon etc. “The Good Companions” is one of the few novels I have read twice. Another good backstage one is “Let the People Sing”, filmed in 1942 with Alastair Sim.

    Two of his other plays are still often revived: “When We are Married” and “Time and the Conways”. The former is timeless. A great comedy about three upstart couples who have got rather above themselves as “pillars of society” and are celebrating their joint 25th wedding anniversary, only to discover they are “living in sin” as the vicar who married them wasn’t legally qualified to do so.

    “English Journey” is a cracking read, now as an historical document of a time gone by. Thanks goodness! The popularity of his weekly wartime broadcasts can’t be over stated. Which is why the BBC cancelled them due to their left wing bias.

    I have lived the last 29 nine years in the shadow of the tiresome neurotic Virginia Woolf. My partner of that length of time is an authority and writer on VW. I can’t get past the first page of one of her dreadfully self-indulgent little tomes.
    My partner often mentions the fact she had a downer on Priestley. I was obliged to inform him that unlike Woolf, he didn’t have to pay for his novels to be published like she had to. So, no professional jealousy there then! To be honest, her best career move was to commit suicide, therefore dying young like Marylin Monroe, Tony Hancock, Elvis Presley and John F Kennedy, to name but a few, who became even more popular after their deaths.

    Sadly, Priestley went the way of Terence Rattigan. He was belittled in the 1950s by many, including playwright John Osborne. Now, he is popular again and people realise how his plays stand the test of time, partly because they are so well constructed. Now Osborne’s output seems more dated than Rattigan’s.

  8. Brian Evans says:

    By the way- Partner read today’s blog with interest. It was after that I added my bit above. I didn’t want him to read it, what with being stuck in the same house during this crisis for months on end. I doesn’t bear thinking about.

  9. Martin Tolley says:

    Priestley’s novels were always in the local library when I was a lad. I remember binge-reading the shelf. I think it was the first time I’d realised a distinctive tone in writing. All the novels were different, but had a similar feel. Lost Empires stands out in my memory, but Angel Pavement was my favourite.

  10. Derek j Lewis says:

    Bright day is also a favourite of mine. I may be on my own here but i’ve always thought that Ross Macdonald would have loved the plot.

  11. Helen Martin says:

    I know we read some Priestley in high school, essays, I think and my parents admired him, possibly because of that left wing bias mentioned above. I wonder if they heard any of his war time broadcasts. I saw Let the People Sing as part of the Sunday afternoon British films on tv. Don’t remember much about it. We’ve mentioned Angel Pavement before and once our library is back open I’ll have to read it.

  12. Peter Dixon says:

    I lived in Jarrow from the ages of 5 to 23.
    The book to read is ‘The Town That Was Murdered’ by Ellen Wilkinson, the Labour MP who joined the infamous Jarrow March.
    Priestly seemed to be so horrified by the things he saw in Gateshead, Jarrow, Sunderland and the mining towns and villages of the Durham coalfield that he couldn’t absorb the the depravation of the area and the massive decline of part of the workshop of the Empire.The pollution, lack of sanitation, poor diet and abject poverty were akin to a third world country. Yet Priestly was having his plays performed in the West End. Industrialists, aristocracy, bankers and politicians simply wanted to wash their hands of any responsibility. Jarrow was saved by WW2 and the need to repair ships by skilled workers to replenish the fleet. After the war the Navy once again moved shipbuilding to south coast yards.
    After the Jarrow March all of the men were donated 3-piece suits, a luxury to them. Of course they pawned them to feed their families – one man pointed out that you couldn’t pawn a suit in Jarrow, you had to walk 5 miles to Newcastle or 12 miles to Durham to get a price.
    Happy days?

  13. Andrew Holme says:

    I’m holding my first edition of ‘Let the People Sing’ and it’s a lovely thing. How can I replace the touch and smell with a Kindle? The book was the very first new novel to be broadcast on the wireless before publication. First episode was on Sunday the 3rd of September. A quiet news day…

  14. Andrew Holme says:

    …3rd of September 1939! Pesky keyboard!

  15. A fellow who wasn’t one of us telling a truth we didn’t want to hear.

  16. Roger says:

    It wasn’t a conspiracy that destroyed Priestley’s reputation. An important aspect was Priestley’s own adoption of the role of professional Yorkshireman and champion of “common-sense” and the way in his later books he allowed his own prejudices to dominate his writing and his attitude to the characters. Priestley’s thumb presses too hard and too obviously on the balance in those books.
    If you look in James Agate’s Ego volumes you’ll find fascinating examinations of some of Priestley’s plays and their qualities.
    Anyway, i hope you’re self-medicating well.

  17. Ian Luck says:

    We went to see a performance of ‘An Inspector Calls’ at the old theatre (now a pub), when I was at school, as part of the English syllabus. The stage set was clever, as, at the end of every couple of scenes, the stage was blacked out, and the set was moved round a quarter-turn, so you got to see it from all sides. At about the third blackout, my mate Bazlur and me, who were right at the front, rolled two tubesworth of Polo mints onto the stage. The cast took position before the lights came up. There came a noise like someone walking on a gravel path, as they found the errant sweets. The noise increased as the actor playing Inspector Goole, Robert James (who had played deluded scientist, Lesterson, in the Doctor Who story ‘The Power Of The Daleks’), made his way to the front of the stage, and delivered his lines with a glare on his face that could have frosted plate glass, directed at us, sat in the front row. As the actors traversed the set, the Polos got crunched down and spread around the whole set, so it sounded as if this was a best parlour floored with not carpet, but pea shingle. And that’s all I know about anything by JB Priestley.

  18. Liz Thompson says:

    Oh Ian!
    My brother’s first paid employment was at The Belgrade Theatre in Coventry. They were putting on An Inspector Calls. The actor playing the inspector, whose name escapes me (probably, due to the laws of libel, mercifully) , was well known in the profession for being fond of a few drinks, or many. He went on stage hardly able to stand, and propelled himself around by hanging onto the set. The review in the next day’s local paper declared his performance a triumph! He had, they said, explored the scenery and the other members of the cast, feeling his way into the play!
    I saw When We Are Married at Leeds Playhouse, an excellent and entertaining production. I remember at one point a chapel organ rises through the floor being played dramatically. The actors appeared to have based their performances as the grandees on local City Councillors, which is a compliment to their acting, though less so to the Council.
    The Playhouse also did an updated version of Johnson Over Jordan, with Patrick Stewart as Johnson, and his son as the guide/angel. It was clever, well acted, and made a lasting impression on me as I had not come across it before.
    I like Priestley, my father had several of his novels including Good Companions, which I loved. It reminded me of my grandmother’s tales of slipping out the house with her brothers to go illicitly to the Music Hall. In
    that period, attendance at a music hall was definitely not what a well brought up young lady ought to do!
    There again, she did a number of things in her lifetime which didn’t necessarily say ‘well bred’. Including taking her two daughters in the 1930s and walking out on her husband when he brought another young lady home and expected his wife to accept the situation. He never paid her a penny, she survived by her own efforts and family support. One moral I gathered from this was: never marry a first cousin.

  19. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    ‘The Playhouse also did an updated version of Johnson Over Jordan, with Patrick Stewart as Johnson, ’

    I saw that as well. I agree, it was excellent.
    It didn’t get good reviews though, so perhaps the critics still find Priestley unacceptable.

  20. Sally says:

    Thank you Christopher for bringing Bryant and May into my life in this ‘lockdown’. I’ve lived and worked in central London (as a town planner!) since the 1980’s and love my home town. I lived for 4 years near Mornington Crescent. Now living in the glorious Peckham I miss my daily dose of the layers of Westminster, Camden, etc..Not really one for sentimentally… but you have given me a vivid daily description of all the places I love and memories of some of the characters i’ve Worked with over the years. Love your writing and stories and they are keeping me going in these weird days. Sorry if it’s a bit off topic but just had to put my thanks out there

  21. Joel says:

    Pedantry point, Chris – the first Angel station was in City Road (opened around the start of the 20th century); the current one is in Upper Street. That was built / opened in the 1990s. I had the dodgy role of the rebuild’s project manager, landed with it because there was no-one else in the department to take it over when the original bloke left, having had a much better project offer with another employer.

    Angel’s rebuild was an underhand Tory plot to ‘prove’ the Underground was unfit to be state-owned, ripe to be sold off. We were accused of doing a belt-and-braces job on the rebuild, and had to explain about the required 140 year life of a structure considerably below the ground in an area of land-heave and subterranean streams. Not easy but we did it! The plot failed and the relevant government plotter ultimately found himself doing other things for a living. Sorry for the off-theme rant but uncorking some of the Underground’s hidden history is often necessary, as ‘history is only [officially] written by the winners’ still applies!

    Best Priestley book is ‘Lost Empires’ – it captures a world long gone, regardless of any inaccuracies which may lay within it. There are lessons in all histories, even those which aren’t accurate. Perhaps not so off-theme as i thought, but a roundabout way of doing that.

    Keep well, mate.

  22. Jo W says:

    I remember being impressed enough by a television version of Angel Pavement that I had to go to the library and borrow the book. It was better than the adaptation but it is usually the case. Books are better but I probably wouldn’t have been nudged to read J.B.Priestley otherwise.

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