4. An Excursion to Hell: J.B. Priestley’s 1940 Postscripts

In June 1940, Britain was in danger of invasion after the fall of France.  The British army had to be evacuated from Dunkirk.  However this humiliating defeat took on the qualities of a mythic victory as small ships sailed to rescue the troops.  On the 5th, J.B. Priestley, Bradford-born novelist and playwright, helped create this narrative in the first of his Postscript BBC radio broadcasts, paying tribute to the way the frivolous little steamers had risen to the occasion.  Listen to the BBC Archive recording.

Home from Dunkirk

Home from Dunkirk, which includes the 5 June Postscript

Throughout that momentous summer and early autumn, Priestley continued these weekly broadcasts, reflecting on the Battle of the Britain, the Blitz, the role of women, the Home Guard and much more through personal (often funny) events.  He used his experiences of the poor treatment of soldiers returning from the Great War and the shocking poverty many British people faced in the 1930s to call for a better, fairer society after this War.

J.B. Priestley

J.B. Priestley at his typewriter

The Postscripts are the first (but not the last!) Priestley object in this exhibition because of their immense popularity.  They made him into a media celebrity.  He was already a household name, thanks to his best-selling 1929 novel The Good Companions, his time plays, his prolific journalism, his 1934 English Journey.  But the Postscripts brought Priestley’s reassuring Yorkshire voice into millions of homes, bringing encouragement and inspiration at an incredibly dangerous, difficult and heightened time.  (Though not everyone liked his work, particularly those in the Establishment who disagreed with his politics …).  As he wrote in Margin Released, his 1962 memoir, “To this day middle-aged or elderly men shake my hand and tell me what a ten-minute talk about ducks on a pond or a pie in a shop window meant to them, as if I had given them King Lear or the Eroica”.  It could certainly be argued that his broadcasts helped inspire Britain’s resistance in 1940 and  the election of the 1945 Labour government which founded the welfare state.

You can find out much more about the Postscripts (and the ducks and the pie) in Priestley’s Finest Hour: a series of 70th anniversary articles by the curator of 100 Objects, Alison Cullingford.

5 responses to “4. An Excursion to Hell: J.B. Priestley’s 1940 Postscripts

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