55. Whatever Happened to Mr Mothergill? J.B. Priestley’s Lost City of Bradford

In 1958, J.B. Priestley revisited his home city, Bradford, to make Lost City, a documentary for the BBC.

Telegram from Richard Cawston to Mavis Dean congratulating her on Lost City PRI19_9

Telegram from Richard Cawston to Mavis Dean congratulating her on Lost City (archive ref PRI19/9)

Here we see details from a telegram sent by the producer, Richard Cawston, to Mavis Dean, a local journalist and musician who accompanies Priestley in the film as he revisits his old haunts.

Arriving at Forster Square railway station, Priestley tells journalists gathered to speak to this returning celebrity, “You might say that, to me, it’s a lost city and perhaps I’ve come here to find it.”  We see his teenage home in Saltburn Place, where he wrote the juvenilia, and the Swan Arcade, where he worked as a clerk in a wool office.  We encounter the bandstand in Lister Park, theatre and music-hall, plus a  glimpse of modern teenagers dancing at St George’s Hall.

Priestley’s memories, like his novels and plays of pre-War Bradford, are full of colour, vivid characters and exuberant life: but the black and white film makes the city appear grim and sunless.  The Arcade is a place of shadows, where Priestley’s footsteps echo.  There is an underlying sense of sadness.  The title of this piece comes from a scene in which Priestley in his hotel room tries to telephone various people he knew in Bradford: not surprisingly, they have all died or been “poorly for months”.  There is a deeper loss: as Priestley tells Mavis Dean, “Half the young men who were boys when I was a boy in this town were killed in one morning in 1916”: the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

To Priestley the lost city was the Bradford of his boyhood and youth.  He could never recapture this: the friends he grew up with who were part of this world were gone.  He had moved away and everything had changed.  As highlighted in the Objects, Priestley’s memories of lost Bradford, and feelings about nostalgia and the workings of time underlie most of his greatest writing: An Inspector Calls, Bright Day, Margin Released et al.

J.B. Priestley, late 1950s (archive ref PRI 21/11/8)

J.B. Priestley, late 1950s (archive ref PRI 21/11/8)

However, the film caused confusion and controversy in Bradford.  The title and the way the city was portrayed caused offence: people became defensive, arguing he had no right to criticise because he had moved away.   This is part of a long story of resentment and misunderstanding between Priestley and some Bradfordians, which explains why it took so long for the city to honour his achievements (he was made a Freeman of the City in 1973): the story is told in  Peter Holdsworth’s The Rebel Tyke (1994).

The city Priestley visited would also soon be lost.  Sweeping new plans for the city centre were afoot which would destroy much of the surviving fabric, most regrettably the Swan Arcade.

Postscript May 2015.  When I wrote this piece, the film could be seen online via a BBC webpage.  The articles on the page are still of interest, but unfortunately the film and photo links on the page are broken.  Lost City can be seen via the Media Museum and Yorkshire Film Archive, but I can’t currently find it available to view online.  I will post details if it becomes available in future.  Sorry about that!

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5 responses to “55. Whatever Happened to Mr Mothergill? J.B. Priestley’s Lost City of Bradford

  1. Pingback: 53. An Astonishing Burden of Memories: J.B. Priestley’s Bright Day | 100 Objects

  2. Pingback: Priestley, Bradford, Rugby and An Inspector Call | Am I Kulchad Yet?

  3. Can’t find link to view the film – everything comes up with “Error 404 – Page not found”. Help?

    • Sorry about that, case of link rot. The links to stills from the film are also broken. I’ve reported this to the link on the website, but as it is an “archived” BBC website this may not be something that can be fixed. I can’t unfortunately find the film available to view online at present. It can, I believe, be seen at the Media Museum and Yorkshire Film Archive.

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