Priestley was born in what he
described as an "ultra-respectable" suburb of Bradford. His father
was a teacher and his mother died young. On leaving grammar school Priestley
worked in the wool trade of his native city, but had ambitions to become a
writer. He was to draw on memories of Bradford in many of the works he wrote
after he had moved south. As an old man he deplored the destruction by
developers of Victorian buildings such as the Swan Arcade in Bradford where he
had his first job.
Priestley served during the First
World War in the 10th battalion, the Duke of Wellington's Regiment. He was
wounded in 1916 by mortar fire. After his military service Priestley received a
university education at Trinity Hall, Cambridge. By the age of 30 he had
established a reputation as a humorous writer and critic. His 1927 novel
Benighted was adapted into the James Whale film The Old Dark House in 1932. His
first major success came with a novel, The Good Companions (1929) which earned
him the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction and made him a national
figure. His next novel Angel Pavement (1930) further established him as a
successful novelist. However, some critics were less than complimentary about
his work, and Priestley began legal action against Graham Greene for what he
took to be a defamatory portrait in Stamboul Train.
He moved into a new genre and became
as well known as a dramatist. Dangerous Corner began a run of plays that
enthralled West End theatre audiences. His best-known play is An Inspector
Calls (1946), later made into a film starring Alastair Sim in 1954. His plays
are more varied in tone than the novels, several being influenced by J.W.
Dunne's theory of time, which plays a part in the plots of Dangerous Corner
(1932) and Time and the Conways (1937).
Many of his works have a political
aspect. For example, An Inspector Calls, as well as being a "Time
Play", contains many references to socialism — the inspector was arguably
an alter ego through which Priestley could express his views . During World
War II he was a regular broadcaster on the BBC. The Sunday night Postscript
broadcasts through 1940 and again in 1941 drew audiences of up to 16 million;
only Churchill was more popular with listeners. But his talks were cancelled,
apparently as a result of complaints that they were too left-wing. He chaired
the 1941 Committee and, in 1942, he was a co-founder of the socialist Common
Wealth Party. The political content of his broadcasts and Priestley's hopes of
a new and different England after the war influenced the politics of the period
and helped the Labour Party gain its landslide victory in the 1945 general
election. Priestley himself, however, was distrustful of the state and dogma.
Priestley was one of the
interviewees for the documentary series The World at War (1973), in the episode
Alone: May 1940–May 1941.
He was a founding member of the
Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in 1958. He declined lesser honours before
accepting the Order of Merit in 1977.
He was married three times. In 1921
he married Pat Tempest, and in 1922 two daughters were born. In September 1926,
he married Jane Wyndham-Lewis; together, they produced two daughters and one
son. In 1953, he divorced his second wife and married Jacquetta Hawkes, his
collaborator on Dragon's Mouth.
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