The J.B. Priestley flame is kept alive today by his son Tom, who resides in the same Notting Hill flat he has lived in for more than 50 years. His father — novelist, dramatist, scribe, broadcaster, socialist (who died in 1984) — was glad that Tom, now 79, hadn’t chosen the same life. ‘The only time he came here to the flat he said, “Don’t be a writer. Dreadful business.”’
Tom is a retired film editor who manages the literary estate. He is the offspring of J.B.’s second marriage to Jane Bannerman, the divorced wife of the humorist writer Bevan Wyndham Lewis. There was one more Mrs Priestley after her — Jacquetta Hawkes, the distinguished but flinty archaeologist. Tom grew up in homes in the Isle of Wight and London — where his father kept two adjacent ‘sets’ in Albany — with his four sisters. He is reserved, totally dispassionate about his famous papa and certainly no chip off the bluff Yorkshire block known to the Evelyn Waugh set as the ‘Bradford tyke’.
‘We weren’t particularly close but there was never any bad feeling either.’ Was J.B. really the great ladies’ man of reputation? ‘It mattered to him that he had the wife and the family, but as and when he took advantage, I think.’ Notably with the equally highly sexed Peggy Ashcroft, who called him Mr Beastly during their brief fling.
Apart from the women, there was his amazing output. Priestley acknowledged at the end of his life that he had written far too much. But J.B.’s work for the theatre, Tom reckons, is doing rather well of late. His great comedy When We Are Married was recently in the West End for the umpteenth time. Now there is the return of Eden End, first staged in 1934 when Tom was two. It is at the Royal & Derngate Theatre in Northampton, in a co-production with English Touring Theatre directed by Laurie Sansom.
Sansom has carved out a Priestley niche with his recent productions of Dangerous Corner, J.B.’s first play, and The Glass Cage, almost his last. Eden End — a family drama set in a GP’s house in Yorkshire in 1912 — stars Jonathan Firth (his older brother Colin appeared when he was a young nobody in Priestley’s Lost Empires on telly) and Daniel Betts as the drunken actor, a role first played by Ralph Richardson.
On the page, it’s all rather Chekhovian and elegiac and full of lost dreams. It was last seen in London in a glam production directed by Laurence Olivier in 1974. Critics loved it, although in that cast was the actor Geoffrey Palmer who thought Eden End so crashingly boring it put him off the stage for good.
‘The thing is, my father always tried to entertain himself. He tried a great variety of different forms,’ says Tom. ‘P.G. Wodehouse wrote the same book endlessly — enormous fun but always the same. My father was not that kind of writer. In Eden End, I think he enjoyed the irony of people in 1912 looking forward to a brighter future unaware of the horrors to come. On the whole, he didn’t write plays for stars, he wrote for an ensemble.’
Priestley was a good-hearted idealist who deeply believed in a better world if only we could all learn from our mistakes. But he was also famously gruff. Matthew Parris once called him the Geoffrey Boycott of literature and J.B. was quite possibly the original Grumpy Old Man.
‘He wasn’t grumpy as a father, though he was grumpy as a man sometimes,’ says Tom. ‘He had terrible dark moods which we suspected related back to the first world war, which was so traumatic for him. My mother said that if she and my sister went in to see him we’d all be playing games in no time and that his dark mood would just dissolve. He enjoyed the innocence and pleasure of children — and that’s what I most remember about him. There is a strand of playfulness in his life. He loved the music hall, his favourite form of entertainment, especially the comedians.’
The huge turnabout in J.B’s fortunes was largely thanks to An Inspector Calls (which like Eden End is set in 1912), utterly forgotten but then restaged by Stephen Daldry in 1992 in a radical re-invention of its hoary copper-exposes-family-wardrobe-containing-multiple-skeletons plot. The show ran for over five years in the West End and went all around the world, making it easily the most successful revival of a play for many decades. It may well be making a comeback later this year.
‘Inspector Calls has been wonderful for us, and it’s a wonderful play for children because it has an idealism at its centre,’ says Tom Priestley. ‘It’s the daughter in the play who is the most changed, not the parents, and that is something children really relate to.’
Other plays have fared less well. A production of Time and the Conways at the National Theatre recently didn’t entirely dispel suspicions that Priestley is very tricky to revive with any sense of modern relevance (too many chaps in tweed knocking pipes on fire grates). On the subject of ‘the well-made play’ that his output embodies — a term of abuse from the kitchen-sink writers of the angry Fifties who followed him — Tom Priestley has a rather good answer. ‘My father said you wouldn’t sneer at a table because it was well made. Why should anyone want to see a badly made play? Thanks to him there has been a renewed interest in the craftsmanship of playwriting, and to my mind Eden End is a wonderful example of that.’
Eden End runs at the Royal & Derngate Theatre, Northampton, until 25 June and then goes on tour; www.ett.org.uk
Family man: J.B. Priestley with his children Rachel and Tom in Arizona in the 1930s