John Summers


Interview with JB Priestley

by John Summers, published in the Sunday Telegraph, 1964 under the headline ‘Priestley on the Brink of 70’

No waste of time with JB Priestley. About to celebrate his 70th birthday next Sunday – and half a century in the literary world – he left his typewriter to talk about his work. The novel he is writing now is ‘All about a youth of twenty on the music-hall stage in 1913 – not easy because I’m a long way from 1913, and I was never on the music-hall stage.’

Boyish, enthusiastic: ‘I’m supposed to be very energetic. I’m not. I’m rather lazy. If I’m prolific, it’s because there’s always some idea – for a novel, a play, a book of essays – begging me to set to work on it.’

Mr Priestley’s cigar in fingers jabs twice. ‘I’m also motivated by sheer difficulty, which is one reason why I collaborated with my friend Iris Murdoch in turning her Severed Head into a play.

‘It was a technical challenge. The special techniques of writing for new media fascinate me, too. If there was a completely strange medium – let’s say, called Boojum – I’d want to have a try, just to see if I could master the Boojum technique. But I probably wouldn’t stay with it. I’m a restless writer, partly because I’m always trying first to amuse and please myself.

His palm shoots out. ‘The theatre? I can’t help feeling that the avant garde is doing it more harm than good – all over the world. First, because most of the avant garde writers are too pessimistic – life-haters.

‘Secondly, they aren’t very good at supplying playgoers with a good evening’s entertainment. There’s more than entertainment in a fine play but it has to have a basis of entertainment – if it hasn’t, people stay away. And if Shakespeare, Molière and Chekhov were in the room with us now, they’d agree with me. Right?’

Horrified glance over your shoulder, but it’s all right. There’s only JB sitting at the work desk where he invented the magnificent word ‘Admass’.

‘Nobody ever encouraged me to do anything – the West Riding is the home of discouragement – so I soon became fairly tough.

‘I was told that The Good Companions was too long and that readers disliked backstage stories. It sold a million and still goes on and on. The daily papers told their readers that Dangerous Corner was my first play and that it was all right with them if t was also my last. It is still being played all over the world.

‘My next book? A biggish one - Man and Time – which comes out towards the end of October.’

Harshly stubbing the cigar, Mr Priestley reaches for a fat, comfortable pouch of tobacco and a pipe. ‘I try to work most mornings and early evening. Tapping at the typewriter with just two fingers. I started typing about 1910, when typewriters were enormous things, like organs. By the way, try to kill this idea that I’m an awkward, quarrelsome, bad-tempered fellow. I’m not. I’m the most easy-going man in England. As long as nobody starts pushing me around…

‘Yes, we travel a lot. More welcome abroad than at home. But in the south of Chile, where I received a tumultuous welcome, the students thought Elvis Presley had arrived – until they took a good look at me. No, I don’t go up north very often, though I still love the Yorkshire Dales. But I’ve never lost my accent, because I think it’s a good accent. It keeps its vowels open.’

Mr Priestley’s large, white and splendid house at Alveston, near Stratford-upon-Avon, is called Kissing Tree House. ‘After a kissing tree that fell down many years ago. When I give my address to Englishmen, they look embarrassed and ask me to spell it. But women are delighted and cry “What a lovely name!” Anyhow, we’re very fond of this house.’ Sound of a bell outside. ‘Come on, let’s have a cup of tea. It’s time…’

Time and its mysteries have fascinated and challenged Mr Priestley for more than thirty years – those plays and books of the 1930s – and now this forthcoming Man and Time.

‘And I hate to think of the time that’s been wasted trying to interview me. None of ‘em seem to get it right.

‘Well,’ the northern handshake, dry and powerful. ‘Thanks for coming. Hope it hasn’t been a waste of time for you.’