, , , ,

This summer and autumn, there were many events and projects around the 70th anniversaries of Dunkirk, Battle of Britain, the Blitz … I “did my bit” so to speak, by creating Priestley’s Finest Hour, an online series exploring the Postscripts, J.B. Priestley’s 1940 radio broadcasts.

I’ve already published my thoughts on the experience as the postscript to the series, and sent a more detailed, scholarly version to the J.B. Priestley Society Journal.  Here I interview myself, to share what I learned with professional colleagues.

What were you trying to achieve with the series?

As the Postscripts were weekly, they were perfect for a matching series of blog posts published on the anniversaries.  I didn’t simply reproduce the original talks, for copyright reasons, and because the texts are readily available anyway.  Instead, I summarised each talk, and then let it take me on a journey, perhaps exploring another work by Priestley, or finding out more about something he mentioned.  The result was a new resource which highlighted the Priestley archive and books in Special Collections and made use of particular features of social media.

I saw this as an opportunity to engage users who can cope with web 1.0 and email but who are repelled by their perception of social media, perceiving it as intrusive, time-wasting, full of txtspeak or abusive comments etc.  Many of the Priestley enthusiasts I know fall into this category.  To encourage such users to sample these newer media, which I know contain so much they would enjoy, I avoid the word “blog” when talking about Priestley’s Finest Hour.  Instead I refer to it as an exhibition, or a series of articles.

Costs – how long, how much?

Priestley said of the Postscripts, “They took about ten minutes to deliver, usually between half an hour and an hour to write”.  In the spirit of his work, I did not overthink my pieces, but went with whatever inspired me on re-reading the talks.  With one exception, none took me more than an hour to devise and write.  But that was because I know the pieces and their context so well.  Someone new to Priestley would not have been able to do this.  Hence this was not a project I could outsource, even with funding to do so.

A weekly deadline fitted my workload perfectly, daily would have been too much pressure and monthly would lack momentum.  The Postscripts ran from June to October, so I knew I could commit to what I had in mind.  I had multiple copies of the published broadcasts, so I was able to write the pieces at home, on trains, or in odd moments e.g. tea-break reading room cover.

When to write?

I could have written all the pieces in advance, if I’d had time (which, actually, I didn’t).  But this did not seem appropriate anyway when blogging.  I wrote in real time, with the odd bit of scheduling to cover holidays etc.  This was a great decision.  It helped me understand how Priestley produced the originals, with his deadlines clashing with other commitments.  It also gave me much more sense of the period, especially the speed with which things happened, and how events piled upon events.  I really value the work done by other archives and museums in sharing their collections in real time via tweets and blogs over the summer, which helped immerse me in 1940.

But weren’t the Postscripts sound recordings?

I’m aware that by writing about radio broadcasts from the text I am missing out much of the way Priestley intended the broadcasts to be received, and his listeners experienced them.  It was not practical to use audio unfortunately. I have at least heard him reading the Postscripts.  In my defence, he did read the talks from typescript, plus of course much of his audience then and later will have experienced or re-experienced the texts in published versions.

How many visitors?

WordPress supply excellent statistics, which enable me to see how many have viewed the series.  Several hundred already.  I know how they reached the site, and where they went next.

Few comments have been posted, not a great surprise as I didn’t set up the project to be particularly interactive.  In retrospect, I should probably have done more to make this possible.  I have had feedback directly, all of it good.

What next?

“Priestley’s Finest Hour”  is an important digital asset and will be maintained and migrated in future.  I will make it available as a Word document or hard copy for anyone preferring to use it in this way.

I have some improvements to make and some extra posts to add.  I will take the lessons learned into future projects.  In particular, I am looking at something interactive following on from PaxCat Project.  I also have a longterm inhouse project in mind which will use this model.


010 was the 70th anniversary of the first, and most famous, series of Postscript broadcasts by J.B. Priestley, made during the momentous summer and autumn of 1940.  He broadcast the first on 5 June 1940 just after the “miracle of Dunkirk”, when Britain faced invasion.  His last broadcast in the series was made on 20 October as the Battle of Britain was coming to an end, and the War moved into a new phase with the Blitz on British cities.  This year, there has been a great deal of media attention given to the anniversaries of these events.  I decided to join in by celebrating the Postscripts.

The Postscripts were a weekly series, broadcast on Sundays.  I realised that they lent themselves beautifully to an online series in which I would publish a mini article on the anniversary of each broadcast.

I called the series “Priestley’s Finest Hour”[1], because the phrase instantly conveys 1940 by alluding to Churchill’s famous speech.  Also, while the Postscripts were not Priestley’s finest works in any objective sense, they were the works that meant most to many of his listeners.  They inspired them at a dark and difficult time. As Priestley said later, “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”[2].   The broadcasts have historic significance, as they played a part in boosting morale in 1940, and in building the support for a better world which led to the 1945 Labour landslide victory and the creation of the welfare state.

I did not consider publishing the texts of whole broadcasts.  This was for copyright reasons, and also because the printed texts of the broadcasts are easily accessed[3]. In any case, I wanted to do something new with the Postscripts, to highlight the Priestley publications in the J.B. Priestley Archive and to explore the dazzling possibilities of modern media.

So, I paraphrased each broadcast, and let each take me on a journey.  Often this involved exploring Priestley’s other wartime writings, or identifying particular places, books, or other matters he mentioned.  For example, in the 25 August piece, Priestley suggested that listeners read Peter Drucker’s The End of Economic Man[4], so I found and wrote about the copy in our library.  The broadcast on 22 September about the role of women in the war effort naturally led me to write about one of my favourite books in Special Collections at Bradford: British Women go to War[5].  I tried to find appropriate illustrations for each post, and thank my colleague John Brooker for his help with digitising materials.

I deliberately did not write in detail about the reasons for the ending of the first series of Postscripts, or discuss the second Postscripts series, because these have already been thoroughly researched.  I recommend the pamphlet by Nicolas Hawkes to anyone wishing to know the full story of either[6].

For practical reasons, I used the published texts of the broadcasts.  Clearly this is not ideal.  I was not engaging with the pieces in the form created by Priestley or experienced by his listeners.  However, I believed the benefits of doing the project with the resources available outweighed this disadvantage.  I have at least heard Priestley on radio; the contrast between his warm Yorkshire tones and the startlingly dated received pronunciation of the announcer must have been part of the impact he made as a broadcaster.

Writing this series has been a remarkable experience.  I thought I knew the Postscripts well, but exploring them in this way has been a revelation.

The decision to write in real time was a very good one.  (Obviously I did schedule some in advance to cover holidays and so on – I didn’t take things so far as to have my holiday the same week as Priestley!).  The pressure of a deadline, which clashed with other work commitments, helped me to understand how Priestley created the Postscripts.  Priestley said of them later that “They took about ten minutes to deliver, usually between half an hour and an hour to write”.  He was able to produce them so quickly and with such effective results because he was a professional writer who practised his craft every day.  The exercise has given me greater respect for his achievement in making the Postscripts so simple and sincere.

Real time writing also made me feel as if I have experienced those dramatic weeks alongside Priestley and the British people. I had not realised how quickly events piled upon events that summer. I was greatly helped by other archives and museums sharing their own 1940 collections in real time over the same period.   Special thanks to the Imperial War Museum Duxford, who tweeted their 1940 operations records books for RAF Duxford and No. 19 Squadron, and the National Archives, who did the same with their War Cabinet Papers.

“Priestley’s Finest Hour” has been viewed several hundred times already, and will be maintained online indefinitely for others to enjoy.  People found it via searches like “Dunkirk rescue”, “Postscript priestly [sic] churchill”, “air raid on bradford” “roberts pies bradford”!

Part of the delight of online publishing is that nothing is final.  I will continue adding to the series.  At time of writing, I have more pieces in mind about Priestley’s audiences and his own views of the Postscripts.  As always, I welcome feedback from Society members.

[1] http://specialcollectionsbradford.wordpress.com/priestleys-finest-hour/ The series is also available in Word form.  Please let me know if neither format is suitable for you.

[2] P.220. Priestley, J.B. Margin Released. Heinemann, 1962.

[3] Currently in print in Hanson, Neil. Priestley’s Wars.  Great Northern Books, 2008. The original reprint in book form is widely available in libraries and the second-hand book trade:  Priestley, J.B.  Postscripts.  London: Heinemann, 1940.

[4] Drucker, Peter. The end of economic man. Heinemann, 1939.

[5] Priestley, J.B.  British women go to war.  Collins, 1943.

[6] Hawkes, Nicolas. The story of J.B. Priestley’s Postscripts. J.B. Priestley Society, 2008.