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In the hope for a better world: J.B. Priestley as propagandist in the Second World War

Seminararbeit 2008 17 Seiten

Anglistik - Literatur


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. J.B. Priestley and the BBC
2.1. The role of the wartime BBC
2.2. The Postscripters

3. The Postscripts
3.1. What are the Postscripts?
3.2. The Postscripts as morale boosters
3.2.1. Close reading of Postscript 5 June, 1940
3.2.2. Denunciation of the Nazis
3.2.3. Glorification of the British
3.3. The Postscripts as propaganda for Priestley’s own cause
3.3.1. Post-war reconstruction
3.3.2. Socialist ideas

4. The audience’s attitude towards Priestley and the Postscripts

5. Concluding remarks

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

In his lifetime J.B. Priestley (1894-1984) made a name for himself as dramatist, novelist, essayist and social critic. Nowadays Priestley is especially famous for his novels and plays. During World War II, however, it was his BBC broadcasts that made him quite popular not only in Great Britain, but also in other parts of the world. In the following, I am going to take a closer look at Priestley’s cooperation with the BBC and the difficulties which emerged and finally led to the end of his broadcasting career in Britain; then I will go over to an examination of his Postscripts to News regarding their quality as morale boosters during the heavy bombings of the Blitz, and their propagandist potential concerning post-war reconstruction and socialist ideas. I will close with a BBC listener research investigation which showed Priestley’s enormous popularity among the British people and the reasons put forward for it.

2. J.B. Priestley and the BBC

2.1. The role of the wartime BBC

During the 1930s the BBC became increasingly important for everyday life in Britain since it was the most important means of communication during the Second World War. The BBC owed its popularity to mainly two factors. First of all, its development was very different from that of the radio stations on the Continent. Despite the fact that it was a public monopoly corporation, simultaneously dependent on and independent of the government, it did neither serve as a state service as did broadcasting in Germany nor as a means to transmit commercial entertainment as in the United States.[1] Although criticized for its conservatism and formal presentation style, the British never doubted its professionalism and “the BBC’s image of solidity and stolidity, its sober avuncular authority, was indispensable to its assumption of wartime authority”[2]. Furthermore, radio played an important role in social life as it was listened to not only by individuals but by whole families and together with friends or colleagues, and as it invited spontaneous reactions of any kind. Because of its immediacy the radio created a direct relationship between the audience and the spoken word and thus became an important propaganda promulgator, and the Nine o’clock News got top ratings every day.[3]

During the War the BBC’s main tasks were to boost the morale of the British people, to disseminate war propaganda, and to contribute to the war effort. The latter was achieved by serving as an “echo of the nation”[4] which could be interpreted in different ways: Firstly, ‘nation’ could be defined as ‘the government’ and thus the radio’s task was to inform the people about for example political decisions and, in addition, it was used as a propaganda medium. Secondly, ‘the nation’ could be seen as ‘the people’ and in that sense it refers to the BBC’s role of giving an account of the hopes and fears of the population. This was quite important for the ordinary people since their messages were broadcast nationwide and thus perceived not only by politicians but by the whole nation. During the Second World War the BBC was repeatedly praised “for bringing the ‘voice of the people’ to the microphone on a regular basis”[5].

2.2. The Postscripters

The Sunday Postscripts, a series of short talks on issues of current interest, which immediately followed the Nine o’clock News were the platform for making the ‘voice of the people’ heard. The series was launched in March 1940 and during the period of its transmission the BBC engaged different Postscripters.

The first was Maurice Healy, a well-known barrister at the time. He broadcast the first 12 Postscripts but his contract was cancelled since he proved to be a tactless propagandist. He, for example, cited one of his colleagues whose income had dropped by £1000 per year as an example of the sacrifices of working people in the war. This was, of course, considered as misplaced, and as his Postscripts divided rather than united the nation he was accused of “lowering [the] dignity of broadcasting”[6]. So, the BBC Talks Department began looking for a “contrast in voice, upbringing, and outlook”[7].

J.B. Priestley had been an occasional broadcaster in the 1930s and was employed by the BBC on the Overseas Service from 24 May 1940 onwards to broadcast twice a week to the United Stated, Canada and Australia within the frame of the Series “Britain Speaks”. His success was immense and thus his transfer to the Postscripts almost obligatory[8]. Moreover, the Ministry of Information strongly suggested that the BBC should dispose itself of its “cultured voice”[9] and counteract enemy propaganda, which announced that the United Kingdom was led by capitalists and imperialists, by bringing working-class and left-wing speakers to the microphone.[10] J.B. Priestley seemed to be the solution for all those problems and he broadcast his first Postscript to the News on Wednesday, 5th June, 1940. Priestley was a man of the people. “He had the perfect microphone voice: warm, relaxed, with a slight Yorkshire intonation.”[11] From June 1940 to March 1941 Priestley was probably the most famous voice on the BBC and second in popularity only to Churchill. His talks seemed to unify the nation and to rouse a feeling of community and fighting spirit not least because of his denunciation of the Nazis as a soulless military machine (Wednesday, 5th July, 1940), his appeals to his compatriots to hold together and stand up to the danger of Nazism (Sunday, 7th July, 1940), and his criticism of officialdom (Sunday, 30th June, 1940). “Priestley was [...] the first example in Britain of a particular kind of radio personality: the first non-politician to whom listeners regularly tuned to hear his personal political and philosophical views.”[12]

Nevertheless, Priestley’s Postscripts became more and more controversial as time progressed and a point of attack for the BBC itself and the Ministry of Information. Priestley was accused of being too populist and of showing too much concern for post-war reconstruction. This “raised a fundamental issue of public service broadcasting as it had evolved in Britain up to and beyond 1940: to whom, and on what basis, should the freedom of the air be granted?”[13]

Priestley’s Postscripts did not proceed regularly after 1940 since he got into trouble with the government. In a letter of 9th October 1940 to the Director General of the BBC, Priestley requests a rest from the programme not only because he was exhausted but also because of the government, “which does not make the big imaginative gestures needed at this juncture, declares no war aims [and] has a timid home policy”[14]. Besides, in another letter, he complained to the BBC that his censorship was becoming ridiculous.[15]

After Priestley’s for the time being last Postscript of 20th October, in which he claimed that the decision to quit was his and not forced upon him by the BBC, the BBC tried a great number of other Postscripters but none of them was as successful as J.B. Priestley. The lesson, the BBC learned from Priestley’s first departure and the listeners’ protest was that “to retain one single Postscripter was [...] ‘too dangerous’”[16] and so different speakers like, for example, Clemence Dane and Lord Elton were employed each week. This, however, lead to complaints on the part of the audience, which criticized the “lack of continuity”[17]. There were even experiments to broadcast the talks anonymously and reveal the respective Postscripter afterwards but the BBC was forced to give up this method since ratings fell and one speaker even refused to broadcast his Postscript unless his name be revealed in advance. In January 1941 the BBC decided to “restore the personal touch [...] by retaining a pool of speakers who would each do a handful of talks in rotation”[18]. Finally, on 26th January 1941, Priestley returned as a Postscripter and the BBC hoped that he “would give a stimulus to our programmes, and if he is kept within reasonable bounds ... [give] the people something to cheer them up and keep their minds off bombing and rationing”[19]. The BBC did not respond to Priestley’s demands that the programme should be reshaped for him but instead paid him fifty guineas a week instead of the ordinary twenty. As Siân Nicholas in her article ‘Sly Demagogues’ and Wartime Radio: J.B. Priestley and the BBC states, Priestley’s first Postscript after his return had been very provocative since he not only attacked his fellow Postscripters but also returned to controversial themes: “The Nazis and their like are the festering sores on the diseased body of the world. Fight them? Of course we must fight them, but at the same time we must fight the diseased condition that produced them.”[20] As in his previous Postscripts, Priestley openly attacked the government for not committing itself to any post-war programmes and argued that a fundamental new beginning for the entire society was indispensable in order to avoid old mistakes. The then Minister of Information, Duff Cooper, highly regretted that the BBC ran the risk of bringing Priestley back on the air, and his influence might have been the reason why Priestley had to leave the BBC after the 23 March and eight broadcasts. In the following, Priestley accused the BBC of dismissing him for political reasons and asked if the BBC had “so many strong personalities that they can afford to lose one”[21]. After a heated correspondence with both the BBC and the Ministry of decided never to come back under any circumstances.[22] The that he had been removed for preaching left-wing ideas and this view has generally persisted ever since.[23]


[1] Cf. Siân Nicholas, The Echo of War: Home Front Propaganda and the Wartime BBC, 1939-45 (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1996) 4.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Cf. ibid., 5.

[4] Nicholas, The Echo of War, 6.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Nicholas, Siân. “Sly Demagogues and Wartime Radio: J.B. Priestley and the BBC”. Twentieth Century British History 6.3 (1995), 254.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Nicholas, The Echo of War, 59

[9] English Studies in Canada 26.4 (2000): 445-472. p. 446.

[10] Ibid.

[11] John Braine, J.B. Priestley, (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1978) 108, f.

[12] Nicholas, ‘Sly Demagogues’ and Wartime Radio: J.B. Priestley and the BBC, 248.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Buitenhuis, J.B. Priestley: The BBC’s Star Propagandist In World War II, 456.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Nicholas, ‘Sly Demagogues’ and Wartime Radio: J.B. Priestley and the BBC, 258.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid., 258, f.

[21] Ibid., 260.

[22] Cf. Nicholas, The Echo of War, 244.

[23] Whole paragraph c.f. Nicholas, The Echo of War, 258, ff.


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Institution / Hochschule
Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg – Anglistisches Seminar
Priestley Second World



Titel: In the hope for a better world: J.B. Priestley as propagandist in the Second World War