Tom Priestley tells Valerie Grove he suspects his father, JB, preferred writing and women to the company of this only son
Tom Priestley looks absolutely nothing like his famous father. J B Priestley, OM, known as Jack, was usually photographed under a black hat and a cloud of pipe smoke, wearing a scowl around his jowls, and a beady look in his ‘saurian’ eye. Tom is tall and lean at 84, tanned and rather raffish-looking, with thick white hair and a bushy moustache which was black when he first grew it to celebrate giving up smoking in 1969. He is also teetotal and vegetarian, which his dad emphatically was not. When J B Priestley’s first biographer wanted to know how the thrice-married Jack responded to finding out that his only son was gay, Tom replied that he had no idea: ‘It’s not something we ever talked about.’ He suggested the biographer should ask Priestley’s widow, Jacquetta Hawkes. She told him that Jack had been ‘disappointed’; he found it ‘difficult to adjust to’. Tom thought: ‘Well, so did I!’
Tom is the keeper of his father’s flame, administering the estate that still has nine family beneficiaries. Priestley’s most popular novels, Angel Pavement and The Good Companions, may no longer be required reading, but his plays are constantly performed across the land, and Tom will be found in the audience for most productions at least once. He and I recently caught the revival of Stephen Daldry’s 1992 vintage An Inspector Calls, with the amazing imploding set: the theatre was packed with schoolchildren, who enjoy its place on the GCSE curriculum, and ponder on its key speech about society: ‘One Eva Smith has gone – but there are millions and millions and millions of Eva Smiths and John Smiths still left with us, with their lives, their hopes and fears, their suffering and chance of happiness, all intertwined with our lives, and what we think and say and do.’ This has always appealed, Tom says, to the natural idealism of the young.
Tom believes his father steered him away from writing: ‘A dreadful business,’ he said. Tom’s own career has been in a more specialised sphere: he is a celebrated film editor, that most secret of professions, whose triumphs are often overlooked or mis-attributed to directors. Starting with Lindsay Anderson’s This Sporting Life (1963, when he was assistant editor to the pioneering Peter Taylor), he has edited some fine films: Karel Reisz’s Morgan – A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966); John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972); Jack Clayton’s The Great Gatsby (1974); Polanski’s Tess (1987); Michael Radford’s White Mischief (1987), and many more. He became a tutor at the National Film School, and he is now a happy user of his veteran’s card (free tickets before 6pm) at art-house cinemas. He goes regularly to Morocco, and there are touches of the Marrakech souk about his basement flat in Notting Hill, which his astute mother bought for him for £3,250 in 1958.
Priestley’s sixth child and only son – ‘a fine lad’, said his dad, appointing J M Barrie as godfather – was born in 1932 at 3 The Grove, a historic 17th-century house in Highgate village bought on the proceeds of Priestley’s novels, and formerly inhabited by Coleridge. In Coleridge’s study, J B Priestley wrote, prolifically and with increasing success: reviews for the Evening Standard at £60 a piece, and his classic work of reportage English Journey, that epic of political incorrectness, describing the people of Birmingham as ‘lopsided oafs, gnomes, hobgoblins’, finding ‘not a single intelligent or sensitive face’ in Newcastle, and reminding readers that the Irish ‘bring ignorance and dirt and drunkenness and disease wherever they go’. But he was especially keen on his new medium, the theatre. He had just ended his affair with Peggy Ashcroft; in the next-door house lived Gladys Cooper (and beyond her, the magnificent Witanhurst, built for the soap magnate Sir Arthur Crosfield, where Lady Crosfield held tennis parties and which is now being expanded by two floors of basement for a Russian oligarch). Baby Tom was taken in his carrycot to the rehearsals for Dangerous Corner, the first of Priestley’s hit plays that dominated the London stage throughout the 1930s and 1940s.
But when wartime bombing began and the house was sold, the Priestleys were effectively homeless. Billingham House, their place on the Isle of Wight, was requisitioned overnight by the Army (Tom is sure this was because the Isle of Wight was arch-Conservative and his dad was considered a Leftie). When Priestley made his famous wartime broadcasts called Postscripts in 1940 he would stay in the hotel opposite Broadcasting House. One night a bomb fell on the hotel at 2am, just after JBP had left to make a broadcast to America.
JBP, a schoolmaster’s son, extolled his good fortune in being brought up in Bradford, a city rich in cultural outlets, theatres, newspapers, opera houses and music halls, which were his education. But his own son Tom was sent, like his sisters, to boarding school at eight. Tom went to Hawtreys: ‘I believe it was the original prep school for Eton.’ (Hawtrey was an Eton housemaster, and among many noted Old Hawtreyans are Dai Llewellyn, Zac Goldsmith and Johnny Boden). He was allowed to listen to his father’s Postscripts on the headmaster’s wireless: these broadcasts, about the need to build a better and different world after the war, were considered more influential than Churchill’s, and brought a kind of household-name fame at which JBP bridled. He never came to visit Tom at school (evacuated to Oswestry); but Tom’s mother, the former Jane Wyndham-Lewis, was nearby, running hostels for evacuee mothers and their children in Herefordshire. In 1943, Priestley took a lease on two apartments in Albany, Piccadilly, B3 and B4, the latter being Jack Worthing’s set in The Importance of Being Earnest. But he would join the family holidays in Cornwall, Wales, Scotland and the Lake District. ‘Inevitably I was much closer to my mother,’ Tom says. ‘I was the desperate last attempt, after five girls, at a son.’ In 1945, Priestley and his wife left for Moscow and Leningrad where the first performances of An Inspector Calls were produced. They were fêted everywhere by adoring Russians. So they missed seeing Tom off to his public school, Bryanston. And his father came there only once, to deliver a sermon, its theme forgotten. By 1950 JBP was travelling the world on Unesco business and met the formidably intellectual archaeological writer Jacquetta Hawkes, who became, in 1953, the third Mrs Priestley. Fortunately, Tom’s mother also found a much happier new life with the ornithologist David Bannerman.
After school and national service (Royal Engineers, 1950–51) Tom went up to Cambridge, as his father had done on an officer’s grant after the Great War. Jack, who had spent his 21st birthday in the mud and horror of the trenches – the memory remained ‘an open wound which never healed’ – could feel no affinity with Cambridge. In Tom’s time at King’s, reading classics and English, seeing endless films and running a play-reading club attended by E M Forster, JBP visited just twice: once he was driven up by Ralph Richardson; on the other occasion, at a party in King’s, JBP astutely singled out the young Mark Boxer, and told Tom: ‘That’s one to watch.’ (Boxer, future editor and cartoonist, was famously rusticated that year for publishing a ‘blasphemous’ poem in Granta about God, ‘a silly old sod’.)
So Tom and his father were not really close. ‘To be perfectly honest, he liked women,’ Tom says. ‘I suspect they were more important to him than I was.’ At eighteen, striking out for independence, Tom entered a bohemian phase, affecting light make-up and a never-forgotten ‘infroissable’ (uncrushable) corduroy hat, while flourishing a long bamboo cigarette holder. His dad had once been a bit of a dandy, too, in purple velvet smoking jackets. ‘It would be going too far to say he was jealous of me, but he was deeply offended by my jeans.’ Relics of an earlier artistic life hang in Tom’s flat, including sketches made in the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, the Paris art school that supplied naked models and warmth, and next door a steak-frites.
After Cambridge Tom taught English in Athens for a year, having fallen in love with Greece during a long vac. ‘The key thing about Greece was learning to be poor. I’d never been spoiled, but my education was so conventional, part of me always felt I was an outsider. I loved being in a peasant country – which is why I later bonded with Morocco – among people living close to the soil.’ In a letter to Tom’s sister Mary, JBP hinted that Tom must have a girlfriend in Greece. But Tom’s first live-in lover was a Chinese boy named Bernard.
But what to do with his life? Something creative, obviously, ‘but my father had covered so much territory, there wasn’t much left’. His dad got him an introduction to the BBC, but it was through a series of chance adventures via actor friends that Tom arrived at Ealing Films.
Lodging in Holland Park with the writer Dee Wells and her husband, A J Ayer, working at Pinewood, Shepperton and Twickenham, Tom learned the craft of pre-computerised film editing, when reels of film were cut by hand and tended to fly all over the place. Work gave him ‘a series of wonderful chances’. Ten days of toil on cutting Isadora (1968) was tough, during a winter flu epidemic in Hollywood, but the company of Karel Reisz and his wife, Betsy Blair, was a compensation. His three months on location in the mountains of North Georgia, editing Deliverance while it was shot, were a great adventure. He felt quite at ease with the Appalachian hillbillies, who were ‘like Neanderthal Brits’: ‘The Californians were terrified: they were the opposite of what California represents.’
'In a 1971 letter to Tom, Priestley admitted having seemed too detached'
In a 1971 letter to Tom, Priestley admitted having seemed too detached from his children, not because of his work but from not wishing to influence or restrict them. ‘It is not easy to be the children of a well-known father – I have always realised that,’ JBP wrote, ‘but equally it is not easy to be the well-known father either.’ He did once ask Tom to write a film script of his book Low Notes on a High Level, but nothing came of it. In old age he agreed to be filmed for a television interview by Tom – to be screened on his ninetieth birthday. (It went out earlier, on his death, at 89, in 1984.) During that film, he made the piercingly self-aware admission that having always been determined to make writing his life, ‘I’m more a writer than a human being, I think.’
I have spent some agreeable time with Tom in the past year, selecting a book of Priestley essays called Grumbling at Large, which was JBP’s own description of his natural tendency, as a West Riding of Yorkshire man, to grumble about things. In the heyday of periodicals like Lilliput, the Spectator and the London Mercury he could keep his family going on the proceeds of his essays on any subject that occurred to him. (Not until he was 35 did a novel, The Good Companions, bring prosperity.) Sitting down at his desk to write every morning, he said, was like ‘lifting the elephant off the typewriter’. Readers of Grumbling at Large, which includes essays from six decades, will find a lively young mind in the 1920s, a trenchantly partisan middle-aged one (his 1957 New Statesman essay about banning the bomb was instrumental in the foundation of CND) and a philosophical old thinker, waxing lyrical about moments of sublime happiness and Schubert’s Quintet in C, but still grumbling about airports, the excitable celebrity culture fostered by television, and our susceptibility to Admass: ‘We are supposed to be Consumers, and not much else; surely the lowest view mankind has ever taken of itself.’
As we made our selection, Tom and I had only one disagreement: I wanted to include ‘Off-Shore Island Man’, Priestley’s admonition about the Common Market from the New Statesman in 1967. And Tom, a passionate Remainer, very much did not. In it, JBP scorned the views of moneyed businessmen, with their imports and exports and tariffs. ‘We might find ourselves in a still more disagreeable country, irritated by all sorts of alien demands,’ he wrote, ‘perhaps tied to ruthless big-business types whose methods and values we despise, and forbidden to make any generous social experiments of our own. Somehow the Common Market doesn’t smell like the possibility of any noble federation. And the Tory rush to get into the Community rouses my suspicion. These have never been the men I have wanted to follow.’
How I wish we could read old Jack Priestley’s post-Brexit thoughts.
Grumbling At Large: Selected Essays of J B Priestley, with an introduction by Valerie Grove, is published by Notting Hill Editions. For a £3 discount on the RRP of £14.99, go to nottinghilleditions.com/books and enter Promo Code OLDY01 at the checkout.