The Guillotine: Twentieth-Century Classics That Won't Last No 6: J B Priestley

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The Independent Culture
It may seem perverse to deny posterity to J B Priestley when, as I write, Stephen Daldry's much-lauded, award-winning production of An Inspector Calls is still running in the West End. Yet there, precisely, is the rub. It's the production that has been lauded, the production that has won awards. By re-setting Priestley's creaky old warhorse in a gaudily stylised, neo-Expressionist limbo, Daldry resembles nothing so much as the sort of virtuoso pianist of the old school who was more comfortable exercising his technical flamboyance on some showy trifle than tackling one of the true masterworks of the keyboard repertoire.

Can one blame him, though? If Priestley has to be staged at all, this is surely how to do it. Only by directorial pyrotechnics can his plays be given the kiss of life - or what passes for life in the West End theatre.

Before turning to the stage, Priestley was of course a bestselling novelist (but who now reads The Good Companions or Angel Pavement?). His prose style was praised, like that of many another third-rate British writer, for its "economy", its "transparency", for the quality above all of "never calling attention to itself". One didn't have to read between the lines to understand that what all of this meant was: he had no style.

Subsequently an essayist and broadcaster, he became a bluff, no-nonsense commentator (his pipe much in evidence) on anything that happened to pop into his head. Yet even if he appears to have had an opinion on everything and everyone, not one of those opinions continues to shape our lives, even trivially. In a nice irony, their fundamentally second-hand nature is reflected in the fact that the endless volumes in which they were expressed (52 in all!) now gather dust in second-hand bookshops.

As for the plays on which his current reputation is founded - I Have Been Here Before, Dangerous Corner, Time and the Conways, etc - they are, in essence, conventionally old-fangled melodramas, lent a mild piquancy both by Priestley's interest in a discredited theory of time and the structural ingenuity with which he sought to theatricalise it - an ingenuity that cannot compare with that of an Ayckbourn, for example. Even if, mysteriously, certain fashionable directors seem to have retained a fondness for them, they're ultimately unlikely to stand the test of that time of which they themselves made such heavy going.

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