BBC TV documentary airs

Priestley–Churchill issues

A  short television documentary broadcast in Inside Out at 7.30 on  Monday 21st October by BBC1 (Yorkshire) claimed to present evidence that J.B.Priestley was “sacked” on the orders of Winston Churchill for his broadcasts to the nation during the Second World War

The programme examined memos from Churchill College Cambridge,  seen in the Priestley Archive, University of Bradford, which were exchanged early in 1941  between Churchill and the Minister of Information, Duff Cooper. They referred to Priestley’s contribution to the series of Postscript  broadcasts on Sunday evening after the news, and revealed Churchill’s irritation at Priestley’s long-running – and highly influential – role at the microphone.  After gaining audiences close to 16 million, Priestley left the series suddenly 8 weeks later.   Since the 1960s suspicions have been voiced that Churchill was behind this, though it was Duff Cooper who made the political intervention in the BBC’s decision.

While Churchill was regarded as “the voice of the nation”, J.B.Priestley was “the voice of the people”, who boosted morale during 1940-41 with his series of Sunday night broadcasts.  Priestley was chosen as a broadcaster because of his status as one of the most popular writers of the time, and also because of his warm northern voice.

The documentary said that although Churchill and Priestley both used language to “stir hearts and unite the British people”, they clashed on the kind of Britain that ought to emerge after the war.

In its visit to the Priestley archive, the Inside Out team also picked out a newspaper article of the time, quoting Priestley as saying “we are not all in the same war” when he found himself obstructed.  Much later, in a 1962 publication, he recalled receiving two contradictory letters from the Ministry of Information and from the BBC about the termination of his broadcasts, and hinted that the decision must have come from above. 

However, despite that claim, Priestley’s stepson and J.B.Priestley Society Vice-Chairman, Nicolas Hawkes, made it clear that he could find no evidence that Churchill influenced the decision to take his stepfather off the air.   “I presume to know better than him – I’ve been through all the documents in the BBC archives,” he said, and didn’t find any sign of it, even though there is a complete record of events.    This was a reference to Nicolas’s thorough research into the question, published by the Society as a short book in 2008.

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