J. B. Priestley

Bradford: A ‘Lost City’

1958 Photo: “JB Priestley sitting in his room at the Midland Hotel phoning up his old pals.”

Priestley was born in Bradford in 1894 and his literary output over his long life was huge. The Oxford Companion to English Literature describes him with a series of interestingly contradictory epithets: “…cosmopolitan Yorkshireman, professional amateur, cultured Philistine, reactionary Radical…” His plays, like their author, are hard to define.

Fifty two years ago in 1958, famous author and broadcaster J.B. Priestley revisited his home city of Bradford after four decades away. Followed by a BBC TV film crew, he went back to his old haunts and came to some conclusions which still have echoes today..

“As the steam train slowly draws into Bradford Forster Square station, it seems to be the sort of gloomy day anyone who’s ever lived in West Yorkshire will know all too well. The gloom is emphasised, of course, by the fact all this is viewed in grainy black and white courtesy of the film camera closely following these events. A group of what we assume are journalists – clutching huge old-fashioned cameras, notebooks and pens at the ready – clamour around the carriage door as a familiar-looking man in a heavy raincoat and hat steps out, laden with baggage. It is, of course, our ‘hero’ – Bradford’s very own J.B. Priestley. Renowned for such masterpieces as An Inspector Calls, The Good Companions and Lost Empires, he’s one of the city’s most famous sons.”

“The lad has, as they say, done good. So why is he back in Bradford after 40 years, ask the gathered gentlemen and ladies of the press?: “I’ve lost touch with it,” he answers. “You might say that, to me, it’s a lost city and perhaps I’ve come here to find it.” So begins Priestley’s return visit to Bradford in 1958 – a city which he admits he hardly recognises from his childhood years.”

“Accompanied by local journalist Mavis Dean, Priestley’s return is certainly tinged with melancholy from the start. We soon see him sitting in his room at the Midland Hotel, ‘phoning up his old pals…and getting nowhere fast. “Mr Mothergill is dead,” he utters to Mavis at one point as he replaces the receiver after yet another fruitless call. He sadly reminds Mavis that many of his generation were cut down on the First World War battlefields of Europe: “Half the young men who were boys when I was a boy in this town were killed in one morning in 1916.” And with that mournful thought, it’s time to get out there into the Bradford of 1958…”