Let the People Sing by J. B. Priestley (1939)

Phew! A positive review for Priestley.

Review by Sue R:

This book  was commissioned in 1939 by the BBC for serialisation before publication. Priestley did not normally allow this. However, he  felt that, with war looming, such a broadcast would be very valuable for the public, presumably to boost morale.

Unsurprisingly, it is a feel-good sort of book. It has something for everyone, as Priestley acknowledges in his author’s note: “The tale must appeal to an enormous mixed audience”. There is plenty of action & excitement, unexpected twists, a love interest and a rousing but predictable denouement.

A  critique of Americanization and capitalism runs through the book. He criticises American imports into the vocabulary: as Timmy says when he and the Professor arrive at Annie’s Pannie  -“Look at that- Eats! What sort of language is that? Comes of spending all their time at the pictures!” (p.43).

Priestley is particularly critical of the influence of cinema. Films were “Fun in a tin” (p.15) replacing the music hall. Fern Mitterley, like many of the girls in Dunbury, models herself on the actresses she sees on-screen: “The film star she admired [probably Greta Garbo] was one of those exotic and enigmatic creatures who are always seen … sitting alone …who half-close their eyes before replying”. This does provide a comic element: the Professor misjudges the situation & recommends she has her eyes tested. (p.121).

Priestley also criticises the American economic model of mass production:  “They’re always turning out too much of something over there” says Fred Hassock (p.96). The Professor, in another comic episode hinging on mistaken identity, lectures the management of United Plastics on the impact of mass production on civilisation and the creative spirit. He criticises them for holding to “The old economic heresy, the idea that men are primarily producers and consumers, and only real human beings in their spare time” (p.235).

Another theme is the triumph of the little man and little people over the powerful: this would have been a vital  message at the beginning of the war. Timmy Tiverton is the epitome of the little man: literally & figuratively: “A little man with a large sad face” but he plays a key  role in helping the ordinary people of Dunbury realise their exploitation and challenge the authorities. They are awakened from lethargy partly by the power of song: Let the People Sing – not dissimilar to the impact of Gracie Field’s  Sing as We Go in the film of the same name (screenplay by Priestley).

He also attacks class hierarchy & snobbery. The West Dunbury set, or “ The Best People”, as he ironically calls them in Chapter 8, are paternalistic and self-satisfied; they look down on the people of Dunbury and believe that their proposed museum will be “ a bulwark against dangerous tendencies”(p.201). In fact, Commander Spofforth,who dismisses Largs as “an agitator” and blames the trouble on a “bunch of Reds” (p.209),  would like to dispense with democracy altogether: “What we want is a bit of direct action a few people to give orders an’ the rest to obey” (p.210).This prompts a response of “Heil Hitler” (p.210) from Hope. She is described as a “spirited member of the genuine democracy, now rapidly growing up within the false democracy upon which we are always congratulating ourselves in England”(p.194).

Priestley’s emphasis on genuine democracy is important in light of the coming war when the whole nation would be called upon to pull together. Similarly the ordinary people of Dunbury are striving to maintain their music hall against forces more powerful. The Professor calls attention to this: “But what of all the people who are not industrialists or ladies and gentlemen of old families… have they no say?… And if not, where is the democracy?” (p.120)

Priestley’s emphasis is on England and Englishness rather than the wider UK. He seems nostalgic for a certain type of England:, rather like John Major with his “shadows on cricket grounds and warm beer”. The Professor is often the one to articulate views on England: when he says “…the quality of English life is, on the surface, inferior and often disgusting” he is referring to the problems with English food and drink, service and taste. However he goes on: “There is something in these people, even in this air, that you would not find in Europe.” And later “Yet it [English life]  has an inner quality… that is superior…. It is a kind of deep unspoken poetry that every man here carries about with him” (p.45). In Chapter 3, A Night with Sir George, when Sir George is trying to play Schubert’s Octet in F Major while completely drunk, the Professor observes “Only in England can such a thing be seen”… “What a people, what a country!”(p.55)

There is an almost Dickensian feel to the book: not just the serialisation and the cliff-hanging chapter endings. His characters are often droll: Timmy is “a little man with a large sad face…his features… seemed to have been poured into a … mould but not allowed to set properly” (p.2); “Young Mr Packles, who was not very young” (p.5) and “Pale Young Orton” (p.116).

To the modern reader, it can seem old-fashioned and naïve: after all, music hall is long gone. It seems like one of those “backyard musicals” with Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney fighting  to put on a show. However the book focuses on universal values: love, loyalty, compassion, sticking together. There are also  references which remind us of  the darker side of the 1930s which would have resonated with contemporary readers. The Professor is escaping Nazi persecution in Czechoslovakia (p.28); police men are heckled with calls of  “What’s the matter with you, Mussolini?”( p.140);  Hope cries “Heil Hitler” (p.210), and Daisy gives short shrift to an anti-semitic complaint in her club: “an’ if you an’ Hitler don’t like it, major, I’m sorry but you’ll have to lump it”(p.171) Timmy’s  failing revue was  “Hollywood on the Dole” in Settlefield “where half of the public were on the dole” (p.22).

I did enjoy the book and found it quite a page-turner.

2 thoughts on “Let the People Sing by J. B. Priestley (1939)

  1. Following Sue’s recommendation, I picked up a copy of this (when I came across one in the excellent Daisy Lane Bookshop, Holmfirth). For me, Priestley is at his best when writing about the variety theatre, and while this novel doesn’t have quite the resonance and joy of The Good Companions, it’s very readable and thoroughly enjoyable. It certainly whiled away a couple of long train journeys very pleasantly.
    Like The Good Companions, it’s a nostalgic book, looking back to a greater age of show-business from the perspective of the late thirties, when variety was changing and life was getting difficult for the older artistes. Priestley is very critical of the mechanisation and Americanisation of entertainment. Yet from the perspective of the twenty-first century, those 1930s themselves seem to be a golden age of the variety theatre – with talent like Gracie Fields, Max Miller, George Formby, Robb Wilton, Frank Randle and others.
    Perhaps the problem for Priestley was that the entertainers of the thirties were not the entertainers of his youth. Don’t we all look back on the great comedians we grew up with as something special, and giants in comparison with mere modern talents?

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