A "sentimental journey"? Priestley's Lost City
Today we can look back at J.B. Priestley's return to Bradford in 1958 accompanied by a BBC TV crew with some nostalgia, but at the time the resulting film, Lost City, seems to have been the subject of some controversy as we've been finding out...
From the Radio Times, October 24th, 1958
In fact so big was the controversy that J.B. Priestley himself, writing in the Radio Times on the week the programme was transmitted, says that of his many works (and there were many): "It is the only one to be the subject of a complaint before it existed." It seems that the BBC was receiving complaints from organisations in Bradford even before the programme had been made.
Certainly the film's producer felt some clarification was needed in Bradford before the programme was broadcast. On the eve of transmission in October 1958 (Lost City was shown at 9.25pm on a Sunday evening) the Telegraph and Argus told its readers: "Producer Richard Cawston emphasises that this is not supposed to be a documentary about Bradford. 'Mr Priestley is seen wandering around Bradford', he said, 'but we have not attempted to show so much of Bradford as of him'".
Lost City: Bradford in black and white?
Priestley, himself, puts the misunderstanding down to the film's name, explaining that he always needs to have the title right from the beginning of any project. He duly ticks off those who've been complaining: "But evidently it deceived those good folk in Bradford into imagining I was mediating an attack on my native city, which I saw as lost and beyond hope. It much be their consciences. Mine is clear enough."
Bradford, Priestley explains, is only 'lost' to him because he went off to fight in the First World War and never returned to live in his native city. It's a chance for him to visit some of the people and places he knew as a young man, "a kind of sentimental journey".
A review a couple of weeks later in the Radio Times' sister paper, The Listener, seems to accept that Lost City is nothing more than Priestley's journey down memory lane. In a piece entitled Continuity and Change, "independent contributor" K.W. Gransden writes: "Lost City settles down richly to nostalgia and Brahms. Mr Priestley rang up a series of old friends, only to learn that they were dead, poorly or gone away, which was hardly surprising." He never really says what he thinks of the film but he does praise the sequences shot in "the market" and in Swan Arcade, where the writer once worked, with "Priestley's footsteps echoing down the pavement and the lost years."
For this reviewer (no doubt based in London) Lost City was just one of the programmes the BBC was transmitting that week, but it was the city of Bradford that was being talked about and where opinions were likely to be more divided.
There were those in the city who welcomed the very idea of change with open arms and thought they might be able to recruit Priestley - or at least the BBC - to their cause. We've discovered a letter in an old BBC file sent to producer Richard Cawston just the day after the programme was broadcast. It's from the people handling the publicity for a scheme to redevelop Bradford's city centre. They seize on a suggestion by Priestley in his Radio Times article that a second programme should be made about Bradford and urge that this should focus on the redevelopment scheme as "within the coming months a large part of the central area will be demolished and the first new buildings completed." (Interestingly a long forgotten BBC hand has scribbled a note on the letter pointing out that one of the architects involved, Bernard Engel, is known to be "a character".) Engel's company was, indeed, responsible for many of the new blocks that were built in Bradford's city centre in the 1960s, many of which have now been demolished.
Priestley, though, had a very different idea of what a second documentary about Bradford should contain. He regrets they had to leave so much "very good stuff" out of the final cut so many of his old friends couldn't be featured. He says: "In order to give this programme the shape, mood, tone, it was meant to have, all this fine material had to go." But perhaps it was this very "mood" and "tone" which helped to make Lost City so controversial here in Bradford. In 1958 TV provided only a black and white picture of the world but, even so, the film gives the impression that this is a place where the sun never shines.
Swan Arcade: part of the Bradford we have lost...
And perhaps both Priestley and his producer are not being quite honest with us when they claim Lost City is not much more than a chance for the writer to visit his old haunts. At the end of the film he states that Bradford "is not good enough for real Bradfordians" and this theme is certainly taken up by "Ariel" writing in the Telegraph and Argus on the following day. In a piece subtitled 'Pity poor Bradford' the correspondent suggests that only people who continue to live in the city are entitled to call themselves 'Bradfordians'. Although he sounds decidedly underwhelmed by J.B's journey around his native city, "Ariel" admits to enjoying "some unusual and attractive shots of Bradford and the too brief pictures of salesmen at work in the open market."
In the following year a new town plan for Bradford was published and it wasn't that long before the Swan Arcade and the markets which so enthused these reviewers were swept away. J.B. Priestley, though, was once again seen as being more than "good enough for real Bradfordians". In 1973 he was made a Freeman of the City of Bradford and, when he died, Bradford Council commissioned the larger-than-life statue of its famous novelist and dramatist which now stands in front of the National Media Museum. Perhaps by then many in Bradford, if they remembered Lost City at all, had come to agree with Priestley's last words in the Radio Times back in 1958 - it was just the view of a "grunting, saurian-eyed fatty trying to be nostalgic".
[The BBC Bradford and West Yorkshire website would like to thank the staff of Bradford Central Library's Information Services for all their help and for giving us access to back copies of the Radio Times and The Listener for 1958. And, for anyone wanting to find out more about J.B. Priestley, the Library's Local Studies department holds a special and extensive collection of J.B. Priestley's published works.]
last updated: 01/10/2008 at 15:33