Blackout in Gretley by J. B. Priestley, adapted by Jane Marshall

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BBC Radio 4, 31 May - 11 June 2010
Published in 1942 at a time when Britain was in the midst of the Second World War, Blackout in Gretley is a complicated tale set in the Midlands involving a Canadian protagonist, Humphrey Nayland, and a series of shady characters who have a protean ability to hide their true identities. The plot is too complicated to recount here, but as the novel unfolded, I realized that Priestley is not necessarily interested in writing a spy thriller, but rather using the form to communicate some of his ideas about the British class-system. Throughout the war years, notably in his famous Postscripts broadcasts of 1940, he looked forward to a world free of class-consciousness, or (if that was not possible) at least a world where ordinary people would have the right to lead respectable lives and bring up their families in relative harmony. Blackout in Gretley suggests that the upper classes are trying their hardest to prevent this; to take advantage of the working classes and thereby sustain the kind of social inequalities that prevailed throughout the pre-1939 world. In many ways they are more dangerous than the Nazis; the enemy within rather than the enemy without.
Anton Lesser's reading of the novel for the Book at Bedtime slot gave the novel a matter-of-fact quality; although ostensibly a spy-thriller, his urbane, slightly well-mannered tones suggesting that the plots and counter-plots dominating daily life in Gretley was nothing out of the ordinary. This reminded us of how dangerous a threat the upper classes could have posed to Britain's stability during wartime, particularly if they were given the chance to manipulate the people. They not only had the power, but also the breeding to make light of their machinations, and hopefully convince those in power that what they were doing was eminently right for the country's future. The producer was Jane Marshall