My first encounter with J. B. Priestley’s time plays was in a 1983 BBC adaptation of his 1932 play Dangerous Corner, starring a young Daniel Day Lewis in the role of Gordon. The play explores what happens in two alternate versions of reality – one in which certain secrets happen to be revealed, the other in which the protagonists wisely keep them hidden. I was mesmerised by the play, by the idea of a ‘dangerous corner’, a moment where time splits in two with dangerous repercussions. I was sixteen years old. I hadn’t heard of J. B. Priestley and didn’t consciously remember him as the playwright, although the work itself remained with me in crystal clarity.
Two years later – at Christmas, if I remember correctly – I saw another TV adaptation of one of Priestley’s plays, the 1937 Time and the Conways this time, starring Claire Bloom as Mrs Conway, Phyllis Logan as Kay, a young Simon Shepherd as Robin and Simon Russell Beale, of all people, as a party guest. This play explored time in another way, giving characters a sobering and tragic glimpse of their own future. Two years after that I saw I Have Been Here Before on the stage of the Northcott Theatre in Exeter. This third play, also premiered in 1937, explores the time-stacking phenomenon of deja vu.
Priestley’s time plays are seldom claimed for science fiction, yet they make bold and ingenious use of conceits that have become central tenets of science fiction literature. It would be difficult to overstate the cumulative effect these emotionally moving and intellectually stimulating works had upon me, and looking back on them now, their influence is obvious. Two nights ago I happened to hear – with great pleasure and some emotion – a radio adaptation of Dangerous Corner, starring Martin Jarvis as Robert and first broadcast in 1984. The character upon whom events turn – and yet who never appears on stage – is called Martin. As the other characters recount their memories of him, and of exactly what happened at his house one night the year before, we learn that their versions of Martin are so at odds with one another that they might as well each be describing a different man.
When I wrote the stories that make up my story cycle The Silver Wind, I was not consciously thinking about Dangerous Corner, or indeed any of Priestley’s time plays. But it seems clear to me now that they were an abiding inspiration, nonetheless. I still feel moved and excited when I think about these extraordinary works, and my own memories of first encountering them will always remain precious. I have no doubt that to anyone coming to them now, Priestley’s time plays might seem dated, especially in the adaptations I’ve mentioned, complete with BBC accents and Anglo-Saxon attitudes. But these plays are getting on for a hundred years old. They’ve worn pretty well, considering, and in their intellectual curiosity and human emotion they remain timeless.