BBC Radio 7, 31 May 2010
Time and the Conways (1937) emerged out of Priestley's reading of J. W. Dunne's book An Experiment with Time, in which the author suggests that everything is happening simultaneously; that past, present and future are one and that human beings can only perceive this phenomenon in linear fashion. Priestley uses the concept to suggest that if people could only understand the transcendent nature of their existence, they might not be so self-interested or greedy.
In Sue Wilson's 1994 production, rebroadcast as part of the Priestley season, the principal focus was on the changes wrought by time. Act One began in 1919 on the night of Kay Conway's (Belinda Sinclair's) birthday. The entire family seemed happy - although Mr. Conway had unfortunately passed away, his wife (Marcia Warren) ruled the roost with a benevolently matriarchal eye. Her daughters all looked forward to a life of prosperity after the end of the First World War - marriage, career and family. They were particularly happy now, as their brother Robin (Toby Stephens) had returned home from active service - although he had no idea of what he wanted to do next, he was sure that something would turn up and he would become successful. The only person puncturing this blissful atmosphere was Ernest (John McArdle), a working-class lad from solidly industrial stock, a potential suitor of Hazel Conway (Amanda Redman) who simply did not fit in. His manners were wrong, his attitude bluff and uncompromising; not the kind of person the Conway family were accustomed to in their house.
The atmosphere was very reminiscent of that evoked in Priestley's later play An Inspector Calls - a bourgeois family happy in the knowledge that their future is apparently secure, yet at the same time totally oblivious to the world around them, and how their behaviour can often appear very hurtful to those not as fortunate as themselves (like Ernest).
The production's second act brought us down to earth with a bump. Now it was 1937, and the family's circumstances had radically changed. Hazel had married Ernest, who had by now become a rich industrialist. Kay had become a journalist; her sister Madge (Stella Gonet) a sour-faced mistress in a girls' independent school, her socialist dreams in ruins; Carol (Emma Fielding) had passed away; while Robin had become an alcoholic travelling salesperson. The atmosphere in this act became one of resentment with every family member sniping at one another, as they realized that little could be done to alleviate their respective situations. The Conways no longer existed as a unit; through a combination of bad luck and ostrich-like indifference to the world around them, they had been transformed into losers. Only Alan (John Duttine), the eldest of the family, retained a quiet calm - although well aware of the meanness of his situation as a bank clerk, he pointed out the importance of acquiring a true understanding of life; that time is eternally present and that any given moment "we are only seeing a cross-section of ourselves." Once that fact has been grasped, then perhaps people can alleviate their sufferings, as well as learn how to treat one another decently.
Even in 1919, in the apparently happy atmosphere of Kay's party. the seeds of the family's destruction had already been sown. Ernest had been snubbed by Hazel, while Mrs. Conway had effectively destroyed Madge's future with the solicitor Gerald (Christopher Scott) by implying that Gerald was not socially suitable. Kay was the only one to emerge unscathed; following Alan's advice, she had a vision of what might happen in the future (as depicted in Act Two), and ran away from the party altogether. The production ended with Alan promising her to tell her something about her future which might help her.
A stinging indictment of the snobbery and indifference that dominated British society between the two world wars, this revival of Time and the Conways vividly revealed Priestley's socialism, which basically envisaged a world of community in which people looked out for one another, regardless of class, gender or race. It seems sad that in the seven decades since it was written, British society has become more divided than ever.