John Boynton Priestley was born in 1894 in Bradford, a city in the north of England, in what he famously described as an "ultra respectable" suburb, perhaps not too dissimilar from Brumley, the aspiring middle-class town in which the Birlings of An Inspector Calls reside. He studied at a grammar school, after which he spent some time working as a junior clerk in a wool office.
In 1914, he joined the army and served during World War I in the Duke of Wellington's Regiment, 10th Battalion. In 1916, he was wounded by mortar fire. In his volume of reminiscences, Margin Released (1962), he reflects on his early life and war service, and he is aggressively critical of the army, particularly the officer class (mainly made up of upper-class men).
He received an ex-officers' grant in 1919, and went to Trinity Hall, Cambridge, to study. After receiving his university education at Cambridge, Priestley moved to London in 1922, where he quickly gained a reputation as a writer. His first major success was a novel, The Good Companions (1929), which was in fact his third novel, and his fourth, Angel Pavement (1930) helped secure his international reputation. Priestley was criticized for his work, though, at one point even prompting him to launch a lawsuit against Graham Greene for a defamatory portrait of him in Greene's novel Stamboul Train (1932).
His reputation today, however, is mainly as a playwright, and he had a string of West End successes throughout the 1930s and 1940s, including Dangerous Corner (1932), Time and the Conways (1937) and, of course, An Inspector Calls (1947). Priestley was fascinated by the time theorist Dunne, and Dunne's influence can be felt in several of his plays, most of which bear to some degree a fascination with theories of time.
During the Second World War, Priestley was a very popular broadcaster on BBC Radio. He published collected versions of his broadcasts in two volumes, Britain Speaks (1940) and All England Listened (1968). Only Winston Churchill was listened to more than Priestley. Eventually, however, Priestley's broadcasts were cancelled, since Churchill's cabinet (a Conservative one) believed that they were too leftist. Priestley also chaired committees and lobbied for the socialist cause.
Priestley's broadcasts are often partly credited with the Labour Party's landslide victory in the 1945 general election, and they are often cited as evidence of the growing acceptance of leftist ideas in the United Kingdom. Priestley's politics can be seen throughout his work, particularly through the mouthpiece of the Inspector in An Inspector Calls.
His most significant work from the postwar period are his novels Bright Day (1946), Festival at Farbridge (1951), and The Image Men (1968). His most ambitious literary critical output, however, can be found in his reflections on theatre, The Art of the Dramatist (1957) and a wider survey, Literature and the Western Man (1960). He also published Journey Down a Rainbow (1955) and a play, Dragon's Mouth (1952), with his third wife, Jacquetta Hawkes. He also famously wrote a book on Edwardian England, The Edwardians.
Priestley was awarded the Order of Merit in 1977, seven years before his death in 1984.