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ing photographs, empty bedding. ‘It’s proving hard to get rid of the pavilion,’ he said in April, but with full support from the British Council he has achieved it. They’ve even let him open a hole in the roof to create a courtyard.

The result,‘I, Imposter’, is less sinister and claustrophobic than earlier installations like ‘The Coral Reef’ (2000), the gallery equivalent of a fairground haunted house. There are squeaking doors but few smells, even from the urinal. The new work is by way of a sentimental salute to the Büyük Valide Han, the dilapidated 17th-century caravanserai where Nelson created an installation for the 2003 Istanbul Biennial and which, partly thanks to the publicity generated, is now being preserved for posterity. Ironically, considering his line of work, Nelson is an apostle of architectural non-intervention. His haunted han feels perfectly at home in Venice, where buildings are allowed to grow old disgracefully without being conserved, as they would be here, to extinction.

This year, the national pavilions steal the show.Among the strongest contributions are the Swiss Thomas Hirschhorn’s ‘Crystal of Resistance’, a glittering maze of tacky consumerism held together with sticky-backed tape; the Japanese Tabaimo’s ‘Teleco-soup’, an elegantly inverted animation of water and clouds; and the Israeli Yael Bartana’s moving trio of films in the Polish Pavilion promoting her doomed utopian vision of returning Jews to Poland.

In the Arsenale, Adrián Villar Rojas deserves notice for filling the Argentine Pavilion with a concrete jungle of surreal columns, and Ayse Erkmen for taking over the Turkish Pavilion with her wonderfully mad construction ‘Plan B’, a water purification unit with extended coloured piping resembling a 3D Tube map designed by Heath Robinson. In these chastened times there is mercifully little sensationalism, although American artists Allora & Calzadilla have come to the Giardini armed with a tank.

As ever, the rare finds are on the fringes. The Iraq Pavilion off Via Garibaldi gets my vote for the most eloquently simple installation on the recurring theme of water: Azad Nanakeli’s three giant taps set into a wall above a cascade of empty plastic water bottles. Iraq also scoops my video award for Adel Abidin’s ‘Consumption of War’, in which two sharp young executives in business suits fight over contracts with strip-light sabres torn from the office ceiling. My runner-up video prize goes to Berry Bickle for her painterly film Ze, and my prize for painterly painting to Misheck Masamvu, both in the Zimbabwean Pavilion in Santa Maria della Pietà.

Yes, even Zimbabwe made it to the ball. The bananas piled against a wall at the preview were not an installation, I was courteously informed, but ‘for refreshment’. How refreshing.


Interview Priestley values Robert Gore-Langton

The J.B. Priestley flame is kept alive today by his son Tom, who resides in the same Notting Hill flat he has lived in for more than 50 years. His father — novelist, dramatist, scribe, broadcaster, socialist (who died in 1984) — was glad that Tom, now 79, hadn’t chosen the same life. ‘The only time he came here to the flat he said, “Don’t be a writer. Dreadful business.” ’

almost his last. Eden End — a family drama set in a GP’s house in Yorkshire in 1912 — stars Jonathan Firth (his older brother Colin appeared when he was a young nobody in Priestley’s Lost Empires on telly) and Daniel Betts as the drunken actor, a role first played by Ralph Richardson.

On the page, it’s all rather Chekhovian and elegiac and full of lost dreams. It was last seen in London in a glam production directed by Laurence Olivier in 1974. Critics loved it, although in that cast was the actor Geoffrey Palmer who thought Eden End so crashingly boring it put him off the stage for good.

‘The thing is, my father always tried to entertain himself. He tried a great variety of different forms,’ says Tom. ‘P.G. Wodehouse wrote the same book endlessly — enormous fun but always the same. My father was not that kind of writer. In Eden End, I think he

Tom is a retired film editor who manages the literary estate. He is the offspring of J.B.’s second marriage to Jane Bannerman, the divorced wife of the humorist writer Bevan Wyndham Lewis. There was one more Mrs Priestley after her — Jacquetta Hawkes, the distinguished but flinty archaeologist. Tom grew up in homes in the Isle of Wight and London — where h i s f a t h e r k e p t two adjacent ‘sets’ in Albany — with his four sisters. He is reserved, totall y dispassionate about his famous papa and certainly no chip off the b l u f f Yorkshire b l ock known to the Evelyn Waugh set as the ‘Bradford tyke’.

enjoyed the irony of people in 1912 looking forward to a brighter future unaware o f t he horrors to come. On t h e w h o l e , he d i dn ’ t wr i t e p l a y s f o r s t a r s, he wrote for an ensemble.’

Priestley was a good-hearted idealist who deeply believed in a be t t e r world i f only we could all l e a r n f r om our mistakes. But he was also famously gruff. Matthew Parris once called him the Geoffrey Boycott of literature and J.B. was quite possibly the

‘ We w e r e n ’ t particularly close b u t t h e r e w a s n e v e r a n y b a d f e e l i n g e i t h e r . ’ Was J.B. really the great ladies’ man of reputation? ‘It mattered to him that he had the wife and the family, but as and when he took advantage, I think.’ Notably with the equally highly sexed Peggy Ashcroft, who called him Mr Beastly during their brief fling.

Family man: J.B. Priestley with his children Rachel and Tom in Arizona in the 1930s original Grumpy Old Man.

Apart from the women, there was his amazing output. Priestley acknowledged at the end of his life that he had written far too much. But J.B.’s work for the theatre, Tom reckons, is doing rather well of late. His great comedy When We Are Married was recently in the West End for the umpteenth time. Now there is the return of Eden End, first staged in 1934 when Tom was two. It is at the Royal & Derngate Theatre in Northampton, in a co-production with English Touring Theatre directed by Laurie Sansom.

Sansom has carved out a Priestley niche with his recent productions of Dangerous Corner, J.B.’s first play, and The Glass Cage,

‘He wasn’t grumpy as a father, though he was grumpy as a man sometimes,’ says Tom. ‘He had terrible dark moods which we suspected related back to the first world war, which was so traumatic for him. My mother said that if she and my sister went in to see him we’d all be playing games in no time and that his dark mood would just dissolve. He enjoyed the innocence and pleasure of children — and that’s what I most remember about him. There is a strand of playfulness in his life. He loved the music hall, his favourite form of entertainment, especially the comedians.’

The huge turnabout in J.B’s fortunes was largely thanks to An Inspector Calls (which like Eden End is set in 1912), utterly forgotten but then restaged by Stephen Daldry in 1992 in a radical re-invention of its hoary copper-exposes-family-wardrobe-contain-

the spectator | 11 June 2011 |

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