As the son of author and broadcaster J.B. Priestley, Tom Priestley gravitated towards cinema partly because "I wanted to try and find something that he hadn't done." When studying at Cambridge University he attended film screenings every afternoon and particularly enjoyed Leslie Halliwell's programming at the Rex. Later Priestley secured a job as an assistant film librarian at Ealing Studios after a friend advised him Ealing was the best place to train.
The first production Priestley worked on, as second assistant sound editor, was Dunkirk (UK/US, d. Leslie Norman, 1958). Freelancing as an assistant to editor Peter Taylor, Priestley worked on This Sporting Life (d. Lindsay Anderson, 1963), which he describes as "a wonderfully cinematic film, very strong and very unusual, and not really like the other Northern realist films; it had another element to it". This Sporting Life's production company, Independent Artists, "had a policy of promoting new talent, which on the one side was quite altruistic and on the other side meant they could pay less". This policy gave Priestley his first two editing credits, but after the company's demise he returned briefly to sound editing, working on several films including Repulsion (d. Roman Polanski, 1965).
Priestley's first real break was on Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment (d. Karel Reisz, 1966). This consolidated his reputation as one of the 1960s 'new, young editors' and led to work, in Britain and America, with new directors of that era including Jack Clayton, John Boorman and Lindsay Anderson. By the late 1970s Priestley was in a position where he could choose projects that fulfilled at least two out of three criteria: a good script; stimulating collaborators; an attractive location. He edited big productions such as Voyage of the Damned (d. Stuart Rosenberg, 1976) and supported new British features directors Derek Jarman, Michael Radford, Conny Templeman and Harry Hook. He has also taught at the National Film and Television School and directed two documentaries.
Priestley emphasises the importance of "learning the material". He spends a lot of time learning the rhythms of dialogue, camera movements, and movements of objects and people in the frame. The next stage involves deciding the extent to which different parts of the film should be cut with or against these various rhythms. After this the actual editing can proceed quite quickly. Another precept is "to forget the previous film; don't bring any luggage with you". Rather than applying a preconceived formula, editing decisions should always emanate from the material at hand. An example is the canteen sequence in Nineteen Eighty-Four (d. Michael Radford, 1984). This is played predominantly in medium close-up of Winston Smith (John Hurt) in front of an image of Big Brother.
On the first cut... more or less who was speaking was who you saw... I then realised that the whole point was that the scene was totally centred on Winston... because it was about him playing a role within the scene, because he's pretending to obey the rules.
Roy Perkins/Martin Stollery, British Film Editors: The Heart of the Movie (BFI Publishing, 2004)