Filson Young

Filson Young: The first media man (1876-1938), by Silvester Mazzarella

Table of contents

36. Reith and “Radio Times”

Having resisted the temptations of the mechanical piano-player and the gramophone, I have fallen to Wireless, and my study, hitherto sacred to books and pictures and the apparatus of writing and smoking and the means of making music, has now been invaded by a little magic cabinet by means of which, on the manipulation of certain knobs and plugs, I am nightly in communication with the wonders and inanities of the ether. (57)

Thus Filson in February 1924. A few weeks earlier he had yielded to temptation and bought a wireless set, and he was as excited by its gadgetry and the immense potential of the medium as he had been by cars over twenty years before, or by bicycles and cameras before that. He tried to communicate this excitement to his Saturday Review readers:

The immense possibilities of broadcasting have not yet even dimly been realised – possibilities of mind-stultification and corruption, as well as the greater possibilities of enlightenment and education. Will it take the place of the evening newspaper? Will the myriad listeners-in be advertised at? How many people will go to church when they can hear perfect music and the Rev H.R.L.Sheppard from their own armchairs … ? But I must come down from such wide speculations. I must earth my aerial. (58)

The British Broadcasting Company (as it then was) had begun its operations in 1922, and by February 1924 (according to Filson) about half a million people had receiving sets and could listen to the wide variety of programmes the BBC broadcast every afternoon and evening. Reader-response to Filson’s first piece on broadcasting was so great that he wrote several more, in which he praised the BBC for courage, imagination and ingenuity and for insisting on high standards, and attacked them for talking down to women and children. By the end of March he felt encouraged to write to J.C.W.Reith, the BBC’s 34-year-old Managing Director (59), to offer his articles for reprinting in the Radio Times and to ask if he could come and see the ‘station’ – the BBC was at this time housed at 2 Savoy Hill, between the Strand and Victoria Embankment. Reith immediately telephoned to arrange the visit, which took place on April 1 and gave Filson a lot of new ideas. Next day he wrote to Reith again:

Our talk yesterday left me full of interest and something like excitement; I think we gave one another something to think about; and I at any rate came away understanding something of the reason why the BBC has such drive and vitality in it. (60)

As a journalist, he was particularly fascinated by the Radio Times:

The more I think about that the more I am interested in it; I see a tremendous future for anyone who has the touch of imagination and sympathy to carry those half-million readers with him. Incidentally revenue ought to be trebled or quadrupled. I want you to think about this; I am going to think about it; but I want to ask you not to talk about it at large. I think the idea is too good a thing to be messed about; and if at any time you want to talk about it again, talk to me.

I like Eckersley immensely; what a wonderful chance; what fascinating work; and what an ideal man to do it!

The BBC’s Chief Engineer, P.P.Eckersley, was one of Reith’s most enthusiastic and influential lieutenants (61). Reith wrote back that imagination and vision were certainly needed, but so were business sense and not too much idealism. Filson invited him to lunch at his club (the St James’s) where, he said, he was having what was probably the first wireless receiver in a West End club installed. Subsequently both Reith and Eckersley dined more than once with Filson and Vera, who had moved to 22 Ladbroke Square. Vera remembered Reith as ‘a tall gaunt creature, terribly serious’ and Eckersley as ‘another tall, dark gaunt creature, much like Reith, but with less force of character’. (62)

By the end of May, having lost the Saturday Review, Filson was more eager than ever to write for the Radio Times, which had already reprinted one of his earlier articles. The Radio Times had come into being almost by accident eight months earlier when the daily press had stopped advertising BBC programmes, afraid the popularity of radio would stop people buying newspapers. Reith had intended it from the first not only to preview coming programmes but to link broadcasters with listeners, whose letters – both complimentary and critical – were welcomed and published. The first number of Radio Times sold no less than a quarter of a million copies, and circulation rose steadily thereafter. It was organized on rather an odd basis, since though it was the official organ of the BBC it was published by a private company, George Newnes Ltd. This meant that it had two editors with equal power, Herbert Parker of the BBC who supplied the copy and Leonard Crocombe of Newnes (also editor of Titbits), whose job was to keep the paper in shape. This arrangement sometimes caused confusion.

When Parker asked Filson for articles, Filson said he was thinking of a kind of broadcasting ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’; fine, said Parker, but not every week. His first piece (‘The Lament of a Listener: a Bad Beginning’) was soon in the post, but the Radio Times did not publish it for nearly three weeks. At the beginning of July Filson sent another, complaining to Parker that he hadn’t been sent a proof of the first before publication. At the same time he tried a bit of one-upmanship. Referring to the BBC’s struggle to get government permission to build a high power transmitting station, Filson informed Parker: ‘I gather from the PM [Ramsay MacDonald] himself that the government want to have outside pressure put on them to back the BBC’. Filson told Parker he felt his own piece would help bring the pressure on the government that MacDonald wanted. (63)

The BBC was beginning to feel that Filson was getting too big for his boots. When he sharply criticized the layout of the Radio Times, he was told his remarks would be taken into consideration but that no immediate action would be taken. In September he submitted an article on ‘The Aesthetics of Broadcasting’ which upset Parker who passed it on to Reith. Reith wrote to Filson, who was on holiday in Cornwall, asking for a word with him before passing the article back to the Radio Times for publication and adding, ‘I do not know whether you really expected us to publish this in the Radio Times.’ Filson wrote back immediately:

My dear Reith, of course I expect you to publish my article! … I have given you a splendid opening for healthy discussion – which is badly needed in your work … You ought to welcome a friendly and outspoken critic; if you don’t, the unfriendly ones will be upon you … At present there is no public discussion of Broadcasting policy by people whose opinion is worth two pence; and I want to stimulate it. (64)

‘We both want the same thing,’ Reith replied, ‘moreover I am determined to have it.’ Filson must not forget that Reith too was an idealist. They would publish of course, but ‘I think your article will be better from every point of view after I talk with you.’ (65) The article seems not to have been published in the Radio Times after all.

Filson’s next idea was that the BBC should have a Director of Information to develop the Radio Times and supervise public relations in general. He proposed himself for the job at a minimum starting salary of £2500 [present value?], to be ‘substantially increased’ if, as he expected, he managed to increase greatly the influence and revenue of the Radio Times, which he wanted to make the best family weekly in the country. Reith promised to take the matter up with the BBC Chairman, Lord Gainford, before the next board meeting, but feared the figure would alarm them, as indeed it did. Filson was not to know that Reith’s own salary had been raised to £2500 at Gainford’s suggestion only five months before. But it does seem Reith would have seriously considered Filson for this important post if Filson had not demanded so much money; in November he wrote:

You know that many of us would have welcomed your help and co-operation, and will be disappointed now that this is not to be. I only hope we may still keep in touch and have it in other ways. (66)

It was characteristic of Filson to reject all compromise when he could not get what he wanted, and to try and have the last word. He warned Reith he’d never get a good man unless he was prepared to pay for him:

I am quite sure that development on the lines I have suggested will take place sooner or later; I only hope it may be sooner, and be entrusted to some hand that will be able to carry out your ideals (possibly apart from your ideas) in regions that necessarily must lie outside even your own very wide experience. (67)

Reith did indeed quickly find the man he wanted, a Canadian journalist called Gladstone Murray who became Director of Publicity in December the same year, his duties almost exactly defined by Filson’s September memorandum to Reith, in which he had tried to create the post and suggest himself for it at the same time. Murray proved one of Reith’s most valuable lieutenants, staying with the BBC until he was appointed general manager of the new Canadian Radio in 1936. In due course Filson would have a good deal to do with him. The loss of this job was a blow to Filson, who had a wife and two children to support and no regular income. Friends like Sir Edmund Gosse wrote sympathetically, but there was nothing they could do to help. He had only himself to blame.

Meanwhile he continued to write for the Radio Times and got involved in a typical dispute in March 1925 when he asked for thirty guineas for two articles he assumed to have been commissioned but which were not used and not returned for six weeks. He wrote a long angry letter to Reith, who was apparently in the office when it reached him, but passed it to Gladstone Murray with a note: ‘Please tell Filson Young I am away in bed sick, and deal with his letter.’ (68) Murray investigated the records and decided that Filson had been the victim of a muddle when one of the two Radio Times editors had acted without consulting the other. Filson was paid twenty guineas [present value?] to ‘soothe his injured feelings’, since he was a useful publicist the BBC didn’t want to lose, and Murray arranged to meet him over lunch to establish personal contact.


57  Saturday Review 9 Feb 1924.

58  Saturday Review 1 March 1924.

59  Much has been written about  J.C.W.Reith (1889-1971), first General Manager (1922) , then Managing Director (from 1923) and finally first Director General of the BBC (1927-38). According to the feminist Mary Agnes Hamilton, who worked with him at the BBC: At once domineering and morbidly sensitive, he is one of those … who never grow up out of the illusion … that the universe is made for them. Not perhaps to make them happy, but to give them scope … like all who see the universe simply as their theatre, he suffers from a recurrent sense of injustice: an incapacity to adjust to others. Mary Agnes Hamilton, Remembering My Good Friends, (1944).

60  FY to J.C.W.Reith, 2 April 1924.

61 Peter P. Eckersley (1892-1963), a wireless equipment officer with the Royal Flying Corps during the First World War,  was Chief Engineer to the BBC 1923-29, apparently offending the strait-laced Reith when he divorced [check]; he later worked widely as a freelance radio consultant. Author of The Power Behind the Microphone (1941).

62  [ref?]

63  FY to editor of Radio Times (presumably Herbert Parker), 4 July 1924.  Asa Briggs (The Birth of Broadcasting, 271) disagrees with Filson’s assessment of the situation. According to Briggs, Ramsay MacDonald shoewed no eagerness at this time to meet Reith or talk over the possibilities of broadcasting with him, and was quicker to take offence than to exploit opportunities. In mitigation, we should remember that MacDonald’s minority Labour government was living precariously from day to day, in danger of defeat in the Commons at any moment. But I feel that Filson was probably telling the truth when he said he had spoken to the Prime Minister about broadcasting; he was always a firm believer in going straight to the top.

64  FY to J.C.W.Reith, 19 Sept 1924.

65  J.C.W.Reith to FY, 22 Sept 1924.

66  J.C.W.Reith to FY, 18 Nov 1924.

67  FY to J.C.W.Reith, 19 Nov 1924.

68  J.C.W.Reith to Gladstone Murray, 2 April 1925.

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