Filson Young

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

Table of contents

41. Pioneering at the BBC

On 1 September 1926 Filson was appointed a paid programmes adviser to the BBC, four months before the old British Broadcasting Company made way for the new British Broadcasting Corporation. He was initially appointed for one year at a salary of £1000 (??well over £20,000 now?), which no doubt accounts for him having a little extra money around this time to spend on rings and gold cigarette cases. His job was to attend the weekly meetings of the BBC Programme Board, to listen to and criticize programmes, to discuss the criticisms of others and to attend rehearsals and auditions. In addition he was to prepare and, if required, produce two special programmes per quarter, with all details under his own supervision. There was at first a little uncertainty as to the exact nature of his relationship with the BBC. V.H.Goldsmith, in charge of the secretariat, was under the impression he was to be a full-time employee, but Reith made it clear he was to be only part-time, required to ‘produce the goods’ but not subject to office hours. This meant, Reith went on, that Filson could continue to write advertising copy for Rolls Royce, but that he should not write or give interviews about broadcasting without BBC permission.

The chairman of the Programme Board was Roger Eckersley, brother of Peter, the dynamic Chief Engineer who had been one of Filson’s first friends inside the organisation (99). Some twelve or fifteen heads of departments and other staff attended the Board’s meetings. Their job was to comment on the programmes of the previous week and to plan future programmes well in advance so that they could be properly advertised in the Radio Times. Filson was the most important of the Board’s paid advisers (100), and attended its meetings regularly until the end of 1930. When in 1929 the BBC decided to use more advisers and pay less to each one, his salary was halved to £500, though he was given a chance to make up some of the lost money by writing regularly for the Radio Times and doing more broadcasting. Roger Eckersley, who valued Filson highly both as an adviser and as a broadcaster, hoped he would take advantage of this and not give up his advisory work altogether. After thinking it over, Filson agreed to stay on but – coincidence or not – all his most successful ideas for new programmes date from the days before his salary was halved.

Though he never despised light entertainment and sometimes took a good deal of interest in it, he felt his own particular mission was to look after the serious side of the BBC’s work; in this he had the advantage of working for a serious-minded boss in Reith. Four particularly successful long-running series of the time owe their existence to Filson: the St Hilary plays, the ‘Foundations of Music’ series, the ‘Bach Cantatas’ series and the ‘National Lectures’. The St Hilary plays were closely bound up with his life in Cornwall and I shall leave discussion of them to the next chapter.

Filson himself introduced ‘The ‘Foundations of Music’ in the Radio Times. He had first outlined the idea [date?]:

There is a quarter of an hour every evening, an interval between the two talks which follow the seven o’clock news bulletin, which is at present filled in by the transmission of gramophone music. Most people who want it can buy a gramophone of some kind for themselves. The tone of the gramophone is ignoble enough, but as transmitted and received by wireless it is sometimes quite fearful. The announcer in the studio at 2LO who turns it on does not think so; but it is quite certain he has never heard it as it sounds in my room at Kensington, or he dare not do it. The object of it is quite frankly to fill up a gap, and avoid the monotony of too long a continuance of the talking voice.

Yet think what a priceless opportunity that gap is or should be. A quarter of an hour every night, with at least half a million people listening! I would engage a competent pianist, and devote that quarter of an hour to the daily bread of music, to a consistent going through of certain works which lie at the foundation of all music, and which are practically never heard in their entirety. I would begin with the forty-eight Preludes and Fugues of Bach, played right through in succession, which could be done in a fortnight; I would have Mozart’s and Beethoven’s Sonatas; I would have Handel’s delicious shower of melody, which is enshrined in his Suites and keyboard music; I would have nothing that was not indisputably fine and beautiful, and when I had finished I would begin all over again. A public that can stand “On Wings of Song” twenty times a month should be able to stand the forty-eight Preludes and Fugues twice a year. This would be inexpensive, it would be educational, it would be delightful. There is not a conceivable reason against it. But the B.B.C. prefers a gramophone! (101)

So beginning on 3 January 1927, ten minutes of outstanding ‘pre-classical’ music was broadcast at the same hour every day. Most of what we now think of as ‘early music’ had not yet been discovered by the general music-loving public and even the glories of the Renaissance were only just beginning to be known. Even Bach was less widely accepted in 1927 than now. What Filson wanted listeners to hear was ‘pure music [...] music about which the most extreme schools are in agreement [...] and which constitutes the foundation from which the whole of modern music is derived and on which it rests.’  An unusual feature of the programmes was that for well over a year the pieces were not announced so that no extraneous third person or information would interpose between performer and listener. As late as 1935 ‘The Foundations of Music’ was still high in the ratings for educational programmes, and it only came to an end when its fixed daily ten minutes began to interfere with the timing of other programmes.

The Bach Cantatas series began in May 1928 and was found to be ideal Sunday evening listening. Filson’s aim was to broadcast all Bach’s nearly 200 surviving Cantatas, and he claimed that if this were done it would be the first time the whole cycle had been performed since Bach’s lifetime. Whether or not this aim was achieved, this series of live performances held its regular Sunday spot for at least six years.

The ‘National Lectures’ were also educational in purpose. Filson seems to have been the first to have had the idea of inviting people of national eminence to lecture over the air on their special subjects, and he also recommended that an ‘advisory panel’ be set up to select the lecturers. The series began in 1928 with the Poet Laureate, Robert Bridges, and Reith was highly gratified when the second Lecture, the astronomer A.S.Eddington’s ‘Matter in Interstellar Space’, caught the attention of the Times which devoted a Leader to praising the National Lecture scheme as the first attempt to broadcast the ‘work of the intellect’, bringing ‘high themes to greater audiences than have ever before simultaneously heard the authentic voice of masters’. Reith wrote to Filson thanking him for suggesting the whole scheme and laying down the lines on which it had been done, including the ‘advisory panel’. ‘If the scheme develops on the hoped-for lines,’ Filson replied, ‘it will take a place in public life much greater than can be represented by any newspaper acknowledgement, however wide.’ After this, for six years or more [check], the National Lectures ‘went their somewhat sombre way, with occasional peaks of retrospective drama like Lord Rutherford’s lecture in October 1933 on “The Transmutation of the Atom”.’ (102) They eventually developed into the Reith Lectures of today – which perhaps should be known as the Filson Young Lectures.

Filson’s own broadcasts between 1926 and 1930 included poetry readings and talks, and on one occasion he introduced a programme of improvisations on the Manchester Town Hall organ played by his old teacher Kendrick Pyne. On another, remembering the lasting success of his book The Wagner Stories, he presented the first opera to be broadcast complete with narration. But he became convinced that telling the whole story before playing the music was not the right way to go about things on radio. So he devised a new method of his own and used it for the first time in a broadcast of Debussy’s Pelléas and Mélisande starring his old acquaintance Maggie Teyte on 29 October 1928, attending six rehearsals to make sure his sections of narration would be properly synchronized with the music – broadcasts still could not be pre-recorded. Roger Eckersley enthused to Reith:

One of the most successful operas we have ever broadcast … really amazingly well done by Filson Young who prepared the script, attended the rehearsals, and, with the help of the score, worked in his remarks at the proper moment … this method of presenting opera is almost certainly the right one … Though Filson Young’s voice leaves something to be desired, his style of writing and choice of words could not possibly have been bettered. (103)

Reith was pleased too but agreed Filson’s voice was ‘rather a drawback’. Praise came from all sides for Pelléas, and at least twenty similar productions followed in the next two years. Perhaps the ‘drawback’ in Filson’s voice was merely that, as a city-dwelling provincial who had left grammar school at fifteen and had no university education, he had never picked up the sort of overbearing upper-class public school and Oxbridge accent that became known as ‘Received Pronunciation’ and was so widely admired in the influential circles of the day. But not everyone thought Filson’s broadcasting voice poor. His niece Isabel Young, who was not blind to his faults, described it as ‘a rather deep voice, very level in tone, in fact his ordinary speaking voice, and so perfectly natural and rather different from the “typical” BBC voice’ (104). Stuart Hibberd, owner of one of the most admired voices ever heard on radio, described Filson’s as a ‘very soft speaking voice’, excellent for introducing the St Hilary programmes (105). My own impression, based on the few short recordings preserved in the BBC Sound Archives, is that his voice was not particularly deep and certainly not ponderous, but dry and light without being high or piping, with at times a slightly plummy quality; his delivery calm and well-modulated, occasionally insistent but never agitated; his accent not noticeably regional but entirely lacking the domineering upper-class quality one might have expected the snob in him to have aspired to. By 1929 -  the year his salary as a programmes adviser was halved – ‘gossip round the corridors’ at Savoy Hill (the predecessor of Broadcasting House) was singling him out as one rapidly rising in the BBC, and his highbrow crusading approach to broadcasting was well enough known to be lampooned in the press: ‘Now to be perfectly serious, as Tommy Handley said when he met Mr Filson Young in the lift’ (106).

Despite his success, by 1930 the BBC had decided to move Filson further away from the centre of things and review his contract every six months rather than once a year. He was no longer to attend the meetings of the Programme Board, but would be retained as an outside critic at the same salary. He accepted this reluctantly, ‘deeply hurt by the attitude of the Board’ even if he recognized the justice of their argument that outside the office he would be a more objective critic. It was the old story. The BBC, and particularly Director of Programmes Roger Eckersley, valued his services, but they had learned to be as careful as the Times before them in keeping him at arm’s length. In compensation he was given a weekly signed column in the Radio Times, a rare privilege which for six years, beginning in October 1930, was to bring him the widest audience as a writer that he had ever known.

But no disappointment could interrupt his flow of new ideas for broadcasting. He tried to persuade Reith and Roger Eckersley that he should be given a roving commission to travel through Britain in search of characteristic regional material such as he had found in Cornwall at St Hilary, and set out his views in a detailed memorandum. But unfortunately Reith and Eckersley had already decided they wanted the opposite:

The cultural consequences of [Reith's and Eckersley's] policy were considerable, particularly when … it became openly associated in 1929 with a doctrine of ‘centralization’. The BBC was following all the other mass media of the early twentieth century in bolstering London’s supremacy, and the proud ‘provincialism’ of the Victorian age, already in tatters in many parts of the country, continued to fade unlamented until long after the SecondWorld War. Reith [in an article in the Spectator at the precise time of Filson's memorandum, November 1930] extolled the diffusion throughout the country of ‘the amenities of Metropolitan culture’. Roger Eckersley talked in 1928 of ‘fostering local debates and discussions’, but he saw the main work of the provincial station as secondary, something which should be paid for only if there were adequate funds in the purse. (107)

Filson’s project was hopelessly ahead of his time. His internal BBC memorandum is a fine example of the enthusiasm, good sense and sturdy independence of vision he must so often have brought to the meetings of the Programme Board from which he was about to be banished. It was filed away in the BBC archives and forgotten, but I would like to reproduce it here, if only as evidence that, whatever his faults, there was somewhere in him a divine spark, a breadth of vision, that was capable of transcending limitations of time, place and accepted opinion:

The striking success of the recent broadcast from Cornwall The Western Land (108) induces me to raise once more a matter to which I have more than once drawn your attention – so far without apparent result.

I refer to the great lack of what may be called local interest or regional colour in the programmes as a whole.

When the Regional Scheme was first mooted, you will remember that I supported it largely in the hope that it would produce characteristically local matter from the Regions by leaving to London the supply of things which are naturally centralised there.

So far it has not worked out that way at all. The Regional Stations, so far as I can see, supply little or nothing that is regional. Dance bands, Cinema bands, and small local orchestras and combinations are broadcast, and these stations serve as a link for the provision of local religious services; but they have failed to produce matter which is characteristic of their region. We have a Regional Director for the whole Northern area, but we get nothing from Scotland such as occasionally we used to get from the Aberdeen Station – almost the only one that produced material of a kind that is exclusively characteristic of Scotland, just as the Cornish broadcasts could only come from Cornwall.

You will remember that I pointed out this characteristic of the Aberdeen Station in my report five years ago; but all that has happened is that it has been abolished and its personnel disbanded. Manchester, Birmingham, Newcastle, Cardiff, are all centres of districts which abound in material of this characteristic flavour; but they do not produce it.

It is quite evident to me that without a frame or a tradition, broadcasting of this kind is rather futile. So many broadcasts have no bounds and no roots; they just emerge from the ether in the same shape as they are conveyed through it. The reason for the Cornish successes, quite apart from any flair of mine in recognising their possibilities, or the particular genius of Bernard Walke in handling them, has been that they have been in a tradition – one the Catholic tradition, the other the Cornish tradition. England is full of such traditions – scores of different kinds of traditions or frameworks into which equally successful broadcasts might be built. I can think of many offhand. To my mind it is not merely a matter of doing a few hurried broadcasts on the lines of St. Hilary, but a gradual building up of a new success for broadcasting. These things would be in magnificent contrast from a programme point of view to the mass of stuff which inevitably comes from London and is necessarily the product of a very hurried kind of life. My plan, which would really be a substitute for the Regional organisation, and would have to be worked in close conjunction with productions and an extended O.B.(109) Department, would necessitate a completely new kind of survey of England (such as one would make in a search for geological strata) in which one could expect to discover, say, people like Bernard Walke who are more or less sensitised to their environment and capable of expressing in some way the life in which they find themselves.

But you cannot do this by making an organisation. What is wanted is not so much a machinery as a mind that has the vision of what can be done and the knowledge and flair for obtaining it. I could do it, and I would undertake to do it for a year if I was adequately paid; and although I have no idea that you will accept my offer, I think it right to put it on record, as I feel it is not much use making suggestions of this kind unless one is prepared with the means of putting them into reality. (110)


99  Roger H. Eckersley (1885-1955), elder brother of the radio engineer Peter P. Eckersley, and author of The BBC and All That (1946). Mary Agnes Hamilton described Roger as ‘a creature of infinite personal charm and great gallantry’ (Remembering My Good Friends (1944), 283.)

100  Asa Briggs  The Golden Age of Wireless, 67.

101  ‘Music in a Life IV – The Broadcasting of Music, continued’  Apollo, [date?] ‘2LO’ was the BBC’s London transmitting station.

102  Asa Briggs  The Golden Age of Wireless, 144.

103  Roger Eckersley to J.C.W.Reith, 5 Nov 1928. Pelléas et Mélisande, broadcast on 29 and 31 October, was the first opera not sung in English in a ‘season’ of twelve operas, broadcast one a month between September 1928 and August 1929. An official BBC booklet containing a brief synopsis and libretto in English was published to go with each broadcast – Filson was not involved with these.

104  V. Isabel H.Young to SM, 7 Dec 1978.

105  Stuart Hibberd to SM, 23 Sept 1978.

106  Daily Herald, from an undated presscutting (Daily Express archive).

107  Asa Briggs  The Golden Age of Wireless, 308.

108  This was Bernard Walke’s second broadcast play; it featured a local farmer, flower-grower, miner and fisherman playing themselves. It is possible that nothing at all like Walke’s scripts was broadcast by the BBC again until Ewan McColl’s ‘radio ballads’ of the late fifties, though these latter were based on song. See Walke’s Twenty Years at St Hilary (first edition 247-50, new edition 202-5) for a vivid description of this performance, which among other things makes clear how much importance Walke attached to getting dialect details right.

109  Outside Broadcast.

110  FY: BBC internal memorandum to V.H.Goldsmith (Assistant Controller), R.H.Eckersley and J.C.W.Reith, 5 Nov 1930.

Be Sociable, Share!