Filson Young

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

Table of contents

42. Bethlehem

Bernard Walke, known to his friends as ‘Ber’, became Vicar of St Hilary near Marazion in 1912. He had previously worked in the East End of London and been curate of another parish in western Cornwall, an area where the Church of England had never really replaced the old Roman Catholic Church in the affections of Cornish-speaking people to whom English had come at the Reformation as an unfamiliar new language to supplant the church Latin they were used to. Thus those who had not later converted to Wesleyan Methodism tended to be Anglo-Catholic, and sympathetic to Bernard Walke’s strong feeling for ritual, drama and art. Walke was happiest in the company of artists and ordinary working people. His wife – whom he always called Annie Walke and never just Annie – was a painter, and he persuaded such Newlyn artists as Harold Knight, Norman and Alethea Garstin, Gladys Hynes, Ernest and Dod Procter and others to decorate the church. He himself studied the speech of the working people of the parish – farmers, tin-miners, fishermen, the postman – and wrote religious plays in local dialect for local people to perform in the church.

Walke later described these plays and how they were performed in his memoir Twenty Years at St Hilary (1935, reprinted 2002). The earliest, made famous throughout the land by BBC broadcasts arranged and produced by Filson, was the Christmas play Bethlehem. This was not so much a play in the modern sense as a pageant-like act of worship in the style of the old ‘miracle’ plays. The whole church was the stage as the players moved in a measured dance among the people so as to give their audience the greatest possible sense of participation. Like the ritual of the Mass, the play was symbolic and universal. The shepherds, a fiddler at their head, led a group of children to dance before the crib. The shepherds were local men Walke knew well enough to be able to write dialogue so suited to them individually that they could be themselves in their parts. These parts could be altered, so the play was never quite the same two years running. Thus Walke paradoxically aimed at universality through local realism and at timelessness through writing for particular actors at a particular time.

Walke and Filson first met in 1923 when Filson came to ask permission to play the organ in the church. They soon became close friends. By now Filson had moved far from the Presbyterianism of his father and shared Walke’s Anglo-Catholic views (111), and admired his artistic sense and feeling for the people of his parish. Not least he admired Bethlehem, but when he suggested to Walke that it should be broadcast the two men came close to quarrelling. Walke felt it to be too intimate, too much a private part of the lives of those who took part in its performances at St Hilary whether as players or congregation, while Filson argued that radio, though a mass medium, was capable of precisely this kind of intimate communication. In the end Walke gave in when Filson offered to combine the broadcast with an appeal for funds for a home Walke had founded for abandoned London children. So Bethlehem went on the air for the first time on 22 December 1926. It was a milestone in regional broadcasting. Reith took the unusual step of telephoning the vicarage at St Hilary afterwards to say that he had been listening with Ramsay MacDonald (leader of the Labour party) and that both had been deeply moved. Money poured in for Walke’s children’s home and the Bethlehem broadcast became an annual event – always live, as broadcasts had to be in those early days of radio. It was soon joined by broadcasts from St Hilary of other folk-plays by Walke, while other churches were inspired to create Christmas plays of their own. In 1934 the ninth broadcast performance of Bethlehem was recorded together with Filson’s spoken introduction (this example of Filson’s speech was heard again on Radio 4 in 1997).

It is hard for us nowadays to appreciate what an adventure that first broadcast in 1926 was, and how Filson and Walke were aware that the whole thing could have been sabotaged at any moment by any one of an infinite number of possible technical failures or human errors. Walke has left a vivid description:

It was a great venture for Filson Young who stood sponsor for its success, for myself who was to produce it (112) and teach the players to speak in a way that could be heard by listeners, and for the engineers who had to encounter a number of technical difficulties. There being no telephone line near the church, and the exchange at Marazion being three miles away, it was proposed that transmission should be made through a wireless link, although to deal with three hundred miles of land line, on which a defect at any one point would ruin the transmission, seemed risk enough without the added uncertainty of the wireless link. Eventually a line was set up between the church and Trevabyn Farm where there was a telephone, a line that hung on trees and trailed along hedges, and at any moment during the transmission might have been interfered with by one of the Trevabyn bullocks.

The players sang the Rosary as they came through the churchyard, but their voices were lost in the sound of the gale that now roared in the roof and beat against the church tower until it seemed to us as if listeners would hear nothing else.

The church was a strange place to enter that night. In the chapel of the dead were piled rows of batteries. Alongside the Roman milestone with the inscription to the Divine Caesar was a table with a switchboard, round which stood a number of men, line engineers and others from Savoy Hill. Telephone bells were constantly ringing and men calling, ‘one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Hullo, Hullo, Hullo – St Hilary calling, Truro, Plymouth, Gloucester, London.’ Wires stretched from end to end of the church, suspending microphones in the tower for the shepherds, in the Chapel of the Sacred Heart – which had become the home of the Family to whom the shepherds came – and in the straw of the crib round which they all gather to worship the Holy Child.

I looked at the players – how unfamiliar and strange they were in this setting: Peters struggling to throw my old Spanish cloak round his shoulders, Tom Rowe, always a realist, lighting a candle in the lantern he carried, and the children sitting very quietly in a row, as they had been told, lest the bells on their garters should break in on the opening scenes. We had said some prayers invoking the help of Our Lady and were now waiting for the signal to begin. I was filled with anxiety as to what might happen.

‘Stand by, every one,’ said the engineer, taking off his earphones. ‘Look out for the red light. They are making the announcement from London.’

Filson was walking up and down the aisle holding a flash-light, glancing at a manuscript from which he was to read his introduction to the play. There were a few moments of silence and when I looked again there was a red light burning overhead and I heard Filson’s voice from the Chapel of the Sacred Heart, saying, ‘St Hilary calling.’

I walked down to the belfry and waited. There were the six ringers with their coats off, with the bells set ready for ringing. The captain of the tower gave me a nod of his head, as if he would say, ‘Don’t be afeared, Parson, depend upon it, we’ll ring a proper peal.’ They were waiting for my signal, and as I raised my hand, ‘She’s gone,’ said the captain of the tower, and the treble bell, followed by the other bells, proclaimed their message of the Nativity.

From that moment I had no feeling of anxiety, only a sense of exultation as I heard the bells ring out above the roaring of the gale. Never at any other time have I been so conscious of the wonder of the world. Over the High Altar burned a white light proclaiming the presence of the Incarnate God whose nativity we were celebrating, while above our heads was another light burning red, warning the players that any sounds within the church were at that moment being transmitted over the face of the earth.

The strangeness of the church with the batteries, engineers from London and overhead wires had gone. There remained the angel who was standing beneath the arch of the tower looking very lovely with gold and silver wings and uplifted hand waiting to proclaim the news of man’s salvation, and Peters on his knees in the straw, with my cloak now fallen from his shoulders and his old hands uplifted in supplication. Time had fled and left me with the angel Gabriel and an old shepherd somewhere on the plains near Bethlehem.

The voices of the children returning home from Bethlehem, as they told how they had met ‘an old man and a maiden’ and how the whole world was full of glory when they looked into the maiden’s face, possessed a quality that no art could equal. Words were mumbled and never heard, inflections were often laid on the wrong syllables, but these things did not matter; this is the way that shepherds round Bethlehem would have told the news; it is the way men and women of all ages speak who come off the land. (113)


111  He inserted a clause in his will entrusting  Walke with his son Billy’s religious education in the event of his own death.

112  i.e. direct it; Filson produced it for radio.

113  Twenty Years at St Hilary, first edition 242-5, new edition 199-201.

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