Filson Young

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

Table of contents

44. Making more waves

Most of Filson’s work in the thirties was connected with the BBC. He would spend an hour or so at Broadcasting House on Wednesday afternoons discussing programme policy with Roger Eckersley, Director of Programmes. Sometimes he would join the meetings of specialist committees, such as the Music Board chaired by the conductor Adrian Boult, who was scathing about the value of Filson’s contribution:

I never heard him contribute anything useful to our meetings, and where the Handel operas were concerned I well remember how much more a member of the Music Department knew about these operas than Mr Young did!  (117)

At home, whether at Campden Grove or Carbis Bay, he listened to programmes on wireless sets installed for him by the BBC, wrote reports and prepared his weekly piece for the Radio Times. There were his own broadcasts to think of too, talks for the most part, and the St Hilary plays. In all he was earning something over £1000 a year, half of it from the Radio Times. His talks were delivered in his natural informal speaking voice and usually went down well enough, though the Manchester Guardian thought one about driving to Cornwall monotonous. Apparently Filson claimed he had started the drive with a hangover – his voice expressing this admirably – but unfortunately there seemed to be no recovery as the day went on, despite a haunting number in the background called ‘A Cheerful Little Earful’ (actually Filson’s favourite pop tune of the moment).

He got involved in two public rows of the sort his combative personality thrived on. In February 1931 he went to the Lancashire town of Fleetwood to collect copy for a talk about the local fishing fleet. It was a place with happy childhood associations for him of summer holidays in Ulster – in the 1880s it was from Fleetwood that the ferry sailed for Belfast. His talk, unpropitiously broadcast on April 1, started in his usual informal manner with a few remarks about his first impressions on arriving in the town. Fleetwood, he informed his listeners, was a dreary place mostly inhabited by old folks and its shore consisted of ‘expansive mudbanks’. There was nothing here for a visitor to do, so after throwing sticks for a dog on the beach he went back to his hotel to find out how to get out of the place as quickly as possible.

Filson’s remarks were broadcast the day before one of the most important public holidays in the year, and at a time when the local council was spending nearly half a million pounds (at 1931 value) to develop Fleetwood into a major holiday resort. Among other things, they had just built the largest lake for model yachts in England, designed for international races. The council let its feelings about Filson Young be known to the press, who hurried to Fleetwood in force. One prominent trader calimed Filson’s talk had done more damage than anything else in the history of the town, and a council member alleged that hundreds of intending visitors, after hearing Filson’s talk, had cancelled their bookings. The phrase ‘expansive mudbanks’ had given particular offence and was repeated everywhere. One writer parodied Max Beerbohm:

Mr Filson Young must never go to Fleetwood again. He would not be safe. When one mentions his name here a chill wind springs up and a dark cloud hides the sun. The Westmorland mountains frown across the estuary and the grey, shining waters of the River Wyre heave with a resentful murmur. Strong men turn away and clench and unclench their fists. He is the new depression over Fleetwood – the eighth deadly sin (118).

Organizations interested in the development of Fleetwood met hastily to discuss the problem and the local Council and Chamber of Trade decided to take immediate steps to counteract Filson’s comments. They sent a formal protest to the BBC and asked permission for their chairman to broadcast a reply. The Lancashire Association of Urban District Councils stiffened its upper lip and insisted it would not be backing down on its plans to hold its Annual Conference in Fleetwood. A spokesman told the press Filson had been talking through his hat, but admitted that if the Conference had believed a word of what he’d said, it would indeed have stayed away from the town. A few people pointed out that impressions of Fleetwood in February should not necessarily deter people from going there for their summer holidays. Reith wrote in person to the offended Council assuring them that their request for air time to answer Filson would be carefully considered and that the BBC naturally regretted any annoyance caused. The Council accused Reith of sidestepping the issue, and said it was not their own hurt feelings that mattered but the economic damage done to their town; even so, they were grateful for the wide coverage of the controversy in the press. There the matter rested but it was not forgotten, and when Filson died seven years later the Manchester Evening Chronicle wondered whether Fleetwood had ever carried out its threat to name a boat after Filson, since even one of the councillors had admitted that the net result of his talk had been the best publicity the town had had for a long time. Filson must have been a bit bewildered by all the fuss; he’d gone to Fleetwood to look at fishing boats and wasn’t interested one way or the other in the town’s status as a holiday resort. At the same time, the fuss was a great tribute to his power as a broadcaster.

The second row was more unexpected and touched Filson more deeply. Several shrewd judges, Martin Secker and Val Gielgud among them, considered his 1912 book Titanic his masterpiece. Though put together at breakneck speed for Grant Richards, it is arguably a better novel than either of his ‘official’ novels, with its carefully judged pace and relentless narrative power. When it came out a few weeks after the disaster it gave offence precisely because of qualities we can now admire in it: the technical skill with which it was written, and the ‘philosophic detachment’ of the author – something Kipling had deplored as long ago as 1900 in connection with The Relief of Mafeking. Now Filson offered to dramatize his book for radio to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the disaster in April 1932. Val Gielgud, at this time pioneering head of BBC radio drama, was strongly in favour. In February the press got wind of the plan:

The intention of the BBC … is to broadcast an impression of the disaster in the form of a drama which in realism will surpass anything of its kind given before. Special ‘effects’ would be used to give a vivid sound-picture of the agonising hours that passed before the Titanic sank. (119)

‘Broadcasting horror! Grand Guignol!’ screamed the Manchester Guardian in a short leader (120), suggesting that the BBC would be better employed adapting Joseph Conrad’s Typhoon which would give them quite enough scope for dramatic effects without ‘rummaging in the catalogue of horror’. ‘Tighter government control of BBC likely’, warned the Daily Mail on the same day, revealing that ‘strong influence’ was being brought on the BBC to prevent ‘this reminder of one of Britain’s most tragic disasters’. Filson, interviewd for the same report, defended himself:

It is entitled Titanic, 1912 – A Tragedy, but it is rather a dramatic description of the Titanic’s ill-fated voyage than a play devoted to bringing out the actual horror of the disaster. The disaster itself, in fact, is confined to a very short scene or so at the end. The scenes are laid all over the ship … Every sort of person and every sort of activity aboard the ship are described in quick scenes that give a picture of life in a great liner in mid-Atlantic. The picture of a disaster is conveyed in a very few brief strokes at the end. I want to emphasize, however, that it is not in any sense similar to the crude dramas that have been broadcast lately for the purpose of creating a sense of horror.

But the BBC got cold feet and instantly climbed down:

Some weeks ago the BBC received a proposal for the production of a radio play based upon the Titanic disaster. The motive was to emphasize the heroism of British people in moments of crisis. Statements in some newspapers that it had been decided to proceed with the production were untrue, the idea not having advanced beyond the preliminary stage of a synopsis for consideration. The suggested programme has been considered in the ordinary course, and the decision is that it is not acceptable. (121)

The same day the Daily Mail commented: ‘No programme plan ever devised by the BBC has created such keen and spontaneous opposition.’ Amid the general storm of outrage one Titanic survivor vainly protested that he’d been looking forward to the programme (122). But it was considered more important to protect the sensibilities of people who had not been there but thought it their duty to protect the feelings of those who had.

Val Gielgud was among those disgusted by the BBC’s timidity. The public were not entirely satisfied either, and some weeks later the BBC felt obliged to issue another statement claiming that Filson had agreed with their decision not to proceed with the broadcast, since his ‘experiment in poetic drama’ had been so misrepresented by those who expected only crude horrors that it would very likely never have had a fair hearing. The Daily Express summed up: ‘So that is very much that’ (123).

Writing a year earlier in the New Statesman and echoing sentiments expressed at the time by Filson in the Radio Times, the novelist E.M.Forster had drawn attention to a growing tendency at the BBC to give in to critics who wanted ‘not fuller programmes but feebler’. Forster had complained of increasing political, religious and general censorship in broadcasting and of a policy of striking a balance by putting nothing in either scale rather than a ton in both (124). Clearly the adventurous early days of broadcasting that had inspired Filson were over and the BBC was well on the way to becoming everybody’s Auntie.


117  Sir Adrian Boult to SM, 12 May 1976.

118  R. Stephen Williams in the Daily Express, 7 April 1931.

119  Evening Standard, 23 Feb 1932.

120  24 Feb 1932.

121  The Times, 25 Feb 1932.

122  Letter to the Manchester Guardian, 25 Feb 1932  [name of correspondent?]

123  Collie Knox, ‘Today’s Radio’, Daily Express, 11 March 1932. The jinx which had afflicted Filson’s book Titanic in 1912 and sank his radio play in 1932, struck again in 1982, when the Sunday Times accepted an article recalling these events written by Filson’s step-grandson Richard North and SM, only to change their minds about publishing it when they decided it would be tactless to print an account of the sinking of a British ship at the very moment a British naval task force was en route to the south Atlantic during the Falklands war against Argentina. The Sunday Times may or may not have been aware that the task force contained ships whose namesakes had been sunk in earlier wars: Hermes (two of that name, 1914 and 1942) and Invincible – one of Beatty’s battle cruisers blown up at Jutland in 1916.

124  E.M.Forster, ‘The Freedom of the BBC’, The New Statesman and Nation, 4 April 1931.

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