Filson Young

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

Table of contents

45. No fear of flying

1933 Reith was beginning to think Filson was making too much money out of the BBC. Was he really worth it? And, as a man with access to the BBC’s internal affairs, why in June 1933 had he published without permission a book entitled Shall I Listen?Studies in the Adventure and Technique of Broadcasting ? Reith seems not to have realized that the BBC itself had already published virtually everything in the book, which was made up – admittedly without acknowledgement – from selections from Filson’s regular Radio Times column plus a few extracts from his broadcast talks. Roger Eckersley once more hastened to assure Reith of Filson’s lasting value as a programmes adviser:

He is capable of producing an idea, which in itself is worth his salary several times over … Far be it from me to pretend he is indispensable. But he is of definite value as a stimulant, as an outspoken critic, and as a personality compelling attention to matters which might otherwise be passed over in the stress of circumstance. (125)

Maurice Gorham, the new editor of the Radio Times, was not quite so sure. Filson’s weekly column ‘The World We Listen In’ had now been running for three years, which was a long time. He agreed with Reith that Filson was overpaid and also felt he was too independent of the editor and his policy. But what particularly incensed Gorham was that since Filson’s column appeared on the Leader page over a facsimile of his handwritten signature, many readers naturally assumed that he was the editor and that his strongly expressed personal opinions were official editorial policy. On the other hand Gorham too had to admit that Filson’s critical running commentary on all aspects of broadcasting was stimulating and that it would not be easy to find another equally good journalist close enough to broadcasting to take his place (126). Eric Maschwitz argued that Filson’s column should continue. As Gorham’s predecessor as Radio Times editor it was Maschwitz who had been responsible in 1930 for bringing Filson on to the paper in the first place. Now he told Gladstone Murray, Director of Publicity, that to begin with he had been reluctant to use Filson at all as he did not like what little he knew of him, but he had been more or less forced to take him on for ‘various internal reasons’.

However, after the first year I began to appreciate … the value of having a serious contribution on the artistic and philosophic aspects of broadcasting from a man of Filson Young’s balance and culture, and to gather from conversation with my own friends, as well as occasional letters from readers, that ‘The World We Listen In’ was fairly generally appreciated by a section of the listening public which is not, I must admit, generally very well catered for in The Radio Times. (127)

Maschwitz’s arguments were perhaps the decisive factor in saving Filson’s column.

In Shall I Listen? Filson ranged widely in his usual informal essay style over such subjects, in relation to radio, as reception, music, speech, religion, drama, humour, time and silence, and mass production versus individuality. At times he became frankly autobiographical, as in reminiscences of the Hallé Orchestra in 1890s Manchester that he had originally written for a radio talk. As always, and particularly in his Radio Times pieces, he gave the impression of laying down the law, but he argued in his preface to the book that the reason he stated his often idiosyncratic views so strongly was simply to provoke discussion. He was, after all, well known as a formidable arguer, the sort of man who when editor of the Saturday Review had been unable to stop himself arguing with disappointed would-be contributors about points in articles he had already decided to reject. His basic message was always the same: standards in broadcasting must be kept up at all costs, and broadcasting policy should be created by artists and specialists and not left to the proliferation of committees that was exerting an ever more powerful stranglehold over the BBC as it grew bigger. He had made this point as long ago as 1924 in one of his earliest letters to Reith (128) and had repeated it before the Crawford Committee on the Future of Broadcasting in 1926; in the view of the BBC’s historian Asa Briggs it was a valid and increasingly important point. There was a need for more flair, imagination, sympathy, vision and courage – individual qualities that could so easily be stifled by bureaucracy. Filson’s job, apart from supplying new ideas, was to function as a gadfly on the BBC’s ever-thickening hide.

Shall I Listen? was Filson’s last attempt to cast himself as an influential national figure. Probably his main reason for not acknowledging in the book that its contents had been published or broadcast before was that most of it would be new to the reader anyway, but that if he or she thought it was merely old stuff recycled they would never bother to read it and find out. He sent copies to King George V, who had broadcast his first Christmas message to the nation from Sandringham in 1932, to Ramsay MacDonald (once more Prime Minister and at that moment in the throes of a major political crisis but known for his interest in broadcasting), and to the Archbishop of Canterbury, and intended a copy to go to the BBC’s new ‘Controller (Programmes)’, Colonel A.C.Dawnay. The BBC was not unaware of the problem of increasing bureaucracy as it got bigger, and ‘Controller (Programmes)’ was a new post created in an attempt to streamline its administration. Colonel Dawnay was the first holder of this post (and destined to wilt under the strain within two years), and as he took up his duties Filson was anxious to lend him a helping hand:

Do you think it would be a graceful, helpful and useful act on your part to send Dawnay a copy of my book Shall I Listen? It would at least give him some kind of grasp of the job he has got to tackle … The King is reading it, also the Archbishop, and Ramsay MacDonald found time, on the first day of his nightmare conference (129), to write me a personal letter about it. (130)

He added that the book would soon be reviewed in the Radio Times:

Am I asking too much if I suggest – I who hate publicity – that a photograph of me should appear in that issue of the R.T.? It would be a change from Olive Groves  (131). And there must be some readers of the R.T. who would be interested in what I look like!

The recipient of this letter scribbled indignantly in the margin ‘Obviously, of course, I would have nothing to do with the first proposal’. The long and very favourable Radio Times review was by ‘E.M.’, no doubt Eric Maschwitz:

This is a book that is easier to recommend than review. One hesitates to pick out single passages for quotation; the value of the book lies more in the attitude towards broadcasting which it expresses. … you should take a copy of ‘Shall I Listen?’ with you on your holiday. It contains many reminiscences, the fruit of great experience and, as is to be expected from the author of ‘The Sands of Pleasure’ and ‘Titanic, 1912′ [sic], very many pages of lovely writing. (132)

On the whole, though, relations between Filson and the BBC at this period went smoothly enough apart from the occasional blip such as when he parked his car in front of Broadcasting House (which no one was allowed to do) or refused to give his name to doorkeepers who didn’t recognize him. His contract as programmes adviser came up for review every six months but Roger Eckersley always argued for his usefulness and he was always reappointed. He continued to broadcast, too. In the summer of 1934 he devised and presented a programme about Thomas and Jane Carlyle and the house in Cheyne Row, Chelsea, which had become their home exactly a hundred years before. Now the house was a museum and Filson had for many years been one of its trustees – a plaster head of Carlyle by John Tweed that he presented can still be seen there. He linked his programme to a radio adaptation of a play by Laurence Housman which starred Alastair Sim as Thomas Carlyle. The whole package was successful enough to be revived several times during the next few years (live every time).

Now, at 58, he took a course of flying lessons at Heston aerodrome, and reported his progress lesson by lesson in a series of radio talks. He had been persuaded to do this by the Secretary of State for Air, Lord Londonderry, who had himself learned to fly at an advanced age. Londonderry, an old Ulster contemporary (they had sailed together on Strangford Lough in years gone by) believed a publicist as skilled as Filson could do a lot to popularize what was known as ‘civil aviation’. He may well also have known that Filson had had a similar idea as far back as 1911, when he tried and failed to get the Saturday Review to pay for him to have a course of flying lessons to write about in that paper (133). Learning to fly, Filson was in his element; he discovered that controlling a plane required a combination of three skills he already had: sailing, driving a car and playing the organ. His talks – there were five in 1934 and three more in 1935 – were afterwards printed in the Listener, and in 1936 he edited them with a commentary to make what was to be his last book, Growing Wings. This is a far less ambitious work than The Complete Motorist of 32 years before though there is a similarity of approach. In both, a practical man fascinated by the latest technology sets out to learn as much as he can at first hand. Growing Wings also tells what it was like to go back to school and conquer a new element (the air) when nearly sixty.

These broadcasts made a deep impression. One listener, remembering Filson as the ‘Freddy Grisewood of the 1930s’, wrote over forty years later:

His voice had a musicality and infectiousness which arrested and kept my attention. For one thing he was no longer young when he took up flying – but how he enjoyed the whole experience and somehow managed to communicate his enthusiasm. He did not give the impression of being an impatient learner – he was old enough to realize the risks involved … yet after all these years I recall the zest with which he described his experiences … My impression, for what it is worth, is that he created something of an impression … because of his daring and his age. He would not have been considered eccentric – rather a courageous and spirited man who was ‘game’ for anything, one whom I would have reckoned it a privilege to have met, and one who, had he been 40 years younger, would have been a ‘Battle of Britain’ man. (134)


125  Roger Eckersley to CDC?, 11 July 1933.

 126  Maurice Gorham to DIP?, 6 July 1933. Maurice Gorham (1902-75) joined the Radio Times as early as 1926 and was editor from 1933 to 1941. Later he was head of the BBC Light Programme before moving to BBC Television; he was Director of Radio Eireann in Dublin 1953-60. Author of Sound and Fury; 21 Years at the BBC (1948).

127  Eric Maschwitz to Gladstone Murray, 6 July 1933. Eric Maschwitz (1901-69) preceded Maurice Gorham as editor of the Radio Times (1927-33). Later worked in BBC radio Light Entertainment , eventually Head of BBC Television Light Entertainment (1958-61). Married for many years to the actress Hermione Gingold, he was a successful playwright and an even more successful writer of song lyrics  (‘These Foolish Things’, ‘A Nightingale sang in Berkeley Square’, ‘Room 504′). It was said of him that in the BBC of the thirties he provided a counterweight to the more sombre vision of Reith. 

128  2 April 1924.

129  This was the ‘London Economic Conference’ attended by 66 nations, in which the United States, led by their new president, Franklin D.Roosevelt, ultimately refused to join a monetary consensus of mainly European powers. But at the beginning of the six-week conference, things had looked much more hopeful for MacDonald, who wrote a brief note to Filson on June 12.

130  FY to E.G.D.Liveing [= A.D.I.P. ?], 6 July 1933.

131  Olive Groves was a classically trained popular singer of the day.

132  Radio Times, 28 July 1933.

133  FY to Grant Richards, ‘Tuesday’ (probably 12 Sept) 1911.

134  Ivan J. O’Dell to SM, 27 Feb 1976.

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