Filson Young

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

Table of contents

46. Frank Baker

Bethlehem was broadcast from St Hilary every Christmas for nine years from 1926, and was so popular that it was soon followed by other folk-plays written by Bernard Walke and produced for radio by Filson. For many years Filson was also needed to play the church organ for these broadcasts; it was not until the early thirties that someone else was found who could be trusted to do the job without making a hash of it. This was a young man called Frank Baker, who like Filson at the same age was a trained musician with an ambition to write (135). At first Baker found Filson a harsh and forbidding figure but as he ‘bumbled about like an old tortoise’ directing preparations for a broadcast, a greater warmth and humanity emerged. And in due course Filson’s powerful if self-contradictory personality exerted such lasting fascination on Baker that, thirty years after Filson’s death, Baker devoted a long chapter to him in his autobiography (136). During the broadcasts, Walke (tall and thin) and Filson (tall and fat), functioned like an unconscious comedy act:

It was always hard to know who was really directing these broadcasts, Bernard or Filson. On one occasion, at the last run through, I remember Bernard drawing me aside and whispering loudly: ‘For Heaven’s sake keep Filson away from me. Talk to him about the music.’ Two minutes later I encountered the aggravated bulk of Filson, stumbling over batteries in the gloom of the stairway, engineers falling foul of him and wires contriving to trail round his feet. He padded towards me, knocking vexedly at his nose. ‘For God’s sake,’ he muttered, ‘keep Ber away from me. We shall never get on the air so long as he’s fussing around.’ The players, it seemed to me, took little notice of either of them; they knew the plays backwards and would have got ‘on the air’ even through a thunderbolt. In spite of these clashes – which everyone enjoyed – it was always reported, by Ber or by Filson, when it was over: “Best broadcast we have ever done.” Then came supper in the kitchen, with Annie Walke and Emma Curnow, Ber’s housekeeper, joining us for pasties and beer; and with it came a strange and beautiful sense of a family grown even larger because of our words and music which had travelled so far into so many homes, a sense of relief that it had again been accomplished, a feeling of unity in which even Filson unfroze and his wide flushed face beamed in a happy and almost schoolboyish smile. (137)

One of the children who played recorders in the plays remembered Filson dining at the Walkes’ and holding forth about which part of the chicken was the best before taking it for himself. He was shocked, but Both Father Ber (Filson’s friend) and Annie Walke (Filson’s enemy) accepted the situation without a murmur (138). Tact might not be Filson’s strong point but he could charm when he felt like it. At this time the official church organist at St Hilary was a Miss Muriel Rogers, daughter of a former Vicar of Penzance. No one had a bad word to say about her as a person but neither Filson nor Frank Baker thought much of her organ-playing. Once, exasperated by the sound of her feet clattering over the pedals, Filson exclaimed, ‘It’s disgraceful to play like that, you sound like an old horse in a loose-box!’ The lady was upset and told her father – not one of Filson’s admirers – who complained angrily to Walke, who raised the matter with Filson. Filson insisted that what he’d said had been quite true, but wrote to the unhappy organist to explain that, as one serious artist to another, he would have insulted her if he’d told her less than the truth as he saw it. Miss Rogers was instantly mollified (139).

Frank Baker is also responsible for the only known description of what is said to have been one of Filson’s greatest talents, that of controlled improvisation on the organ in a tradition, now all but forgotten, handed down to him through ‘apostolic succession’ via Kendrick Pyne from the famous Winchester organist of Victorian times Samuel Sebastian Wesley and beyond (140). This kind of improvisation had nothing to do with fingers wandering idly over the keys, but required not only an ability to construct and develop themes but also sensitivity to the particular qualities of the organ being played and (something to which Filson always attached the greatest importance) an accurate assessment of the acoustic qualities of the building in which the organist was playing. This sensitivity and dexterity with mechanical things was one of Filson’s most notable characteristics, seen in his handling of cameras, yachts, cars and eventually planes no less than in his organ playing, while some of his best writing (for instance, the building of the lighthouse in The Sands of Pleasure) is concerned with the relationship of man to the objects he must deal with in the world around him. Baker saw that Filson was as happy driving his beloved ‘Prudence’ as drawing appropriate sounds from an organ:

He had the power of being able to establish a living relationship with inanimate, intricate and delicately tuned instruments, knowing they had to be wooed before they would give of their best. Then they would seem to function of their own volition. (141)

Listening to him improvising at the organ in an empty church brought home to Baker that Filson was not, as some thought him, a mere self-advertising impresario, a charlatan, a pretentious boor; he was a genuine artist, but of the kind whose best work can only find expression simultaneously. If he was gifted with more talents than most people, he lacked the strong inner light necessary to weld those talents into a coherent whole. Thus he could not develop as an artist, though it was as an artist that he wanted to be remembered. In him the gulf between what he thought he could and should achieve and what, in his later years, he actually did achieve was immense, and the memory of the easy successes of his youth made the pill of failure even harder to swallow. He became bitter and through biting little cruelties inflicted this bitterness on the people round him.


135  Frank Baker in conversation with SM, 4 Aug 1976. Frank Baker  (1908-83) is perhaps best remembered for his popular novel Miss Hargreaves (1940).

136  Frank Baker  I Follow but Myself  (1968).

137  Frank Baker  I Follow but Myself, 160-1.

138  The child was Dicon Nance. Information from his ?wife/widow Eleanor Nance, in conversation with SM, 22-24 March 1976.

139  Hugh Hynes in conversation with SM, 4 Aug 1976.

140  Brian Churcher remembered Kendrick Pyne saying in later years, ‘My boy, I’m in the direct apostolic succession to the composer of “Rule Britannia”.’ By this Pyne meant that there was an unbroken teacher-pupil link from Thomas Augustine Arne via Samuel Wesley and Samuel Sebastian Wesley to himself. (Brian Churcher in conversation with SM, 20 March 1976). Filson, no doubt familiar with the same remark, also saw himself as a link in the chain.

141  Frank Baker [ref]

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