Filson Young

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

Table of contents

47. Memories and mortality

Filson did not reach sixty till June 1936 but long before this he was already involved in the typical preoccupations of old age – memories of the past, deaths of old friends, failing health. In the interval of a Hallé concert broadcast from Manchester he recalled in a radio talk how he had first been taken to the concerts as a small child and later, as a music student, had sat in on the orchestra’s rehearsals. In 1934 he reminisced about his schooldays in a formal speech at a Manchester Grammar School Old Boys’ dinner (142). In May 1936 a programme from the BBC’s Northern Ireland regional station so excited him that he couldn’t resist describing it in glowing terms for his Radio Times readers: [does the script or a recording still exist in N.Ireland? or elsewhere?]

It was a little picture of a little place; and it was true … I know Portaferry very well, years of my childhood and youth being deeply and unforgettably associated with it.[It was on the swift tides of Strangford Lough that as a boy I learned to row and sail boats and to navigate waters the difficulty and dangers of which have daunted many a yachtsman.] There are places about the shore of Portaferry where I know almost every individual stone of sea-walls and steps that lead down to the beach. All the people who spoke, and many who were mentioned, bore names as familiar to me in my childhood as those of my own relations; and while they were speaking I could see the long road by the shore where almost every house was familiar to me, the green of the meadow and woods of the demesne, and could hear the murmur of the tide flooding up through the narrows and in its full-throated roar past the Walter Rock. The slightest false note would have jarred upon me like a false progression in music. But it did not happen.(143)

Not all the events of these years were so happy. In October 1935 Ernest Procter died. Latterly he and Filson had been on good terms. Using free tickets available to him through the BBC, Filson would take Dod and Ernest to concerts at Queen’s Hall and sit between them. A friend remembered seeing them on one such occasion with the seats beyond Dod and Ernest occupied by the Procter’s son Bill and Ernest’s current girl-friend respectively – all five looking miserable (144). Dod and Ernest had remained deeply attached to one another and though she was to outlive him by nearly forty years none of her many lovers ever really took his place. After Ernest’s death Filson often kept Dod company in Cornwall at weekends. Their mutual passion was a thing of the past but they met frequently for the rest of Filson’s life.

In March 1936 Beatty died; it was rumoured that he had never quite recovered from a chill caught at Jellicoe’s funeral a few months before. Two months earlier, Filson had taken Billy, now a 16-year-old public schoolboy at Clifton, to meet the admiral at the Turf Club; Billy thought him young-looking for his age, and noted in his diary that he was ‘very nice and jolly’. Filson had refused to let Billy come to London for the funeral of King George V in January (though this would have been permitted by the school) but Beatty’s funeral was another matter. As a godson, Billy had a place in St Paul’s, and Filson walked in the funeral procession. He had kept in touch with Beatty over the years, writing to him when his wife died in 1932. Ethel Beatty’s last years had been made miserable by chronic depression though her solicitous husband, himself comforted by a mistress and feeling inadequate, had spared no pains in caring for Ethel to the best of his ability. Despite his attention she felt isolated and bored.

She was a wonderful person with a turbulent mind which kicked against the pricks. You knew her when she was lovely (as she was to the last) in mind and body and loved to give and make others happy … The shock of her Departure was great and takes the healing effect of time to make good. That will come, and with it nothing but pleasant memories of a very lovely lady to whom I owe more than I can repay. (145)

 Vera commented acidly that Filson had had Lady Beatty but would much rather have slept with the admiral (146). The Times devoted a whole page to Beatty’s obituary including a long personal memoir by Filson in which he recalled his heady days at Beatty’s side in 1914 and 1915. This article brought Filson to the end of another road. Incensed at what the Times offered him for it, he asked for three times as much and threatened to summons the paper in the County Court if they didn’t pay up. The manager of the Times thereupon forwarded the sum Filson demanded to his solicitor, E.S.P. Haynes, with a covering letter: ‘We still think what we offered was adequate, but the enclosed cheque … will ensure a final settlement in more ways than one.’ (147) ‘Necessary steps were then taken on the orders of the Editor to make sure that no more contributions from Filson would be accepted.

Another link was broken in August 1936, when ill-health forced Bernard Walke to retire after twenty-four years at St Hilary. Much had changed in the ten years since Filson had first persuaded him to let his Christmas play be broadcast. Bethlehem had made St Hilary famous, even fashionable, and its peace and seclusion had been threatened by a constant stream of visitors, some more welcome than others. Bernard Shaw came and admired the 1925 performance of the play – the last not to be broadcast – and afterwards had tea with Walke, who recorded a memorable exchange between Shaw and the Newlyn artist Norman Garstin:

Norman Garstin opened the conversation in his most courteous manner: ‘I am most delighted to meet you, Mr Shaw, for we have several things in common.’

‘And what may they be?’ said Bernard Shaw, resting a hand on Norman’s shoulder and looking quizzically into his face.

‘I am an Irishman, Mr Shaw,’ Norman replied, stepping back with both hands clasping the lapels of his coat, ‘and I too am an admirer of Bernard Shaw.’  (148)

Anglo-Catholic St Hilary also attracted the attention of the fundamentalist evangelical Protestant Truth Society whose redoubtable leader J.A.Kensit had been campaigning against ‘idolatry’ for thirty years – a court had once ordered him to sell a large number of statuettes of Martin Luther to pay the costs of a case he had lost. Walke had known for some time that the Kensitites, as they were popularly known, had been trying to get the diocesan Consistory Court to grant them a ‘faculty of removal’, so that they could strip St Hilary church of objects which in their view offended against Protestantism. Walke refused to attend the Court, though he didn’t recognise its authority. The Kensitites were duly granted ecclesiastical permission to take away (but not destroy) some Roman Catholic statues and, more surprisingly, the fifteenth-century font. One day in August 1932, forty of fifty of them suddenly arrived by car and charabanc and barricaded themselves in the church where, swinging crowbars, they smashed among other things the mediæval font and an altar reredos painted by Ernest Procter. When Walke tried to intervene they locked him in the church, only letting him out when he insisted on bearing the Holy Sacrament to safety. But he had to some extent managed to outwit them by hiding the real statues they were after, which were many hundreds of years old, and putting substitutes in their places; Kensit and his followers couldn’t tell the difference. The press made a meal of it: RAIDERS FOILED BY A VICAR (Daily Express), PREACHERS STORM VILLAGE [...] VICAR HELD PRISONER (Daily Mirror) (149). By the following Sunday the church had been patched up and was attended by a large congregation including Filson and the Labour politician George Lansbury. Sunday after Sunday now, the church was packed with visitors, many of whom came merely out of curiosity.

A few months after the Kensitite raid Walke fell ill with tuberculosis and was forced to spend a year and a half at the Tehidy sanatorium near Portreath, where he kept himself busy writing his attractive memoir Twenty Years at St Hilary. In his absence Filson kept the play broadcasts going. Though Walke was back before the end of 1934 he never fully recovered, and retired in 1936 to live at Mevagissey, leaving Filson once more to look after the plays on his own. Filson’s own health was not what it had been. He suffered from low blood pressure, but was delighted to find this gave him an unaccustomed sense of joy and well-being when he took a small plane with open cockpit four thousand feet up into the rarefied atmosphere above the clouds. More seriously, he was overweight and drinking too much, especially whisky, and there was a weakness in his heart which had become alarmingly apparent when he was learning to fly. One of the manœuvres he had had to learn was to let the plane fall into an uncontrolled spin which he then had to pull out of; he found spinning to the right was fine, but spinning to the left caused him severe physical distress. Then in May 1936 a heart attack laid him up for several weeks in his Kensington house. This put a stop to his compulsory weekly trips to Broadcasting House to discuss programmes, and it was decided that from now on he would send in reports as usual but only appear in person when he felt up to it. He welcomed his new freedom, but it was a severe shock when in September the Radio Times decided to replace his weekly signed column ‘The World We Listen In’ with a ‘symposium’ written by a different contributor each week, Filson himself included. (150) Even if writing every week had become a burden – he had kept it up for six years with hardly a break – his pride was hurt, and he refused to continue on these terms. So he said goodbye to his readers in style, just as he had done on first leaving the Saturday Review at the end of 1913, and forwarded a copy of his final piece to Reith in advance of publication. But the loss of income was going to be a serious problem. The BBC had been paying him £1000 a year but this would now be halved to his £500 salary as a programme consultant, itself subject to review every six months. He was sixty, his heart was in poor shape, and he had no savings. His style of writing was out of step with the times. It would not be easy to find another regular newspaper column, and even if he did his poor health might interfere with his work. Worst of all, Billy, now a bland, pleasant boy of seventeen with no special abilities or marked personality, was just leaving Clifton and money was going to be needed to invest in some firm that might be prepared to take him on as a trainee.

One possibility was a traineeship in mining management with Filson’s cousin Eric Young, who owned a coal mine at Bolsover in Derbyshire. Filson had already taken Billy to meet the Eric Youngs with this in mind and Billy had noted: ‘Eric is rather annoyed about Daddy getting drunk every night. But one can’t do much’. (151)  Another possibility was Selfridge’s. Gordon Selfridge junior was a flying crony of whom Filson once said, ‘I wish he wouldn’t swish his wings quite so cleverly when he’s landing.’ Filson had always believed in going straight to the top when you wanted something; it was one of the qualities he’d most admired in Christopher Columbus when writing about him thirty years before, and he had done it countless times in his own life. So now he went to Reith, who had become an increasingly remote figure still at the top of the ever larger and more complex hierarchical structure of the BBC. They hadn’t met for several years, and Reith listened sympathetically to Filson’s appeal for more work so that he could afford to launch his son on a career. Reith agreed – as he later told the new Controller (Programmes), Cecil Graves, – that Filson’s Bach Cantata series could well be resumed, but he also told Filson that Graves had been complaining that Filson was growing remiss in sending in his programme reports. Filson had an answer ready, and Reith scribbled at the bottom of the report on the interview that he sent to Graves: ‘He said he had done a lot of work unpaid and done much more than his present contract called for. I don’t know!’ (152) Filson then flatly asked Graves to double his salary for the same work, thus restoring it to what it had been up to 1929. Graves refused and it seemed the BBC was unable or unwilling to find more for Filson to do. He approached Reith again: ‘Nothing having resulted so far as a consequence of our talk, I should be greatly obliged if you would let me know when I can see you again.’ Reith avoided him but, perhaps without telling him, did make at least one attempt to help: he and James Agate tried without success to get Lord Kemsley to give him work as the Sunday Times‘s first serious radio critic (153).  

A few months later Billy found an inexpensive start in life with R.A.F. Coastal Command while his ailing father, increasingly frustrated and irascible, struggled along on what he regarded as half pay.


142  ‘M.G.S. Old Boys’, Manchester Guardian, 15 Dec 1934.

143  ‘The World We Listen In’, Radio Times, 1 May 1936 (The sentence in square brackets may have been omitted from the published text).

In fact, Filson had already praised Strangford Lough in ‘The World We Listen In’ in the Radio Times barely a year earlier: The country of the Mourne Mountains is a little Switzerlan  … But to discover it in perfection you must explore Strangford Lough … The fascination of this little place lies partly in its beauty, which is beyond description – beauty of colour, beauty of climate and atmosphere, beauty of scenery and beauty of solitude. From the purple of the Mourne Mountains the land rolls down in soft green hills and slopes to the deeply indented shores.  (15 March 1935) – a description that cries out for television. Perhaps it inspired the Northern Ireland Regional Station to make the documentary that so impressed Filson just over a year later.

144  Sheelah Hynes, in conversation with SM, 15 April 1976.

145  David Beatty to FY, 26 July 1932. Subsequently to his quarrel with Filson in May 1915, the two had continued to correspond from time to time. After leading the severely mauled battle cruisers at Jutland on 31 May 1916, Beatty succeeded Jellicoe as commander-in-chief of the Grand Fleet in November 1916, and was promoted to Fisher’s old post, First Sea Lord (professional head of the Navy), in September 1919, retiring aged only 56 in July 1927.

146  Katharine Graham (in conversation with SM, Feb 1976), said that Vera told her that Filson had been Lady Beatty’s lover but that to him Beatty himself had been the more sexually attractive of the two – the attraction being mutual. Katharine believed that Filson was almost certainly bisexual, and that there was no sexual experience he was not prepared for, or (probably) had actually performed. Filson himself certainly boasted that he had known every possible sexual experience.

147  E.S.P.Haynes to Geoffrey Dawson  29 April; Dawson [presumably] to Haynes  30 April; the Manager of the Times [name] to Haynes  1 May; and Manager [name] to Dawson  1 May (all 1936).

148  Walke  Twenty Years at St Hilary, first edition 200, new edition 166-7.

149  Daily Express, 15 August 1932; Daily Mirror [date?]

150  Sir John Reith commented to Lord Kemsley of the Sunday Times: No fault whatever of his own, very good articles indeed, but simply that our people thought that after two or three years a change was desirable.  (12 Oct 1936). In fact, Filson’s regular column in the Radio Times had lasted very nearly six years.

151  Billy Young’s diary, 11 Jan 1936.

152  Sir John Reith to Cecil Graves, 8 Oct 1936.

153  FY to Sir John Reith  20 Nov; Graves to Reith  24 Nov; Reith to FY  12 Oct (all 1936).

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