Filson Young

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

Table of contents

49. Last days in Cornwall

In 1937 Filson produced his last five radio programmes: four Bernard Walke plays from Cornwall and another performance of his Carlyle programme which took the listener into the Carlyles’ Chelsea home, full of ghosts that to Filson were more alive than many living people. When he played their old piano its ‘cracked old sounds spoke with the real voice of the past’ as one listener put it. Now in retirement at Mevagissey, Walke was still writing plays about Cornish country life and in producing them Filson showed a talent for putting at their ease the shy country people who took part as actors. He found it didn’t so much frighten as encourage them to be reminded that their voices would be heard not only all over Britain but in many parts of the Empire too. And three minutes before the broadcast was due to begin he would still the chaos and noise of the technical preparations and ask the actors to stand together and say the Lord’s Prayer with him.

After Bernard Walke left St Hilary in 1936 his admirers did their best to preserve what they could of his work there. Many who did not share his views admitted he had infected them with his love of life and inspired them with spiritual awareness, and even George Bernard Shaw said that at St Hilary he felt in the presence of the Holy Ghost. But some people wanted things done differently, and they gradually prevailed. For a year after Walke retired Filson continued to broadcast his plays from the church, then the new authorities made it clear that for religious reasons Walke and his plays were no longer welcome. By now Frank Baker had taken over as church organist from the lady with clattering feet but he too had no power to save the broadcasts. The last two of Walke’s plays to be broadcast from St Hilary, in May and September 1937, were a revival of The Western Land – a ‘dramatic narrative of work in Cornwall’ told by a farmer, a fisherman, a flower-grower and a miner, and Pollie Tregembo, a ‘Cornish comedy’. Filson’s heart was troubling him and after the September broadcast he went back to London and spent most of the next month in bed.

Walke’s greatest success was still the Christmas play Bethlehem, but another work that caught the imagination was The Eve of All Souls, the fifth annual broadcast of which was due on November 2 that year. The Eve of All Souls was a meditation on life and death. A young couple unwittingly choose the day of the dead, All Souls, as their wedding day, and become conscious of the spirits of the dead all round them, especially the spirits of those who have died in the parish during the last year: ‘it must be the dead thinking of we that makes us think of they’. This moving and disturbing piece (160) – Filson’s production of the 1936 performance has been preserved in a BBC recording [has it or any of the other plays apart from Bethlehem been broadcast since?] – was never more relevant than now in 1937, when it was clear that Walke and Filson themselves were nearing the end of their lives, but it stated in uncompromising terms the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory, and the St Hilary authorities would no longer have it. Fortunately the Vicar of nearby St Elwyn’s, Hayle, offered his church for the performance and Filson, far from well, determined to return to Cornwall to direct it. Frank Baker was there as always to play the organ and noticed how even when ill Filson remained an uncompromising perfectionist:

As Berryman’s old bus trundled along the narrow lanes towards St Erth I realized suddenly that I had been foolish enough not to bring with me the music of Richard Terry’s beautiful setting of Newman’s poem ‘Praise to the Holiest in the height’. This was an absolutely integral part of the play, and I had accompanied it before. Surely I could remember it? In the bus, as we talked of old days, half of my mind was on this tune, groping out for the harmony. There was one chord I could not quite hear: a diminished seventh which eluded eye and ear. No matter, I assured myself; I could almost see the layout of the harmony; it would come naturally to me when I got to the organ.

It did not come naturally. It came most un-naturally and,as I should have expected, Filson was not going to let it pass. At the rehearsal, which was only an hour before the transmission, he stopped as I reached the third line of the hymn. His voice called up from the control room, which was in the vestry underneath the choir. ‘Stop! There’s something wrong. Frank, play that line again will you? Without the choir.’

I played the line again from meory, beginning to sweat with apprehension as I came to the last chord. Surely, surely this time … but no. Up came Filson’s voice again, petulant now. ‘No. There’s something wrong. Look at your copy, Frank.’ This was ghastly. Again I played; again he stopped me. ‘I’m positive that isn’t as Terry wrote it. Can there be a misprint?’

I could not talk back to him as I had no microphone, only headphones. I waited. With a little clear thought I knew I could find the exact position of that elusive chord. Yet it would not come. I did not dare to touch the keys. Out of a long silence Filson spoke again, very cold now. ‘What is the matter, Frank? We’ve only ten minutes, you know.’

Furious with myself far more than with Filson, I left the organ stool and blundered down to the vestry. The players were all seated round a long table, scripts before them, Filson at the head. ‘Are you sure I’m wrong, Filson?’ I blurted out. ‘I haven’t got the copy. But – ‘

He interrupted sharply. ‘You haven’t got the copy?’

I had never felt so small in my life … ‘No,’ I said. ‘I’m relying on my memory. I’m afraid I forgot to bring the Westminster Hymnal.’

‘Oh.’ Filson stared before him as though I did not exist. The players kept their heads down to their scripts, trying to pretend this little scene was not going on; most friendly of them. Filson suddenly got up, pushed me out of his way, and shambled up the stone steps from the crypt to the choir. I followed. He went to the organ, sat down, and slowly, patiently, began to fumble out some chords, pausing at the uncertain bar. ‘Must get it right,’

I heard him muttering. ‘Composer might be listening. Must get it right.’

I did not dare to remind him that Richard Terry was dead. The awful phrase, ‘composer might be listening,’ frightened the life out of me. (161)

Then suddenly Filson landed on the right chord. ‘That’s it, isn’t it?’ he asked me. I listened very carefully as he played it again. Yes, it was right. I humbly nodded my head. ‘You play it.’ he said. ‘Let me hear it.’

There was a final dreadful moment as I sat before the manuals wondering if I would make the same mistake. But at last I played it accurately. ‘Better scribble it down,’ said Filson shortly. I did so, on an old envelope. We resumed the rehearsal and a few minutes later started the transmission, using a record of the St Hilary bells.

I had learnt a lesson from him I would never forget; that the smallest detail is of importance, in anything one does. (162)

After this sepulchral experience with The Eve of All Souls Filson went back to his bed in London, but managed to drag himself one more time to Cornwall shortly before Christmas. There could be no St Hilary Christmas play this year – breaking a run of eleven consecutive Christmas broadcasts (Bethlehem 1926-34 and its successor The Stranger at St Hilary, a ‘vision of Christmas’, 1935-6) – but Walke had written At the Ship Inn, a ‘Cornish causerie’ for local actors, and Filson directed this at the Ship Inn, Mevagissey. All told, it was their 25th and last joint effort, and Filson’s final broadcast.


160  The Eve of All Souls was broadcast six times: 1932, 1933, 1934 and 1936 from St Hilary, and 1937 (Filson’s last broadcast) and 1941 from Hayle. It is full of folk wisdom (‘Happy is the corpse that the sun shines on, Happy is the bride that the rain rains on’), with a touch of the atmosphere of J.M.Synge’s plays set among the country people of western Ireland thirty years before.

161  Frank Baker was wrong: Sir Richard Terry was still alive. But he died less than six months later, on 18 April 1938, and Filson died the next day.

162  Frank Baker, I Follow but Myself, 171-2.

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