Filson Young

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

Table of contents

50. Television and death

Filson’s lifelong passion for new technological developments did not decline with failing health. He would have been in his element today as a TV pundit in an age of computers and mobile phones. He had published his first book in 1896 under the pseudonym ‘X-Rays’, X-Rays being then the very latest thing. Now in 1937 the big novelty was television broadcasting. The BBC had begun transmitting from Alexandra Palace and, as with radio, needed capable internal critics to assess its programmes. Cecil Graves [his BBC position in 1937?] (163) saw Filson as the ideal first man for the job and had a Cossor TV set installed at Campden Grove for him early in the autumn. For the moment however Filson was too ill to get out of bed and go downstairs to watch the programmes – obviously having a TV set in your bedroom was something no one had yet thought possible. In any case, he told Graves, he wanted to start by going to Alexandra Palace to see how things worked at that end, but first he must rest to be strong enough to go to Hayle at the beginning of November to produce The Eve of All Souls, which he did manage, as we have seen. But when several more weeks passed and nothing more was heard from Filson, Graves wrote to find out what was going on, again suspecting him of avoiding duties for which he was being paid. Filson replied on December 5:

It is evident that you have not had any idea, or have not been told, that I have been and still am very ill indeed and incapable of the smallest effort, even going downstairs to my study and up again. I have been practically confined to my room and generally to bed for the last eight weeks. I have not been allowed to make the smallest effort or even to write letters. This condition has alternated with periods of improvement when I felt that I was about to resume normal life; and then have been reduced by one bad day or night to a condition of complete helplessness. So far I have recovered from these attacks and am at the moment definitely better, but I never know from day to day whether I can make arrangements for a month ahead or even for an hour or two. My going down to Cornwall to produce the ‘All Souls’ programme was something in the nature of a miracle, but I was determined to do it as my presence was really necessary.

I have been trying to get a chance to go to Alexandra Palace but I have not yet had a day that I felt I could make the necessary effort. I have however (strictly against the doctor’s orders) often gone downstairs and attended to the television programmes, and have seen enough to know that I shall have a great deal to say when I begin to make regular reports. I dare not begin to write about the subject now, as the possibilities of it are positively exciting and fill my mind with ideas which, once I begin to express them, would take me far beyond the limits of nervous and mental output that are imposed upon me. It is simply that my heart had almost completely given out, and it is only by prolonged and complete rest that I can hope to recover. [...]

I have been hoping for a long time to be able to begin regular contact with regard to television. When I have had two perfectly good days in succession I will ‘phone and ask you to have me conveyed to Alexandra Palace where I know Gerald Cock will do all I want for me.

My primary object is to get well enough to go down to Cornwall for the new programme from Mevagissey on December 20th. If I am well enough to go I will spend Christmas there. If not, I shall make ample arrangements with Beadle so that the programme shall not suffer.

I am sorry to bother you with such a long screed about myself, but I feel from your letter that you did not quite realise the position.

As we saw in the last chapter, he did get to Cornwall one last time and produced Walke’s At the Ship Inn from Mevagissey, but his heart never recovered sufficiently for him to be able to begin work on television – a great pity, since he would have been in his element and no doubt would have come up with ideas of lasting value. As early as April 1933 he had claimed in the Radio Times that within a few years millions would be watching the Grand National, the Boat Race and the FA Cup Final on television (164). This perfectly reasonable forecast had been too much for Reith, who gave the editors of the Radio Times and Listener strict orders to allow no further references to television in their publications without special permission from above, since in 1933 the official BBC view (165) was that it was no more than possible that TV might soon become a practical proposition.

Through the early months of 1938 Filson lay in bed at Campden Grove. Occasionally he felt well enough to go out. Towards the end of March the young journalist Tom Driberg (then ‘William Hickey’ of the Daily Express) lunched with him at the St James’s Club and found him frail (the stairs were an effort), and when he tried to be polite, Filson snapped, ‘Not so much of the “sir” – it makes me feel ten years older’. (166) Visitors to Campden Grove found him irritable in his helplessness. Vera came to read to him. Walke, realizing he was lonely, wanted to come but was himself too ill to make the journey from Mevagissey. He asked Frank Baker to go instead. Baker found Filson in bed re-reading his favourite novel (Middlemarch), and exercising his mind doing the Times crossword and translating Prayer Book Collects into Latin. If he looked at the news reports in the Times, he will have read of a troubled world: Austrian independence swallowed up in ‘anschluss’ with Nazi Germany, high-profile ‘treason’ trials and summary executions in Stalin’s Soviet Union, Franco’s Nationalists near winning the civil war in Spain, Japan steadily conquering China, Hitler and Mussolini assuming supreme command of the armed forces of their respective countries. There was also the centenary of the birth of the actor Sir Henry Irving, whose obituary Filson had prepared before his death for the Manchester Guardian at the very beginning of his career, the first transmission of colour TV (from the Crystal Palace to the Dominion Theatre in London), and the publication of statistics which showed that by 1937 (the last year in which he himself had broadcast) Britain had eight and a half million radio listeners, a figure only exceeded in Europe by Germany.  Baker found an acid and terrifying tyrant who had dwindled to a peevish child, thin and shaky, grumbling that the doctor was keeping his whisky from him. Filson complained that his conscience was troubling him because he had behaved so badly to the many people he disliked, and Baker was moved by the humility and naked human weakness now apparent beneath the familiar crotchety and intolerant exterior. But when Baker assured him he would soon be well again he got a look that ‘reduced him to nothing’. (167)

He received the Last Sacraments on Good Friday and died four days later, on April 19. When the news reached him, James Agate wrote in his diary:

… if he didn’t like you, or wasn’t liking you at the moment, he would look down, or rather over, his nose at you in a way a Roman Emperor would have envied. But he had an absolutely first-class mind, was a perfect host, and when the fit took him was capable of unexpected kindness. He would never, in any circumstances, tolerate anything one jot or tittle below the first-rate, and his taste was impeccable. He pretended, towards the end, to have outlived music, which, he said categorically, had ceased to give him pleasure. But Filson was always outliving things in the sense that he was a pioneer, and the essence of pioneering is discarding the known for the unknown … A man easy to misjudge: a man with something of the eagle about him. (168)

His brother Tom later commented from Manchester to their sister Ben in Carbis Bay:

Fame came to Filson very early and perhaps too easily for his own good. Then it seemed to slip away from him by degrees, and I know that he felt acutely in his later years the loss of the popularity as a writer that he once enjoyed. This was one of the many trials which he suffered in his strangely chequered life. (169)

Frank Baker felt Filson had suffered a ‘drying up’ of love while remaining fully aware of what he had lost. He had once listened to him improvise on the fine church organ of St Mary’s, Penzance, and later wrote:

It was magnificent. When he finished playing and there fell over the church that ringing silence which only such moments can call out, I realized that it must have been in some such way that Beethoven captivated his listeners. This was true improvisation, instantaneous composition. A work of art never to be set down on paper, never played again, never heard again except in the distant memory, as I try to hear it now. And this was perhaps the key to the tragedy in Filson Young, for I am convinced there was tragedy in him. He was an instant artist whose finest work could only be liberated at such spontaneous moments. A man of too many talents who lacked the strong inner light without which the compelled creative artist cannot be sustained. I think he knew this about himself and that this knowledge turned bitter in him, drawing out the biting little cruelties he could too easily inflict on other people. (170)

Vera asked a press-clipping agency to collect notices of Filson’s death and over sixty were found, ranging from brief announcements in provincial papers to long obituaries in the Manchester Guardian and the Times and reminiscences sent to the press by old friends like Bernard Walke. A Requiem was held for him at the church of St Mary the Virgin, Graham Street, London N1, in the presence of his sons Billy and Richard, his brother Tom and sister Ben, his ex-wife Vera, Mary Bates, Roger Eckersley, Frank Baker, and representatives of Bernard Walke (who was too ill to attend) and the St Hilary Players, and others. Filson would have enjoyed the melodrama: the coffin was open so that his face could be seen for everybody to pay their last respects, led by Vera, who scandalized the family by posing as chief mourner, black clothes setting off her flamboyant red hair. (171) On June 1 Billy, carrying out Filson’s wishes, took out their motor-boat Irene and scattered his ashes in the sea off St Ives.


163  Cecil Graves (1892-1957), Controller of Programmes and shortly to become the BBC’s Deputy Director General. Mary Agnes Hamilton  in Remembering My Good Friends (1944),  282, refers to Graves’s ‘stability and fundamental serenity of temper’.

164  (In the Radio Times of 28 April 1933 Filson had written: within a short time – a few years or even less – it will be possible for the millions to see in their own homes an image of events actually in progress elsewhere. The Grand National, The Boat Race, The Cup Final, now listened to in the form of descriptive ejaculations by an eye witness will be actually seen on the glass panel of some parlour cabinet a thousand miles away. [...] Before you have learned to be perfect listeners, you will have to learn a new technique – the art of looking.

165  As expressed by the deputy Director General, Sir Charles Carpendale, in a BBC internal memo of 2 May 1933.

166  Daily Express, 21 April 1938.

167  Frank Baker, I Follow but Myself, 177.

168  James Agate, Ego 3  (1938), 308.

169  Tom Young to Sara Isabel (‘Ben’) Young, 16 May 1939. When Katharine Graham called on Ben at Carbis Bay in 1940, she found the house full of Filson relics. Ben spoke of her dear, gentle little brother  – not at all the impression Katharine’s mother Margaret Wight (née Bell) had given  her daughter of Filson, recalling how terrified she and her cousin Annis Young (Tom’s daughter)  had been as adolescents when he put his hand up their skirts (Katharine Graham in conversation with SM, August 1975).

170  Frank Baker, I Follow but Myself, 155.

A nice example of one of these ‘biting little cruelties’ was given to me by Filson’s much younger cousin Andy Filson, clearly still smarting fifty years after the event. Andy had read a piece in the Radio Times in which Filson had described having a dream about two women he had had and one he could not have; this reminded Andy of something he had read by Keats, and he said so. Filson’s response had been brutally crushing to a seventeen year-old anxious to impress: ‘I never read Keats.’ (‘read’ in the present tense. Andy Filson in conversation with SM, March 1976 – Andy came to dislike Filson intensely).

Frank Baker’s perception of Filson in his later years as an ‘instant’ artist recalls an image from the very beginning of his career, when H.R.Haweis wrote of Filson’s first book A Psychic Vigil: The author, having written, seemed to feel that he had discharged his mind, and he had actually laid his MS aside, just as Turner, the painter, would often dash off a water-colour sketch, and having caught its effect, fold the paper up all wet and put it in his pocket, never caring even to look at the blurred study again.

Towards the end of my five-hour conversation about Filson with Frank Baker on 4 August 1976, I asked him whether he thought what I had worked out for myself about Filson’s nature, artistic, social, sexual, intellectual, commercial etc, was right, and he said he agreed with everything I had said on this. I mention this not in self-congratulation, but to suggest to the reader that there may be some accuracy in the personal views I have presented in this book, if someone who knew Filson as well as Baker did could agree with them so unreservedly. I would add hat I found Frank Baker a prickly man to deal with and not given to idle flattery or casual comments; for example he corrected me sharply when I mispronounced the name of the writer Arthur Machen to rhyme with ‘station’ when it should have been ‘mack-hen’.

171  Betty Vollmer (elder sister of Katharine Graham) in conversation with SM, Aug 1976. Betty, aged 16 when Filson died, had never seen him, but her mother, the former Margaret Bell, insisted on keeping Betty at the back of the church when the others went forward at the appropriate moment during his funeral service to view his face in his coffin.

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