Filson Young: BBC pioneer

This is an account of some parts of Shall I Listen? of 1933. It was the penultimate book by Filson Young (1876-1936). He was a BBC pioneer with instincts about the future of broadcasting which foreshadow the podcast age. He was a snob who disparaged Reithian London-centricity. He was a Londoner who invented a new style of outside broadcasting from a Cornish village.

Shall I listen?: Studies in the adventure of broadcasting, Constable, London, 1933
Click the above title for a searchable, amateurish PDF of three key chapters of FY’s SIL

Filson Young’s second wife was Vera North, née Rawnsley, the ex-wife of the artist and restorer Stanley North, my grandfather. The Filson Youngs divorced and she went on to marry Clifford Bax. Silvester Mazzarella, his great nephew, wrote a fine biography of FY.

Below, I venture some notes and extracts.

[Note: At Page 1, FY says the first BBC broadcast was in 1923 (tidy perhaps for the publication of this collection of essays in 1933). Wiki and every other source I can find says the first broadcast was 1922, when the BBC was still a company not a national corporation.]

FY was a pioneer media figure. He was a Reithian in the sense that he believed that the BBC must be true to the highest intellectual impulses (FY in effect invented the Reith Lectures). But he was also insistent that metropolitan London and its commitment to excellence for the masses might miss qualities which can only be found in the untutored woof and warp of an unreconstructed provincial life. This latter world was literally artisanal. It was often necessarily inarticulate (untutored; using informal speech). There are various ways of bringing this world to the microphone and transmitter mast, and the result would be happenstance contacts of high spiritual value. (See Bernard Walke, below.)

Chapter I: A new sewing

RDN’s posing of FY’s questions: On commercialization, vulgarisation, and hopes of elite leadership

FY says that broadcasting is in “no danger of being commercialized in England; the only danger is that the fine impulse which started it might not be extended with equal force to the development which may be expected at the stage which broadcasting has now reached.” (Page 4) Later in the book he disparages the advertiser power over US broadcast material.

FY feels the conservative anxiety that a mass broadcaster will drift toward the lower common denominator and that the discerning listener may not make himself felt and keep standards high.

Chapter II: The listener and his conditions

RDN’s posing of FY’s questions: Is the right listener powerful? Is broadcasting a mass or individual matter?

I am struck by the strand of thought which links FY’s 1920s lone headset listener with the new 2020s isolated media consumer. In the 1920’s a headphone-wearer hogged the set but was freed of the family set’s loudspeaker and family hurly-burly. Our internet age has democratized the privilege of isolation. FY’s notion of an individually tailored “ray” broadcasting system is rather like our mass narrowcasting.

FY introduces the idea of the bad or good listener. The first is indiscriminate. The second has potential, but needs good conditions. Such a listener is capable of being thoughtful and interested and can concentrate, but often listens in an irritated state because of being within a household’s shared listening. (Page 18) It is the solitary listener who has ideal conditions. (Page 20) FY has a good set and listens alone and only to what he wants to concentrate on. But, he wonders, contradictorily, maybe some broadcasting is intended for and needs a crowd.

FY says headphones work for some. (Page 20) They give an isolated experience. In loudspeaker reception, multi-channels would require a wireless for each channel, and households unlike most in the UK, which isn’t practicable. (Page 27) He says most people have to contend with household listening. (Page 28) 

FY’s “My Ray” section has an interesting fantasy about a world in which people of discernment might get exactly what they want beamed to them. (Page 35) It presages the best of the podcast age,

FY says if we are bad listeners we will produce bad broadcasting, as a matter of supply and demand. (Page 43)

Chapter X1: Voices From the West

FY was a Mancunian by origin and was formed by the Manchester Guardian and musical studies in the city. He never quite spoke the affected Received or King’s English. He was a London-based snob who travelled the world but fell in love with Cornwall. 

FY seems always to be feeling his way toward an appreciation of the power and above all the personality of the human voice. (See remarks on SIL, Chapter XII, below.) His work as an adviser to the BBC allowed him to connect a very local Cornish phenomenon – Fr Walke’s work with his Cornish parishioners and its Nativity plays, and some secular community plays too, whose outside broadcast FY promoted and produced from 1926. [Fr Walke’s account of these events are in his memoir, Twenty Years at St Hilary, 1935 and recent editions.] Here were the authentic voices of a Cornish peasantry whose being had elements which pre-dated the Reformation (that is, they were Roman Catholic as well as Methodist) and even the widespread use of the English Language, and whose lives were in several ways untouched by technology. (p194) Interestingly, and a little at odds with the later taste for voices from the regions in the work of Ewan McColl and Denis Mitchell, FY believed that Cornish parishioners had found the ideal amanuensis in Fr Walke.

As Silvester Mazzarella records, FY campaigned for several years officially for the BBC to pay proper attention to the regional assets – non-Metropolitan voices – and failed miserably to shift London-centricity from the Reithian desire to improve the masses. (See also: SM’s account of FY’s BBC late 20s memo following the first broadcast of “The Western Land”, a secular play by Bernard Walke.  [Also, “Northern Regions 30s-50s”]] Curiously, we now see the BBC’s Metropolitan elite straining to prioritise regional accents, provided they are uttering Wokery.

Chapter XII: Mass-Production and Individuality

FY came to the conclusion that the BBC was a competent organization but did not really have a sufficient creative impulse. He seems to think it is at risk of not understanding its peculiar obligation to consider an almost spiritual dimension to broadcasting. This is, he thinks, to do with realising that some very powerful broadcasting moments come from unexpected places and very particular voices. I think he is arguing that the BBC may be doing a very high strand of mass production, but that it was failing in small-sale sensitivity. Oddly, one may say, some of the qualities of broadcasting the Corporation couldn’t catch in the 1920s are now found in the podcasts of the 2020s. 

FY seems to be insisting that there are varieties of contact which can only be found in the ether.

“It is the individual framework and setting, with the personality behind in the background, which gives intimacy and character to what is done. England, I am sure, is rich beyond all estimate in atmospheres and personalities that can give their message to the world through the microphone and yet themselves retain their quality of remoteness and isolation which is really the source of their distinction.”

To back this thesis, he prays in aid the case of a long-forgotten acquaintance who, hearing a recent FY broadcast, writes to him and recalls a conversation they had 27 years earlier. The man was a Trinity House lighthouse keeper with whom FY had shared a night watch. I think FY is saying that he was touched both by the way the man had nurtured a memory of the occasion, but also the way the man had been moved to write to say so by FY’s broadcast. FY is very struck, I think, by the bond the two of them had established, which is hard to identify but important.

FY writes, of a broadcaster (himself, often):

“You sit alone in a quiet room and send your voice out, not in any particular direction or to any particular person, but into the whole ether; and here and there someone sitting in a room far away recognizes the voice and remembers some remote moment of contact with the speaker, and writes and tells him so”.

A connection has been made. But I think FY feels that his lighthouse keeper was just the sort of person who is constituted to both “receive” and “transmit” (not FY’s words) powerful if random links. He goes on:

“…. I have always had a great love for lighthouses and an affinity with those who live their lives in the solitary splendour of a world that consists of sun, sky, sea, tides, and rocks. To evoke this letter was like evoking a bit of my dead self. It had all completely departed from me; but the sound of my voice in that stormy lighted chamber unlocked the reservoirs of the ether, and gave it all back to me from the limbo of dead and departed things.” (See also, RDN on FY’s lighthouse novel of 1905, The Sands of Pleasure, soon to be online at

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Publication date

14 March 2023