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Brains Trust (act. 1941–1961) was a celebrated discussion programme on radio and television and, by extension, the people who took part in it. It was devised in late 1940 by Howard Thomas, a producer in the variety department of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), who felt that the Programme for the Forces was neglecting more serious-minded servicemen cut off from intellectual pursuits by the war. Drawing inspiration from an American radio show entitled Information Please (though discarding its competitive element), he envisaged a programme, earnest in intention but light in character, that invited listeners to submit questions on any subject by postcard. A selection would be answered on air without notice by a panel of knowledgeable and entertaining people. Thomas suggested calling it the Brains Trust, an informal American expression for a group of expert advisers. The BBC considered this title too vulgar but agreed to six thirty-minute broadcasts of Any Questions? with Douglas Cleverdon as co-producer. Three core panellists would each week be joined by two visitors. The resident trio comprised a philosopher, a scientist, and an anecdotalist—respectively C. E. M. Joad, Julian Huxley, and A. B. Campbell. Their first guests on 1 January 1941 were J. F. Horrabin and, as a stand-in, Jean McLachlan [see Lindsay, Jean Olivia]. The advertising copywriter (William) Donald McCullough (1901–1978) chaired proceedings with a well-judged modicum of jocularity. The panel made a hesitant start, identifying only five of the seven wonders of the world, but the producers soon learnt to choose more speculative questions. By February they were receiving 2000 per week, and the programme ran without a break for eighteen months. Everybody followed McCullough's lead and referred to participants as the Brains Trust, even though the title did not officially change until September 1942. (The BBC reused the name Any Questions? from 1948 for a different discussion show, with a peripatetic panel before a live audience).

The popularity of the Brains Trust was immense and unexpected. Transferred to Sundays at 4 p.m., extended to forty-five minutes, and repeated on Tuesdays on the Home Service, it regularly attracted a combined audience in excess of 10 million, an exceptional figure for any spoken broadcast save the news. People enjoyed the spontaneity, the mix of personalities, and the panellists' readiness to contradict each other. Tackling about ten questions per show (at least one of them flippant), they ventilated such diverse topics as the missing link, the profit motive, bird's nest soup, the fourth dimension, sneezing, gremlins, the creative mind, regional accents, levitation, equal pay, boomerangs, Anglo-American union, nature versus nurture, film classification, state lotteries, the secret of happiness, basic English, the history of spectacles, and the splitting of the atom. ‘Echoes of the discussion will no doubt follow in works, offices, and homes all over the country’, observed the Radio Times (21 Sept 1945, 3). Listeners latched onto the habitual phrases of the opinionated Joad (‘It all depends what you mean by …’), the yarn-spinning Campbell (‘When I was in …’), and the authoritative Huxley (‘Surely …’). They became three of the best-known men in Britain.

The BBC seemed mildly disconcerted by the stars it had created. Were Joad and Campbell growing too cocksure or too predictable? For the second series (1942–3) the producers instituted a pool of nine resident panellists to be employed in rotation. The six additions were Mary Agnes Hamilton, the scholar Gilbert Murray, the art historian Sir Kenneth Clark, the conductor Malcolm Sargent, the actor Leslie Howard, and the first of several anonymous physicians (forbidden to advertise). Participants were paid 20 guineas and treated to lunch at the Café Royal or Hotel Russell before they went two floors underground at Bush House to sit around a table-top microphone. Live broadcasting was not permitted in wartime, but the recordings seldom required editing. Three sessions were filmed for cinema release in 1943 and clubs and interest groups staged their own versions in church halls all across Britain.

Although questions relating to party politics were always excluded, some tories complained of underlying left-wing bias in the Brains Trust. The BBC responded by inviting a carefully balanced selection of politicians to take part, of whom Walter Elliot, Jennie Lee, Ellen Wilkinson, (Arthur) Beverley Baxter (1891–1964), Quintin Hogg, Robert Boothby, and Herbert Samuel were reckoned among the more effective. Religion became controversial too, given that Huxley and Joad were freethinkers. The producers tried to find a strong Christian panellist, but neither C. S. Lewis, W. R. Matthews, nor Ronald Knox made much headway. When the archbishop of Canterbury (William Temple) protested in 1943 about the programme's ‘irreverent disregard for revealed truths in the Holy Scriptures’, the BBC controller (programmes) overreacted and banned ‘all questions involving religion, political philosophy or vague generalities about life’—pretty much the essence of the show (Briggs, 200). The Brains Trusters remonstrated, and a compromise unwelcome to both sides consigned religion to a separate programme, The Anvil, with an all-Christian panel and far fewer listeners. It was deemed imprudent for the wartime Brains Trust to consider such sensitive matters as the causes of antisemitism or how a socialist differed from a communist.

The distinction between residents and guests gradually gave way to more fluid casting that ‘rested’ old favourites while seeking new ones among a large number of journalists, novelists, critics, historians, economists, philosophers, playwrights, scientists, and curators. Margery Fry, Edward Andrade, Dilys Powell, James Laver, Sir William Beveridge, Barbara Ward, Michael Ayrton, Geoffrey Crowther, and latterly Bertrand Russell became regulars. Rupert Gould impressed with his esoteric factual knowledge. During the war the Brains Trust often included Americans, some speaking from New York.

Annual series ran from September to April, with McCullough now alternating as question-master with Gilbert Harding, Lionel Ramsay Hale (1909–1977), and others. Audience size, in decline from 1944, ceased to be remarkable in peacetime. For its seventh season the Home Service shortened the show to thirty minutes, and it lost some of its distinctive flavour with the final exclusion of Joad in 1948. The concept of a resident trio reappeared, but neither Collin Brooks, (Basil) Kingsley Martin, and (Henry) Wilson Harris, nor F. C. Hooper, Compton Mackenzie, and C. D. Darlington, nor Julian Huxley, Harold Nicolson, and Frank O'Connor [see O'Donovan, Michael Francis Xavier] recaptured the public fancy. The last sound-only Brains Trust was broadcast on 31 May 1949.

Six years later the BBC revived the Brains Trust as a television programme, aired weekly at teatime on Sundays from 4 September 1955. Initially advised by Howard Thomas, the producer John Furness (from the talks department) adhered closely to the original format. Panellists, now paid £50 per show, usually dined at Scott's restaurant in Piccadilly before broadcasting from the television centre at Lime Grove. A short passage from Telemann's Don Quixote Suite introduced a semicircle of five people seated in easy-chairs around a coffee table. The duties of question-master, first performed by Hugh Ross Williamson (1901–1978), latterly fell largely to Norman Fisher (1910–1972), otherwise head of the staff college of the National Coal Board, although Alan Melville (1910–1983), Hubert Gregg, Bernard Braden (1916–1993), Michael Flanders, Robert Kee (b. 1919), and Malcolm Muggeridge all took turns. Five to seven questions sent by viewers were discussed live in each forty-five-minute session, with the selection clearly tailored to the strengths of the panellists. There was no resident team, but several recognized stalwarts soon emerged, many of them veterans of the radio series. Pre-eminent among them stood Jacob Bronowski, famed both for expounding scientific ideas and for taking the programme seriously. (He boycotted editions chaired by the light entertainer Braden.) Julian Huxley, the philosopher A. J. Ayer, and the historian Alan Bullock ranked alongside him, followed by Marghanita Laski, Sir Eric James, Lady Violet Bonham Carter, James Fisher, and Noel Annan. The literary scholars Sir Ifor Evans and Lord David Cecil featured frequently, as did the novelists Margaret Lane and Gwyn Thomas, and the poets Ruth Pitter and John Betjeman. Other memorable television Brains Trusters included Sir John Maud, Barbara Wootton, Pamela Hansford Johnson, W. Grey Walter, David Daiches, Prince Chula Chakrabongse of Thailand (1908–1963), and Yehudi Menuhin.

The televised Brains Trust proved successful, and Home Service radio repeated its soundtrack from May 1957. Ethical debate was more than ever the mainstay of the show, with religion no longer entirely taboo. International politics was sometimes discussed; open partisanship remained inadmissible. More clerics appeared than in the 1940s and far fewer members of parliament. Actors and diverse celebrities leavened the mix in the early years, but the BBC increasingly stressed intellectual eminence, asserting that the ‘witty and erudite talk’ of ‘some of the finest intelligences in the country’ gave an ‘insight into the process of logical argument’ (Radio Times, 5 Sept 1958, 3). Academic participants certainly raised their public profile, and some admirers rated the Brains Trust a model of popular intellectualism and a fine advertisement for higher education. Detractors saw it as an ‘establishment’ programme with pontificating pundits ripe for parody.

The BBC rescheduled the Brains Trust to 10 p.m. on Thursdays in October 1959 and ended its long continuous run in August 1960, though two further series followed (December 1960 – February 1961, August–November 1961). Sir John Wolfenden, Bernard Williams, and Peter Hall (b. 1930) made their mark in this period. The assistant controller Donald Baverstock then scrapped the programme on the ground that it was losing touch with the younger audience. The final edition—a transatlantic one, with Bronowski, Ayer, Richard Elliott Neustadt (1919–2003), and Henry Kissinger (b. 1923)—went out on 2 November 1961. Later revivals on BBC2 (1996) and BBC Radio 3 (1998–2002) attracted little attention. The heyday of the Brains Trust had been during the Second World War, when it chimed with the public mood—fundamentally serious, but not pompous, and eager for self-improvement.

Jason Tomes

Sources  

Radio Times · H. Thomas, Britain's Brains Trust (1944) · H. Thomas, ed., The Brains Trust book [1942] · A. B. Campbell, When I was in Patagonia (1953) · H. Thomas, With an independent air (1977) · A. Briggs, The BBC: the first fifty years (1985) · T. Hickman, What did you do in the war, auntie? the BBC at war, 1939–45 (1995) · A. J. Ayer, More of my life (1984) · D. H. McCullough, How to run a brains trust (1948) · G. Thomas, A few selected exits (1968)