The Brains Trust
The Brains Trust was a popular informational BBC radio and later television programme in the United Kingdom during the 1940s and 1950s, on which a panel of experts tried to answer questions sent in by the audience.
The series was created by BBC producers Howard Thomas and Douglas Cleverdon. The programme started on the Forces radio service in January 1941, the first series under the name Any Questions? (a name later reused for a different radio programme). Subsequently renamed The Brains Trust, it continued for 84 weeks continuously from its initial broadcast and became one of the most popular of informational programmes. Because of its popularity, it was moved to the peak time on Sunday afternoons. It was typically heard by around 29% of the UK population and generated four to five thousand letters each week from the general public. During the early war years it helped raise morale on the Home Front, and the verbal sparring between its three original panel members, especially Julian Huxley and Cyril Joad, made it one of the most popular programmes with listeners.(2)
Revival in the early 2000s
The programme enjoyed a brief revival in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when it was broadcast on BBC Radio 3. It was then presented by Joan Bakewell. It featured a variety of guests, including Theodore Zeldin, Ian Stewart, A.S. Byatt, Richard Dawkins and Angela Tilby.
The original three members of the broadcasting team were C. E. M. Joad (philosopher and psychologist), Julian Huxley (biologist) and Commander A. B. Campbell (retired naval officer). The chairman was Donald McCullough. Later participants included: Edward Andrade, Noel Annan, A. J. Ayer, Michael Ayrton, Isaiah Berlin, Jacob Bronowski, Collin Brooks, Violet Bonham Carter, Alan Bullock, Anthony Chenevix-Trench, Kenneth Clark, Margery Fry, Commander Rupert Gould, Will Hay, Bishop Joost de Blank, C. S. Lewis, John Maud, Herbert Hart, Malcolm Muggeridge (chairman), Anna Neagle, Egon Ronay, Bertrand Russell, Sir Malcolm Sargent, Hannen Swaffer, Gwyn Thomas (novelist), Geoffrey Crowther (as chairman), Lord Dunsany, Barbara Ward and Tom Wintringham.
The concept was simple. Listeners or viewers sent in questions on subjects ranging from practical conundrums to moral dilemmas for the panel members to answer. The panellists were chosen for the unique contributions each could bring to the subject matter – from the most erudite and serious to the most irreverent and comedic. One question which has become a classic example of its kind was 'How does a fly land on a ceiling? Does it loop the loop, or what?'. Although questions on religion and politics were initially included, these were banned as the programme progressed, following complaints from the Church and Government. Concern also arose with the BBC itself. One controller, A.P.Ryan, wrote to the Director-General complaining of the programme's political bias. The Controller of Programmes analysed the political attitudes of contributors and calculated a proportion of twenty-five left-wing and twenty-eight right-wing along with three 'doubtfuls'. He agreed, however, that two of the three regulars, Joad and Huxley, were left-wing. They were also agnostics, a matter of irritation to Dr J.W. Welch, the Director of Religious Broadcasting. In June 1941 the Controller of Programmes instructed the panel to 'avoid all questions involving religion, political philosophy or vague generalities about life'. In June of the following year the Board of Governors came down with full force on religion: 'questions about religion were in future to be excluded from the Brains Trust programmes'.
The conversation was free-wheeling, unscripted and unrehearsed, relying on the skills of the presenters to fashion cogent responses in the time available. This produced an 'edge-of-the-seat' feel to the performance which did much to add to its popularity.
An American version of this programme, devised and produced by then television producer/director Jeff Smith, aired on WTTW Channel 11, the PBS television outlet in Chicago in the early sixties with an original revolving "cast" of Alec Sutherland, Director of Continuing Education at the University of Chicago; Paul Haggerty, a former vaudevillian, musician and raconteur; Robin Pearce, an artist, film maker, lecturer on the fine arts and a world traveller; Paul Schilpp, a professor of philosophy at Northwestern University; Dick Applegate, foreign correspondent, TV newsman and commentator; Dan Q Posin, DePaul University Professor and host of his own television programme on WTTW, "Dr. Posin’s Universe"; Nathan Schwartz, philanthropist and raconteur; Ralph Eisendrath, lawyer and civic leader; and moderator DJR Bruckner, at that time a labour writer for the Chicago Sun Times and for many years after that, a theater critic for the New York Times. Only four panellists plus the moderator appeared on each programme.
In contrast to the British programme, the questions for the American spin-off were revealed to the team beforehand so that they could have some time to think about them.
- Thomas, Howard With An Independent Air London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1977 ISBN 0-297-77278-3
- "The BBC Story – The Brains Trust", bbc.co.uk
- "A History of the Brain, The Brain's Trust - Dr W. Grey Walter". BBC Online. Retrieved 27 July 2014.
- Howard Thomas, With an Independent Air, London : Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1977, 81-2.