The Brains Trust


WE tend to think that Left-wing bias is a relatively new phenomenon at the BBC, but it has been going on for a long time. The difference is that decades ago it was BBC officials who were displeased, and action was taken to neutralise it.

The Brains Trust began on January 1, 1941, while the Blitz was at its height, as a morale-boosting exercise to prevent the war from ‘disrupting the normal discussion of interesting ideas’. The simple format was that a panel would answer questions on any topic sent in by listeners. The panellists did not know the questions in advance and the discussion was live, unscripted and unrehearsed. Naturally it relied on having panellists who could think quickly and express themselves clearly and succinctly, and co-producer Howard Thomas (who went on to become managing director of Thames TV) showed genius in picking his regulars. C E M Joad was a philosopher with an upper-crust, reedy voice, who frequently began his answers with ‘It all depends what you mean by . . .’ Julian Huxley was an eminent biologist who became the audience favourite, and Commander A B Campbell was a plain-speaking wartime naval officer whose catchphrase was ‘When I was in Patagonia . . .’ He was a last-minute stand-in after the original choice dropped out and was recommended to the producers as ‘a man who can talk about anything’. These three, under the chairmanship of Donald McCullough, were joined by guests who read like a Who’s Who of British intelligentsia. They included philosophers A J Ayer, Isaiah Berlin and Bertrand Russell, historians Jacob Bronowski, Alan Bullock and Kenneth Clark, politicians Edith Summerskill, Violet Bonham Carter and Jennie Lee, classicist Anthony Chenevix-Trench, conductor Sir Malcom Sargent, poet Stephen Spender, writers C S Lewis and Cyril Connolly and journalist Hannen Swaffer. A later chairman was Malcolm Muggeridge.

Questions ranged from ‘What is the fourth dimension?’ to ‘How does a fly land upside down on the ceiling?’ Another was: ‘What are the most beautiful words in the English language?’ Joad replied: ‘Over the hills and far away’, guest Rose Macaulay chose ‘oblivion’ while Campbell said: ‘I choose words for sound rather than sense. I think the most beautiful word is “paraffin”.’

Here is an audio clip from 1942 of the team discussing a strange new word: ‘allergic’.

The first speaker is Joad and the second is Campbell. I don’t think the picture is from the actual programme.

The Brains Trust had not been going long when a BBC official, one 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 25 Left-wing and 28 Right-wing, with three ‘doubtfuls’. He agreed, however, that two of the three regulars, Joad and Huxley, were known to be Left-wing. Simultaneously Dr J W Welch, the Director of Religious Broadcasting, was concerned that the pair were agnostic or atheist. Therefore in June 1941 the Controller of Programmes instructed the producers to ‘avoid all questions involving religion, political philosophy or vague generalities about life’. Later, politics was banned completely.

Despite these restrictions the programme was hugely popular and was moved from its Wednesday teatime slot to 8.15 on Tuesday nights with a repeat on Sunday afternoons. It was heard by up to 12million and received four or five thousand letters a week. It was a talking point in factories, offices and in the services. It was a celebration of knowledge for its own sake, without a free dose of Leftie doctrine thrown in.

Here is a film of the show being made, though this was in a film studio rather round the usual table in Broadcasting House. I don’t know if the music was the signature tune and I have not managed to identify it. Maybe a reader will know.

The Brains Trust made celebrities of the three regulars, particularly Cyril Edwin Mitchinson Joad. It would be fair to describe him as an eccentric. He was a naturist and was interested in the paranormal, partnering the celebrated psychic researcher Harry Price on a number of ghost-hunting expeditions. He left his wife and took a series of mistresses, introducing each as ‘Mrs Joad’.

He had become a Fabian at Oxford though he was expelled in 1925 because of sexual misbehaviour at its summer school, and did not rejoin until 1943. He was an ardent pacifist during the First World War, fleeing his Surrey home to Snowdonia to avoid conscription. As an academic at Birkbeck College, London, he played a leading role in the notorious ‘King and Country’ debate on 9 February 1933 at the Oxford Union. The motion was ‘That this House will in no circumstances fight for its King and Country.’ Joad was the principal speaker in favour of the proposition, which was carried by 275 votes to 153. Soon after The Brains Trust began Joad abandoned his pacifism and placed his support behind the British war effort.

As he became well known, he was invited to give after-dinner speeches, open fetes, even advertise tea, and his book sales soared. A short film was made about him. The Ministry of Food named one of its wartime recipes ‘Joad-in-the-hole’.

However he had a peculiar obsession. In a 1937 publication called The Testament of Joad he boasted: ‘I cheat the railway company whenever I can.’ On 12 April 1948 he was caught travelling on a Waterloo to Exeter train in a first-class carriage with a third-class ticket. He pleaded guilty at Tower Bridge magistrates’ court to fare evasion, and was fined £2 plus costs of 25 guineas (a total of around £1,000 today). It emerged that Joad used to carry pocketfuls of penny tickets, lie about which station he had boarded the train, and even scramble over hedges to avoid ticket collectors.

He was replaced on the next edition of the programme and never appeared on it again. He suffered a thrombosis soon afterwards and then developed cancer. In his last years he took up religion and died in 1953, aged 61.

The Brains Trust radio programme ended in May 1949 and transferred to BBC television in the 1950s, with the soundtrack broadcast afterwards on the Home Service. The regular panellists now became guests. I can’t discover when it was taken off the air, but the last reference to it I have found is 1960.

The programme was briefly revived on Radio 3 in the late 1990s, chaired by Joan Bakewell. I don’t suppose anyone from the BBC complained about Left-wing panellists.

PS: While researching this piece on YouTube I came across this fragment of a 1942 broadcast to RAF servicemen stationed at that time in Canada, and I thought readers might like to see it.

I particularly enjoyed the Wing Commander giving the sports news. Apart from the fact that it was made by Pathe I’m afraid I don’t know anything else about it.

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