Howard Thomas Part 4: The BBC – II 

2 July 2005

Howard Thomas went head-to-head with the BBC three times in his long career. From outside the BBC he fought battles against its monopoly. From inside the BBC, he helped create the Corporation’s wartime reputation.

Howard had already created or produced some of the most popular shows on radio. As a Variety producer, his instinct for popular entertainment could not be easily faulted – Sincerely Yours, Shipmates Ashore (see photo below), and Ack Ack Beer Beer were all hits outside of their intended audiences.

The cast of Shipmates Ahoy

Looking for new ideas, Howard teamed up with his polar opposite at the BBC, a Features producer named Douglas Cleverdon. Cleverdon was well named; he believed in making clever, donnish programmes that gave the public what they needed.

Howard was the opposite. He believed in light programmes that gave the public what they wanted. Together, they made an amazing team, proving that you could have popular heavyweight programmes (or highbrow popular programmes, if you want to look at it that way).

Panel shows, cheap and easy to make, would become a staple of television when it returned in 1946. They already had a useful place on radio; the challenge was to make something new out of an old formula.

The answer was The Brains Trust. It is difficult now to say what made this panel show one that came to dominate all others. It seems impossible, yet a question and answer format with some dry academics became the number one talking point of the war, with workers, housewives and service personnel all listening then debating, arguing or displaying their new knowledge the day after. The programme caught the zeitgeist of the times: there was something better, once this was over, and everyone wished to embrace it.

Lessons of the past were quickly applied to the new show. Ignore what it says on the card: just as praise didn’t mean the person was any good, so condemnation didn’t mean the person was useless.

This lesson was applied to Professor Cyril “CEM” Joad; his Talks Bookings card read “voice unsuitable for broadcasting”. Indeed it was – high-pitched and wobbling. But what he had to say was more important than the sound of his voice. Howard hired him immediately.

Joining Joad was zoologist, broadcaster and writer Julian Huxley and Paymaster-Commander Archibald Bruce Campbell, a man with no conventional learning but a huge fund of empirical knowledge and a real way with words.

The Brains Trust

Listeners were asked to send in questions on any subject, from the heavy to the light, from the easy to answer to the type of political, social or philosophical questions that man had been debating for centuries.

For some reason, given that the pairing of Cleverdon and Howard Thomas was the Corporation’s idea and the show was derivative of many other panel shows, the BBC, having commissioned it, got cold feet.

The run was held to just six shows; Howard’s title, The Brains Trust, was rejected in horror and Any Questions? substituted in the Radio Times and on air. The show itself was given a poor timeslot (Wednesday teatime) and picked up only a small audience.

After the first show, fifteen new questions arrived at the BBC. After the second, thirty. After the fourth, thirty a day. After 18 months on air non-stop, 3,000 a week.

The six-show run became 12, then 26, then open-ended. The show began to gather an audience unheard of in its little-used slot and was soon promoted to Tuesday evenings in peak time with a repeat on Sunday afternoons. The audience figures for the two combined averaged 11.5 million.

The BBC was astonished but pleased.

At first.

A popular programme, especially one discussing philosophy, art and science, was nice and Reithian. But when that programme became more popular than Hi, Gang! and was nipping at the heels of ITMA; well, you can imagine the consequences for a well-ordered society.

The first complaints started to appear 5 months in. The BBC is a broad church, broad enough that the Left see it as Right and the Right see it as Left. Even senior staff tend to see it as one or the other. Worse, both academics and entertainers have a habit of being Left: the former through learning, the latter through the hard work and poverty required when starting out. Huxley and Joad were both well-known “Leftists”.

The BBC management examined the content of The Brains Trust answers, fearful of the Left-bias that some senior staff had already “detected”. They found that 22 left, 25 right and 3 unknown answers had been made. Nevertheless, that two regular panellists were of the left made the “bias” implicit even if the explicit results denied this.

Then came religion. Academics of the left tend to also be atheists or at least highly sceptical of organised religion. The Director of Religious Programmes felt this came over too strongly and complained, probably hoping to get a religious leader on to the panel. The BBC reacted immediately, banning any questions – or answers – about religion instead.

However, the result of this was to make the absence of religion noticeable to the Archbishop of Canterbury, who began to lobby for a place on the panel. The BBC reacted again – and again made a hash of it, starting a rival religious show, The Anvil, which was dull, dusty, dry and spoke only to the converted. When The Anvil failed, however, the blame was laid at the door of The Brains Trust, not at the BBC or those who had lobbied for it.

Members of Parliament during the war were left with little to do. The country was firmly run by the civil service under the Defence Regulations; the war decisions were made by Churchill without reference to the Commons; and the dead hand of coalition government, plus a feeling that nothing controversial should be said whilst the nation was in mortal danger, contrived to create a dull place to work.

Therefore, something like The Brains Trust panel was an ideal distraction for MPs of all political colours: one where they could talk and argue and debate without really worrying about the major effects (eventually the government would get wise to this and give MPs something meaty to get on with – it became the 1944 Education Act).

The Ministry of Information, and specifically its Minister, Brendan Bracken, soon got sick of the sniping and the constant complaints of Members about the programme. Bracken tried to shut them up, snapping “I must tell the Hon Member once again that I shall not interfere with the Governors of the BBC in arranging their entertainments. The House really must stand by the Ministry in this attitude. I will not be a censor…”

The BBC reacted to this, again woefully missing the point: they banned the use of MPs on the programme, thereby making those very MPs feel even greater impotence. Soon after, perhaps hoping to ‘accidentally’ kill the programme, they banned politics of all kinds from questions and answers.

It didn’t work. The show went from strength to strength: the public’s questions and the panellists’ answers remained controversial talking points throughout the land. But the sniping at the show, and the heavy political weather inside the BBC, started to grate on Howard Thomas. Mentally he started to clear his desk.

The BBC renewed the attack, insisting that the triumvirate of Joad/Huxley/Campbell be broken and the three of them to appear in separate editions only. The popularity did not dim, so further restrictions on their use were made. Still the programme remained popular.

The BBC then moved to ban questions or answers that dealt with the war or foreign policy in general. Still the programmes remained controversial and popular.

Finally, the BBC ordered the removal of the Question Master and ruled that the role would have to be rotated between chairmen.

This actually did manage to damage the programme, at last, and the drop in listeners was squarely blamed on the show’s producer. At the same time, the BBC foisted on to Howard Thomas a new show that members of the public and MPs could debate and quiz each other – a common person’s Brains Trust.

The new show was called Everybody’s Mike. The music, quiz element and chat were nothing new, but the show could have been good given time. But by now the BBC was out to get Howard, as were the press and the slighted MPs.

The MPs came on the pilot show and proved to be dunderheaded know-nothings with little aptitude for radio. The show was an immediate disaster, and the MPs blamed Howard Thomas. So did the BBC. He tried to re-record or re-edit the show to protect the participants, but the BBC threw obstacles in his path and then resolutely broadcast the debacle at peaktime. When the wailing began, they hung Howard out to dry.

With all his shows immensely popular but all getting more criticism than they warranted, Howard had had enough. He resigned from the BBC, to their amazement as they couldn’t see what they had done wrong, and took Hilda and their two children Rosemary and Carol to Devon for a holiday.

One thing was certain now – it was time to get out of broadcasting once and for all and to stay the hell away from it forever.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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