JB: I wrote a book called the Identity of Man. I never saw the cover of the English edition until the book reached me in print. And yet the artist had understood exactly what was in my mind, by putting on the cover a drawing of the brain and the Mona Lisa, one on top of the other

The Brains Trust by A. J. Ayer

I MYSELF was first invited to take part [in The Brain's Trust] in the month of October 1956. The invitation came from John Furness, a mild-mannered man, who was the programme's regular producer. My fellow panellists on that occasion were Noel Annan, the Provost of King's College, Cambridge, and not, I think, yet ennobled, John Betjeman, the poet, with whom I had a slight social acquaintance, and Donald Tyerman who was editor of the Economist. The question master, who most often fulfulled this role, was Norman Fisher who had at that time some position in the Coal Board but later moved into publishing. The usual procedure then and for a year or two afterwards, was for the panellists, the question master and the producer to meet for lunch on a Sunday at Scott's restaurant in Piccadilly Circus. After a good lunch with a fair amount to drink we were driven to the television studios, made up, which consisted in being given a slight coating of powder and a combing of one's hair, assigned our places on the dais confronting the cameras and rehearsed with one or two dummy questions. Nothing like these questions figured in the actual programme and, contrary to popular suspicion, we had no forewarning of what the actual questions were going to be. It was obvious that some attempt was made to fit the choice of questions to the interests of the performers, and it is possible that when suitable questions were not forthcoming from the public, the producer and his assistants supplied them, but I do not know that this was ever the case. The programme was put out at 4.15 p.m. and at the time of which I am writing was broadcast live, which had the effect of making the participants more alert. About half a dozen questions were dealt with as a rule; never, I think, less than five or more than seven. A fee of 50 was paid to each panellist, which was generous for those days, especially as the work involved no preparation, and the fee was supplemented by a good lunch, drinks after the programme and free transport home. I also found the work enjoyable in itelf.

The questions were seldom purely factual, not often literary, and almost never scientific. Politics might be brought in on an international scale, but party politics were eschewed. Religion was discussable in general terms. Some but not many questions were meant to be facetious. The overwhelming majority of them, at least in the programmes in which I figured, raised concrete or abstract issues of morality.

Sir Alfred J. Ayer (1910 - 1989)
was Wykeham Professor of Logic at Oxford from 1959 and a Fellow of New College. Educated at Eton and at Christ Church, Oxford, he was Grote professor of the Philosophy of Mind and Logic in the University of London (1946-1959). He is best remembered for his Language, Truth and Logic, first published in 1936. He was knighted in 1970.
[After my first appearance] It was two months before I was asked to appear again. This time my fellow performers were Rebecca West, the Reverend Mervyn Stockwood and Dr Jacob Bronowski. All three were impressive in their different ways. Bronowski, in particular, could lay claim to being the programme's star performer. He appeared more often on it than anyone else, with the possible exception of Julian Huxley, and while Huxley may have had the greater range of knowledge, Bronowski excelled him in his powers of exposition. Like Fisher, he was connected with the Coal Board and had invented some form of smokeless fuel. Previously, he had held a university post as a lecturer in mathematics. He had a good working knowledge of all the physical sciences and also an interest in the arts. He had, for example, written a good book about William Blake. I had thought that he would be an excellent choice for the chair of the history and philosophy of science at University College, London, when it became vacant in the mid-fifties, on the retirement of Herbert Dingle, but practising scientists like John Young were distrustful of scientific popularisers and Bruno, as his friends called him, had a cocky manner which alienated those who did not know him well. Bronowski eventually migrated to America and spent the remainder of his life in the comfortable embrace of a Californian institute.

Source: More of My Life, by A.J. Ayer,
published by Oxford University Press. 1984.

The Ascent of Jacob Bronowski

Copyright © 2000 by Stephen Moss. All rights reserved.