Next month’s film stars the much-loved Alastair Sim, a by-word for classic British comedy. Capable of being creepy and comic at the same time, Sim was a film legend of the post-war years and appeared in unforgettable movies such as the first Ealing comedy, Hue and Cry (1947), The Happiest Days of Your Life (1950), Scrooge(1951), and the first (and best) St Trinian’s comedy, The Belles of St Trinians (1954). He was also a BAFTA nominated actor and one who constantly topped the polls.
Based on a popular play by James Bridie (It Depends What You Mean), this film’s title is taken from a line by poet Thomas Gray: “where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise.” Under Frank Launder’s direction, the film becomes a vehicle for Sim, ‘whose portrayal of the cleric who finds himself aghast at the “entertainment” he has wrought’, said the New York Times, ‘is sedately polished and genuinely funny.’ Capable of epitomising the eccentric who was forever bewildered as fate dealt him one cruel blow after another, Sim is nevertheless impossible not to like.
Here he plays Captain Paris, a well-meaning but exasperated army chaplain and entertainments officer of a conscripted battalion. Attempting to get better attendance, his big idea is a Brains Trust, a popular informational BBC radio and later television programme during the 1940s and 50s. The punters flood in but Captain Paris’ efforts fall apart when he enlists panelists who seem to be having marriage problems.
The Brains Trust was developed for Forces radio in 1941 and became one of the most popular radio programmes, running until 1949 before transferring to BBC television in the 1950s. The concept was simple: listeners/ viewers sent in questions on subjects ranging from practical conundrums to moral dilemmas for the panel to answer. Panellists were chosen for the contributions each could bring to subject matter – from the most erudite and serious to the most irreverent and comedic. The format is still evident today in Question Time (though this tends to be exclusively political).
The original broadcast team comprised a philosopher psychologist, a biologist and a retired naval officer. Later participants included Isaiah Berlin, Anna Neagle, Egon Ronay, Bertrand Russell, Sir Malcolm Sargent, Sir Kenneth Clark, Will Hay, Bishop Joost de Blank and Malcolm Muggeridge (chairman).
One question which has become a classic example of the Brains Trust 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 (since the typical intellectual on the Brains Trust panel was likely to be both agnostic and socialist).
Conversation was free-wheeling and unscripted, 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. Click here to get a flavour of the times.