His voice, writings and CBC radio plays were heard by Canadians for seven decades. In the end, though, Lister Sinclair was best known as the man who hosted Ideas for 16 years. Although he was part of a team, listeners thought of Ideas and Lister Sinclair as one, since his sense of curiosity and vast knowledge were reflected in the program.
Yet he was more than that. To an earlier generation he was the writer of more than 400 feature-length radio plays, and hundreds of other shorter works that ranged from wartime propaganda to children's stories.
In the early days, his plays were as important on radio as documentaries are today. In fact, the American magazine Variety, in describing one of his plays as "boffo," said it was as smoothly written as a documentary.
The play was titled Hilda Morgan, a drama that dealt with a young woman whose fiancé is killed in a car accident. Afterward, the listeners learn she is pregnant. Her sister suggests an abortion - without using the actual word. The play caused an uproar in the House of Commons, the type of outrage now reserved for documentaries that carry a definite message. It was Mr. Sinclair's rule to "always be on the side of the victim."
Whenever reporters wrote about Lister Sinclair, they always seemed to mention his age. At first, it was because he was so young for someone to have done so much.
"At 27 Lister Sinclair is already well known as author, actor, critic, mathematician and linguist," said a publicity blurb in April of 1948.
Two years later, Time Magazine ran a piece on the "Bombay-born Lister Sinclair, 29, who had three of his original radio scripts dramatized on CBC's Stage 50 last week."
By 1956, it was along the lines of "At 35, Lister Sinclair is one of the principal contributors to CBC's radio and TV drama series."
Almost 40 years later, the air of amazement was still evident. In 1995, a profile in The Globe mentioned that, at 74, Mr. Sinclair had been at it for 50 years and "shows no signs of slowing down."
While he will always be associated with the CBC mainstream, Mr. Sinclair represented a kind of eccentric (he wrote most of his scripts longhand) who was almost a caricature of the professional intellectual. He called himself an omnibrow, rather than a highbrow.
Over the years, he wrote many books and articles but was best known for the spoken word. With his beautiful voice, he could explain complex ideas in simple sentences.
The first time Canadians heard that voice was when he was acting on radio. Later, he hosted and narrated The Nature of Things - he even came up with the name - when it first went on television. In that same period, he also took a comic turn on Wayne and Shuster, the hugely popular comedy show. There he changed a bit, and chose to sound Canadian. He once described himself as "a pretty good second-rate actor" who knew how to act. "But unlike first-rate actors like John Drainie, I couldn't turn into someone else."
For a one-off kind of man, Lister Sinclair had an unusual start in life. He was born in India, but never really knew the place. His father, William Sinclair, was a chemical engineer working in India. At 18 months, Mr. Sinclair was sent home to Britain to live with an aunt. Years later, he said perhaps his mother had worried he might come down with tropical diseases.
His English aunt proved to be somewhat over protective, and even cruel. He did not see his parents again until he was seven when they came home on an extended leave. At 8, he was packed off to Colet Court, a boarding school that served as a preparatory feeder for the great English public school of St. Paul's. Though young Lister did poorly at prep school, often coming last in his class, he was clever at math and won a scholarship to St. Paul's. Among his fellow students were the grandchildren of Sigmund Freud, the family having fled the Nazis to settle in London.
Later in life, he told of a savage beating he suffered for talking back to a matron, a woman who worked at the school. One of the masters, her boyfriend, beat him so badly with a pool cue that he broke a bone at the base of the boy's spine. The master was fired over the incident.
Mr. Sinclair was bitter about his lost childhood, having been all-but-abandoned by his parents, yet never dwelled on it. He understood that, from their point of view, it was a great thing to be educated at one of Britain's top schools. Meanwhile, when not away at school, his aunt continued to rule his life and once refused to allow him to go on a supervised scout trip to France.
For all that, his parents did weigh in from time to time. In the summer of 1939, his mother, reassured by a travel agency that there wasn't going to be a war, arrived in England and booked them a trip to New York to attend a World's Fair. They sailed on the Normandie, a luxurious French ship that was then the fastest liner on the North Atlantic run, landed in New York to see the fair and then headed for Buffalo, N.Y. They were visiting Niagara Falls as part of a package tour, when Britain declared war on Germany. It was Sept. 3, 1939 and mother and son were stuck on the wrong side of the Atlantic. The father was isolated in India, so the two of them set off for the West, first to Washington state and then north to Vancouver. They travelled by bus.
Mr. Sinclair enrolled at the University of British Columbia during his first week in Canada. To his Canadian classmates, he must have appeared rather odd (he walked with a cane and had a strange English accent) and yet at UBC he made some of his first meaningful friendships.
"He seemed pretty old and knew everything," said the late Pierre Berton, a fellow student at UBC. "We always figured he swotted up on things the night before so he could tell us exactly what it was that Mozart had said to Beethoven. He was a non-stop talker and a very fast reader he remembered everything he ever read."
Later, Mr. Sinclair went to the University Toronto to study for master's degree and in 1942 he made extra money by teaching math to undergraduates and by acting at the CBC. He was part of what became known as the "Vancouver Exodus" of young intellectuals who headed for Toronto during the 1940's.
At the CBC, he first war propaganda, for there was no question of him joining the war effort. He was lame from a back injury - not from the beating, but from falling down some stairs - which was why he walked with the aid of at least one cane. One of his first acting jobs was to imitate Germans in such works as Nazi Eyes on Canada. It was narrated by Lorne Greene, the chief announcer at the CBC who was known as the voice of doom, and featured the actress, Helen Hayes.
Mr. Sinclair soon began writing plays and he entered a period of great productivity. As a trained mathematician, he liked to say that math and drama had much in common. After all, both were the arrangement of ideas.
In all, he wrote more than 700 radio plays, some of them very ambitious. One of his own favourites was about Socrates, the Greek philosopher.
"Of course he liked it," said a former CBC colleague. "He was so much like Socrates - someone devoted to teaching and talking. Socrates never wrote anything. Lister did, but it is nothing compared to the words he spoke in plays and on Ideas."
After radio, Mr. Sinclair moved to television where he was sought as a performer as well as a writer. He had to cut his hair, trim his beard and not dress like a bohemian. While many of his radio programs are on tape in the archives, his earlier television programs were broadcast live and vanished, unrecorded.
"I do wish I had more of these things on tape. One thing that I much regret, for example, is a television drama that, in fact, was one of my better television programs. It was called Beethoven. Lorne Greene played Beethoven before he left for Hollywood. But there was no kinescope [copy] It's completely gone."
Pierre Berton told The Globe that Mr. Sinclair could have easily joined Lorne Green and Canadians who went to Hollywood.
"I think he regrets that he didn't go to Broadway in the fifties. There was no theatre here to speak of when he was writing. He wrote wonderful [radio]plays. He got good reviews and an audience."
For a time, Mr. Sinclair considered trying his luck in London's West End, but recognized it as a passing regret. Instead, he stayed in Canada, producing and writing a greater variety of material than perhaps anyone else in the country. Yet even he admitted to some weaknesses. "I'm interested in pretty well anything, but finance is low on the list," he told The Globe and Mail. "I'm also not very interested in selling."
Even though he knew his limitations, that self-awareness was not enough to stop him from trying what he must have known he was not good at - running things. Perhaps the strangest period of his long career was a spell in CBC management. It read like one of his plays in three acts: the opening farce, the melodrama and the final tragic act.
It all began to unfold in 1968 when Laurent Picard, an academic who later became dean of the faculty of management at McGill University in Montreal, was made an executive vice-president at the CBC. In 1972, Mr. Picard became president and decided he needed someone creative to run the network's English-language services. He fastened on Lister Sinclair and made him executive vice-president of English services.
Suddenly, Mr. Sinclair, a man who had never managed more than a small broadcast production, found himself in charge of a vast bureaucracy. A producer had never risen so high the CBC hierarchy. "It was a disaster," said one of his friends. "The rumour was, he went to Coles and bought a book on management. He was not suited to it."
Mr. Picard soon realized his mistake and conflicts began to erupt. After two years, Mr. Sinclair was downgraded to vice-president of program policy and development. Two years later, he was out of management altogether and describing administration as "a branch of anthropology." It was the only period of his life that could be categorized a failure.
For all that, he soon went back to doing what he did best - writing, performing and producing programs, especially ones that dealt with difficult subjects. He became a frequent guest on the morning radio show Morningside at a time when the host was his friend Don Harron. Together they did ambitious stuff, such as imaginary tours of 18th-century Venice complete with the sound effects of oared gondolas.
At an age when many people start to think of retirement, Mr. Sinclair took on the job of host of Ideas. For 16 years he was the voice for more than 2,000 programs, hundreds of which he wrote and produced himself. He was often late for recording sessions and, if the programs were his own scripts, he worked to the last possible deadline.
Mr. Sinclair was also a fixture on the program Court of Opinion and helped organize the Association of Canadian Television and Radio Artists. Now known as ACTRA, it represents thousands of Canadian performers.
His private life was sometimes as complex as his professional life. Lister Sinclair was married three times, and had several relationships that ran for years. He had two sons from different marriages, remained close to one but was estranged from another. He said he found family life difficult, which, given his own formative years, is not surprising.
Soon after settling in Toronto, Mr. Sinclair and wife, Alice, whom he had met at UBC, became part of an artist's community in Kleinberg, north of Toronto.
"The community was called Windrush and the houses were designed by Bill McCrow who was a set designer at the CBC," said Peter Sinclair, a technology entrepreneur who is his son from his first marriage.
Alice Sinclair lived in the house until her death and, although Mr. Sinclair moved out, he never went far. He made lasting friendships in Toronto and was elevated to the status of national icon, a characterization he despised right along with the even more loathsome "renaissance man."
In maturity, Mr. Sinclair shed the awkwardness of youth and became an attractive, middle-aged man. Women were often intensely attracted by his casual style, diffident manner and quick mind. He lost little of his appeal in old age.
He was awarded the Order of Canada in 1985.
Lister Shedden Sinclair was born in Bombay on Jan. 9, 1921. He died in hospital in Toronto yesterday. He was 85. He is survived by his sons Peter and Andrew.
Special to The Globe and Mail